The ceaselessly inventive new Netflix show, Bo Burnham: Inside is a comedy special making the most of the reduced fields of operations available during the pandemic. Burnham’s on his own. No audience. No crew. Just him and all the tech he can muster. If he didn’t inform us repeatedly, we wouldn’t guess. This is a 90 minutes of high production values and smooth edits.
If you’re below a certain age you’re more likely to know Burnham. Starting out with a few videos posted on YouTube, he began his rapid rise in 2006 aged only 16. By the time he was 19 he was having his own TV specials, touring, releasing albums and so on.
If you’re above a certain age maybe you’ll recognise him as Carey Mulligan’s (possibly not nice) doctor boyfriend in Promising Young Woman, or as the writer and director of excellent movie Eighth Grade.
Eighth Grade was billed as a comedy but it was far less about laughs than most comedies. The same applies here. The “jokes” are at the philosophical end of observational, so there might be sighs of recognition but actual big, loud laughs don’t come that often.
So, a man, a room, a light, a camera on a tripod, a laptop to edit stuff on, a glitterball, a phone for extra coverage and a funny lighting effect, some daisies possibly from the garden, and Burnham often in his underwear, his beard growth an indicator of how long he’s been in this studio/writing room. It’s remarkable how much material Burnham produces from such a limited set of tools.
He gets his defences in early, with introductory songs about male and white privilege before launching into a series of songs and spoken interludes laying out his own obvious interests: the role of tech in our increasingly isolated lives (FaceTime with My Mom), self-obsession (Sexting), workplace exploitation (Unpaid Intern), megamassive corporations and their CEOs (two songs about Jeff Bezos), the self-serving wokewashing of companies on the “ethical, social, green” trail (an interlude in which he poses as a brand consultant).
Perhaps the best in terms of sheer relentless inventiveness is White Woman’s Instagram, in which Burnham recreates countless cliches from the affirmative, me-focused, relentlessly positive, relentlessly nice, spookily woke end of the internet – fairy lights and glittery stars and pumpkins and cute dabs of white paint on the shoulder all feature. And perhaps the edgiest are the political songs, though he overdoes the synthetic anger to such an extent – the song about Jeff Bezos features the squillionaire fucking the wives and drinking the blood of other squillionaires’ wives – that it becomes more an exercise in comic overstatement than any call to the barricades.
Burnham burnt out five years ago, and then made a show about the debilitating panic attacks that forced him to stop work for a while. Make Happy was its name. Inside is dotted with moments where Burnham loses concentration, his self-assurance, wonders if he’ll get the show done, if he’s running out of material (he isn’t – it’s another version of Burnham’s attack-is-defence ploy) and at one point is glimpsed watching (I think, but I haven’t seen it) footage from Make Happy. It’s all part of the “welcome to me” Burnham experience.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021