Playing tight - getting a feel for good timing
The story of stand-up comedy is is a long one with no end in sight. This is, of course, because laughter is one of the most primary human characteristics. Depending on how laughing works, social attractiveness increases or decreases. There is still debate within intellectual circles as to whether comedians represent the philosophers of the modern age, and there is a lot of undeniable truth to that axiom. One needs only to think of legendary examples of stand-up, such as George Carlin's razor-sharp mind denouncing the hypocrisy of modern society, or current cult comedian Dave Chappelle hardened the various critiques of his confrontational but very honest social criticism.
Musical comedy in particular has the potential to have fun with current grievances in combination with soothing sounds, as is demonstrated in Bo Burnham's Netflix Comedy Special Inside. Burnham’s unique, Covid-related stand-up program was produced for more than a year by the young artist in his own living room, and illustrates the madness of today's internet culture with wonderfully weird and almost surgical precision.
Netflix released Inside globally on May 30, 2021, drawing attention to the talented young comedian and musician. It is special because we have never experienced a crisis of this magnitude in our networked world and this is therefore not a live program in front of an audience, but a timeless digital product that can be consumed at any time and in any place around the world.
Fortunately, it can be directly anticipated that the main topic is not COVID-19, although it was the catalyst for the creation of the comedy special. Instead, the focus is on serious issues such as loneliness, mental illness, social injustices like systematic oppression, income inequality, and above all: the insane course of the internet age.
Bo Burnham takes it upon himself, in the utter isolation of his living room, to heal the entire world through comedy. He comments, with a wink to the audience, and openly exposes the madness of excessive internet consumption with the power of music and scathing words. But the crux of the matter is the immense effect that prolonged isolation has on the psyche, which shapes the special's narrative thread.
The film begins with a long shot of the living room, in which various musical instruments and equipment can be seen and which have been meticulously arranged around the room. Suddenly the front door opens and we can briefly see the silhouette of Bo Burnham, illuminated by sunlight. This is a direct visual reference to the last shot of the previous specials Make Happy! from 2016, which was Burnham's last active work before he felt unable to perform live due to panic attacks and withdrew completely from the public eye.
Fortunately, it can be directly anticipated that Bo Burnham has chosen not to make the virus the center of attention. He doesn’t even name it in a witty aside, focusing instead on the unpleasant consequences of long-term isolation on the psyche of the affected people, in this example his own psyche, and illuminates them sometimes in a funny way, sometimes in a brutally honest way.
His own previous exile flows in here, lending a certain degree of authenticity to the episodes in which he breaks down and breaks down in tears, as Bo Burnham is not immune to bouts of depression, especially in long-term isolation.
The mammoth task of single-handedly writing, shooting, composing a complete special for Netflix and ultimately putting all these components together into a homogeneous whole despite a small budget was clearly managed quite cleverly. To be precise, the image and sound language are perfectly matched to each other in order to skillfully practice audiovisual satire. Speaking of audio-visual: Bo Burnham has staged everything alone—skills which he acquired during the period of isolation. He succeeds in constructing a strong cinematic visual language, a suitable example of which would be the repetitive zoom movements of the camera, which lead directly to the black center of the camera lens and then to a smooth transition.
Paired with ominous music, this tracking shot speaks volumes: in our solitude we direct our whole selves and at the same time project it onto the camera with which we want to reach the rest of the world, but ultimately we end up in an almost endless self-dialogue.
Away from the gloom, the comedic and musical parts of the special shine. When they do, it’s with a dazzling intensity: two musical interludes lasting less than a minute are listed only as "Bezos I & II" and Bo Burnham fires all cylinders against the one of the richest men in the world.
The almost hour and a half is packed to the brim with impressive numbers, from the driving synth beats of the opening track “Content," which directly names the most important issues of the film, specifically the state of the world and declining sanity in the face of isolation. "Problematic," is a synthpop dance number in which Burnham lets himself be crucified on behalf of the rest of white male culture for his ignorance and privilege in blasphemous imagery. Folk-inspired "That Funny Feeling," bites the pretension of many singer-songwriters right at the start. Lastly, of course, is the carnivalesque madness called "Welcome to the Internet,”—the centerpiece of the film.
"Welcome To The Internet" is a prime example of Bo Burnham finesse. The aforementioned carnivalesque-inspired music is accompanied by cleverly written puns and rhymes, which is generally a Bo Burnham forte. His other specials clearly demonstrate this, and this combination illustrates the insanity of the internet and its gravitational pull, topped off by strong staging, with mostly static camera work focused on him and his piano, and lots of laser effects.
Not too much should be revealed, it is best to consume and experience it yourself, but one line of the song can be emphasized as an indicator of the topic: “Apathy's a tragedy and boredom is a crime.” This line is used again in the autotune-heavy “All Eyes on Me,” a likewise successful song that ironically settles accounts with the megalomania of content creators, which is given more weight by inserting a line from a previous song.
Despite all the playful and sometimes ingeniously staged humorous interludes, there is a dark core behind the whole spectacle. The story loosely depicts the mental decay of a pandemic-stricken artist who has been isolated in his home for over a year, using only cameras and the reach of the internet to communicate with the outside world. Despite the Netflix categorization as comedy, the film packs a surprisingly soulful and raw emotional authenticity, documenting what appears to be authentic freakouts, nervous breakdowns, and crying fits by Bo Burnham himself amidst the creation of Inside.
Introspective interludes are used again and again, reflecting Bo Burnham's inner life, in which he ponders melancholically on the state of the world and the individual main songs serve as an integrative link of the large narrative. On the other hand, they stand as individual music videos for themselves.
Bo Burnham is representative of each and every one of us as this experience of isolation has become entrenched in the collective consciousness of the globe. Through his example we can see that a terrifying event can also hold a hidden gift—in this case being the opportunity to connect deeply with ourselves, and to deal with our own desires and fears and what we really want and need in order to eke out a blissful existence.
Don't feel like isolation frustration either? Then take a look at mukken—you're guaranteed not to get bored here! All topics about being a musician, from helpful coaching articles to technical essays about programming, piecework, etc. You can also find a number of features, such as track by track analyses, and other exciting artist profiles, such as Kvelertak or even other films and documentaries, such as Gimme Danger on the Stooges' career. If that sounds interesting to you, then just drop by the blog, it's worth it!
Originally published on July 14, 2022, updated on July 14, 2022
Main topic: Bo Burnham: Inside - A musical comedy documentary for our confused times