Beyond ‘Bo Burnham: Inside’: Exploring the Work of Bo Burnham

Kaity - Co-Director
18 Min Read

So that Bo Burnham, huh? Whether you just discovered him from his most recent special, Inside, or you’ve been around for awhile, it’s quick to notice that Burnham is one-of-a-kind.

Burnham began performing at the age of 16 on YouTube. He went viral quickly with his raps and songs all filmed in his bedroom. (What do you think inspired “Look Who’s Inside Again?”)

While Burnham got his start as a YouTube sensation, it didn’t take long for him to garner professional attention. After taping a performance for Comedy Central, they signed him to a four-record deal and Burnham released his first album, Bo fo Sho, in 2008. Then, the network hosted him for his first official special in 2009, a half-hour show on Comedy Central Presents, and his first tour, the Bo Burnham: Fake ID Tour, followed.

Burnham then went on to triumph Hollywood at a young age. Before the age of 30 (yeah, he was born in 1990), he began to showcase his talent behind the camera as well as in front of it. Three specials followed his half-hour debut, and Burnham found himself in the writers room for his own television series and landing roles in Hollywood films as his career progressed.

After the release of his third special, Make Happy, however, Bo Burnham practically disappeared, at least from the stage. He has discussed his struggle with anxiety in his adult years. After panic attacks began to plague him while on stage, he made the decision to prioritize himself and his mental health. Burnham left live comedy behind, instead focusing on the other areas of his career he’d already begun to explore.

During his five year break from the comedy world, he didn’t completely exit the world of entertainment. He had already begun to prove his skills on the creative side of the process, and now it was time to hone in on them. He went on to direct and write award-winning films, direct fellow comedians’ comedy specials, and surprised viewers with a few small roles in film and television before his larger part in 2020’s Oscar-winning film Promising Young Woman.

Bo Burnham performing "White Woman's Instagram" for Inside

Bo Burnham: Inside, Burnham’s fifth comedy special, debuted on Netflix in 2021, with Burnham announcing the special on his Instagram one month prior to its May 30 release date. He was nominated for six Emmy awards for the special.

Read on for some past Bo projects to explore and experience the wide range of talents he practiced earlier in his career that no doubt aided in the creation of the masterpiece that was Bo Burnham: Inside.

Words, Words, Words (2010), what. (2013), Make Happy (2016)

Bo Burnham performing "Can't Handle This" in his special, Make Happy

Of course, we have to start with Burnham’s previous three comedy specials. Burnham released three specials after his half-hour debut show on Comedy Central, Words, Words, Words in 2010, what. in 2013, and Make Happy in 2016. He served as a producer for all three and director on what. and Make Happy.

Whether you like his comedy or not, there’s no denying that Bo Burnham knows how to put on a show. More “one man show” than stand-up comedy, the showmanship that goes into each of Burnham’s specials is unmatched. It’s a full experience with lights, voiceovers, smoke machines, and of course, music. Mixed into the comedy is always a deeper investigation into society, something Burnham does exceptionally well, along with an introspective look into his own mind.

Segues may not be his thing, but each and every show is as honest as they come, with catchy tunes and obscene poetry all performed with Burnham’s larger-than-life stage persona. Songs like “Pandering,” “Straight White Male,” “Words, Words, Words,” and “From God’s Perspective” are as hilarious as they are catchy. And they may or may not call out some hypocrisies, another Burnham signature. His ability to make audiences laugh and simultaneously hold a mirror up to the intrinsic issues deeply rooted within us is nothing short of genius. And a genius he is, whether he wants to admit it or not.

You can watch the entirety of what. on Netflix or on Bo Burnham’s YouTube channel. Make Happy is also on Netflix. Words, Words, Words, however, is not available to stream. It is available to rent through multiple outlets. Be wary that most feature flashing lights and language that may be offensive to some.

On a final note, the finale of his Make Happy show, “Can’t Handle This,” has always hit differently knowing what we know now about his struggles with his mental health.

Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous (2013)

The cast of Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous; left to right: Armen Weitzman, Caitlin Gerard, Shelley Hennig, Bo Burnham, Kari Coleman, Thomas F. Wilson, Cameron Palatas

Zach Stone is gonna be famous … no, really! In 2013, Bo Burnham’s television series, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, premiered on MTV. It ran for 12 episodes but sadly never got renewed for a second season. However, Zach Stone did indeed get pretty famous.

Burnham, also a creator, producer, and writer on the series, starred as the titular character, Zach Stone, a high school graduate who’s opted to forgo college in hopes of finding fame. The one hang up? He has no talent. However, his best friends Greg and Amy support him as best they can through all of his absolutely outrageous ploys as the camera crew, hired by himself, follows them around throughout the summer.

If you’re one to suffer from secondhand embarrassment, prepare yourself before diving into this one, but don’t skip it. When I say there’s nothing Zach won’t do in his quest for fame, I mean it. And it’s hilarious. There are few things Bo Burnham can’t do, but there’s literally nothing Zach can do. His faux pas in the kitchen, heroics, and reality TV, to name a few, provide some pretty incredible laughs. And the theme song will be stuck in your head for … awhile.

Although Zach comes off as slightly self-absorbed, he has an incredible heart, even if it loses its way sometimes. And Burnham plays each facet of Zach to perfection.

With that being said, the series is not without its fair share of love. All of the people surrounding Zach support his ridiculous quest, including his parents. Plus, no spoilers, but Zach and Caitlin Gerard’s Amy give you something to root for throughout the series (I mean, on top of rooting for Zach to get famous, of course …)

Beyond his comedy specials, this was Burnham’s next biggest foray into the entertainment world making projects of his own and stretching his script writing skills. This was also his first producer credit that was not a comedy special. He was only 23 at the time.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

Bo Burnham in Promising Young Woman
Focus Features/Everett Collection

Promising Young Woman in 2020 was Burnham’s most prominent on-screen project after the release of Make Happy in 2016. Burnham played pediatric surgeon Ryan Cooper in the Oscar-winning film following Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) on her quest to right a wrong of the past.

First, this movie was a pretty big step away from Burnham’s usual content. The film can be difficult to watch, but its intent to make its audiences feel something (and hopefully see a problem) was exceptionally well done. While the movie is dark, Ryan Cooper was indeed the bright light of the film. Burnham’s performance was endearing and utterly likeable, giving audiences someone to root for as Cassie’s story unfolded. Plus, that pharmacy scene? Incredible. No spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but Burnham’s ability to make audiences feel the range of emotions for his character that he did was nothing short of masterful and likely unexpected by some.

Promising Young Woman showcased a piece of Burnham’s talent that hadn’t really been tapped yet. Everyone knew his comedic abilities — stand-up and scripted — but this was his first performance taking on a more dramatic role. While Ryan was definitely what some would call the comedic relief of the film, there is so much more to the character than his goofy charm. Needless to say, he blew it out of the park. This performance left the door wide open for multitude of future opportunities for him and his career.

Eighth Grade (2018)

Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher behind the scenes filming Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade was Burnham’s first big project behind the camera. He served as writer and director of the film that followed an eighth-grader, Kayla, in her final week of middle school. While I wouldn’t classify this as a coming-of-age movie, it’s one I wish was around when I was heading in to high school.

I wanted to talk about anxiety and what it feels like to be alive right now, and what it is to be unsure and nervous. That felt more like middle school than high school to me. I think the country and the culture is going through an eighth-grade moment right now.

Bo Burnham, USA Today

Unlike some films centered around teenagers, Burnham’s script stands out as one that doesn’t feel the need to damage its protagonist to further the story. Every second of Eighth Grade stays true to Kayla and her enormous and inspiring sense of self. The film manages to showcase the importance of staying true to yourself and highlights how others’ perceptions of us should never define us.

The digital world and the warping of reality caused by social media is another prevalent theme. Burnham is no stranger to the internet, having gone viral at the age of 16 on YouTube. There’s not a shred of doubt that social media is creating an abundance of new issues for today’s youth, and even adults, and this film doesn’t shy away from emphasizing the effects we as a society are facing because of it.

There’s a lot of Bo Burnham throughout his film, even though he never makes an appearance on-screen. His fingerprints cover the words spoken, the music chosen, and the artful framing that are all distinctly Bo Burnham. This film is solid proof that Burnham has a career behind the camera ready to flourish just as much as the one he already had established in front of it.

Burnham earned critical acclaim for his debut feature film. Both lead actress Elsie Fisher and Burnham took home awards for the film, including the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay and the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing – First-Time Feature Picture, among others, for Burnham.

There’s no doubt that Eighth Grade was instrumental in the creation of Inside.

Egghead: Or, You Can’t Survive on Ideas Alone (2013)

The cover of Egghead: Or, You Can't Survive on Ideas Alone by Bo Burnham with an illustration of a man in a yellow jumpsuit parachuting with a cloud by Chance Bone
Grand Central Publishing

Burnham’s New York Times bestseller Egghead: Or, You Can’t Survive on Ideas Alone is basically a Bo Burnham show in your pocket. Poetry written to the tune of Burnham’s comedy, they’ll make you laugh and also sit back and consider what deeper meaning might be lying underneath. (Sometimes there isn’t one, sometimes it’s just funny.)

Burnham takes a jab at the modern romantic poetry filling Instagram and motivational posts on social media. And even if you’re a fan, you’ll find his jests at their expense enjoyable. Although, please note that some may contain offensive language (but nothing beyond what’s been said in comedy specials.)

A lot (or possibly all) of the poems in this book were featured in previous specials, too! The words have that signature Bo vibe in that they’ll make you laugh and cry at the same time, or maybe chuckle and then stop as you realize the joke applies to you, too. And above all, it’s just a different look into the brain of one of the best comedians and artists of today. (Maybe ever, but I admit I’m biased.)

Might I suggest the audiobook narrated by Bo Burnham himself as well? Burnham’s narration makes this amazing little treasure even better. Plus, you don’t even need a tea-stained, un-laminated map to find it.

Directing Comedy Specials (2017, 2018)

Burnham has also lent his directing talents to his fellow comedians. He’s directed two comedy specials: Jerrod Carmichael: 8 in 2017 and Chris Rock: Tamborine in 2018. Both specials were praised for their artful direction and ability to capture the words being spoken with a raw intimacy that translated on to the screen.

However, Chris Rock did end up releasing another extended version of Tamborine, erasing Burnham’s directing credit. Neither have commented professionally on the circumstances surrounding the edit. Both versions are available to watch on Netflix.

Bonus Watches:

  • Adventures in the Sin Bin (2012)
  • The Big Sick (2017)
  • Rough Night (2017)
  • Music videos to “Repeat Stuff” and “oh bo

Upcoming Projects

So what’s next for Bo Burnham? First, the Emmys. Nominated for six awards at this year’s show, Inside nabbed his ever first Emmy nominations.

Burnham is confirmed for a role in an upcoming series based on the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers. He will play Larry Bird in the untitled project for HBO estimated to release in 2022.

Prior to the pandemic, Burnham had also lined up some creative work. First, Deadline reported that Burnham would be writing songs for a live-action Sesame Street film starring Anne Hathaway. The film had an original release date for January 2021, but its current status is unknown. Also, another script was also in the works: an untitled film starring Danielle Macdonald and Jaboukie Young-White and directed by Amy York Rubin. The film is supposedly taking place in a high school.

Bo Burnham has an incredible ability to help society reexamine itself with his work. Maybe you listened closer to a country song after hearing “Pandering,” or reevaluated your internet and social media presence after Make Happy or Inside. I know I did. He makes it easier to swallow, too, with his humor and sheer talent. Burnham is a once-in-a-lifetime performer, lightning in a bottle. While we hope for a live comedy tour in the future, even if we never get one, it’s okay. Whether he’s writing scripts, directing, or creating comedy specials, Bo Burnham is around to continue his investigations into our world and proving that with some help from a little comedy, maybe we can all become a better person.

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By Kaity Co-Director
Kaity started with Harry Potter in second grade and it’s been a losing battle ever since, or maybe a winning one ... She lives in New England with a small herd of cats, two dogs, three chinchillas, and one daughter. You can definitely find her either watching anime, reading manga, or playing the same five video games over and over again. Contact:
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