A musical comedy special shot and performed by Bo Burnham, alone, over the course of a very unusual year; but what does it really say about the world?

Bo Burnham is a 32-year-old comedian who rose up on Youtube when it was first founded. His specials are famed for their unique combination of musical numbers, stand-up and cinematic elements. Burnham created Inside (2021) by himself in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, a mean feat considering it’s filled with a host of brilliant songs, insightful political analysis, comedy, wondrous cinematography and lighting, and some really ingenious editing.

So, in a slightly different style of review than usual, we teamed up with The Climate’s own Seb Lowe to discuss the environmental angle in this modern day comedy classic that just happens to be one of his favourite films.

Krish: I wanted to start off by saying. God – he’s wildly talented, don’t you think? To create all that by yourself, by first writing a load of songs, then filming it, then editing it… And then the lyrics and the messaging! Some of the sections are so self-referential to the point that he must have had it all recorded and planned out for then the next segment to occur. Which is genius when you try and wrap your head around it.

Seb: It definitely requires multiple viewings to take it all in. For example, I’ve watched it four times now and only picked some things up on the fourth attempt, because I was so busy focusing on the other elements in the first three viewings. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye; it’s not just some light-hearted comedy special.

“There’s a huge irony, which I’m sure isn’t lost on Burnham himself, that he’s satirising corporate greed whilst using Netflix as his platform He’s incredibly self-aware in the film.”

Krish: He covers many topics, some very personal, including his own anxieties, breakdown, the position of the artist in the modern world, COVID, Instagram… He mentions climate change a few times but doesn’t outright reference it.

Seb: Actually, he does mention it a couple of times. I think it’s the second song… The opening line is something like ‘The world is changing. The planet’s heating up. WTF is going on?’ But yeah, you’re right, he doesn’t explicitly mention it that much. However, thematically, we can split the special into two key strands:

  1. The state of the world. Satirising capitalism, corporate greed, the need for radical system change, reprioritisation of human values, stuff like that… You know, songs like the Jeff Bezos one, the sock song where a whistle-blowing sock talks about the failing of the corporate elite and he’s just told to shut up and get back in his box…
  2. A more self-referential, more introspective turn, like things about him turning 30 or the song ‘Problematic’ where he talks about dressing up as Aladdin as a kid, which he regrets doing. The two do intertwine a little bit. For example, ‘Welcome to the Internet’ is a really good one in its link to the climate. It’s about the complete contrast and juxtaposition inherent in capitalism; the market wants us to keep going and consume, whereas climate activism is about moderation and limiting consumption to what we need… So, there’s a big divide there that causes us, as individual consumers, a lot of anxiety.

Krish: Ultimately, isn’t there an inherent problem though, in that the whole film is just ‘witty moaning,’ with no real solution presented… A cynic would say he’s just using these issues to sell his own art. Bloomberg News leaked that he was paid $3.9million for it!

Seb: Haha, yeah. There’s a huge irony, which I’m sure isn’t lost on Burnham himself, that he’s satirising corporate greed whilst using Netflix as his platform He’s incredibly self-aware in the film. He even does a skit about greenwashing and brand awareness, and how companies claim they really care about these issues, only so long as it helps sell their product!

Personally, I don’t buy the cynical view. His introspection is very sincere and what he’s been wrestling with in his head is brought right to the fore, in an almost painful way. ‘Should I try stop being funny? Should I give away more money?’ or ‘Should I be joking at a time like this? I wanna leave the world better than I found it.’ That kinda thing. I think it’s a good thing to satirise yourself. With something like the climate crisis, you can’t take the burden of all that on yourself entirely. It’s so overwhelming — as one individual, there’s only so much difference you can make. Art is a relief, from climate anxiety especially, and, in this case, it’s really not a bad thing…

Krish: There’s a theorist called Mark Fisher. He unfortunately died to suicide in 2017. He wrote a wonderful book called Capitalist Realism in which, steeped in the Marxist tradition, he seeks to define the way capitalism functions. One of his ideas is that capitalism works by allowing, even encouraging, us to hold internal beliefs but act in a different way to them externally. People like you, me, Bo Burnham, we may be anti-corporation and anti-capital and pro-climate, but we give our money, and in his case he makes money off of these huge corporations! So, on a fundamental level, what Burnham is doing by being charming, comical, hilarious — and frankly quite beautiful at times — is actually damaging because he’s working for capitalism without realising it.

A great example Fisher gives is Wall-E (2009) which, by making us watch this evil corporate monster destroy the world, “performs our anti-capitalism for us.” We sit there going ‘Oh, this is so bad, I hate capitalism!’ but then after the film ends go straight out to buy a Starbucks or a McDonalds… Burnham should not fall for this trick. And if we are to be truly anti-capital and truly pro-climate, neither should we.

A man stands singing into a mic just right of centre. Laser lights erupt from behind him in green, white an pink colours. It looks badass, other than the fact it's clearly filmed in a bedroom.

(Bo Burnham: Inside/Netflix)

Seb: Hmm. It’s a really interesting point Mark Fisher makes. But at the end of the day, what else is Burnham to do? We have to look at it in the context of the pandemic; how else was he meant to get his stuff out there?

Let me give the example of Jordan Henderson signing for Saudi club Al-Ettifaq. He was the most vocal Premier League captain on how football should be inclusive and pro-LGBT. But then as soon as millions are on the table, his values are gone! What I’m trying to say is, is Burnham not doing the special with Netflix going to change things? No. Netflix would just find someone else, just like Al-Ettifaq would if Hendo had said no to them. They were never gonna take his rejection and say, ‘Look guys, we need to radically rethink our country’s approach to the LGBT community.’

Krish: True. But then my only question is to Bo Burnham (and Hendo) — who are you to tell me what to do, when you don’t even follow it yourself?

Seb: Burnham’s not telling anyone what to do though. He’s not preaching. He’s questioning, he’s discussing, he’s making us think and introspect. That in itself is something I vastly appreciate…