Review: Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’ vividly explores an existential crisis

Burnham’s newest Netflix special surpasses his previous works of introspective musical comedy as he grapples with isolation and understanding his place in an internet-driven world.

by Eleanor Schifino | 6/25/21 2:00am

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Courtesy of Kamilla Kocsis

by Kamilla Kocsis / The Dartmouth Staff

Since garnering mass attention with his music-based performances on YouTube at just 16, Bo Burnham has been an iconic presence in the comedy community. He has an impressive discography of surprisingly introspective songs, such as “Art is Dead” and “Lower Your Expectations,” which discuss the harrowing problems of comedic brilliance and leave the listener cackling while also questioning society. With his newest Netflix special “Inside,” Burnham builds on his catalogue of self-reflective songs as he struggles to understand his place in a convoluted world.

“Inside” is difficult to describe. The multitalented, multifaceted Bo Burnham is restricted to an isolated room, creating a show that was written, directed, produced and performed on his own. While moments of the special are notably hilarious, the bulk of the piece is focused on the eerily familiar depressive attitude and mental illnesses caused or exacerbated by quarantine and isolation through the course of the pandemic. Over the 87-minute special, the audience watches as Burnham’s isolation-driven bouts of creativity devolve into a depressive paralysis, hearing his problems grow in the medium of skillfully written songs. 

Burnham’s self-awareness and self-loathing continually come into sharp juxtaposition throughout the special. “Inside” has a wide variety of stylized songs, some of which poke fun at modern trends — such as Instagram culture and performative wokeness — while others question those trends’ role in the degradation of interpersonal relationships in the age of technology. The special starts out on an overall happy tone with songs like “Comedy” and “White Woman’s Instagram,” easy listens with gentle lessons that highlight Burnham’s skillful writing. However, the real strength of the special begins when Burnham bares his soul in the second half of the show. The songs that come from the latter part are unmatched, unfiltered portrayals of the struggle of mental illness and the often indescribable feelings that accompany it. 

The song “That Funny Feeling” captures the halting effects of sadness caused by isolation, explaining it as “total disassociation, fully out your mind/ Googling ‘derealization,’ hating what you find.” The song’s gentle tone comforts the listener while explaining the effects of depression that strike at random, unpredictable times through the repetition of the chorus “there it is again/ That funny feeling.” Despite the intensity of the topic, there is a creativity and playfulness to the lyrics that remove any condescension, using rhyming to curtail the misery from the heavy topic. Creating a shared experience, the soft, guitar-heavy song communicates these debilitating feelings that many are familiar with, and Burnham’s open discussion of his own struggles creates an empathetic tone as he explores what it means to be a performer when no one is listening.

Certain songs, like “Unpaid Intern” and “Bezos I/II,” are unnecessary to further the storyline and fall short in comparison to the rest of the special. While these short pop songs convey sharp messages about capitalism, they pale in comparison to songs such as “Welcome to The Internet.” Setting a vaudevillian tone, Burnham takes on the character of an evil villain that presents the internet as it actually is: a void of endless content. “Welcome to the Internet” has varying tempos and assaults the senses with synth style music, beginning and ending fast with a slower, lyrical portion in the middle. Burnham demonstrates the multifaceted identity of an online presence when he sings, “Welcome to the internet/ What would you prefer/ Would you like to fight for civil rights/ Or tweet a racial slur/ Be happy/ Be horny/ Be bursting with rage/ We got a million different ways to engage.” Highlighting Burnham’s talent as an actor through character use, this song captures the addictive and manic nature of the internet. As he dissociates into the online world, there is an increasingly chaotic lyricism that reflects the underlying message about the evil of mindless content consumption.

“All Eyes on Me” acts as the climax of the special, offering a rare look into the inner workings of Burnham’s mind. He transforms his mental breakdown into a powerful ballad as he begs for help in the most open and vulnerable song of the set. As Burnham explains his tumultuous relationship with mental health and the panic attacks he has previously had on stage, he transforms mental illness into a character — not a one-dimensional villain, but rather helplessness, personified in the deeper register of his uniquely distorted voice. Explaining the comfort in accepting the oblivion of depression, Burnham uses the end of the world to express the simplicity of giving up. Singing “you say the ocean’s rising, like I give a shit/ You say the whole world's ending, honey it already did/ You're not gonna slow it, heaven knows you tried/ Got it? Good. Now get inside.” These lyrics transition to the introduction of new harmonies that add layers and confusion to a question that Burnham leaves unresolved: how to deal with depression. “All Eyes on Me” asks questions that cannot be answered but does not leave the audience feeling hopeless, celebrating the catharsis of finally accepting the desire to live for yourself. 

“Inside” ends with the song “Goodbye,” which connects the messages and motifs from the entire special into one encompassing song. Pulling lyrics from previous songs and uniting observations presented earlier in the special, “Inside” comes to fruition as Burnham questions what he has created. The power of the song is born from the fact that it subverts everything Burnham had done earlier in the special with the questions “Am I going crazy/ Would I even know?/ Am I right back where I started fourteen years ago,” which is later followed by “you’re really joking at a time like this?/ Well, well, look who's inside again/ Went out to look for a reason to hide again.” A much-needed ending to the powerful “comedy” special, “Goodbye” leaves the viewer satisfied but confused, filled with a range of emotions that ensure the piece will stick with you for a while. By the end, it is clear that “Inside” surpasses all Burnham’s previous works through its painfully accurate tour of the endless layers of mental illness.