In Make Happy, Bo Burnham’s comedy special from 2016, the YouTuber-turned-comedian-turned-director shifts focus with about 15 minutes left in the show. Burnham was 25 at the time, 10 years into his career and in a relationship with director Lorene Scafaria, a partner 12 years his senior. Burnham kneels to the audience and gives a speech about the poisonous, prison-like nature of social media and our constant performance for one another, a disparate segment from a joke 45 minutes prior about being called a “faggot” by an offstage presence, crossing and uncrossing the lines of homophobia and intolerance. He talks and subsequently sings about his need for the audience, his fascination with performance, and his own self-hatred, culminating in a song asking “Are you happy?” over and over again as he sits in a room alone with his keyboard. Candid moments in a sea of overwrought comedy: the simplification of the Bo Burnham brand.
Those last 15 minutes are expanded in Burnham’s Inside, the first special in five years by the now-30-year-old, shot, edited, written, and directed by him during the pandemic. Those stretches of perceived vulnerability, whether genuine or not, fill Inside, making up the skeleton for an artistic portrait of a depressed, ultra-talented comedian that lives to perform, despite the panic attacks it might cause him. Once again, he’s in the same small room, messier now, with both Burnham and this space weathered by the events of the past year. But like his previous three specials, he begins with lightness, in beard length and lyrical choice, singing about Facetiming with his mom, a white woman’s Instagram, sexting, and his role as a white, straight male in saving the world, even if that world, in his own words, is run by genocide, oppression, and other white males.
A millennial who became famous through the technological advancements he despises, Burnham’s agitation increases throughout the special, forced back inside to balance his thoughts and attempt to be funny for an empty room. The silly little jokes told by this lanky white guy with declining mental health, a paraphrased line from the end of Make Happy, still end up as a reflection of his own (contrived) insecurity, crucifying himself upon a cross made of sunlight, begging for accountability and attempting to imagine his life without a constant audience.
Burnham’s comedy has always been targeted towards white males, though, specifically woke-ish white male millennials, those that grew up understanding their elevated place in society yet imprinted a sense of untrue difficulty into their status. It’s a fair criticism levied against Burnham, that his winking at the camera becomes tired, and mocking one’s whiteness doesn’t alter the attached privilege. It’s tied to the fact that he claims to be one of the good ones, further exemplified in his off-type casting in Promising Young Woman as the trustworthy white man who’s actually just a part of the problem.
For some millennials, he has the ability to be a marker for growth, as we have watched him mature over the last 15 years. We see physical changes (like a beard), of course, and comedic and melodic improvements to his musical arrangements shine bright during Inside. That growth feels measurable. His unbroken aura of loneliness, his unstable connection and fascination with the internet, and his inability to go five minutes without self-inflicted insults ring true for a subset of a generation, a group of 25-35 year-olds that do, in fact, feel overwhelmed and overdue. We’ve been performing for each other for years, and most of us will never have the impact we perceive to have, still achieving societal and personal worth far above our lowered, likes-driven expectations. Those thoughts are magnified during Inside, as Burnham’s mental state looks to be stretched wafer-thin, pulled by expected happiness without the desired result.
This might be giving Burnham too much credit, filling in the gaps with millennials’ own hopes and confidence in a comedian in similar age but in dissimilar standing, who we’ve assigned an enormous amount of value with our clicks, screen-glued eyes, and late-night binges. Because millennials shot Burnham into the sky, they have a stake in his success, in his happiness, and his importance to wider culture. And many of us do feel like he’s talking to us, making these specials for the darkness that’s only increased each month for the past year and a half, a sort of post-college, early-adulthood melancholy that sees an uptick each winter. That’s likely never been his intention, rather creating this content that’s extremely rewatchable but like Inside, might be best viewed only once.
Inside makes the case that this version of this person, the one we see unravel over the course of the nearly 90-minute special, is who Burnham has always been. He’s still overly obsessed with the internet, with social media, and with the idea of performance. He still talks about the world’s problems with clever diction and catchy melodies without being a necessary part of the solution, though maybe he doesn’t believe that’s his role to play. He still loves cut-off transitions, a stage rearranged, and modifying the concrete perspective of the viewer, notably with a changing color palette. Inside maximizes these obsessions and spotlights his talent as a director, cinematographer, and designer, positioning and contorting his body within a single room to convey differing spatial sensations.
Burnham succeeds in these specials, in spite of his past reliance on manic and sometimes offensive material, because he toes the line of truth and fabrication. On one occasion, he sits in front of a digital clock as it turns midnight, as we watch the comedian become 30 years old, launching into a song about aging and “used to’s.” On another, he weeps openly to the camera. Somehow, these moments of weakness contain sincerity, regardless of their root, or lack thereof, in reality. And similar to his work over the last decade, Burnham shifts tones towards self-reflection and frustration during the special, this time with about 45 minutes left, after a brief, waxed Intermission.
He speaks about his mental health being at an ATL, an all-time low. He yells at himself as time wears on, the months passing by, with his physical state looking more haggard by the minute. We see the comedian watch himself, specifically as he speaks on suicide, a common theme in all of Burnham’s specials. He urges and then doesn’t urge people to kill themselves, consistently framing and re-framing his position as a good guy, a comedian with jokes to tell, but more importantly, with something to say. And in Inside, much like the final moments of Make Happy, Burnham doesn’t have something new to say, instead wrapping these minutes with massive amounts of empathy, a figure of relation who has struggled mightily over the last year. And many people have felt a parallel with this wealthy, successful comedian, which might be Burnham’s most incredible accomplishment to date.
I’d call Bo Burnham a genius, but I understand that’s what I want him to be—a talented megaphone for millennial anxiety and self-worth, a performer that’s much more than just a comedian. As long as he produces, or even fabricates, more specials like Inside, he’ll continue to be praised by those who want to affirm and vindicate themselves for giving him this platform. Myself included.
Brooklyn-based film and TV journalist Michael Frank contributes to several outlets including The Film Stage, RogerEbert, AwardsWatch, and now Paste. He believes Juliette Binoche deserved an Oscar for Dan in Real Life. You can find him on Twitter.