Bo Burnham: Inside, is it a comedy or a musical? Does it even matter?

Sprig of corianderI don’t like coriander. That doesn’t mean I don’t like herbs per se, have no taste buds or that I don’t like eating: it simply means that I don’t like the flavour of coriander. While we’re at it I also don’t like sour cream, carp, oysters and cheese and onion crisps. Comedy is also a matter of taste.

There is currently a Twitter storm going on about Bo Burnham’s Comedy Special ‘Inside’ now streaming on Netflix. Well it’s more of a strong breeze really having only reached 6 on the Beaufort Scale thus far. If you haven’t seen it, there’s a trailer in the right hand sidebar of the home page. It was shot by Burnham over the course of 2020 during lockdown. I don’t think anyone would disagree that it is a work of art. Beautifully lit and shot by one man alone in his apartment. The debate is whether or not it constitutes comedy.

Bo Burnham, American stand-up comedianFor those of you who may not know, Burnham is an American comedian who launched his career on YouTube as a teenager.  He went on to do stand-up but stepped back from the limelight after he became affected by stage fright. As a modern digital media sensation he pioneered the very type of viral Internet culture that feels anathema to him now.

One tweet says “I think the “is it comedy” discussion pretty much aligns with the “is it art” discussion. Both art and comedy are as varied and complex as the amazing diversity that exists within humanity.”

To which another replied “Yes. But art is an umbrella term.  If you present a painting with no paint. It’s not a painting. If you present a comedy special with no comedy. It’s not a comedy special…  

That is a view with which I can sympathise when it comes to art, something like Ceal Floyer’s 1999 ‘Monochrome Till Receipt’ in the Tate. Really? Art? If sticking a Morrison’s shopping receipt on a white wall is art then Rubens was wasting his time.

There is no doubt that in ‘Inside’ there is a spattering of paint: one or two amusing lines, which generate smiles but is that enough to call it a comedy? In Diamonds Are Forever when Sean Connery drives his Mustang along a very narrow alley, on two wheels, it is so ridiculous it’s a laugh out loud moment. That doesn’t make the film a comedy any more than a shopping receipt is art.

Much has been intellectualised about ‘Inside’, it is streaming on Netflix: billed as a Comedy Special. Special it is: comedy it isn’t.

The film is amazing, considering every aspect was created and imaginatively produced by one man. It is however a 90 minute musical video, with humorous overtones, radiating the intense thoughts swirling around the comedians mind during a time of isolation.

Dominic Maxwell in the Times wrote, “This is the first comic masterpiece of the Covid era: a beyond-timely study in isolation, mental health, paranoia, irritation and frustration that also, crucially, crams a staggering number of good jokes into its 85 minutes.”

Scene fro Bo Burnham's Inside filmed during lockdownWhereas Brian Logan wrote in the Guardian “It could be a breakdown – or it could be the pandemic’s wildest gift to comedy. But is it comedy? Naysayers may complain that, with silences in laughter’s place, bleak jokes, and sections that eschew humour entirely, Inside has little comical about it.

Those comments just about sum up the debate. It won’t need to resort to Harry Hill’s method of conflict resolution to decide which point of view is correct: both are.

Not everything is, nor can it be, funny to everyone. Just as with food our comedy tastes vary. That doesn’t have anything to do with the length of our Humerus but everything to do with who we are, our mood, the subject matter and personal experiences and whether we are stimulated by the laughter of others. The overuse of canned laughter should be a no-no but the infectious laughter of a studio audience, even a dozen people at a covid affected set or attending on Zoom during lockdown, makes all the difference.

So don’t expect to find everything hilarious or even just amusing. But do experience a wide breadth of comedy. You never know what you’ll like until you try it. Remember one person’s nitrous oxide is another person’s coriander.

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