Inside Bo Burnham

Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’ Is a Musical for the Declining Mental Health Creator In All of Us

Inside premiered on Netflix at the end of May, and it has unsurprisingly taken over the internet since. Bo Burnham has always had an excellent understanding of many of our love-hate relationships with the internet. In 2016, he put out his last special, Make Happy, and soon followed a hiatus from performing after getting panic attacks while on stage. During his break, Bo made waves with his remarkable debut feature, Eighth Grade, in 2018. Then in April of 2021, he announced a new special, and it made us both excited and scared. Like myself and so many of my friends, Bo struggles with his mental health, and it’s something he’s never hidden. Knowing that he filmed this special entirely by himself during COVID made me wonder what his experience during the past year has been, and I knew it would wreck me.

It didn’t, not at first, and not in the way I had expected either. I watched the special, and when it was over, I didn’t feel moved in the same way his previous specials had done. There was something special about it, but I couldn’t figure out what. I thought the special was just good, but then the rest of the world started to fall in love with it. So I decided that maybe I needed to revisit it, even if it was just for the music alone, which is delightful. So far, I’ve seen the special in total five times, not including the many times I’ve gone back just to listen to a few songs on repeat since it took almost two weeks before the songs appeared on streaming services. The only time I haven’t found myself in a puddle of tears was the first time.

The last thing Bo says on stage in Make Happy is “I hope you’re happy,” which is how he would spend the next few years working on his mental health. If Make Happy was about Burnham’s need to perform at all times in an attempt to heal others (“Come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself”), what would Inside be about? Near the end of Inside, he tells us that he finally felt comfortable enough to re-emerge, and then “the funniest thing happened.” He was forced to stay inside like the rest of us, and once again, his mental health began to worsen, just like mine has over the past year.

I’ve managed to be both the most productive I’ve been — and the laziest I’ve been during the pandemic. I’ve gone weeks without writing anything, and then I’ve written multiple things in a week. It’s a constant battle I’ve had, to try and fight myself to get out of bed to write, or way more often, questioning if what I’ve written is good enough. On my third watch of Inside, I noticed some of my battles being portrayed in his special. It was during “Unpaid Intern” that everything clicked into place. After the song, he imitates a YouTube reactor and reacts to his song. At first, he praises himself and laughs where he’s supposed to, even sings along. Once the song ends, he begins to react to himself reacting, and then the spiral begins. With every new reaction added, there’s a further layer between the artist and his art, he is removing himself, and the art he once loved, he’s beginning to loathe. Eventually, we get to the point where the song isn’t playing anymore, and we are left with layers of his voice criticising himself until it becomes loud and noisy. “I want this to stop. I’m stopping this.” It’s this moment when everything clicked into place. As the overlapping voices get louder and louder, it felt like it was a peek into my head and my creative process. Writing essays like these, thinking I’m clever until I read it over and question every sentence I write.

This is the part where I fear I most lose some, but Inside is a musical. While the songs don’t necessarily dictate a story, nor the moments between each song, and Bo never breaks out into a big dance number, it’s structured like one. “Welcome to the Internet” or “How the World Works” — they could be played on a stage or even be found in a ’90s Disney film. The film has an intermission, separating it into two acts. In the second act, we have part two of a song (the palette cleanser that is “Bezos I” and “Bezos II”), but “Goodbye” also acts as a reprise of the second track comedy.

Bo Burnham Inside

It seems that Inside was made the same way most artists make their albums as opposed to his typical specials. While his specials were always elaborate and musical, they were designed for the audience and felt “precise.” Watching Inside doesn’t feel precise, and it feels like it was always up in the air and put together afterwards. While it does flow very well together, I’m curious about how much footage (and even songs) were left on the cutting room floor, destined never to leave that room.

As for the footage and the songs that did make it into the final cut, it tells a very loose story of not just Bo but what it has meant to be a creator over the past year. For example, in one segment, when he pretends to be a Twitch streamer and plays Inside for the audience, we watch Bo trying to figure out what to do while locked inside, eventually, it’s revealed that to complete the day, there are three tasks he needed to do: find the flashlight, play the piano, and cry four times, which sounds like many similar days I’ve had in my apartment. Look for something missing, attempt to write something of value, and deal with my emotions. But the moment that matters the most is once the day is completed, the sound changes, and we see that “another night approaches…” cause, as many know, it’s the nights that are harder to get through.

No song is more crucial to understanding Inside than “That Funny Feeling.” It’s Bo and his acoustic guitar and nothing else. He talks about a feeling I struggled with putting a name on for so long growing up – nihilism. It’s the realisation that nothing matters, but as he sings, “there it is again that funny feeling.” The way that it’s not a feeling we’re ever going to get away from, but rather something that would return time and time. Sometimes we expect it, when everything is “surprisingly” going well, we question it, “We were overdue, but it’ll be over soon.” Sometimes it’s a fleeting moment and goes away quickly, or something lingers and repeats itself. We’re left telling ourselves, “it’ll be over soon” because it’s something we say, attempting to accept it as fact instead of something we hope for. The song depicts a spiral, from our best down to our worst. Meditation, our parents, harmless fun – all things that are supposed to help us day today. But as the mundane and reality sets in, then there it is again. That funny feeling.

Inside could have been a cry for help, but it’s not. By performing the show without an audience in front of him, he turns the audience into a single person, the one watching it alone in a room. Or maybe surrounded by friends, but feeling alone. Or, as he puts it, “you and your screen.” As a joke, I’ve stated that Inside is my biopic, but in reality, it’s the encapsulation of so many of those who have attempted to maintain a form of sanity over the past year. He gives us a musical of sorts (and yes, there’s music and choreography, so I’m calling it a musical) about what his experience has been, from the darkest moments to the ones where he can finally smile, even while still being stuck and lost in that same darkness. Burnham has always had an excellent grasp of what it means to be online, but it’s with Inside he genuinely shows us how that affects our own steadily declining mental health. It’s humourous but filled with truth, pain and songs that will be stuck in your head. Frankly, I’d rather have Bo’s songs stuck in my head than deal with the thoughts I usually am stuck with.

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