Trying to be funny and stuck in a room

It’s been a strange year. In a fascinating insight into the human spirit and of intrinsic coping mechanisms, we collectively seemed determined to optimistically find the productive side of a global pandemic. Loaf after loaf of banana bread was baked. Yoga mats and running shoes were dispatched across the land. This was your time to write the great American novel. You did write your great American novel, right? You had to do something in lockdown, more than just surviving.

For Bo Burnham, as Inside puts it, those two things are one and the same. The conceit of Inside is simple: at the beginning of lockdown, Burnham locked himself in a room. In this room, he would write, direct, shoot, and edit a new stand up special - his first in 5 years - by himself.

The rest of this is quite spoiler heavy for Inside, and Burnham’s previous specials Make Happy and what., so maybe watch it/them first?


The results are immensely impressive on many levels. Comedically and musically, Burnham hasn’t been resting on his laurels for the last few years. The lyrics are sharper, the music more developed than ever. From a directorial point of view, he very quickly establishes a unique visual identity to the special. The colours are vivid, the improvised lighting - a highlight being millennial life crisis song 30 - a natural evolution of his knack for staging in previous specials, more expansive through its conceptual limitations.

Like lockdown itself, as Inside goes on, the novelty wears thin, the ceaselessness drags on, and the reality of being left alone with your thoughts and not liking what you find sets in. Burnham uses it to address, in different ways, the effects of derealisation, depression, and what happens when the thing that you’ve always used to help fix that is only making things worse. I’m not going to make some grand claim as to Burnham reinventing the stand-up special. But I think both Burnham himself and Inside as - yes, I’ll say it - a piece of art have a lot to explore. I have some thoughts. Here they are.

In 2016, when he released his previous special Make Happy, I compared Bo Burnham to a millennial Stewart Lee. The thing that really stands out is the bubbling over subtext of the importance of the gap between performance and authenticity, expressed through a simmering contempt for the audience. In Make Happy, Burnham repeatedly berates the audience for their reactions - laughing when something shouldn’t be laughed at, shouting “I love you”, participating in general. The audience are an unfortunate but necessary evil in the realisation of Burnham’s comedy. As the special goes on, this tension resolves itself in a confession that it’s his desire and need to please the audience that’s behind it.

In Inside, of course, there is no audience. One of Inside’s great triumphs is in how Burnham still manages to create, needle, play with, and - to an extent - defuse this tension regardless of its seemingly hermetically sealed confines. There are obvious elements: in Comedy and All Eyes On Me, the second and second last songs of the special respectively, Burnham plays in canned audience laughter after ambiguously unfunny statements, which is pretty reflective of how real audiences react when they’re not sure how serious the performer is being.

Between the songs and sketches, there are ostensibly candid moments - lighting tests, pre-take shots, mistakes - designed to demonstrate the artifice of the performances. But this is merely a meta-artifice. That’s not to say these aren’t candid, or real, but to point out that these are deliberately included to bed in the premise of being stuck in the room. Of course it’s a premise. The man’s rich, with a big house and a long term partner. He was not falling apart in a boxy room for a year. But we want, on some level, to believe he was. And so we, the audience, want to make sure he’s ok. And perhaps the most daring part of Inside is that he does not give us this. Make Happy, following the climactic Kanye rant addressing the state of his mental health and his relationship with the audience, ends with a stripped back song in which Burnham asks the audience - and, implicitly, himself - are you happy? In the final seconds, though, he pulls back the curtain; he emerges from his room (the very same one in which he’s stuck in Inside) into the sunlight; smiling, embracing his partner, and cuddling his dog. This is the reassurance to the audience - this was an act. This is the real me. I’m fine.

Inside distinctly does not offer the audience this relief. Sure, it teases it. The door cracks open, the light pours in. Burnham emerges. All seems well, until the camera pulls back and the audience laughs. Burnham is still on stage, performing, and afraid of what this means, tries and fails to return to his room. It ends as it ever was, refusing to acknowledge the distinction, as Stewart Lee would put it, between the person Bo Burnham and the comedian Bo Burnham. The question Inside asks is, at what point - if any - do you key the audience into the pretence? Few other art forms suffer from this. A director is not expected to include a post-credit scene addressing the camera to tell the audience that they’re fine. Autofictional novels do not require a postscript clearing up the idea that the author may be exaggerating. But in stand up, where there is some level of shared buy in from the audience that they are seeing a real person be real with them, this feels… iffier. To break character is to shatter the illusion, but when the illusion is of a man suffering from genuine, serious mental health issues and - throughout the special - suicidal ideation, is it fair to the audience to not shatter it?

A tangent:

Bo Burnham is no stranger to the internet; he was birthed by it, playing silly songs on YouTube being the way he first shot to fame. He is no stranger to commenting on the impact the internet has on us as people: Eighth Grade, his directorial debut, portrays with distressing precision what an adolescence warped by social media looks like, the numbness of scrolling and double tapping, the knowledge that your life is not as perfect as you pretend it is on Instagram but the inability to believe that of anyone else. But here, in Welcome To The Internet, he addresses it head on. A devastating dissection of how easily the worst possible things - prejudice, dead children, sexual harassment, the incel movement, conspiracy theories - coexist with the shiny happy fun friendly recipes and Buzzfeed personality quizzes; of how the constant design decisions of social networks to encourage engagement at all costs are fundamentally breaking us as people; of how we’re now at the point where this is no longer happening to grown adults, but teenagers, but two year olds. It culminates in its chorus, of “could I interest you in everything, all of the time?”. Because that’s the promise of the internet. And how could having access to everything all of the time ever be a bad thing? Of course, maybe we’re not built to be able to handle having everything all of the time.

Consciously or unconsciously, this chorus echoes the work of another artist in some way obsessed with doomsaying of the intertwining of technology and society. In 2000 - before Instagram, and Facebook, and Twitter, when the internet was in its nascency but the seeds for good and ill were there if you were looking hard enough - Radiohead released Kid A, an album that crystallised Thom Yorke’s millennial (in its literal sense) crisis. At its heart is the frantic jittering of Idioteque, with a plaintive Yorke proclaiming in its chorus “here I’m allowed everything all of the time” - with an unnerving implication that this is not a good thing 1. Thom Yorke was not singing about the same internet that Bo Burnham sings about now. As Burnham puts it, back then, “circa ‘99, it was catalogues, travel blogs, a chat room or two”. But Yorke and Radiohead engaged with the internet on its level at the time, understood its potential, and 20 years later that promise has been fulfilled.

Some partially rhetorical questions, to make some of the subtext of this piece text: is Inside funny? Is Inside comedy? Given the answer to those questions, does comedy have to be funny?

Inside is funny. Or at least, it starts off funny. As the special goes on, the non-song sketches drop off, the non-musical interludes become increasingly distressing, and the songs get more - to use an appropriately internet adjective - “real”. That Funny Feeling would not be out of place as the last track of a Father John Misty album, played completely straight. All Eyes On Me straight up discusses the increasingly severe panic attacks Burnham was having on stage which caused him to quite live performances for five years. Aggression seeps into the mix, towards his audience, his situation, himself. At one point, he tells the camera “I am not well” and breaks into tears.

This is not “velcro - what a rip off!” comedy 2. But it would be wrong to dismiss this as not comedy. One of comedy’s great strengths is the ability to in some way express difficult things in a more palatable manner. At its best, by picking apart the silliness of our lives, it tells us something about ourselves. But it’s a tricky balancing act3. Some commentators have seen fit to instead describe this as a one man show, or performance art. To describe it as the latter is to by implication dismiss stand up comedy as not being art in itself. You couldn’t be more wrong.

Another tangent:

The construction of Inside is fascinating. By virtue of the premise, it takes place over lockdown. This is represented visually by Burnham’s increasingly long and dishevelled hair and unkempt facial hair, which offers its own logistical and creative constraints - namely, he has to some extent had to commit to each section of the special as it happened. There are no obvious jumps back and forth, of Burnham with thick beard in one scene, clean shaven the next, then back to thick beard. The illusion, at any rate, of the continuous passage of time is presented.

So how was this constructed? Was the progression from lighter hearted songs to full on breakdown a happy accident, or was it sketched out from the start? As a narrative goes, it’s both very compelling and entirely in line with how Burnham thinks. But either way, in the details, any idea that he had once the project began had to work in tandem with what’s been filmed so far - there’s no chance to rewrite, say, White Woman’s Instagram to add something in to make a callback to later on. It’s a solo game of exquisite corpse, with no undo button.

The closest insight that the special itself offers us is in its introduction to the closing song Goodbye - a camera test video of a younger, clean shaven Burnham playing “possible ending song” gives way via superimposition to the end-of-lockdown Burnham playing it properly. Who knows how it evolved from the original idea in that time. Maybe it’s unrecognisable. Maybe everything was there from the start. The question is, does the reality of either of those options make the end product any less impressive?

The very end of Bo Burnham’s 2013 special “what.” is Burnham earnestly playing air guitar, with the energy of a teenage boy alone in his bedroom. It is not played for laughs. It’s the most vital moment of the special and a surprisingly vulnerable one at that. It is the act of a comedian who has earned over the preceding hour the right to be earnest by connecting with the audience through laughter. It is the person Bo Burnham talking through the comedian Bo Burnham. Inside in some way flips this on its head, using the personal to tell the construct rather than using the construct to tell the personal.

So after all that, what is the construct? It is, I suppose, an acknowledgement that, yes, it’s been a strange year. A year in which police brutality and systemic racism saw the privileged making baby steps in understanding their place in this (How The World Works); a year in which dirty clothes piled up and showers went unused (Shit); a year in which people have grappled more with their past behaviour and what that makes them now (Problematic); and how being locked inside doesn’t stop any of that from getting in. When we’re no longer inside, who will we be when we come out the other side?

  1. Burnham is a fan

  2. A Tim Vine classic. 

  3. As I’ve found out on stage plenty of times - my ambition outstrips my abilities, and in my attempts to be James Acaster or Daniel Kitson, it’s very easy to be clever and sad but not make people laugh, which is really what they’ve paid £2 for on a Wednesday night in a Clifton pub. But boy, when you get it right, it’s magical. 

Sam Healer

Sam Healer

Software engineer. Occasional musician. Erstwhile comedian. Cultural omnivore.

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