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A Cathartic Portrait of Pandemic Life: A Review of Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’

A deep dive into Bo Burnham’s Netflix comedy special, Inside, and how it’s the perfect encapsulation of lockdown life.

If you’ve been on the internet at all the last few weeks, chances are you’ll have seen talk of the new Netflix special, Inside by Bo Burnham. As a fan of Bo for many years I can say with certainty this was as much a shock to me as the majority of people viewing his content for the first time. 

Starting out on YouTube at a very young age, his controversial yet hilarious style of comedy gained him somewhat of a cult following over the years. Outspoken and opinionated, he became the youngest comedian to have a special on Comedy Central at just 18. All was going well. That is until 5 years ago, after the release of Make Happy, when he quit live performing due to mental health issues.

Now, anyone familiar with his content will know he has never been shy to discuss these issues in songs – Left Brain Right Brain, We Think We Know You and his Kanye Rant to name but a few. But the full gravity of the situation wasn’t really clear to us until he left.

Fast forward to April 2021 and an out of the blue announcement for a new special, filmed and produced entirely in his home by him. To say fans were shocked is an understatement, many never expected to see him perform live again. Still, Inside was released and it is truly a masterpiece. It showcases the slow descent into madness that many of us have experienced over the past year and a half on account of the pandemic, condensed into a 90 minute art piece.

bo burnham inside
Bo Burnham // Courtesy of Netflix

I will be discussing some of the things I felt made it amazing and I highly recommend checking it out for yourself but I will warn you, if you aren’t in a good headspace, it is not for you. Inside tackles the worst parts of mental illness, and while some parts are light-hearted, this is an experience you won’t simply forget. With that being said, let’s jump into it!

From the very start the songs featured in this special are insanely catchy. We’re thrown in with content and themes of the pandemic that are straight away visible. Jokes about haircuts getting rescheduled and lack of motivation to do work feel equal parts relatable and exhausting. The visuals of the whole thing are phenomenal, and this can be seen from the very first song where a headlamp is used to shine off a disco ball and light the room.

It’s easy to forget that the elaborate lighting and effects are done completely by Bo himself until you see him moving lights by hand, most notably in “30”, with both the light from his phone and coloured lights connected to foot pedals being used. It is incredibly impressive to watch him pull these beautiful effects off, possibly better than an on stage feature could produce. A lot of songs within the special are light-hearted, made solely to make us laugh and provide a much needed distraction from lockdown life – Bezos I and II are prime examples of this. Similarly, Bo’s signature style of shock value within songs can be seen in White Woman Instagram and How the World Works remind us why we enjoy his content so much.

Bo Burnham // Courtesy of Netflix

The special gives us a look at the last year and a half of pandemic life condensed into a 90 minute breakdown. We see our own thoughts put to screen, from wondering what we can do about any of this in comedy, facetiming parents and the frustration that brings, sexting being the only form of intimacy we can get, time being wasted and the fear of returning to the real world after such a long time being isolated. 

Like many of the rest of us during lockdown, the second half of the special takes on an increasingly dark tone. It is no longer a comedy special, but a documentation of the declining mental health of someone who started this project with motivation and enthusiasm. All Time Low speaks of panic attacks, Shit speaks of depressive symptoms and it is clear this is a huge setback in the recovery process.

One particular scene I find incredibly hard to watch – Bo says simply “I am… not well” and breaks down crying, while the sound of a laughing crowd echoes through the room. It is shortly after this that we get the revelation that after 5 years of recovery, he finally felt well enough to return to live performing – “then the funniest thing happened”. The pandemic ruined his plan to make a comeback, and very clearly hugely impacted his mental health.

While the rest of us don’t necessarily perform on stage, it has to be said that many people’s mental health suffered due to lockdown and a lot of recovery and progress was lost. This is exhausting for people who have tried so hard to get better. This special is honestly the most accurate telling of the pandemic experience I have seen created thus far, and it is such an important story to tell.

Bo Burnham // Courtesy of Netflix

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The final shot of the movie leaves us on a hopeful note, with Bo sitting inside watching his content and smiling, such a small detail but such an amazing contrast to the previous scene of him watching his own content and looking disgusted. The credits song, Any Day Now, is a regular conversation we have around covid, the hope that “it’ll stop any day now”, the reassurance we give each other in the hopes that eventually things will be alright.

Overall I absolutely adored Inside. To me, it tells an accurate story of recovery that is often not documented so thoroughly. Bo never thought he would be able to perform again, but after spending years working on himself he finally felt okay again. Like many people, the pandemic had a massive negative effect on this. As annoying as this is, it shows the non linearity of recovery, especially while questioning “am I right back where I started 14 years ago?”

It’s raw, it’s unfair, it’s life. When a setback happens, it’s important to know that its normal, and not the end. This is clear with Bo too, as the day after the special was released he posted a picture of himself outside in the sun, with his hair cut and facial hair tidy, happy. This silver lining after all the negativity and hopelessness is exactly what we need, which is why I think Inside is essential viewing for anyone who has struggled, either during the pandemic or just in general. After all, “it’ll stop any day now!”