Bo Burnham: Inside | Netflix special reviewed by Steve Bennett © Netflix
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Bo Burnham: Inside

Netflix special reviewed by Steve Bennett

Bo Burnham became famous on YouTube, sitting alone in his teenage bedroom writing comedy songs for his audience down the internet. Fast-forward 15 years and he’s back in the same place. He might have better tech now, but he’s still stuck within four walls, still performing alone for a webcam – Covid has seen to that.

Lockdown preys heavily on his overactive, overachieving mind, and this special, forged from its intensity, is an audacious and layered portrait of an artist’s relationship with his audience, with society and with his own psyche at a time when social media has made performers of us all.

Inside is sharp and satirical - sometimes bleakly so; deeply personal yet incisively universal;  painfully funny and funnily painful, and sits alongside Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette as a searing, introspective analysis of the benefits and limitations of comedy that pushes the limits of the artform.

One of the many things that troubles Burnham as he turns 30 during the difficult making of this unique special is whether the idea of ‘healing the world with comedy’ is an arrogance,  especially when so many would say tragedy is no time to be joking.  In one nice visual gag he imagines himself at the Venn diagram crossover where Malcolm X meets ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic.

He suggests this strained time has put him in a creative rut –  ‘The more I look, the less I see to laugh at,’ he muses.  ‘Is comedy over?’ But that lie is exposed by his creation a show so bold, inventive and funny (though not always so) as this.  But while he ponders the ineffectiveness of his labours, he acknowledges the human need to create and be heard  – and to be validated by what is created.

This, of course, feeds into the artifice of social media, its insatiable hunger for content and our natural instincts to present  a curated version of ourselves to the world. In the most obviously comic song he mocks  a white woman’s Instagram feed for its fey privilege, only to momentarily remind us there’s a real person behind all that - even if their expression of emotion might be considered as staged and performative as any so-focussed picture. Behind the caricature is a nuanced picture that doesn’t sacrifice complexity for laughs.

In another brilliant routine about social media, he paints the vivid picture of the outside world being a dangerous place where an army of content creators venture only cautiously in order to mine the raw materials they need.

The internet giants who have engineered all this do not escape his incisive attention – a jaunty ditty about Jeffrey Bezos perhaps explains why this special hasn’t ended up on Amazon Prime – while a searing takedown of how rampant capitalism has effectively enslaved us all is mostly made via the medium of sock puppetry.

Acutely self-aware as ever, Burnham confronts his own privilege, too, as well as  his relationship with things he might have done in the past that might be considered ‘problematic’ now… virtually crucifying himself on the cross of self-flagellation, the image enhanced by the Jesus-like beard he’s grown during lockdown.

It would be remiss not to mention the visual impact of this film, from the weirdly haunting, establishing shots of him setting up the camera alone at the start, to the arthouse-style ending making a parody of the laughs that ring hollow at his misfortune. As a director, he’s as distinctive and meticulous in the look as he is with every precise lyric of his song and every beat of his tight jokes.

All this is played out against his troubled mental health. Burnham had not been on stage for five years because of panic attacks - and just as he was ready to resume, coronavirus hit. While he doesn’t shy way from honesty, he also gives depression his depression killer beat in one catchy songs.  Eventually, though, the frustrations and the foreboding come to a head, and the dark comic sensibilities that underpin the show fall away to expose some real torment towards the end.

Through one-man sketches, brilliant  songs and fragmented stand-up, Inside is a consciously virtuosic attempt to address no less than what it means to exist as a human in this odd world of social media and late-stage capitalism,  with every impact  amplified by the isolation of lockdown,

With this impressive and complex piece of work (‘special’ seems to flimsy a term for such an involved film, which invites multiple viewings) Burham burnishes his status as visionary auteur with so much to say, and so often with an astringent joke with which to say it.

Bo Burnham: Inside is now available on Netflix.

Review date: 8 Jun 2021
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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