Photo of a microphone in front of an audience

Bo Burnham: Healing the world with comedy

The pandemic gave birth to a new form of creativity — restricted by quarantine, born of loneliness, and inspired by fear. We saw it in ourselves, our friends and our artists.

No one captured the zeitgeist of our year-long isolation better than Bo Burnham with his Netflix special, “Inside.” For a millennial who has been open about his mental health problems, the pandemic provided the perfect opportunity to pour his analytical humor, catchy songwriting and innovative video skills into a production that will be remembered for as long as COVID-19.

Before he quit performing five years ago due to repeated panic attacks on stage, Burnham had garnered a devoted fanbase of Gen-Z and college-aged viewers. But I didn’t hear about him until he turned 30 in the small guest house where he wrote, produced and directed a one-man comedy medley about the social and mental health issues we all experienced this past year.

The first time I watched Inside, I was reminded of the 1976 HBO special from the Troubadour, which introduced a new comedian named Steve Martin. With a banjo, a few balloon animals and an arrow stuck through his head, Martin redefined comedy for my generation. With a piano, a laptop and a disco ball illuminated by a light strapped to his head, Burnham did the same for his.

It’s hard to describe what makes Bo Burnham’s special so special. Critics call the show brilliant. Fans call him a genius. Both are probably right. He was nominated for six Emmys and won three.

But in life and in art, timing is everything. Something special happens when an individual delivers the right message, with the right tone, at exactly the right time. Whether their medium is print, paint or jokes, their work captures the moment in a way that even they couldn’t anticipate.

For 90 minutes (spanning many months), as his hair lengthens and his mental condition declines, Burnham verbally deconstructs everyday pandemic activities such as sexting with his girlfriend, Face Timing with his mom, and white women on Instagram.

Observational comedy isn’t new, but his observations are insightful to the point of intimacy. They’re more about who we are than what we do. As a PR person, I found his uncanny parody of a brand consultant expounding on the importance of purpose to be both embarrassing and hilarious — because his character sounds just like me.

Bo Burnham doesn’t tell jokes about things that are inherently amusing. Instead, he wrestles with the troubling topics on the minds of a generation — from unpaid internships to suicide. He debates income inequality with a sock puppet and raps about feeling like shit with a canned chorus. Like many others, he is depressed about what is happening to the economy, the planet and “all the other stuff.” But he uses his depression to make the rest of us feel better.

I’ve told everyone I know to watch “Inside.” Many are too busy with other great content like “Ted Lasso,” “Bridgerton” and “The White Lotus” to bother. But I predict Bo Burnham will have a more profound impact on the future than the rest of them. Because his humor is the genuine byproduct of the “f*k*d-up world we live in.”

Throughout this musical therapy session, Burnham continually asks himself and his audience a legitimate question.

“Should I be joking at a time like this?”

For his generation, the answer is yes. When they’re anxious all of the time, laughter is exactly what they need. Not to escape their troubles, but to face them head-on with a feeling that they’re not alone, even when they’re stuck in a room by themselves.

For my generation, Bo Burnham’s comedy can also be contagious. And once we’ve been exposed to it, it’s hard to go back to Steve Martin.