A few minutes into Bo Burnham’s Netflix special, Inside, filmed in a single room in his house over the course of the pandemic, the comedian launches into his second number, concerning the purpose of comedy itself. “The world is changing,” Burnham croons at his keyboard. “The planet’s heating up. What the f*** is going on?” The song turns into a retrospective of the last year — the protests, the drought. “The more I look, the more I see nothing to joke about,” he goes on.
Then an angelic chorus from above sends Burnham on an ironic mission: “healing the world with comedy” because “the world needs direction.” “From a white guy like me,” Burnham juts in. “Bingo!” the ethereal voice says.
Burnham’s genre-defying special is much more than a comedy, however. It’s a social commentary on the precarity of life in the 2020s, especially online life. It begins with (sort of) lighthearted music videos in Burnham’s style, formed in YouTube videos shot in his childhood bedroom in the mid-aughts. But the songs in Inside, parodying the classic photos you see on white women’s Instagram accounts and chronicling the perils of sexting with emojis, coexist with explorations of serious topics. In one song, Burnham’s sock puppet says, “Don’t you know? The world is built with blood! And genocide and exploitation!” Near the beginning of Inside, Burnham says that he embarked on the project “to distract me from wanting to put a bullet into my head.” Over the course of the show, months in isolation and the weight of the world’s problems begin to wear on Burnham, who ends up sobbing on camera.
Critics and regular people alike love Inside, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Slate called it “one of the most sincere artistic responses to the 21st century so far.” That might seem like unexpectedly high praise for an eccentric, disturbingly self-aware one-man production where the one man spends a good chunk of 80 minutes dancing in his underwear. (You have to see it to get it.)
Inside isn’t really about the climate crisis. It’s an exploration of how to be a decent person in an indecent world, while facing up to your own role in it. Burnham, for example, skewers the performative nature of social media and points out how the internet is breaking everyone’s brains, while at the same time performing for the internet. But the overheating planet is a recurring theme for a reason. For Burnham, it serves as a touchpoint for doom — it’s there, haunting you in the background, even when your mind is bouncing between a million other things. There’s hardly time to comprehend the enormity of it, let alone do much about it, especially if you’re anywhere as depressed as Burnham.
In one jaunty tune, “Welcome to the Internet,” performed as if it were a movie villain theme, Burnham explains how the internet overstimulates you and inflames your inner demons, offering “a little bit of everything all of the time.” Later in the show, the lyrics of “That Funny Feeling,” with Burnham playing acoustic guitar, appear to be a jumble of disjointed subjects — until you consider that he might be describing the emotionally numbing rollercoaster of scrolling through social media. Seeing news about civil wars next to tweets from Kentucky Fried Chicken and Bugles? The juxtaposition of catastrophes and fluff feels so “funny,” perhaps, because all of these things are packaged as “content,” flattened into our newsfeeds, and presented with equal weight.
In his offbeat way, Burnham manages to capture a growing disaffection with online life — and how these new patterns present a threat to well-being. A scientific paper out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sums up how the internet has radically restructured how we communicate in a couple decades, with the chief goal of maximizing “engagement” to sell ads … instead of, you know, trying to help people or improve the world. The algorithms that determine what people see online, according to these collective behavior experts, “are typically designed to maximize profitability, with often insufficient incentive to promote an informed, just, healthy, and sustainable society.”
Burnham contrasts digital reality, where you can find and believe anything you want, with physical reality — including the unrelenting progress of global warming. “The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door,” Burnham sings in “That Funny Feeling.” “The live-action Lion King, the Pepsi Halftime Show / Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go.”
That “seven years” line appears to reference the Climate Clock, a sort of ticking-time bomb counting down the years until the planetary apocalypse. The project gives humanity a deadline of 2028 “to enact bold, transformational changes in our global economy” to prevent global warming from reaching “a point of no return that science tells us will make the worst climate impacts likely inevitable.”
Burnham’s doom-and-gloom serves a dual purpose, speaking to both the climate crisis and his own depression. “All Eyes on Me” is the climax of the show, an auto-tuned banger about coping with anxiety — in the middle of it, he takes a break from singing to explain that he quit live comedy because he kept having panic attacks on stage. But it’s also a song about coming to terms with where the world is heading (“We’re going to go where everybody knows, everybody knows”). The third verse:
You say the ocean’s rising like I give a shit
You say the whole world’s ending, honey, it already did
You’re not gonna slow it, Heaven knows you tried
Got it? Good, now get inside
There is a moment of clarity in the song where Burnham turns off the autotune and starts yelling at the viewer, “Get up. Get up. I’m talking to you! Get the f*** up!”
It’s a jarring wake-up call, and a reminder: This might be a comedy special, but Burnham is not joking about the climate apocalypse.