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Monday, June 14, 2021

Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’: A Comedy Special and an Inspired Experiment

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The incentives of the web, those that reward outrage, excess and sentiment, are the villains of this show. In a giddy homage to “Cabaret,” Burnham, in sunglasses, plays the M.C. of the internet, welcoming everyone with a decadent menu of options while disco lights twirl. It’s a lyrically dense song with camerawork that speeds up with its rhythm. Just as often, Burnham’s shot sequencing plays against the meaning of a song, like when he breaks out a glamorous split screen to complement a comic song about FaceTiming with his mom.

“Inside” is the work of a comic with artistic tools most of his peers ignore or overlook. Not only has his musical range expanded — his pastiche of styles includes bebop, synth-pop and peppy show tunes — Burnham, who once published a book of poems, has also become as meticulous and creative with his visual vocabulary as his language.

Some of the narrative of the show can be indulgently overheated, playing into clichés about the process of the brooding artist, but Burnham has anticipated this and other criticisms, and integrated them into the special, including the idea that drawing attention to potential flaws fixes them. “Self-awareness does not absolve anyone of anything,” he says.

True, but it can deepen and clarify art. “Inside” is a tricky work that for all its boundary-crossing remains in the end a comedy in the spirit of neurotic, self-loathing stand-up. Burnham skewers himself as a virtue-signaling ally with a white-savior complex, a bully and an egoist who draws a Venn diagram and locates himself in the overlap between Weird Al and Malcolm X. That his special is an indictment of the internet by an artist whose career was born and flourished there is the ultimate joke.

Burnham lingers on his behind-the-scenes technical tinkering — handling lights, editing, practicing lines. He’s bedraggled, increasingly unshaven, growing a Rasputin-like beard. The aesthetic telegraphs authenticity and vulnerability, but the special’s stunning final shots reveal the misdirection at work, encouraging skepticism of the performativity of such realism.

Toward the end, he appears completely naked behind his keyboard. It’s a visual that signifies a man exposing himself, until you realize he’s in a spotlight.

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