Prisoners of our own device-ing: A look at Bo Burnham’s Inside

Rayleigh Deaton

As mandates are lifted and the world rushes headlong back to normality, wanting to put the last year behind it as soon as possible, Bo Burnham invites us to stop and reflect on pandemic life.

A few days ago, at the behest of one of my friends, I sat down to watch Burnham’s new Netflix comedy special, Inside, which released May 30. Expecting your garden variety stand-up show with rapid-fire jokes and lighthearted tone, I was unprepared for what I was in for with the special, written, filmed and edited in its entirety by Burnham while in his home during quarantine. 

Burnham has always been a distinct stand-up, known for pithy social commentary and often eerily accurate predictions about technology veiled under a thin veneer of comedy. 

 One of his early claims to fame was a song called “Welcome to YouTube,” a jab at the platform on which Burnham himself became famous in the early 2000s. In the song, he scoffs at the addictive nature of social media, already apparent even in 2008: “It’s YouTube, it’s what this country’s been needing. A generation of kids who don’t waste their time reading.”

Burnham has also been quite transparent about his struggles with mental health from the stage; in his 2016 Netflix comedy special, Make Happy, Burnham closes the show with a Kanye West-esque rant. In the wordy deluge ranging from topics like Pringle’s cans to Burnham’s own internal conflicts, he says of the audience, “Look at them, they’re just staring at me, like, ‘Come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.’”

 So going into my first viewing of Inside, I was armed (or at least I thought I was) with prior experience, having watched several of Burnham’s previous comedy specials. What I found was a a bracingly raw look into his personal experiences during quarantine, experiences that most if not all his viewers could relate to in some capacity. Although Burnham never explicitly mentions COVID or the pandemic, the special becomes an autobiography in which viewers see themselves and their experiences during quarantine.

 Inside is a cacophony of brilliant, catchy songs and thought-provoking monologues performed solo by its creator. In true Burnham style, he sprinkles in comedic moments, particularly in the first half, including a parody of stereotypical social media posts by white women, a faux pas-riddled FaceTime conversation and a jab at “woke” corporations trying to take political or social stands for good PR.                                                                                               

 Stunning lighting and special effects accentuate the original songs Burnham plays and sings, all produced live by him. As the show progresses, his already small home becomes increasingly overrun with cables, lights and equipment. Burnham includes footage of himself adjusting cameras and checking lights, inviting viewers to meet that tired, sometimes melancholy, offstage persona he rarely shows when performing.

Although there are some dark moments in the early part of the special, there is a definite mood-change in the second half. Sitting with a keyboard on the floor, Burnham laughs cynically at his plans to start touring again in January 2020, after five years away from comedy due to panic attacks before shows. “Well, well, look who’s inside again,” he sings, sardonically comparing his current situation to his sheltered childhood when he was “stuck in his room.” 

Burnham later personifies the internet in a chilling song, offering “A little bit of everything, all of the time” to consumers who seem to start engaging at younger and younger ages as the years go by. “Mommy let you use her iPad, you were barely two … Apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime,” he croons, commenting on his perception of today’s “insatiable” culture.  

Both Burnham’s hair length and his mental wellbeing serve as a sort of chronological tracker in the timeless world of quarantine. “My current mental health is rapidly approaching an ATL,” Burnham says at one point. “Which is, that’s an ‘all-time low,’ not ‘Atlanta.’”

Spoofed takes and moments of raw emotion are also juxtaposed between perfectly executed songs, portraying him as a human first, performer second. Near the end of the special, documenting the project’s one-year anniversary, he is unable to get through the monologue without breaking down in tears. 

Whether or not those emotional moments are genuine or facsimile is not the point; Burnham uses them to paint a broader, more accessible picture of quarantine for his viewers. He may be playing a character, but it’s a character his audience can relate to intimately.

 Beyond quarantine, the inside space also becomes a metaphor for the comfortable but self-contained world of social media. In a song full of poetic irony, Burnham sings, “The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door,” insinuating that we lack nothing to do anything but the motivation to do something. 

“The outside world, the non-digital world, is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space,” Burnham says ironically, encapsulating the sentiment he sees in media culture. 

 The special ends with Burnham finally daring to open his front door that has been in many of the shots, a gentle and constant reminder that there is more beyond these four walls. He walks outside, greeted by blinding light and thunderous applause. 

 Suddenly craving the safety of inside, he tries in vain to open the locked door to slip back into the comfortable and known. Applause turns to laughter as a fetal Burnham tries to block out the outside world. The image pulls back revealing the real Burnham smiling and watching the scene unfold, projected on a wall inside his house. 

 I think the moral to Burnham’s hallucinogenic and slightly off-putting “comedy special” is we have developed a chronic, societal case of Stockholm syndrome. We feel safe in the prisons of social media we ourselves have constructed – they are comfortable and give us the illusion of activism in the world’s problems while providing distance from those same problems. 

However, Burnham’s call to action is for us to stop being a passive member of the audience, open the door and join the real world. “Hey, here’s a fun idea,” he sings. “How ‘bout I sit on the couch, and I watch you next time? I wanna hear you tell a joke when no one’s laughing in the background.”

By slowing our heady rush to post-COVID life, Burnham invites us to engage in derealization of our digital worlds so we can reenter society after quarantining ourselves, not just from a pandemic but from reality.