It's been a long year. You don't need me to tell you that. There's nobody on this planet who hasn't been touched by the COVID-19 pandemic, in ways large or small. But some of those people have platforms. Some of those people with platforms are using that to aid people who need it the most. Some are using that platform to share brunch photos with captions that assure us everyone there was vaccinated, or at least taking their daily vitamin C. Only one of those people with a platform is comedian Bo Burnham, who hasn't performed live or released a special since he took a step back from comedy five years ago.

That is no longer the case. The new Netflix special Bo Burnham: Inside was written, directed, edited, shot, and performed by Burnham alone in a single room over the course of a year of quarantine. And for better or for worse, it is the definitive document of what 2020 in America felt like. As you can imagine, it is not pleasant.

Sure, this comedy special features excellent comedy musical numbers highlighting the absurdities of things like white women's Instagram profiles or teaching your mom how to use FaceTime. But from the jump, we see Burnham struggling with the idea of what it means to make comedy when there's no audience and the world is falling apart. If he found an answer to that question, he certainly hasn't shared it with us. Inside is presented to us in the shape of a comedy special, but its real function is as a documentary of one man's struggle to keep a grip on his mental health, not so much delivering jokes as desperately clutching at them as the only means to stay afloat.

Ha ha.

Bo Burnham Inside

Bo Burnham: Inside can only be described as harrowing. That's probably not a word you'd normally use to recommend a comedy special to a friend, but what is normal these days? By rejecting the premise that it needs to actually be funny all the way through, Inside becomes something that very few, if any, comedy specials actually get to be: a genuine, bona fide object of cinema.

Burnham approaches his material with the restless spirit of the low budget auteur, taking one room and spinning it into infinity with a couple lights and his imagination. At times our subject is presented sitcom bright, singing a song with a volatile sock puppet. Other times he's completely in silhouette or splashed in lurid colors that would make Dario Argento cock an eyebrow.

On more than one occasion he projects images onto himself, or even rejects himself entirely and positions the camera itself as the subject of the frame. It's completely spellbinding work, presenting us with a series of images of a single space that never looks the same twice, Burnham using the film's unique visual approach to reflect his own fracturing identity.

Bo Burnham Inside

It doesn't hurt that the songs presented here are among Burnham's very best compositions. If they were presented just as instrumentals, well... they wouldn't be Bo Burnham songs. But they would be gorgeous to listen to nonetheless. Because Inside has a depth of feeling and specificity unknown to most musical comedians, the arrangements and motifs have something much meatier to chew on and tonally support than just a fun gag about boy bands (as delightful as such a thing may be).

Bo Burnham: Inside explodes comedy into a million pieces and spreads them across the floor in fascinating variations. Of course the end result is not hilarious, as such, but any document of nihilism, suicidal ideation, isolation, and loneliness isn't exactly going to be a laugh riot. Inside will scoop out your innards and leave you hollow, and it does so with a keen eye for using its necessarily limited resources to its best advantage. That's not what a good comedy special does, but it is what a good indie film does. And Inside is one of the best indie films of 2021, hands down.

Brennan Klein is a millennial who knows way more about 80's slasher movies than he has any right to. You can find his other reviews on his blog Popcorn Culture. Follow him on Twitter, if you feel like it.