Bo Burnham: Inside (on Netflix now) was marketed as a comedy special, but what happens when you view it through the lens of creative nonfiction?
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“my new special, INSIDE, is out on netflix tomorrow. i hope you enjoy it.,” actor-director-comedian Bo Burnham tweeted on May 29th. Bo Burnham: Inside is described as a “new comedy special” on its Netflix page, but the artist himself’s omission of the word “comedy” when describing the piece feels pointed.
Burnham made his name as a singing comedian, first as a teenager on YouTube and then as a touring standup with the shows what. and Make Happy. He’s also a filmmaker: three years ago, after temporarily quitting standup, he premiered the critically acclaimed Eighth Grade. Burnham is unpredictable, whether he’s switching from discipline to discipline (standup comedy, directing, acting in Promising Young Woman) or using his standup to toy with audience expectations, as he often does. Inside was no different. It wasn’t just the content of the “comedy special” that surprised me, but the fact that it wasn’t a comedy special at all.
My experience with Bo Burnham: Inside was drastically shaped by my current work at Seventh Row. We’re ramping up to the 2021 Creative Nonfiction Workshop, which is accompanied by an ebook — Subjective realities: The art of creative nonfiction film — that we’ve been working on for over a year now. For a definition of “creative nonfiction”, see this recent post, but in short, it describes documentaries that push the boundaries of what we traditionally consider documentary to be. I’ve been thinking a lot about what constitutes a nonfiction film, and how the best nonfiction translates reality for the audience rather than presenting it plainly and objectively. It’s changed the way I watch films (I wrote more about that here). It drastically changed how I watched Inside.
Viewed through the narrow lens of “comedy special”, Inside is not hugely successful. Burnham is a talented songwriter, and his technical ability when it comes to writing catchy, clever tunes is at its peak in Inside. Even the songs I found cringey have been stuck in my head for weeks. Still, as pieces of comedy, a lot of the musical set pieces are tired, particularly in the context of Burnham’s body of work. He rehashes old bits: the second song, “Comedy”, skewers his privilege as a straight white man in a similar way to one of his most famous songs, “Straight White Male”, from Make Happy. The bit felt fresher back in 2015, but six years later, it’s frustrating to hear yet another Burnham song about how aware he is that he has privilege. OK, cool, so what are you going to do about it?
“Comedy” is one of several songs — “White Woman’s Instagram”, “Problematic”, “Sexting” — from the first half of Inside that rehash observations about the internet that have been made time and time again by other comedians and by Burnham himself. The songs are well written and the visuals are meticulously crafted and inventive, which is especially impressive given Burnham shot the entire special on his own, in a single white room, over the course of a year of lockdown. However, the points he’s making are so tired that I couldn’t find much to laugh at. If Inside is a comedy special, it falls short of the “comedy” part.
But is it a comedy special, or is it something else — a documentary, perhaps? If the latter is true, are these derivative sketches a failure, or part of the design? I viewed Bo Burnham: Inside through the lens of creative nonfiction, because it’s what my brain is occupied with at the moment, and that fundamentally changed my experience with the special. Instead of asking, “Was that song entertaining?” I asked, “What does it say about the character of Bo Burnham that he chose to write that song now?” Instead of taking each set piece at face value — as a piece of comedy produced for my amusement — my focus was on the character arc of the man producing the set pieces, as he wonders how to make the viewer laugh, and whether he should be trying to make them laugh at all.
Burnham flags that we should pay attention to “the man behind the curtain” from the very beginning by showing us the camera and lighting tests he did before shooting the first set of musical numbers. It’s a technique used in loads of creative nonfiction, such as Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead. In that film, the process of making the film is very much visible on screen — we see the camera equipment, and we’re shown Johnson recording the voiceover in her closet. Similarly, after the opening musical number in Inside (which is carefully choreographed), Burnham cuts to a montage of himself in non-performance mode playing around with equipment setups for the next set of musical numbers. We see what went into making them before we see the numbers themselves. It’s a technique that reminds us that someone is making choices about what we see in the film, which encourages us to watch it through a more critical lens, instead of just taking everything as given.
In a sense, Inside is more a documentary about the making of a comedy special than it is a comedy special. Throughout the first half of the special, Burnham constantly alternates between highly produced musical numbers and verite-style, “behind the scenes” footage. After perhaps the most elaborately-staged number in the whole special, “White Woman’s Instagram”, we cut directly to Burnham, dressed in a hoodie and watching the number on his laptop, presumably just after he’s finished editing it. The severe contrast between his high energy while performing the number and his slumped figure afterwards is striking. It creates a stark delineation between the performer in the “comedy skit” sections of the special and “the real Bo” in the candid sections. (Although, of course, even in these sections he’s still, to some extent, performing authenticity.)
The individual quality of each musical number didn’t really matter to me, because I was more interested in how they reflected the arc of Burnham’s character as he descends further into depression during lockdown. Those early, derivative sketches are derivative for a reason: at the start of lockdown, Burnham (or at least, the character of himself that he creates in Inside) has a lot of energy to invent, which is why these numbers are so highly produced. But he also seems a bit lost about what he’s trying to say, and so he leans back on tried and tested modes of humour. Then, as the special progresses and lockdown drags on endlessly, the numbers start to change. First, they become half-hearted as Burnham’s depression worsens: there are songs that have no real throughline, or that stop mid-line, presumably because he couldn’t be bothered to come up with an ending. More and more, the songs are shot in a single take rather than intricately edited together. Then, the songs become more emotionally intense and abstract. Rather than lazily skewering broad stereotypes, Burnham starts to draw on his own anxieties and declining mental health. The visual language turns from pristine and thought out to abstract and messy: in the penultimate number, “All Eyes On Me”, Burnham picks up the camera midway through and moves it about wildly.
Criticisms have been levelled against Burnham for not being authentic enough in Inside. In the special, he lives out the entirety of quarantine in a single white room, fitted out with a small kitchen, a pullout bed, and plenty of music equipment. In reality, that’s Burnham’s LA guest house, and he almost certainly didn’t live, sleep, and eat in it throughout the whole of quarantine (he’s rich enough to have more than one room at his disposal). Also, in a special that’s so much about loneliness, Burnham doesn’t acknowledge that he has a long-term partner (He has been dating film director Lorene Scafaria since 2013.)
But Inside is less a documentary about what Burnham literally did over the past year of lockdown than it is a documentary about his emotional experience of quarantine. That’s where the “creative” in creative nonfiction comes in. Inside captures (in real time) the emotional rollercoaster of a year of lockdown as accurately as almost any other piece of art that has come out of the pandemic. Perhaps a daily vlog would have been more “real”, but it wouldn’t have turned Burnham’s insides out as vividly as Inside does.
Burnham might not have been stuck in that room for the entirety of lockdown, but it’s a psychological space that visually translates the claustrophobia that lockdown enforced on all of us. Sure, Burnham had the support of a partner throughout quarantine, but his complete isolation in Inside still makes emotional sense — even those of us who weathered quarantine with partners or roommates still felt cut off from the rest of civilisation. The whole thing is performative, from the actual performance sections to the “candid” footage — but so are all documentaries, to a degree. The performance is in service of getting to the heart of the matter: not the facts of Burnham’s situation, but its emotional tenor