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How This Comedian’s New Special Explores Mental Illness Through a Year of COVID-19 Isolation

Editor's Note

Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Bo Burnham’s Netflix comedy special, “Inside.”

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Before I begin, a question for you: does a comedy about mental illness and the COVID-19 lockdowns have to be laugh-out-loud funny in an entertaining and uplifting way in order to be validating? And what about if you add ironic and biting songs to the comedy?

Your answers to these questions probably reveal how validating or appealing you will find Bo Burnham’s brilliant, raw, and comic Netflix special, “Bo Burnham: Inside.” Burnham — who wrote, directed, shot, edited and performed in the special — uses his own experience as a comedian with a mental illness to interrogate and even castigate the value of comedy during a world crisis such as the pandemic. Instead of entertaining and uplifting, I found it provocative and profound, while still being funny because Burnham is so brave and uncompromisingly honest in depicting his own mental health struggles.

Early on in “Inside,” Burnham sings a song entitled “Comedy” and in the first verse asks:

Is comedy over?

Should I leave you alone? Cause who’s gonna for joking at a time like this?

Should I be joking at a time like this?

These are questions he continually returns to over the next hour and in his penultimate “Goodbye” song, he is still asking;

Does anybody want to joke

When no one’s laughing in the background.

And yet the special is still humorous as Bo satirizes our world and particularly himself with an unblinking honesty. The old adage is true here: the saddest clown is the funniest. And I would add to this also the most profound.

The answer to the above comedy questions for the character of Bo seems to be that comedy is dead, especially when he says, “wanna hear a funny story?” and then describes the severe panic attacks he had on stage when performing comedy. The context or subject here is important for why there is now this lack of laughs or a devaluing of comedy.

“Inside” is set with Bo alone inside a room for a year while he makes and performs the special by himself. Is this setting our pandemic isolation? Or is there a more personal meaning? Clearly this special was made during the pandemic of the past year with a reference to how “human-to-human contact can now kill you” so digital is safer, but Bo never actually names the coronavirus. “Inside” takes us primarily and directly inside Bo’s battle with mental illness connected to performing comedy, which he bravely and unflinchingly explores. Now, this could be during COVID-19 but also, it could be the time when he experienced multiple panic attacks on stage during multiple shows and then quit live comedy for five years. Burnham isn’t specific about the setting so I think we could also read it as inside our own minds anytime things fall apart and the world has left us isolated.

Despite these desolate contexts, there are many big laughs in “Inside,” the kind of laughs we all need after being locked in our own houses this past year. Most of the laughs come as sharp and incisive satire of the internet and its culture including white women’s Instagrams (especially hilarious), FaceTiming his mom, sexting and YouTube commentary videos, as well as giant digital media corporations with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos getting two songs of his own.

Above all, Burnham satirizes himself — his white privilege, his past “douchebag videos” and his limitations as a comedian, specifically whether being a comedian has any more value. No question he is a punitive self-critic but his honesty here is really commendable and accurately represents mental illness. Even when he discusses suicide, he finds a way to find humor as only a sad clown could.

Furthermore, in the scene where he is commenting on the commentary of one of his songs, he says: “It’s an instinct I have that I need everything I write have some deeper meaning but it’s a ‘stupid’ song… it’s pretty unlikeable that I feel this need, this desperate need to be seen as intelligent.” Bo certainly took the words out of my mouth here and I imagine many in our Mighty community.

But actually, Bo — if I can address him directly — your need to find deeper meaning is far from unlikeable. It is what makes you so funny but also so relatable, and helps destigmatize what so many of us suffer, often in silence, and allows you and many of us to cope and improve.

In a 2018 interview with the H3 Podcast, Bo himself developed this idea: “My worry was that if I say it it’s real, if I admit I’m going through this I’ve spoken it and now I’ll never stop thinking about it. And it is, for anyone worried about this, the exact opposite. It’s like speaking it is the salvation. It was the thing I was most terrified of and the thing that actually saved me; which is I’m not unique, and I’m not alone.”

In the end, I think that is the greatest power in “Inside” — the power of speaking up about our mental health struggles which resoundingly shows that we are not alone and not unique in our struggle. I am personally inspired and full of admiration for a comedian who goes beyond just making people laugh and offering them an easy punchline as Hannah Gadsby also so brilliantly deconstructed in “Hannah Gadsby: Nanette.” This performer has laid himself bare without glossing over the unflattering bad bits and has been brave enough to share it with us, and has done it in such an intelligent and inventive way. For all us writers and indeed any artists, this is something to aspire to in our own work.

However, a word of warning for triggers: if “speaking it is his salvation,” then in “Inside,” Bo takes that “‘speaking it” to places of real despair. I want whoever is considering watching the special for comedy only to know that there are extended, bleak sections on Bo’s rapidly declining mental health. As he becomes closer to a year of filming, he realizes that he doesn’t want to finish because then he would have to face real life again. At one point he announces he has reached an ATL — that is an “all-time low, not Atlanta.” Even there, he can still make a joke.

Most of all, the “turning 30” song and the resulting dialogue are really confronting in their depiction of a suicidal mind. Yes, there is some uncomfortable humor and he does clearly say that suicide is not a solution, and that he won’t go through with it, but I found this section upsetting. While this is a tough watch, I am full of respect for how he depicted something many of us have experienced and from my suicidal period, it resonated.

I also admire him mentioning dissociation and derealization because I myself dissociated in the past few weeks; it gave me heart to see this distressing state mentioned in a Netflix special.

In the end, “Inside” is very funny but it is also painful and profound, and these three things are not exclusive. Performers such as Burnham can bring us great solace and inspiration if we can only just make it through and to see our pain depicted so vividly can validate us. Spoiler Alert: In the last moments of the final shot, Burnham smiles at footage from the special and as the screen fades to black, he sings the upbeat, “It’ll stop any day now,” over and over again.

I take that as hope — a hard-fought-for hope from our past year.

Image via YouTube

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