Bo Burnham’s Inside presents an inspirational, self-deprecating, and unfortunately realistic view of the society we have created. It subtly conjures a sense of urgency in its audience to speak out and to act. It’s incredible how this artist has created such an impactful message that people are actually reacting to.
Burnham doesn’t say anything necessarily new; he’s repeating the same messages hundreds of activists have been shouting for years. The genius in it is that he has masked these messages of social injustice in jokes. As an audience we laugh at these jokes, but then are left with this need for self-reflection, because we have been made aware of our own contribution to this unjust society. The laughs come first, but what’s left is overwhelming despair; because what is being laid out in front of you as you watch this comedy special is this incredibly funny narrative about a society in which everyone craps on one another. Then you realise that is our world, and that we are responsible for it. Burnham’s jokes are amusing because what he is saying is so true – we allow ourselves to participate in this society where ‘every politician, every cop on the street protects the interests of the paedophilic corporate elite.’ (How the World Works).
I for one felt guilty – for every opinion I’d suppressed for fear of negative reaction, because who wants to be THAT person, that pushy, in-your-face activist. In the past, women have often been branded ‘Nazi feminists’ for being loud about equal rights between genders, so I resigned myself from my opinions. After watching this comedy special though, every suppressed opinion rose to the surface, and I suddenly had so much to say.
I can’t stress enough how clever this man is in the way he created Inside. For example, he is incredibly self-aware, especially of his privilege as a white male, and this is the point of several jokes throughout. While these jokes seem to be secondary to some of the bigger, more developed punchlines, they were incredibly impactful. It’s an issue that doesn’t get highlighted enough – certainly not as bluntly as it is here. In my personal favourite song, ‘How the World Works’, Burnham uses a sock puppet known as Socko to illustrate the privilege of the majority groups. After the puppet sings about a variety of social issues, Bo’s character asks how he can help, and Socko responds “Don’t burden me with the responsibly of educating you…why do you rich white people insist on seeing every socio-political conflict through the myopic lens of your own self-actualisation?’ During flares of increased activism the ignorant of our society become a central focus as we reeducate them on humanity and decency, pulling attention away from the minority in need of attention.
At the end of the day, most people don’t want to watch a documentary about how racist, sexist and classist our society is – that’s far too heavy for a Friday night. They will watch a lighthearted comedy special though, and that’s where the genius lies. Bo Burnham put some of our biggest issues into the lyrics of catchy show tunes and people listened. It’s incredible.
It is also worth noting the influence of the pandemic on the show’s creation. It emphasises the impact of the pandemic without ever directly referencing it. Instead, it assumes this collective understanding of the pandemic’s context, and rightly so – the naming of COVID or lockdown is unnecessary because the audience all experienced the same thing. I suppose that’s one thing the pandemic left behind: an unwavering collective experience. Burnham draws on this. There are many references to the pandemic starting with the title itself ‘Inside’ referring to the lockdowns that confined many of us to our homes. The song ‘FaceTime with my Mom’ talks about passing the time talking to his mom, digitally of course because of social restrictions.
He also takes time to speak about his deteriorating mental health, and shows the audience several scenes of frustration, despair and a struggle to even complete the special itself. While I’m unsure to what extent these scenes are genuine, I believe that if they are acted then they are merely recreations of real experiences and emotions. A lot of what he spoke about resonated with me. In ‘All Eyes On Me’, Burnham talks about how he quit performing years ago due to having panic attacks on stage, then in January of 2020 he decided to start again. He ends the speech by saying ‘And then the funniest thing happened…’, again relying on the audience’s experiences to understand the context. Furthermore, not only is ‘All Eyes On Me’ beautifully composed, but it has, in my opinion, one of the special’s hardest hitting lyrics:
“You say the whole world is ending – honey it already did.”
As someone who has experienced their fair share of mental health struggles, this line hit me hard. The feeling of existentialism that it leaves behind is significant. And if you have listened to the song, you’ll know that when combined with the rest of the lyrics, it carries a double meaning about climate change and the deterioration of the world’s environment.
I couldn’t possibly explain every brilliant lyric and joke in this comedy special, so I urge anyone who hasn’t already seen it to watch it. If you have seen it, but disagree with my opinions, then I urge you to watch it again – and pay attention this time.
Bo Burnham’s Inside is available on Netflix
Trinity (she/her) is a first year English student at University of Leicester, originally from Bourne, Lincolnshire. She is looking to pursue a career in journalism.