Bo Burnham's 'Inside': Review : Pop Culture Happy Hour Bo Burnham's new Netflix special Inside is not stand-up comedy. It's one-man isolation theater, shot in one enclosed space and bursting with musical performances and video sendups of genres from sad-dude acoustic guitar songs to '80s synth pop. Filmed over more than a year of pandemic disruption, it's whimsical, biting, empathetic and full of earworms.
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'Bo Burnham: Inside' Is A Surprising, Toe-Tapping Peek At Despair

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'Bo Burnham: Inside' Is A Surprising, Toe-Tapping Peek At Despair

'Bo Burnham: Inside' Is A Surprising, Toe-Tapping Peek At Despair

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1002974637/1003018062" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "INSIDE")

BO BURNHAM: (Singing) And so today I'm going to try just getting up.

LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Bo Burnham's new Netflix special, "Inside," is not stand-up comedy. It's one-man isolation theater, mostly a collection of musical performances and video send-ups of genres from sad-dude acoustic guitar songs to '80s synth-pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "INSIDE")

BURNHAM: (Singing) I made you some content. Daddy made you your favorite. Open wide.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

Filmed over more than a year of pandemic disruption, it's whimsical and biting, but he also sits with the frustration and the despair of interrupted connections with other people. Along the way, Burnham shows off his chops as a musician and produces some impressive pop songs, some of which may get stuck in your head for quite some time. I'm Stephen Thompson.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. Today, we're talking about Bo Burnham's excellent new special, "Inside," on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "INSIDE")

BURNHAM: (Singing) Just getting up, sitting down, going back to work.

HOLMES: Welcome back. It is just the two of us today. This Bo Burnham special - credits list a couple of producers and people who worked on "Inside" in post-production, but this is a Bo Burnham piece through and through. He performs it. He wrote it. He directed it. He filmed it. He did all the music. You see him testing and setting up camera and sound equipment. He lit it. He did all of it. It's indoors in one enclosed space. It does not look anything like traditional stand-up, which is to say he does not do a lot of sitting and telling jokes.

He's actually been out of stand-up for the last few years, which he attributes to panic attacks and which you may know has allowed him to write and direct "Eighth Grade" and act in "Promising Young Woman," among other things. He's also going to play Larry Bird in an HBO series, which was another reminder of a thing that I always forget about him, which is that he is 6 foot 5.

Stephen, one of the reasons I was so eager to talk about this special with you is that so much of it is music, and it calls to mind a lot of music that you and I have both listened to. What did you think?

THOMPSON: I absolutely loved it. And I did love the music, which we're going to talk about in some detail. But I also want to talk about Bo Burnham overall and the career trajectory that he has been on, which has really been remarkable. You mentioned he wrote and directed "Eighth Grade," which was one of my favorite movies of a few years back. It is a deeply, deeply empathetic movie that is really hard-wired with a deep understanding of social media.

And Bo Burnham's background, if you go all the way back to the beginning of his career when he was a teenager - he was a YouTuber doing a lot of, like, little original songs. He's been doing the song thing for quite a while, but he also just really understands how YouTube works. There is a bit on this about Twitch where he's doing - he's parodying Twitch gaming.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "INSIDE")

BURNHAM: Totally cold on this. JB (ph), thank you for the three months, my dude, much appreciated.

THOMPSON: And he does it so completely spot on and really funny. There's a bit about kind of emojis and sexting and Face-Timing with your mom. And all this stuff - it's, like, well-trod as material to be making jokes about, especially in the last year, but he does it with really innate understanding and really innate empathy that just puts you on his side right away. And he's just so gifted with everything he touches here.

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, I, as you know, have spent a lot of time, like, really struggling with isolation - did for the approximately year that I was mostly inside by myself. And I really felt so weirdly seen by this, even though, you know, I watched it, and I kept feeling like this is uncomfortably accurate in some way that I'm having trouble putting my finger on because I did not have this experience. I did not fall to pieces in a single room while filming myself singing pop songs. But what I eventually came up with was, like, oh, this is what the inside of my head looked like for a year. Like, this guy sitting at a keyboard in his underpants trying not to fall to pieces is what the inside of my head felt like. And it's the first thing that I felt like I could show to somebody and say, this is what it felt like for me.

And I was surprised by that a little bit because he's one of these guys who likes to kind of play with a line between sincerity and irony, which is not rare in comedy, in modern dude comedy. He does the sort of constantly knowingly undercutting himself, and it's very self-deprecating in certain moments. That kind of thing I can find exhausting if you are not really, really good at it. You get a song very early that's essentially him talking about the fact that he's a white guy who won't shut up. That's, like, what the song is about. That was a moment when I kind of thought, like, oh, I don't know if this is going to be for me because I can get quickly exhausted by people sort of acknowledging things as if that makes them less true (laughter).

THOMPSON: Right.

HOLMES: But I felt that over the course of the special, it is so empathetic, and it is so resonant, even though, you know, this is not a verite video diary, right? It's a piece of theater. And clearly some of the things that are kind of set up to look spontaneous are not spontaneous, right? He wrote this special, and it is a fascinating combination to me of really, really funny and good little musical moments.

And again, you don't have to love all of them, 'cause they sort of come and go in this very quick fashion that doesn't have to make any sense. There's not necessarily any logic to the - it's not a musical with a narrative story that says why you're going to get this song and then this song. It's just, like, it's him just trying not to go out of his head in his house. Did you have a - I want to know - favorite song?

THOMPSON: Well, I wanted to speak to a song that captures some of the empathy that we've been talking about it. And it's basically about a white woman's Instagram feed. And it's got this very, very catchy chorus about, you know, white woman's Instagram. And it's jumping through a lot of just kind of the different tropes that you see on a lot of Instagram feeds.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "INSIDE")

BURNHAM: (Singing) Some random quote from "Lord Of The Rings," incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther King.

THOMPSON: Everything is shot really immaculately with ring lights in effect.

HOLMES: He's looked at a lot of Instagram feeds, I'll tell you this (laughter).

THOMPSON: He's looked at a lot of Instagram feeds. And it's definitely gently poking and mocking a lot of these things in people's feeds, and it's teetering on the brink of meanness and judgment.

HOLMES: Right.

THOMPSON: And then there is this moment which I want to play now.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "INSIDE")

BURNHAM: (Singing) Her favorite photo of her mom. The caption says, I can't believe it. It's been a decade since you've been gone. Mama, I miss you. I miss sitting with you in the front yard. Still figuring out how to keep living without you. It's got a little better, but it's still hard.

THOMPSON: Just the bottom drops out of the song.

HOLMES: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "INSIDE")

BURNHAM: (Singing) Mama, I got a boyfriend, and I'm crazy about him.

THOMPSON: And it is suddenly - it's still universal. It's still something you see in a lot of Instagram feeds. It captures a lot of online expression that people kind of put out into the world when they've experienced loss. But the emotion in it is very real.

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: So you're kind of laughing at, laughing at, laughing at - suddenly really moved...

HOLMES: Right.

THOMPSON: ...In this hairpin turn within this song that then kind of jumps back...

HOLMES: Right.

THOMPSON: ...Into typical scenes from Instagram feeds. And I was just - I welled up...

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...All of a sudden in the middle of a song that's making fun of Instagram feeds.

HOLMES: For sure. For sure. I kept expecting him to undercut that bridge with a joke.

THOMPSON: Right.

HOLMES: And he doesn't.

THOMPSON: No.

HOLMES: I kept expecting it to turn into, like, you know, I love you, Mom, and so I shopped at Victoria's Secret or something like that.

THOMPSON: Right.

HOLMES: It does not do that. You know, as you said, it goes back to kind of being what the song is. But I think the - what he understands so well about Instagram is that it can be 90% ridiculous, and it's that 10% that keeps people coming back. And in fact, that's his understanding of the internet in general.

And I - one of my favorites is a song that is in general about the internet. It's about the existence of the internet. And he performs it in kind of the persona of a creepy, horror movie carnival barker, I guess I would call it. I want to play a little bit of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "INSIDE")

BURNHAM: (Singing) Could I interest you in everything all of the time? A little bit of everything all of the time. Apathy's a tragedy, and boredom is a crime. Anything and everything all of the time.

HOLMES: And the funny thing about this song is that the rest of it, which - a lot of which we couldn't play 'cause it has...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...A lot of swears in it, but it has a lot of very specific stuff about what you can find on the internet. And it's masterful in the sense that it's like, here's a sad thing. Here's a happy thing. Go buy something.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "INSIDE")

BURNHAM: (Singing) Would you like to see the news or any famous women's feet?

THOMPSON: How to make a bomb (laughter).

HOLMES: It is such a hard balance. That to me is what this special is so good at, is that it is this - like, he keeps sort of, as I said, undercutting in that way, which can ultimately make something feel shallow, but in the case of this, I think it makes it feel more genuine because this is what isolation was like for me in some ways, was going back and forth between do I want to make fun of this experience, or do I want to admit that I do not know how long I can do this? And that is what I felt coming out of not just his talk about the internet, but his talk about almost everything, is that edge of am I going to get through this by just working and pushing and just making jokes, or am I going to just admit that I am in despair?

THOMPSON: God, and just doing it with so many different musical styles at his disposal.

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: I mean, as much of an emotional range as there is, there is also a pretty remarkable musical range for a guy who's alone with mostly a keyboard, at one point an acoustic guitar, which we'll get to in a moment. But, like, that song that you just played about the internet - you hear traces of Tom Lehrer and Weird Al Yankovic, kind of musical satire that's really versed in, like, patter. And then there's a song. It's built around this chorus, "That Funny Feeling," and it's this downcast, sad guy with an acoustic guitar, but he's, like, singing about current events. And the phrase...

HOLMES: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: ...The phrase that popped into my head listening to it was, like, if Elliott Smith were alive today and decided to write his own version of "We Didn't Start The Fire."

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: All right. I think, based on that, we need to hear a little bit of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "INSIDE")

BURNHAM: (Singing) "Carpool Karaoke," Steve Aoki, Logan Paul, a gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall. There it is again, that funny feeling.

HOLMES: OK, here is the thing about this song, right? I don't know whether I want to talk first about how, like, weirdly evocative...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...I think that song is or how impressed I am by the idea of rhyming - you know what I'm going to say.

THOMPSON: Yes.

HOLMES: "Carpool Karaoke" with Steve Aoki.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: I feel like you and I are on the same page in that part of the joy of this special, of watching this special, is it is just a really cool mind at play.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HOLMES: 'Cause, like, that's a kind of a weirdly moving song, and yet it rhymes "Carpool Karaoke" with Steve Aoki.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: Stephen, I'm so confused.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) One of my first thoughts watching this was the irony of watching a one-man production - like, a literal one-man production. He's doing everything himself. But I'm thinking, you could adapt this to the stage. You could flesh it out with dancers. You could absolutely release a soundtrack album to this thing. How versatile these songs are really is one of the most remarkable feats about it.

HOLMES: Yeah, I want the album myself. And I want to play one more song because when I was listening to this one, I thought this reminds me of something that most people will not know what it sounds like, but I think Stephen will know...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...What it sounds like. So I want to play - this song actually comes somewhat close to the end. I want to hear this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "INSIDE")

BURNHAM: (Singing) Does anybody want to joke when no one's laughing in the background? So this is how it ends.

HOLMES: This is pure, 1,000% Harvey Danger.

THOMPSON: Somewhere, Sean Nelson, the lead singer of Harvey Danger, is wondering if it would have been possible to copyright a way of singing a chorus (laughter).

HOLMES: Those key changes, and that - like, that is a Harvey Danger chorus, 1,000%. Stephen, I love this special so much, and I knew that you would love it.

THOMPSON: I did, too. And I loved it as a musical experience. I loved it as an emotional experience. I loved it as a pandemic time capsule, of which I think there have been very few fully effective pandemic time capsules.

HOLMES: Agreed.

THOMPSON: I love it. I love him. I'm here to pick up anything he puts down.

HOLMES: Absolutely. I think it's absolutely brilliant. You can find it on Netflix. It's called "Inside," and it was done inside. We want to know what you think about "Bo Burnham: Inside." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Stephen, thank you for being here.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all tomorrow when we will be talking about the movie "Plan B."

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "INSIDE")

BURNHAM: (Singing) So this is how it ends.

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