The COVID-19 pandemic and its consequent lockdown impact on the world had left many media artists and live performers confused about their productivity within the confines of four walls; while many musicians, comedians, and filmmakers eventually adapted themselves to whatever technology had to offer to bring forth their art, some decided to either recede until things get back to normal, and some decided to proceed with their work by following necessary conduct to ensure safety; some even integrated the pandemic events within their creative work, in all three types of these works there’s a palpable sense of the restrictions which affected their output, but nevertheless because of the nature of the situation, we can’t help but be forgiving of the cracks that show.
When Bo Burnham made his surprise announcement about this special, I was pleasantly surprised but I didn’t find myself getting excited enough to watch it, maybe because it was mentioned as something that he had made during lockdown I assumed it’d just be him performing before a camera in his room; I was getting fatigued by the “lockdown” content so I didn’t give it much thought… I really wasn’t in the mood to see more scenes of unshaved beards, and brooding people staring out the window, to showcase their declining mental health.
Yesterday, I finally decided to watch it only because I had a bit of time I could waste before going to bed; about ten minutes into this and I had already begun cursing myself for my skepticism towards this special, it hardly took Bo Burnham ten minutes to remind you why he’s one of the most exciting artists of this generation- Bo Burnham uses his new found confidence as a filmmaker to complete use in this 90 minute special, the minimal one house setting, doesn’t hinder his performance in any way, in fact it only manages to make for a wholly unique “lockdown-influenced” media that could only be made by Bo Burnham as it complements perfectly with his style of art.
For example, the elaborate lighting effects that are a signature part of his stage performances and cannot be put together in a small setting are replaced with the use of projectors, cameras with various lenses, and comparatively minimal lighting set-ups; given the pre-recorded nature of this special, Bo also plays around with aspect-ratios, and zoom ins and zoom outs measuredly, there’s a small bit where he uses the 9:16 aspect ratio and dark lighting to satirize the ‘aesthetic’ wave that’s currently the buzz on Instagram, there’s an excellent montage that plays when he performs a song titled ‘White Woman’s Instagram’, a bang-on parody like this could only be possible when pre-recorded.
Inside has Bo Burnham shine again with catchy tunes and sharp lyrics that act as social commentary, however with respect to themes there’s not much that he explores considering how much the world has changed since his last special, he acknowledges that the special is “all over the place” and there are occasional allusions to the creative blocks that he kept facing by ‘Trying to be funny when stuck in a room’ .. this special covers more or less the same themes that Bo had covered in his previous specials, but in no way do they feel similar, as the approach to the themes are very different, take for example, the final song Hands Up (Eyes On Me) covers his anxieties of stage fear similar to Can’t Handle this Right now from ‘Make Happy’ but while Make Happy had grand lighting to elevate the song, Hands Up uses a projector, minimalistic overlay effects and a handheld camera to elevate his performance.
Inside, like every other special of Bo Burnham has a song about the growing attention economy and the dangerous consequences of social media on its users, this one too has an excellent number called Welcome to the Internet, which is probably the best one out of all the songs he’s made related to this theme.
Watching this special left me with an overwhelming sense of veneration for the talent that this man possesses, this man not only ideated something so unique, but even wrote, shot, edited, and set-up all of this on his own and yet managed to create something of such supreme quality; while many ‘lockdown-influenced’ products are seen as decent attempts, this man has made something that could arguably be even better than his previous works wihch was made when there was no pandemic to come in the way of his art.
One would assume that a five year break, an acting career, and directing a critically acclaimed film would make a diminishing impact on his original style, but Bo Burnham seems to have only gotten bigger and better, in fact he even sounds better, his singing skills have developed, he has explored more genres of music, (more noticeably a great use of synthwave) while still maintaining the same level of sharp wit in his lyrics… mind you, this is all done by him within six months, whilst ‘Trying to be funny when stuck in a room’ ..
Near the beginning he addresses the question about the relevance for comedy during these times through a song called Healing The World Through Comedy, which is a biting mockery at comedians, the relevance of comedians in this society, and the importance with which we view them.
All of Bo Burnham’s specials have never been too serious, they have always had a self-aware, zany, and ludicrous approach even when dealing with political or existential themes, somehow Bo Burnham has never fallen trap to criticism or ‘getting cancelled’, most comedians today are either fully involved with their shtick of being disappointed with the current “PC culture” or are ‘woke’ comedians who have resorted to ‘political correct’ comedy which they describe as “punching up and not down”.. Take for example, Sacha Baron Cohen, his first Borat film, and The Dictator would have run into many controversies if it were to be released in the present day, with the Borat sequel, you notice a significant shift in the way the film has been written, while its still edgy and maintains the weirdness of a Borat film, it’s a more culturally aware film that is aware of the risks of being “too edgy” in the current political climate.
Bo Burnham feels the same, it’s the same honesty of the ‘skinny guy with the steadily declining mental health’ who lets himself become vulnerable in his art, and gives the audience the privilege to witness it, every special of Bo Burnham has had this theme where he acknowledges the questions that plague his mind through his creative process, by doing so his art feels more honest, and manages to influence us the way it does, this is a quality which I feel is rare among today’s mainstreams artists, any film, any song, I come across no matter how excellently made they are, it doesn’t manage to hit the way the work of an honest artist would do.
I feel like today’s popular comedians especially lack that quality, a good example would be the recent controversy of some Indian comedians getting cancelled for some jokes they’ve made in the past before they realized that the audience they cater to has gotten overwhelmingly liberal, and therefore they must evolve to those senses too, it’s like they are stuck in a weird place between being seen as intellectual or facetious, and as a result, most of the comedians end up having more or less the same style of comedy, to the point that they all sound similar, as if manufactured, there’s barely anyone who stands out, and those who do are mostly the ones that have always worked in the genre of anecdotal comedy like Abhishek Upmanyu, Anubhav Singh Bassi, Zakir Khan etc.
Internationally, I can think of Bill Burr, Phoebe Waller Bridge, Louis CK, who have an honest approach to the themes that they explore in a way that makes them relatable, Bill Burr is the only comedian who has gone on tirades about PC comedy, and still managed to come out relatively unhurt in his career due to the facetiousness and honesty in which he approaches the themes, Phoebe Waller Bridge, in Fleabag approaches the idea of guilt and self-hate with empathy, Louis CK too, addresses similar topics with his show ‘Louie’ and stand up comedy, he however got cancelled for different reasons (multiple accusations of sexual misconduct).
I do not mean to say that only honesty and vulnerability makes for great art, I only mean to say that in a world that is so obsessed with ‘content’, it is so rare for an artist like this to stand out in a way, not only in on a technical level but also to feel relatable.
Watching this made me wonder what the hell am I even doing with my life, knowing that a juggernaut performer like Bo Burnham exists who is so far advanced in his craft at such a young age, and I am about to finish my post graduation in a degree I have no interest in. Here is a man who didn’t let the lockdown come in the way of his art, used the limitations of it to a great effect, and managed to surpass his previous work.. (sure, having lots of money must have played a huge role in that) and here I am who has just been loafing around all my life.
Thanks for reading.
Bo Burnham’s Inside is currently streaming on Netflix.