A Laughing Matter? Covid, Mental Health and Bo Burnham’s Inside

Over the summer, American comedian Bo Burnham released a Netflix special that spoke to many – including University of Portsmouth student Lucy Nother – about the pandemic, mental illness and the challenges of the digital age.

Very rarely do you find a trigger warner for suicide references on a Netflix comedy special, but Bo Burnham has never been one to shy away from controversy during his career. Filmed over the course of the pandemic, Inside brings together self-awareness, meta humour, commentary on global and political affairs and – hardest to ignore – the representation of a declining mental state throughout one of the most bizarre periods in living memory.

Inside begins with Burnham sitting in front of a keyboard sporting scruffy long hair and a beard. He tells us, ‘Robert’s been a little depressed’ while playing an optimistic synth-pop beat. He continues into the first half of the special demonstrating his musical talents alongside hilarious lyrics, criticising capitalism and the age of the internet in tunes such as ‘Bezos I’ and ‘White Woman’s Instagram’, as well as light-heartedly poking fun at the struggles of quarantining during ‘FaceTime With My Mom (Tonight)’ and ‘Sexting’. The laughs and catchy melodies continue before the show takes a darker tone – at the ‘intermission’ Burnham tells us his mental health is approaching an all-time low.

In what starts as a witty song during which Burnham sways his hips in nothing but a pair of underpants, the comedian informs us in ten years he’ll be forty – and will kill himself then. Cue a harrowing scene where he is telling his viewers not to kill themselves, as there is a lot to live for. He projects this speech over footage of himself looking dishevelled, staring at the ground as he listens to himself claim that, if he could kill himself just for 18 months, he’d do it. What has begun as a fun piece of ‘quarantine art’ has morphed subtly into something graver. This trajectory of decline is not so different to how depression manifests itself.

Armed with an acoustic guitar and a projector to mimic a campfire in the forest, Burnham then gifts us the bittersweet ‘That Funny Feeling’, a song describing impending societal collapse in America and various perils of the modern age. Lyrics such as ‘a gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall’ are like punches to the ribs, followed by even harder to watch footage of the comedian trying to address his audience, but becoming overwhelmed and knocking over a microphone in anguish.

Burnham wraps up the special by revealing that he quit performing live after suffering debilitating panic attacks. He tells us he spent five years getting better, though before he could make his comeback, ‘the funniest thing happened’. Uncannily placed laughing tracks make for an uncomfortable realisation that, actually, this anecdote isn’t that funny at all. A crafty detail about Inside is that not once does Burnham use the words ‘pandemic’ or ‘quarantine’ – just by mentioning the year every so often we are reminded of the desperate emptiness and sense of longing for something more experienced by millions of us during the height of the COVID-19 disaster.

The depiction of mental health decline will perhaps be all too familiar for me and many others. I will admit that, as the credits rolled, I found myself in tears, deeply affected by the images of Burnham in bed staring at the wall or sat in front of his laptop, sockless and in pyjamas. Burnham does a brilliant job of showing the harsh reality of depression and loneliness in our challenging digital age.

Shrewd jokes and lyrics aside, the visuals are beautiful. Ingenious lighting tricks and camera angles manage to emphasise emotion effortlessly. The simplicity of the single room loft-style set allows space for the comprehension of the intricacy of his work. Of course, it is important to remember that Inside is a work of art. Burnham didn’t spend his pandemic inside his set like the piece makes out. He is in a long-term relationship, successful, wealthy – his net worth currently stands at $4 million mark. However, as we know, the rich and famous are not immune to anxiety and distress.

Inside is more than just a comedy special. It is a heart-breaking, yet vividly charming display of Burnham’s comedic and musical abilities, both of which powerfully document a unique and terrifying period of history. If I ever have children and they ask me what living through the year 2020 was like, I’ll show them Inside.


Image by Heather Martino, Montclair Film, Creative Commons BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.


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