Why I Love: Inside, by Bo Burnham

How one man alone in a room can say so much so well

Mike Raab
The Raabit Hole
Published in
8 min readJun 9, 2021


Pretext: As a film major who worked in the TV industry for the first half of my career, I’m a bit of a content fiend. One pretentious quality that I do have is that I’m a bit obsessed with content that I feel has a deeper meaning and that grows even more interesting or impactful with subsequent re-watches. In a world never more deluged with “content,” I most admire the stuff that has something to say, and has found a way to do so intentionally and cleverly. I decided to start writing about some of these and why I love them, with the first being the most recent — Inside, by Bo Burnham. As a warning, there are spoilers ahead.

I’ve been a fan of Bo Burnham’s for years. I think he’s one of the most thoughtful, intelligent, and articulate comedians of his generation, and his commentary on social media from his 2016 special, Make Happy, was a significant factor in my decision to delete my Instagram and Facebook years ago. Suffice it to say, I had both high hopes and high expectations for his first special in half a decade. Nonetheless, I was absolutely blown away.

For one thing, Inside cements Bo’s status, in my humble opinion, as one of the most talented music producers and songwriters of the moment. His ability to create earworms is rivaled perhaps by only Taylor Swift, and I’ve had several of the songs from the special stuck in my head on a daily basis for over a week. If you’ve seen the special, my guess is these three lines can re-stick the tunes in your head for at least a few hours:

  • “CEO, entrepreneur, born in 1964!”
  • “A little bit of everything, all of the time!”
  • “That is how the world works... That is how the world works!”

But the music is only a small part of the genius of Inside, although admittedly an important part that helps an hour and a half of just one man in a tiny room seem to fly by. The most interesting part of the special, as with everything Bo does, is the substance — what he has to say about living in American society today. There’s commentary on the adverse effects of the internet, social media, capitalism, Facetiming with your mom, loneliness & isolation, sexting, brands pretending to care about social issues, and so much more.

“The question isn’t ‘What are you selling?’ or ‘What service are you providing?’ The question is ‘What do you stand for?’ ‘Who are you… Bagel Bites?’”

In what must be a record for comedy special, there is not one but *two* songs about Jeffrey Bezos, the world’s wealthiest man, both of which involve cheering him on and congratulating him for his accomplishments (“You did it!”), simulating American society’s attitude towards the existence of one person worth $185 billion as others starve and remain homeless. “Come on Jeff, get ‘em!”

But what I appreciate most about Bo is that he struggles out in the open about his place, feelings, and thoughts on all of these issues. It’s one layer (sometimes more) above simple commentary, to his commentary on his commentary. In one of the early songs, he addresses the precarious state of the world, weighing how he wants to leave the world better than he found it — but feeling inadequately equipped as a comedian. This feeling quickly resolves into the musical number, “Healing the world with comedy, ” which sets up the premise for all of his upcoming commentary on society’s ills.

Of course, these layers are intentionally crafted, both for comedic effect and also, I presume, so that he feels more comfortable with his own statements on culturally divisive issues. After all, if he’s critiquing himself, perhaps he’s less vulnerable to the same critiques from outsiders?

Take the scene where he does a YouTube style “reaction video” to the short jazz song about unpaid intern labor that we just saw, which turns into a chain of reaction videos. At one point, he admits that the thing that he just said a minute ago sounded rather pretentious. A few moments later, he further admits that he levies the pretentious charge against himself on purpose, because one of his insecurities is that other people will call him pretentious, and this is a defense mechanism for himself to beat them to to that criticism… which in the next breath he admits doesn’t work. All of this of course is in a scripted piece that he’s written, rehearsed, filmed, edited, and released to millions of people.

That self-deprecation / self-persecution is very refreshing. And while I do believe everything on screen is intentional, he is seemingly authentic about the recursive loop of: 1) genuinely struggling with how he can help address society’s serious ills; 2) his guilt for being a wealthy, white, straight male comedian who is getting paid for talking about issues without feeling like he’s making a measurable impact on them; and 3) his still wanting attention for telling us that he wants to fix things.

In an 80’s power ballad theme song in which he’s essentially begging to be so-called “Cancelled,” Bo declares, “I’m problematic” and “Isn’t anyone going to hold me accountable?”

“And I’ve been totally awful. My closet is chalk-full of stuff that is vaguely shitty. All of it was perfectly lawful, just not very thoughtful at all, and just really shitty.”

Utilizing perhaps the second most important star of the special, his projector, Bo figuratively crucifies himself for his apparent misdeeds.

The additional layer to this special, along with most of Bo’s previous work, is the blending of lines between authenticity and performance. Bo regularly plays with his audiences expectations about what is “real” and performance, using expectations against us for humor. But there remains a paradox between “authenticity” and “performance” in that, can anything that happens while Bo knows that the camera is on really be authentic? In one shot, we see him frustrated with himself from afar, doing a line over and over again. But who put the camera there and turned it on? Does his knowing that the camera is on alter his behavior?

Of course, there is likely a bit of the Tim O’Brien “How to tell a true war story,” in this charade — Burnham undoubtedly had intense moments of frustration like this when the cameras were off, and decided to include those captured when the camera was on in order to further bring us behind the scenes of his yearlong, lonely experience as a man alone in a room creating a masterpiece. He has always been one for transparency, for which I’m grateful. But I would wager that the only “real” moment in the entire special is when we see Bo accidentally pull a cord connected to the camera, which brings it nearly crashing to the ground as he rushes to catch it and exclaims “Oh shit!”

In Inside, there’s an additional layer of recursion. Not only are there multiple scenes of Bo watching his performances from this special in front of us in what would appear a narcissistic attempt to make us watch him watch himself — but in its intentionality highlights a deeper loneliness and sadness of being a performer; there are also multiple references to how Bo’s career began as a child “stuck in a room” performing on YouTube. As we watch Bo watch his young self in the video that would change his life and trajectory for better or worse, we’re left wondering — what does he want to tell this kid? What advice would he give himself; and would it be “don’t do it?”

Finally, it must not be understated the visual accomplishments and shot diversity achieved in just this singular, tiny room. Using simple lighting effects and projectors, each segment has its own vibe and feeling, well suited to the mood and message of the moment. While we know at times Bo feels claustrophobic being stuck in the same room, it is never boring for us as an audience due to his meticulous intentionality.

As we’ve followed Bo throughout the special — watching his increasingly caveman like appearance emerge; seeing the moment he turns 30 alone, exasperated, and disappointed; and talking directly to us (the camera) about his thoughts about the struggle of being alone in a room working on this very special — he reveals a final truth in the final musical number. At the end of a song that reprises many of the highlights from previous numbers, suddenly a spotlight highlights a naked Bo sitting at his keyboard caught by surprise as a voice sings:

“Well, well look who’s inside again. Went in to look for a reason to hide again. Well, well buddy you’ve found it. Now come out with your hands up we’ve got you surrounded.”

What is ultimately revealed with this final refrain, I believe, is that Bo saw the pandemic as an excuse to hide inside and work on this special — something he thought would give meaning to the moment, but also solved an ulterior need to hide away from the world. The voice singing “We’ve got you surrounded,” is not the police — it’s us! It is Bo as celebrity unable to be in public without being surrounded; him unable to hide from fans and critics, commentary on his work, or being called “pretentious.” Quarantine was an excuse to hide in his comfort (if not incredibly lonely) zone, but as he has finished the special and society is simultaneously opening back up, his excuse to hide inside has ended and he must come out to face public life once again (as must we all).

This point is punctuated with the final scene, as Bo leaves the room and finds himself on a stage in front of the laughter and applause of a live audience. Frightened, he does everything he can to get back inside. The camera pulls back to reveal Bo is once again watching himself, and the final shot is once again us, watching Bo, watch himself in the recursive fashion that rings through all of his work. But this time he cracks a smile, seemingly content — for now — with the work he accomplished while Inside.