“TIMES are changing and I’m getting old. Are you gonna hold me accountable?”

Much of the discourse in recent weeks has revolved around That Comedian, who at 60-years-old spends much of his time boasting about how he can’t be held accountable for what he says. 

You know the one. ‘Ooh, can’t say that these days!’ he declares after saying that these days.

This week marked the first anniversary of another hit Netflix comedy special, this time from a comic half That Comedian’s age.

Written, performed, recorded and edited entirely by himself in his Los Angeles home during lockdown, Bo Burnham’s Inside quickly became one of the 21st century’s most iconic comedy shows.

Winning three Emmys and a Grammy among other awards, it prompted such breathless headlines as ‘Bo Burnham has produced a genius lockdown masterpiece’ and ‘Inside raises the bar for comedy specials’. 

Using irony, self-deprecation, an avalanche of cultural references and several extremely catchy songs, Burnham asked awkward questions of himself and the viewers as he examined his struggles with mental health, how the internet has failed to deliver on its early promise and ended up poisoning our brains, and whether it’s acceptable to rhyme ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘1964’. 

It is introspective, insightful, innovative and, most importantly, very funny.

Inside may be the one bit of TV I’ve banged on about the most in recent years, although admittedly that might not be a significant seal of approval considering I’m the guy who recently devoted his entire 850-word column in this newspaper to Married at First Sight Australia.

I wasn’t alone. It turns out that, for millions of us, the content we most enjoyed while being stuck indoors was someone stuck indoors singing about being stuck indoors. 

That ‘you can’t talk about anything’ guy’s most recent special was released late last month.

The thing is, you actually can talk about anything. Celebrated film critic Roger Ebert once said: “A movie is not about what it is about. It’s about how it is about it.”

When it comes to ‘controversial’ subjects in comedy, the issue isn’t what the joke is about but how it’s about it. 

That Comedian’s schtick these days is to bring up those subjects and make the marginalised people at the centre of them the target. Those subjects are broached often in great comedy, but the target of the joke is the character who exposes their own ignorance with outdated views, not the minority group the character is ignorant about. 

The awkwardness derived from those interactions is at the heart of such legendary comedies as Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci’s I’m Alan Partridge, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s Peep Show and Stephen Merchant’s The Office. 

Burnham came to fame in 2006 as a 16-year-old thanks to early YouTube hit ‘My Whole Family’, with the lyrics of that song and others prompting a protest outside his 2009 show at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. 

Rather than devoting the remainder of his career to being affronted at other people having the audacity to be affronted by his material, he has listened, grown and adapted. 

Speaking on American talk radio show Fresh Air in 2018, Burnham said: “The cultural standards of what is appropriate comedy and also the inner standards of my own mind have changed rapidly since I was 16.

“I have a lot of material from back then that I’m not proud of and I think is offensive and I think is not helpful. I do not think my intention was homophobic, but what is the implicit comedy of that song if you chase it all the way down? I don’t think it’s perfectly morally defensible”.

That insight doesn’t excuse material that’s aged badly, but it shows humility and maturity that certain peers twice his age are apparently incapable of.

Saying ‘this kind of material is dated’ needn’t be taken as a personal attack to get defensive over, or a challenge that sees you lean further into that dated material. 

Burnham doesn’t get a gold star for showing that level of awareness. He’s not going above and beyond. It’s merely the appropriate response, but in light of recent controversies it feels refreshing. 

This column’s opening line comes from ‘Problematic’, one of Inside’s standout tracks. It sees him own up to the inappropriateness of some early material (“I’ve been totally awful, my closet is chock-full of stuff that is vaguely s****y”), while simultaneously poking fun at his own confessional (“I’ve done a lot of self-reflecting since I started singing this song”). 

He’s reckoning with his past and still getting laughs. Contrast his approach with That Comedian, doubling down on the ill-natured stand-up routines before relentlessly searching his own name on Twitter to see who’s criticising him for doubling down. 

When That Comedian makes headlines for unimaginatively picking on groups who are already constantly picked on, Inside makes for a welcome alternative. It shows that you can look inward, acknowledge times when your comedy has been misjudged and still make millions of people laugh. 

As Burnham sings to a Marxist sock puppet on his hand, “that’s how the world works”.