How do you craft escapism when escape is no longer an option? Bo Burnham turned the camera on himself. The lanky comedian-turned-filmmaker has been delivering wry musical standup work since his teen years, but the pandemic forced him to reconsider his approach. While “Bo Burnham: Inside” has been billed as a surprise Netflix comedy special from a guy who has made a few them, it’s actually a far stranger and profound feature-length immersion into the anxieties of a year when the very idea of a “comedy special” sounded like a lost cause. The result is more Charlie than Andy Kaufman, as “Inside” becomes less about messing with the audience than plunging them into the contours of Burnham’s conflicted mind, mining brilliant and scathing observations in the process.
Burnham wrote, directed, edited, and starred in this minimalist musical fantasia, shot exclusively in his home in Los Angeles over the past year, and the result is an impressive one-man technical feat loaded with surreal twists and dense commentary under the veneer of sophomoric gags.
Burnham churns out cheeky vulgar tunes that sound like “Sesame Street” by way of George Carlin, but the overarching premise clarifies the young comic storyteller’s emerging worldview in striking terms. With his acclaimed feature debut “Eighth Grade” behind him, Burnham has essentially crafted a microbudget feature about the last man on Earth coming to terms with a reality that has already slipped beyond his grasp. Quarantined and disheveled from the first scene, he careens through oddball melodies and monologues about modern times, resulting in a hilarious crisis of consciousness gone wild.
From the moment he emerges at his keyboard, in a bland room illuminated brash white lights, Burnham’s frustrations with the nature of modern entertainment take hold. The same guy who became a YouTube phenomenon at 16 has grown weary of what it means to keep audiences hooked to distract them from life’s darker truths. “Open wide,” he sings, “Here comes some content. It’s a beautiful day to stay inside.” Before long, he’s shifted to a chorus that includes the lyrics “What the fuck is going on” as he repeatedly hits a laugh track button. Eventually, he addresses the camera to explain his intent to make a comedy show with the quarantine tools at his immediate disposal — or basically destroy himself in the process. Just above his charming grin lurks an eerie stare, and the ensuing ride lingers between those two extremes, as Burnham comes mighty close to amusing himself to death.
It’s not the subtlest conceit, but these aren’t subtle times, and Burnham’s barrage of visuals and inspired tunes amount to pitch-perfect gallows humor for an era that thrives on maximalism at every turn. With his overgrown beard and unkempt hair, this scrawny 6’5″ man (who’s set to play Larry Bird in an upcoming HBO special) cuts an obvious messianic figure and mocks that impression with fiery persistence. Announcing the absurdity of “a white like me healing the world through comedy,” Burnham goes on to show that laughter isn’t a balm; it’s a defense mechanism, and in his case, the darkness keeps seeping in.
Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, “Bo Burnham: Inside” sometimes adopts the listless quality of the quarantine routine at its center. However, whether or not you embrace the weird tonal shifts and abrupt transitions between vignettes, the experience is a constant audiovisual thrill. From shifting aspect ratios to split screens, gorgeous experiments with light and shadows and an array of musical effects, Burnham has built an intricate tapestry of cinematic devices to deepen the psychological intrigue in play. But in the midst of the chaotic display, complex ideas burst into the frame from unexpected directions. In one of his strongest bits, he gets into a seething argument with a Marxist hand puppet about the genocidal undertones of Western civilization; in another, a bebop tune about unpaid interns expands into a metaphysical hall-of-mirrors sequence, with Burnham watching himself onscreen, trying to make sense of what he’s doing here — only to tumble further down the rabbit hole.
Burnham’s previous stage work has included some insubstantial punchlines that rely on the shock value of edgy subject matter (hey, here’s a gay joke!), which often worked against the obvious multimedia talent on display. Here, as he turns 30 on camera and contemplates a dark future, he finds a happy medium between the silly-strange nature of his stage presence and the advanced storytelling instincts evident from “Eighth Grade.” As with that movie, he fixates on the dangerous allure of shutting the world out in an era of on-demand distractions. And in this case, he’s the distraction. “Apathy is a tragedy and boredom is a crime,” he sings. “Can I interest you in everything all the time?”
Burnham’s work here shares some DNA with Maria Bamford’s 2012 “The Special Special,” shot in her home with an audience exclusively composed of her parents. Yet “Bo Burnham: Inside” has no exact precedent since its entire tone emerges from an unprecedented moment in human history. His maniacal, passive-aggressive screen presence suggests he’s grown cynical about creating art in a world that reduces it to pure capitalist product. But he also excels at subverting those boundaries. Burnham is hardly the Jesus figure he looks like, but he’s certainly some kind of mad prophet for crazy times. He may be conflicted about the world these days, but there’s much to glean from watching him make sense of it.
“Bo Burnham: Inside” is now streaming on Netflix.