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Bo Burnham's Inside pandemic comedy special feels like something new and unlikely

  • On the simplest level, Burnham's Netflix special, which he filmed in pandemic isolation, "is the story of a comic struggling to make a funny show during quarantine and gradually losing his mind," says Jason Zinoman. But Inside, says Zinoman, is "the work of a comic with artistic tools most of his peers ignore or overlook. Not only has his musical range expanded — his pastiche of styles includes bebop, synth-pop and peppy show tunes — Burnham, who once published a book of poems, has also become as meticulous and creative with his visual vocabulary as his language. Some of the narrative of the show can be indulgently overheated, playing into clichés about the process of the brooding artist, but Burnham has anticipated this and other criticisms, and integrated them into the special, including the idea that drawing attention to potential flaws fixes them...Inside is a tricky work that for all its boundary-crossing remains in the end a comedy in the spirit of neurotic, self-loathing stand-up. Burnham skewers himself as a virtue-signaling ally with a white-savior complex, a bully and an egoist who draws a Venn diagram and locates himself in the overlap between Weird Al and Malcolm X. That his special is an indictment of the internet by an artist whose career was born and flourished there is the ultimate joke." Zinoman adds that Inside "feels as if he has created something entirely new and unlikely, both sweepingly cinematic and claustrophobically intimate, a Zeitgeist-chasing musical comedy made alone to an audience of no one. It’s a feat, the work of a gifted experimentalist whose craft has caught up to his talent. And while it’s an ominous portrait of the isolation of the pandemic, there’s hope in its existence: Written, designed and shot by Burnham over the last year inside a single room, it illustrates that there’s no greater inspiration than limitations."


    • Bo Burnham: Inside turns a quarantine nightmare into a masterpiece: The Netflix special "takes the comedian’s YouTube instincts and imagination, adds the refinement of maturity, and multiplies it by the power of enforced isolation amid the specter of global tragedy," says Joe Berkowitz. "It’s a masterpiece. Plenty of artists have made projects over the past year inspired by having extra pandemic-mandated time on their hands. Ottessa Moshfegh wrote a novel. Charli XCX cut an album. Taylor Swift cut two of them. Plenty of artists have also made art inspired by the circumstances of the pandemic, including the horror movie, Host; the heist movie, Locked Down; and a terrific episode of Mythic Quest. Bo Burnham: Inside, however, is both. It’s a perfectly symbiotic match between form and function, even more so than other COVID-era comedy specials where comedians make jokes in a germ-safe environment about living through a pandemic."
    • It's the Black Mirror comedy special for the modern era: "Epic in its emotional depth and scale (for a comedy special filmed within the space of one room during lockdown), this year-long voyeuristic voyage into Burnham’s fraying mind seems at once deeply personal and stunningly relatable to anyone who spent time isolated from the world and loved ones while listening to sirens and mainlining news reports (but, perhaps not, if you spent your year in a second home, an uninvested spectator in the chaos)," says Jason Tabrys. "It’s also a hilarious reclamation of satire."
    • The number of ways Burnham critiques his own work in Inside is remarkable: "Burnham wrote, directed, shot, and edited the special himself while quarantined during the pandemic, and it simultaneously functions as a comedy special, a coronavirus diary, an attempt to channel Vegas-era Howard Hughes, and a smart and moving exploration of depression, apocalypticism, self-hatred, and, of course, internet culture," says Matthew Dessem. "That sounds like a hell of a thing to put an audience through, and Burnham is more uneasy about the transaction than ever, oscillating wildly between a need for attention and sheer contempt for anyone who gives it to him."
    • Inside is mostly a self-portrait, but it plays with many forms: "Like most of Burnham’s comedy, it’s a musical production, full of songs about things like sexting and internet culture and Jeff Bezos," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "It’s a piece of cultural criticism focused on the extremely online, often performed by recreating specifically digital forms like an Instagram grid or a Twitch stream. Filmed almost entirely inside one small room, with a host of cameras and interesting lighting set-ups, Inside also plays with the form that launched Burnham’s career. Once again he’s a vlogger, sitting alone in a quiet room with a closed door, staring into the black void of a camera lens, shooting take after take so the result can be edited into meticulous precision. Sometimes it longs to be a concert; sometimes the special veers into the confessional, even journalistic. Shot over many months during 2020, Burnham’s hair and beard grow longer and shaggier with time, turning Inside into something like a captain’s log, with Burnham on a solo voyage through his own pandemic anguish."
    • Inside is a comedy Gesamtkunstwerk, a journey to the nerve-center of the quarantined entertainer’s mind:  "But is it comedy?" asks Brian Logan. "Naysayers may complain that, with silences in laughter’s place, bleak jokes, and sections that eschew humor entirely, Inside has little comical about it. But if the material isn’t chucklesome, you’ll laugh with sheer astonishment at the accomplishment of Burnham’s enterprise. This prodigiously talented act has performed an extraordinary feat of construction and production, its restless audio-visual invention drastically expanding lockdown’s dramatic, comic and emotional range."
    • Burnham shows that 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," says Eric Kohn. "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."
    • Here's a list of every song featured in Bo Burnham: Inside

    TOPICS: Bo Burnham, Netflix, Bo Burnham: Inside, Coronavirus, Standup Comedy

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