A tongue-in-cheek but also painfully earnest look at pop culture and anything else that deserves to be ridiculed while at the same time regarded with the utmost respect. It is written by Matt Marrone and emailed to Stu Horvath and David Shimomura, who add any typos or factual errors that might appear within.
I’ve been wanting to write about Bo Burnham’s Inside for months. But I couldn’t quite figure out what to say about it. It’s more performance art than a comedy special, and every time I breathlessly recommend it, I get the sense people aren’t entirely eager to fill a bowl with Bugles for 75 minutes of sometimes zany but increasingly dark songs by a privileged white dude – “self-aware about being a douchebag . . . but self-awareness absolves no one” – on the pandemic, depression, aging, race, climate change, the evils of the Internet and basically just the whole fucking world falling apart around us. We have long been wanting nothing more than to throw open our doors and breathe fresh air again. Meanwhile, Burnham sings, “It’s a beautiful day to stay inside.”
But now I have my excuse. It’s December, and every December – as my reader knows – I use this space to write about my Album of the Year, something I’ve been naming for nearly 30 years now. In those 30 years, the closest to a “comedy” record winning was John Linnell’s 1999 “State Songs.” But when I listen to this year’s runner-up – Lucy Dacus’ brilliant “Home Video” – it fills me with intense sadness. I needed a little more to laugh about. “Inside (The Songs)” though, well, it hits so many different notes, all of which in some form or another capture the time in which it was written, recorded and filmed – by Burham, alone in a room. (A room, recently discovered by internet sleuths, in the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” house.) And while it sometimes flirts with being an extended Weird Al video or a vanity project, it ultimately becomes something much more. Five years from now, much of the novelty likely will have worn off; I might not want to listen to songs about FaceTiming my mom, the joys of sexting or white women’s Instagram posts anymore, but those tracks, front-loaded at the top of the show, serve more like appetizers.
As the music continues, and gets darker and more complex, the more it feels like it’s actually – surprise! – an Album of the Year contender. Ultimately, I realized, it isn’t just a contender, but my winner.
If I hadn’t decided that already, it was cemented further when last year’s Album of the Year-winning artist, Phoebe Bridgers, released a cover of Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling” for charity. Not only did her understated cover version work outside the context of Burham’s record, but her tacit endorsement of “Inside” – and the anthemic quality the song takes on when she performs it live, the audience singing along – validated what I already believed: that this record is more than just the sum of its jokes.
The second track, “Comedy,” is a tongue-in-cheek, self-effacing take on the futility of what Burham is trying to accomplish. “Healing the world through comedy – making a literal difference, metaphorically.” In the bridge of the same song: “If you wake up in a house that’s full of smoke / Don’t panic / Call me and I’ll tell you a joke / If you see white men dressed in white cloaks / Don’t panic / Call me and I’ll tell you a joke / Oh, shit / Should I be joking at a time like this?”
But it ultimately becomes clear that he isn’t just joking at a time like this. “30” has him despondently watching a digital alarm clock strike midnight as it becomes his 30th birthday. “Shit” is a club track that parodies pop hits about happiness designed to make you dance and morphs them into a song about depression, turning top 40 tropes on their head. “Welcome to the Internet” laments a carnival world of technology where we are inundated with “a little bit of everything all of time” and where “apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime.”
“That Funny Feeling” is about that world ending, and it feels like complete non-fiction. Yes, it has playful rhymes in it, but the lines that stick out are profound: “The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door” and “Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go” – which build up to an outro of: “Hey, what can you say? / We were overdue / But it’ll be over soon.” In this context, it might not always be comical, but it’s almost comforting.
And there’s then “Goodbye” – the climactic song before the special’s last over-the-credits tune, the comparatively hopeful “Any Day Now” – in which some of the earlier motifs return, and he promises to “never go outside again.”
There is also a challenge to his audience, even though he immediately undercuts it: “Hey, here’s a fun idea / how about I sit on the couch/and watch you next time? / I want to hear you tell a joke / when no one’s laughing in the background.” It’s at once a riff on one of the show’s key themes – that the outside world exists only as a mine for material to take home, alone, and share online – but also seems to herald the end of comedy as we know it.
After the song, in the special, Burnham’s door opens, and he is blinded by light as he steps outside. Birds chirp. But the light is revealed to be a spotlight and it’s nighttime. An unseen crowd applauds. And then: The crowd begins to laugh uproariously as he turns around and tries, in vain, to rip the now-locked door open and get back inside.
For a beat, right before the words “the end” appear on the screen, we see him inside again, watching this play out, projected onto his wall. We see his bearded face up close. He looks deadly serious. And then . . . he smiles.
Matt Marrone is a senior MLB editor at ESPN.com. He has been Unwinnable’s reigning Rookie of the Year since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @thebigm.