You might recall that in the early days of the pandemic last March, “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot enlisted the help of two dozen celebrity friends to sing “Imagine” from their various comfy locales — a well-intentioned but tone-deaf effort that garnered millions upon millions of views and thousands upon thousands of troll-mocks.
One imagines if the writer-comedian-director Bo Burnham had been asked to participate in that stunt, he would have said he’d rather stick his hand in a pot of boiling water. Burnham just might be the most self-aware performer on the planet — it seems as if he’s always commenting on his comedy even as he’s delivering it — and he spent much of the pandemic tucked away in a nondescript room, creating an ongoing one-man show combining original compositions, straight-to-camera-confessionals, stand-up comedy to a live audience of no one and music videos. The result is “Bo Burnham: Inside,” an intense and wildly entertaining and thought-provoking and sometimes exhausting Netflix special that garnered six Emmy nominations and is now getting a run in 400 theaters in the U.S. and Canada.
Even though “Inside” is an intimate, almost claustrophobic production set entirely in that one room (with one brief exception), my guess is it will actually play well on the big screen, as Burnham does a masterful job with lighting, editing and a dizzying array of homemade special effects, changing aspect ratios and varying camera angles. It’s just a guy and a keyboard and a microphone and his thoughts, but Burnham is an enormously gifted and singularly unique talent, who lets us inside in more ways than one as his hair and beard grow long and his feelings of isolation mount and he despairs at the state of the world — much like so many others felt over the last year.
From the get-go, Burnham pokes fun at the very notion of a wealthy, successful, popular white comedian making the quarantine all about himself, but rationalizes it by saying it’s the only thing he can do “while still being paid” and “at the center of attention.” It’s a Steve Martin-esque conceit that Burnham repeats throughout the special — but there’s also a very dark element, as he references wanting to put a bullet in his head and celebrates turning 30 by noting in 10 years he’ll be 40 and then he’ll kill himself.
In one bit, Burnham watches a video of a routine he’s just done, and comments on it. Then he comments on the commentary and comments on the commentary of the commentary, and so on and so on. He also delivers a scathingly accurate takedown titled “White Woman’s Instagram” that starts off funny but a little mean, but then takes a surprisingly emotional turn, as if Burnham is acknowledging this is low-hanging fruit and maybe he shouldn’t have been so quick to judge. Musical numbers titled “Welcome to Internet,” “Unpaid Intern” and “FaceTime with my Mom” are brilliant, elegantly constructed, weirdly catchy tunes blending social commentary with flat-out funny observations.
Burnham often seems on the verge of a breakdown as he shares his anxieties, his misgivings about doing the special and his concerns that if he ever finishes it, what will he do then? It’s a shame he doesn’t seem to be capable of enjoying his work as much as we do.