Our Bo Burnham’s Comedy Specials Come To A Close With “Inside” article looks at the recent great TV comedy specials by Bo Burnham. Stand up comedian Bo Burnham was born on August 21, 1990 in Hamilton, Massachusetts. And on December 21st, 2006 Burnham entered the digital world as he posted his first YouTube video. Throughout the years he would gain a following online through his tongue-in-cheek songs he would make by himself. His professional career would bring him to record deals with Comedy Central Records, tours, and then a stand up special that debuted on Netflix.
“What.” came out in 2013, taped at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, California. It is an hour long, jam packed, performance that captures a lot of what makes Burnham such a unique performer. An accurate comparison to Burnham’s songs would be the SNL born group The Lonely Island. Both of the artists excel at goofy jokes, but they still use their form of comedic music to address social issues. Something like The Lonely Island’s “No Homo” uses an annoying phrase to look at how homosexuality can become a punch line and therefore treated as something alienating.
Burnham takes this idea to a new level with the climax of “what.” As the show is winding down, Burnham uses pre-recorded voices to show the audience a few hypothetical interactions with friends and strangers. One person ends up using a homophobic slur that makes everyone recoil. Then something strange happens, the phrase gets repeated, then it repeats again. It has a beat to it. Then Burnham takes that as a musical sample and turns the whole conversation into an intricate techno song that he “performs” with finger flicks. From a technical point of view it is very impressive as he times his actions to a tee, but there is something more profound at work. He is weaponizing a three letter word and making something impressive out of it. That sentence alone feels peculiar to write. Using music and comedy he is able to reappropriate pain into something more.
He continued to explore those concepts with “Make Happy.” Premiering on Netflix in 2016 and filmed at the Capitol Theater in New York City, Burnham’s second special is stronger than his first. The overall setting shows how he has progressed as a celebrity as the venue is larger than the last spot he filmed at. The audience is also more interactive as people cheer him on and tease him, he responds in a direct way which ends up strengthening this special’s finale.
What starts off as a silly auto-tuned rant against the size of Pringles cans, quickly turns into concerns about celebrity. Burnham sings, “I want to please you [the audience] but I want to stay true to myself… part of me loves you, part of me hates you, part of me needs you, part of me fears you, I don’t think I can handle this right now.” It is difficult to listen to the performance and not get chills. All of that love, anger, and fear reached a boiling point in his latest Netflix comedy special.
Over Memorial Weekend, “A Quiet Place: Part II” officially revitalized the movie theater industry. After being shelved at the last minute due to the coronavirus inflected shutdown, the sequel to the 2018 thriller premiered nationwide with positive critic ratings and a box office take of $58 million. While audiences were turning theaters into not so quiet places, Netflix released “Bo Burnham: Inside.”
This feature length special was made over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the opening credits state that this is “written, edited, shot and directed by bo burnham.” It all takes place inside of his guest house, a location that is briefly glimpsed in the epilogue of “Make Happy.” This creates an unexpected synergy for those who want to watch all of Burnham’s specials back to back. It is impossible that any of us could predict where we would be now at that time.
This may be the best piece of pandemic-era art out there because it is not about the pandemic. Burnham captures the anxiety of a world teetering on the edge of falling apart and how it can try to stay together. The stand out comedy setpieces are about FaceTiming parents, a sock puppet looking at how we teach kids history, and a white woman’s Instagram. His standard love of timing and intricate lyrics make some hilarious sequences, but the majority of the 90 minutes are spent exposing the inside of entertainment.
Burnham does not leave any leaf unturned when showing the viewer how much work it takes to create entertainment. The exact location is a behind the scenes look at what it takes to film these songs. The lights, microphones, tripods, and instruments are scattered all throughout the room. Some may write this off as just Burnham as being a sloppy person, but the time that he spends in between the songs show us that there is meaning to the exposed equipment. As Roger Ebert once said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”
Burnham puts in footage that some would call mundane, others would call it fascinating. He checks the focus of the cameras. He tests lights seeing how bright they need to be. As an editor, Burnham is very honest with everyone as he chooses to include false starts and mistakes. There are moments where he tries to speak, but can’t, and ends up crying. He lets them in because of his dedication to showing the reality of the past year. This sets him apart from any other comedian working during this time – he hopes to provide some escapism to his viewers and fans, but also is obligated to be honest and show how he struggled.
The very first song he sings in “Inside” acknowledges the fallacy of a comedian in such a sad time. “If you wake up in a house that’s full of smoke, don’t panic, call me and I’ll tell you a joke.”
The fact of the matter is, we all want to call Bo Burnham and have him tell us a joke. He is a hilarious and intelligent man who is able to create art out of a year of staying inside. The big question is, does this mark a turning point for him? Is he done with comedy because he has seen how superfluous it is or has this year away energized him to get back out there?
Let’s hope it is the second option.