December 4, 2023

The incentives of the internet that reward outrage, excess, and sentimentality are the villains of this show. In a dizzying homage to “Cabaret,” Burnham plays the MC of the internet in sunglasses, greeting everyone with a decadent selection of options as the disco lights swirl. It is a lyrically dense song with camera work that gets faster with its rhythm. Burnham’s shot sequencing plays just as often against the meaning of a song, for example when he triggers a glamorous split screen to complement a comic song with his mother via FaceTiming.

“Inside” is the work of a comic with artistic means that most of its colleagues ignore or overlook. Burnham, who once published a volume of poetry, has not only become just as meticulous and creative with his visual vocabulary as he is with his language.

Some of the show’s narrative can indulgently overheat and play with clichés about the brooding artist’s process, but Burnham anticipated these and other criticisms and incorporated them into the special, including the idea that paying attention to potential bugs fixes them. “Self-knowledge does not release anyone from anything,” he says.

True, but it can deepen and clarify art. “Inside” is a tricky work that, despite all the overstepping of boundaries, in the end remains a comedy in the spirit of neurotic, self-hating stand-ups. Burnham impales himself as a virtuous ally with a white savior complex, a tyrant, and an egoist who draws a Venn diagram and locates himself at the intersection between Weird Al and Malcolm X, an artist whose career was born and flourished there the ultimate joke.

Burnham lingers behind the scenes with his technical tinkering – handling lights, editing, line exercises. He is neglected, increasingly unshaven and has a Rasputin-like beard. The aesthetics telegraph authenticity and vulnerability, but the breathtaking final shots of the special reveal the misdirection at work and encourage skepticism about the performativity of such realism.

Towards the end he appears completely naked behind his keyboard. It’s an image that suggests a man is baring himself until you realize he’s in the spotlight.