Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bo Burnham owns up to his “Problematic” origins in comedy special Inside

Nestled between all of the Netflix special’s jokes is a potent reflection on the comedian’s career and a call-out for his own missteps as a teen

Image of Bo Burnham in his Netflix special, Bo Burnham: Inside
Bo Burnham
Screenshot: Bo Burnham: Inside / Netflix

Bo Burnham’s newest Netflix special, Inside, teeters on unfunny in its realism and careens towards becoming an exposition on depression during quarantine. The 30-year-old comedian channels the visceral feelings of being stuck indoors over the last year, maneuvering through comedy’s own role in making us feel better during this time. He covers white fragility, a well-known CEO by the name of Jeffrey Bezos, and the endless nightmarish rabbit hole that is the internet. However, nestled in between all of the jokes about white women’s Instagram accounts, sexting, and FaceTiming his mom, is a potent reflection on the comedian’s 15-year-long career, and a call-out for his own missteps as a teenager.

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Robert “Bo” Burnham began his career in musical comedy when he was 16, from his childhood bedroom in the suburb of Hamilton, Massachusetts. It was 2006—YouTube had only been live for one year—when teenage Burnham uploaded “My Whole Family...”, a four-minute song about his family questioning his sexuality, while running the gamut of derogatory slurs. His second video jokes about his current love interest, an 83-year-old woman, who dies at the end, where he then jokes about falling in love with a toddler. This early “pubescent musical comedy” got him a record deal with Comedy Central by the time he was 17. At 18, he recorded his first 30-minute-long special for the network, the youngest person to ever do so. His first EP, Bo Fo Sho, was released in 2008, kicking off album recordings, stand-up tours, and subsequent comedy specials, 2010’s Words, Words, Words, 2013's what., and 2016's Make Happy.

Inside takes us 15 years after the comedian uploaded his first video. Burnham glares at the younger version of himself projected on the wall singing “My Whole Family…” Watching Inside and his early work side by side, so much of Burnham’s performing self is the same. He sits in front of a keyboard at home, writing piano ditties that he hopes make people feel something, if not laugh. He holds the same hunched posture and spills the justifications behind every song before playing them. But in Inside, his mannerisms sit on an exhausted, adult face, as he arduously reflects on his career and pieces together the special on his own.

Following the long overdue stare-down with himself, he moves into “Problematic,” which pokes fun at the current cycle of celebrity call-outs and apologies, while ’fessing up to the blatantly unfunny, homophobic, and misogynistic jokes he said in his early career. He projects a sacrificial cross onto himself, begging viewers to hold him accountable for his wrongdoings as a teenager in the public eye.

“A tiny town in Massachusetts, overwhelmingly white, I went to church on Sundays in a suit and a tie, then spent my free time watching Family Guy. I started doing comedy when I was just a sheltered kid I wrote offensive shit, and I said it. Father, please forgive me, for I did not realize what I did, or that I’d live to regret it.

Times are changing, and I’m getting old, are you gonna hold me accountable?”

He then apologizes for hiding behind his youth, as many celebrities do when called out for being complicit in racism, misogyny, and the like. Throughout “Problematic,” Burnham recognizes that the first step to being a better person is acknowledging mistakes and owning up to them instead of trying to bury them and act as though they never happened.

This comes at a time in comedy where comedians find themselves reckoning with the fact that not every joke they’ve made has been in good taste, and that the racism, misogyny, ableism, and homophobia peddled out by comedians is no longer taken lightly. Comedian, actor, and producer Seth Rogen recently addressed the idea of “cancel culture” in comedy, saying, “To me when I see comedians complaining about this kind of thing, I don’t understand what they’re complaining about. If you’ve made a joke that’s aged terribly, accept it,” moving on to discuss the ever changing landscape of comedy. In a recent interview, Katt Williams dismantled the gripes with so-called “cancel culture,” reframing it as minimizing harm to marginalized communities, simply saying, “If you want to offend somebody, nobody took those words away from you… Look, if these are the confines that keep you from doing the craft God put you to, then it probably ain’t for you.”

With “Problematic,” Burnham echoes another point Williams made: “Growth is part of being an adult.” The comedian rings in his 30th birthday on camera for the special, a milestone that for many means, “it’s time to really grow up.” When The A.V. Club interviewed him in 2009, he said he talked about sex often because “sexual things are funny,” with the self-awareness that “when you get too old, it just becomes creepy and dirty… It’s fun to see a little kid play with things that are so out of his head. It’s morbidly entertaining.” Bo Burnham knows he’s too old to make crude jokes about having sex with women, he knew that at 19.

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If Inside represents Burnham’s return to comedy, it’s also his moment of reckoning with the people who were the targets of his early jokes—women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. After taking five years off from stand-up, he comes back older, much wiser, and with some necessary apologies. He’s no longer the 16-year-old suburbanite immersed in a world of comedy ruled by white men saying jokes without thinking about who’s at the other end of them. If Burnham wished, he could delete the YouTube videos and every syllable of problematic jokes with them, but he knows that’s not the solution. Internet sleuths would dig all of it up anyways. He chooses to be a better version of himself and address it head-on, in typical effective, self-deprecating fashion.