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Review: Bo Burnham's 'Inside'


And finally today, like many of us, writer, comedian and filmmaker Bo Burnham found himself isolated for much of last year - home alone, growing a beard, trying his best to stay sane. But unlike many of us, Burnham was also hard at work on a one-man show directed, written and performed all by himself.


BO BURNHAM: (Singing) If you'd have told me a year ago that I'd be locked inside of my home, I would have told you a year ago, interesting, now leave me alone.

MARTIN: This special is titled, appropriately enough, "Inside," and it is streaming on Netflix now. But what is it exactly - a concert, a comedy special? Maybe we'll call it isolation theater. Whatever it is, NPR's Linda Holmes, host of Pop Culture Happy Hour, has reviewed it, and she liked it. And she's with us now to tell us more about it. Linda Holmes, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. It's so good to hear your voice.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel. It's wonderful to be with you.

MARTIN: So Bo Burnham has had a lot of different identities lately. He had a role in the film "Promising Young Woman." And many people will probably remember his 2018 movie, "Eighth Grade." And then, of course, he had previous standup comedy specials. Now, you heard me struggling to describe what this is, so help me out. Like, what is it?

HOLMES: So before he was this celebrated filmmaker, Bo Burnham was himself a YouTube star. And you can roughly think about this, I think, as a series of short videos that are mostly of him singing songs and that are sewn together with a little bit of other material, whether it's shots of him lying in bed or setting up the cameras. He doesn't really bother with any kind of transitions. So when you get to the end of a song, it often just kind of cuts to something else. And it has a real feel of restlessness to it, almost like stream of consciousness.

MARTIN: And I understand you were saying that it moves between genres. It moves kind of all over the place. Tell us a little bit more about that. And did you have any favorites?

HOLMES: I liked a bunch of the songs in this, and a lot of them are silly songs about the things that his comedy has already been concerned with for a long time, right? One of those is the internet itself. So he has, for example, a song in which he adopts the persona of a kind of horror movie carnival barker, you might call it, who is trying to sell people the internet. And it has a lot of very clever and very quick wordplay about the specific things you can get on the internet.


BURNHAM: (Singing) Start a rumor, buy a broom or send a death threat to a Boomer. Or DM a girl and groom her, do a Zoomer, find a tumor in her...

HOLMES: And this is what the chorus of that song sounds like.


BURNHAM: (Singing) Could I interest you in everything all of the time, a little bit of everything all of the time? Apathy's a tragedy, and boredom is a crime. Anything and everything all of the time.

MARTIN: So as you can hear in that bit, he sounds something like other comedic songwriters who do these kind of parody or comedy songs, whether it's Tom Lehrer, Weird Al or whoever. And they're biting, but he's also very talented at these little catchy pop hooks. I've been singing that song for about a week NOW.

MARTIN: And it's deep, too. I mean, honestly, he's saying a lot right there. I think this is something we've all been thinking about.

HOLMES: Right. And the very format of it, as I said, it's very much this kind of sinister figure trying to get you interested.

MARTIN: Any other songs that stood out?

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, as silly as that one is, some of the other ones are more sedate. They may still be comical, but they have a different feel. He has one where he's just sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar describing our modern world. Here's a little bit of that.


BURNHAM: (Singing) The live-action "Lion King," the Pepsi halftime show, 20,000 years of this, seven more to go. Carpool Karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul. A gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall.

HOLMES: So, as you'll hear there, on the one hand, there's a lot of sadness in what he's talking about there. But on the other hand, it is lyrically so playful. He, for example, it starts off with him rhyming carpool karaoke, which is a segment on James Corden's show, with Steve Aoki, who's a DJ. That's a really clever, fun little rhyme in this, you know, kind of heavy song.

MARTIN: You know, about that, because it does move into a deeply serious place at some point. And I'm just wondering, like, how would you describe that?

HOLMES: Yeah. I think you're getting from him, you know, the entertainment element. But also, it's clear that there's a lot on his mind. And if you go back and you look at a film like "Eighth Grade," he's always been really consumed by sort of the positive and the negative of social media and the internet and the life of of young kids. And so I think he's always had that stubborn insistence on holding both of those things in his head at the same time. And that can be a really - if you're not very good at it, that kind of thing, where there's a balance between sort of the sarcastic and ironic versus the very sincere can be really exhausting. But he knows how to do this. And I think the pandemic was a time when a lot of people were in this do I laugh or cry space in their own minds. And I think that's what you're getting here.

MARTIN: So a lot of us, you know, artists, journalists have been trying to describe what this period has been like, what has it meant, what's been going on with us. How how successful do you think is "Inside" at addressing, describing kind of confronting the experience that a lot of people have had over the past year?

HOLMES: It felt very true to me, not in the literal sense. You know, I was not, you know, I was alone, but I was not trapped in one room. I was not, you know, having these particular experiences. But I described it to a couple of people as, you know, this looks like what the inside of my head felt like because of his sort of restlessness, his desire to create, create, create. And part of it is sometimes he's just in despair.

And it's important to remember, you know, this is a piece of theater. I don't know exactly how it tracks his experience, Bo Burnham, the person, right? Because there's also a little bit Bo Burnham the character in this almost. And he's done virtually no press about it. He is not talking about it very much. He is leaving it to speak for itself in terms of what it says about isolation and sadness.

MARTIN: Well, that being said, Lynda, like, what song do you want to go out on?

HOLMES: Well, logically enough, let's go out on the closing song. The fun thing about this is he started writing it and recording it early on, so you get to see clips of him singing it both, you know, with the short hair and with the long hair - when he had just started this special and when he was finishing it.


BURNHAM: (Singing) Does anybody want to joke when no one's laughing in the background? So this is how it ends.

HOLMES: That was NPR's Linda Holmes reviewing Bo Burnham's new Netflix special "Inside." Linda, thank you so much for joining us. I hope to see you inside at some point.

HOLMES: Thank you. Thank you, Michel. Likewise. Likewise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.