BO BURNHAM IS A GENIUS.
At 16 he became one of the first viral internet sensations for his gags mixing comedy and musicals on a platform (Youtube) that had only recently come into existence. By the time he was 20 he had become the youngest ever to sign a contract with Comedy Central, and was performing at major festivals such as the Edinburgh Festival. By 25 he had already signed two comedy specials with Netflix and now, at 30, after writing and directing Eight Grade, his first award-winning film, he has managed to turn his latest comedy piece “INSIDE” – also for Netflix – into one of the works that best reflects the claustrophobic loneliness and screen-filled pandemic angst of the COVID-19 era.
Following the master Billy Wilder, when he said “If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you”, the talented Burnham has managed to provide his latest show with laughter mixed with deep reflections, such as those that are provoking in the audience about the state of our society. “Inside” is an acid journey from humour to reflection all the way to depression and back to humour again. A critical humour like that of George Carlin. Also somewhat psychedelic like Bill Hicks.
With six Emmy nominations, and the possibility – the rumour seems loud and reliable – of becoming the first comedian since Robin Williams in 1979 to be nominated for a Grammy, Burnham may well have his fill of accolades in the coming year. And the Oscars are likely to remember him too. What is beyond doubt is that “Inside” is a piece that will be remembered and that places the young comedian-turned-actor and turned-director as a fully-fledged artist. Someone who is capturing and ironising like few others the spirit of the current generations of a West in frank decadence. Someone who at the age of 20 sang that art was dead, and who has ended up contradicting himself with his own creativity.
Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen Inside yet, now is a good time to stop reading this, go see it – you can easily find it in the confines of the web – and then come back to finish the rest of the article.
Inside feeds and rambles on mainly two themes: the situations that almost anyone has experienced during confinements, and the world of the internet and the invasive – and sometimes grotesque – digitalisation of society. Youtubers, gamers, podcasters, twitchers, influencers or coaches will feel identified/ridiculed at various points. Some of them mix these two themes masterfully, such as the gags about “a video call with my mother” or about sexting in times of the coronavirus.
His work gives to everyone (the first to receive is himself): it is full of criticism of the enormous totalising and disturbing effect of social networks and the big corporations of this emerging techno-feudalism “allowing giant digital media corporations to exploit the neurochemical drama of our children for profit … maybe that was a bad call by us”.
It is notable for a sarcastic acknowledgement of white male privilege. He does not omit warnings about the severity of the climate disaster we have already caused: in his gag -That Funny Feeling- he says “20,000 years of this, seven more to go,” referring to the window of time we have to take action against global warming, and to the “climate clock” installed in New York.
He gives hilarious history and economics lessons from an irreverent and somewhat Marxist sock.
He uses fine irony to appeal to the greatness of Jeff Bezos -who is doubly criticised- and completes it with self-criticism about his evolution as a performer: he started out as a teenager, and partly because of that and partly because of the historical moment, he said things in his jokes in 2006 that he is not so proud of today.
In one of the songs/gags -Problematic – he censors himself while at the same time ironising the cancellation culture. In another piece -Unpaid Intern- he comments on his own video over and over again, generating a loop to symbolise the noise of the schizoid cricket cage that is sometimes the internet and social media.
These are three trends in his work: self-referentiality, very evident in several pieces; metafiction, as a format to highlight the difficulty of the process of recording, lighting, writing, directing and starring in the gags; and the Oedipal attack of a child who was one of the first children of the Internet and who now attacks the father, aware that he is becoming a villain. Proof of this theory is -Welcome to the Internet- for me, the best piece of art in the show by far. -White Woman’s Instagram-, -All Eyes on Me- or -How the World Works- would also be in my ranking of favourite pieces without a doubt.
After five years hiding from the stage due to a series of recurring panic attacks he suffered on stage during his last tour, the child prodigy of creativity and humour, Bo Burnham, is back, and in what a way.
The way he has been titling his works has perhaps given us a clue to his inner drama: -Words, Words, Words-; -What.-, -Make Happy-; -Inside-. Someone so interested in finding the perfect words to make people happy -something he admits he finds difficult to achieve with himself- is telling us something -perhaps unconsciously- with the chronological sequence of titles chosen for his comedy specials.
After -Make Happy-, his previous and last show- he decided to leave the world of live performance to start writing and directing specials for other comedians, to avoid his panic attacks, and as he recounts in -Inside-, just when he had decided to prepare another special show and return to the stage, the pandemic arrived. That led to a change of plans, and the gestation of a work that will make him known to the rest of the world, because his work has recounted a quasi-universal experience with mastery, depth and humour. An explosive and hilarious mix that looks set to go as viral as the pandemic that caused it.