On Comedy

Using cinematic instruments different comics overlook, the star (who can be the director, editor and cameraman) trains a obvious highlight on web life mid-pandemic.

In his new Netflix special, “Inside,” Bo Burnham sings about trying to be funny while stuck in a room.

Jason Zinoman

One of essentially the most encouraging developments in comedy over the previous decade has been the rising directorial ambition of stand-up specials. It’s folly to duplicate the texture of a reside set, so why not totally alter to the display and attempt to make one thing as visually bold as a characteristic?

At the forefront of this shift has been Bo Burnham, one among YouTube’s earliest stars, who went on to make his personal progressive specials with satirical songs backed by theatrical lighting and disembodied voices. In latest years, he has begun directing different comics’ specials, staging stand-up units by Chris Rock and Jerrod Carmichael along with his signature excessive close-ups.

His virtuosic new particular, “Inside” (on Netflix), pushes this pattern additional, up to now that it feels as if he has created one thing completely new and unlikely, each sweepingly cinematic and claustrophobically intimate, a Zeitgeist-chasing musical comedy made alone to an viewers of nobody. It’s a feat, the work of a gifted experimentalist whose craft has caught as much as his expertise. And whereas 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 past yr inside a single room, it illustrates that there’s no better inspiration than limitations.

On the best degree, “Inside” is the story of a comic book struggling to make a humorous present throughout quarantine and step by step dropping his thoughts. Burnham says he had give up reside comedy a number of years in the past due to panic assaults and returned in January 2020 earlier than, as he places it in typical perverse irony, “the funniest thing happened.”

The purpose he began making this particular, he explains within the present, is to distract himself from capturing himself within the head, the primary of a number of mentions of suicide (together with one by which he tells viewers to “just don’t”). With menacing horror film sound results and hectic, dreamy camerawork, what turns into clear is Burnham’s title has a double that means: referring to being inside not only a room, but in addition his head. There’s all the time been a rigidity in his comedy between an ironic, smarty-pants cleverness and an usually melodramatic perspective. Underneath the Steve Martin-like formal trickery has all the time overwhelmed the heaving coronary heart of a flamboyantly dramatic theater child. And the most important threat Burnham takes within the present is letting his emotional aspect free, however not earlier than cracking a ton of jokes.

The first half is dominated by sharp, foolish satires of the second, like a visually exact and hilarious track about social media self-importance, “White Woman’s Instagram,” and a business for a woke model advisor. (“The question is no longer, ‘Do you want to buy Wheat Thins?,’ for example. The question is now, ‘Will you support Wheat Thins in the fight against Lyme disease?’”)

After about 35 minutes of candy-colored, slickly designed sketch comedy, the tone shifts with Burnham’s first fully earnest track, a beautiful indie-rock tune with an ear worm of a hook about “trying to be funny and stuck in a room.” This is the present’s hinge. Tapping on a synthesizer, he sings concerning the challenges of isolation as he sits on a cluttered flooring, two placing squares of daylight streaming in by way of the home windows of a darkish room.

Many of his songs start critically, then shift into the joke, however this one doesn’t. Though it does have a twist. At first it appears to be nearly life within the pandemic, but it surely turns into a reference to his previous, when he made faces and jokes from his bed room as an adolescent and put that on the web. It’s an origin story of types. While this particular is the product of evolution, Burnham is stating it’s additionally a regression. He is now again to the place he was, making jokes alone in his room, an effort to flee his actuality. There’s a nostalgic sweetness to this track, however components of it return all through the present, in darker varieties, one among many variations on a theme.


The special is set almost entirely in one cluttered room.

A harsh skepticism of digital life (a life the pandemic has solely magnified) is the dominant topic of the particular. Burnham spoofs a PewDiePie-like determine — a YouTuber who narrates his taking part in of a online game with a dead-eyed smugness, as proven in a picture on the bottom-right nook of the display. Burnham can be the principle character within the sport, a personality who’s seen shifting mechanically round a room. At numerous factors, the gamer is given the choice to make the character cry. He takes it, and Burnham cries robotically as a tinny model of the track about being caught within the room performs. It’s an uncanny, dystopian view of Burnham as an instrument within the soulless sport of social media. And it portends and casts doubt on a later scene when his psychological well being frays and Burnham cries in earnest.

The incentives of the net, people who reward outrage, extra and sentiment, are the villains of this present. In a giddy homage to “Cabaret,” Burnham, in sun shades, performs the M.C. of the web, welcoming everybody with a decadent menu of choices whereas disco lights twirl. It’s a lyrically dense track with camerawork that hastens with its rhythm. Just as usually, Burnham’s shot sequencing performs towards the that means of a track, like when he breaks out a glamorous break up display to enrich a comic book track about FaceTiming along with his mother.

“Inside” is the work of a comic book with creative instruments most of his friends ignore or overlook. Not solely has his musical vary expanded — his pastiche of kinds consists of bebop, synth-pop and peppy present tunes — Burnham, who as soon as revealed a guide of poems, has additionally turn into as meticulous and inventive along with his visible vocabulary as his language.

Some of the narrative of the present will be indulgently overheated, taking part in into clichés concerning the strategy of the brooding artist, however Burnham has anticipated this and different criticisms, and built-in them into the particular, together with the concept that drawing consideration to potential flaws fixes them. “Self-awareness does not absolve anyone of anything,” he says.

True, however it could possibly deepen and make clear artwork. “Inside” is a difficult work that for all its boundary-crossing stays ultimately a comedy within the spirit of neurotic, self-loathing stand-up. Burnham skewers himself as a virtue-signaling ally with a white-savior advanced, a bully and an egoist who attracts a Venn diagram and locates himself within the overlap between Weird Al and Malcolm X. That his particular is an indictment of the web by an artist whose profession was born and flourished there’s the final word joke.

Burnham lingers on his behind-the-scenes technical tinkering — dealing with lights, modifying, practising traces. He’s bedraggled, more and more unshaven, rising a Rasputin-like beard. The aesthetic telegraphs authenticity and vulnerability, however the particular’s gorgeous ultimate photographs reveal the misdirection at work, encouraging skepticism of the performativity of such realism.

Toward the tip, he seems fully bare behind his keyboard. It’s a visible that signifies a person exposing himself, till you understand he’s in a highlight.