Six years ago, Bo Burnham was a tall, pale, lanky kid from suburban Massachusetts with access to a crappy video camera and an electronic keyboard. What separated him from most 16-year-olds, however, was his ability to use those tools. Thematically speaking, the first two songs Burnham uploaded to YouTube – Dec. 21, 2006 – certainly didn’t stray far from what comedy fans would consider hack: “My Whole Family” centers around everyone’s assumptions about his sexual preference and “My ‘Little’ Secret” is about his small penis. But what was undeniable was his amazing ability to write and play songs that were musically and lyrically competent and intelligently funny despite the song’s topics. You have to write what you know, right?
At a time when no one was launching an entertainment career based on their online presence, Burnham had no expectations, beyond giving his brother Pete and his college friends a chuckle. But those videos would prove to be his entry into showbusiness. After the videos garnered more than 10 million views online, between YouTube and video aggregation site Break.com, Comedy Central Records gambled on Burnham, who was just a senior at St. John’s Prep, an all-boys Catholic school in Danvers, MA. In 2008, the network’s record label, headed by Jack Vaughn, released a six-song digital EP titled Bo Fo Sho, which featured “My Whole Family.” The experiment was successful, and a year later Burnham released his self-titled full-length album.
Shortly after the release of his first hour-long special, DVD and album Words Words Words in 2010, it became clear that Burnham was a comedic force, despite his age and despite his YouTube pedigree, which helped afford him the opportunity to headline small theaters and comedy clubs without having to toil first for a decade on the road doing one-nighters for drunks. Words was not just an achievement in comedy but also a theatrical win, as it found Burnham deftly mixing stand-up with musical comedy and poetry.
Now at 22, Burnham is about to begin the next phase of his career. Tonight at 10:30 pm ET on MTV, he’ll be seen in the series premiere of Zach Stone is Gonna to be Famous, a show centered on the titular character, a recent high school graduate who, in lieu of prepping for higher education, spends his entire savings on a film crew to follow him around the summer before his friends go to college. His goal, to the disapproval of his parents – his stern-yet-warm father (Tom Wilson) and his loving, albeit, frustrated mother (Kari Coleman) – is to create a reality series and become, well, you know.
I spoke with Burnham this week about Zach Stone, his new live show, titled What., the concept of the modern celebrity and more. Watch the Zach Stone trailer below and continue on to my interview!
I’ve watched three episodes of the show, and while I really liked it, I have to say, it made me a little anxious— the same way Curb Your Enthusiasm or Louie does.
I think it’s closer to Curb. The main character is so unlikable that you’re hopefully rooting for him despite of 99 out of a 100 things he’s doing. The challenge of the show was to see if people can get on board with a character who’s so inherently unlikable and who’s so annoying and so abrasive up front. One of the reasons I chose to do the show was, I felt like I found my own face so punchable so I didn’t want to try to play a version of myself that was a hero. When I saw my own face in the mirror, I thought I could only play punchable anti-hero. That’s how I sort of conceived this kid. So, it should certainly make you feel a little anxious and nervous. Hopefully it should be a little fun and light-hearted, too. I feel anxious and nervous when I see all these kids trying to be famous and what’s happening to young people. It makes me feel super weird and uncomfortable.
I feel like a lot of younger viewers might think of Zach Stone as an earnest hero, without irony, and not an anti-hero.
I think some may. But I think some may reject him with no irony. I would think most people would just find him annoying if they had no idea what the irony was. I’ve gotten some tweets where people actually think he’s real. Like, ‘So Zach Stone is real and Bo Burnham is a stage name you took on?’ That’s truly the opposite of what I wanted to happen. This is more like me outlining the anti-backstory of what I wanted to be.
By the time I was playing Zach, I did feel for him, and I tried not to insult him too much. I tried to portray him in a way that it’s clear where his motivations are coming from and what his need to be famous is fixing for him and how it’s changing what he doesn’t like about himself. So I do want people to like him. And if kids latch on to him as a hero unironically, I think that’s ok. But I think it would be pretty hard to watch the show and have everyone react negatively and think the way Zach tries to bring fame into his life and the way he disappoints his parents constantly and everyone around him and annoys everybody— that’s a little hard to look up to for kids. I don’t think that will happen– at least not too much.
Obviously I have no idea how the season ends, but while I was watching the episodes I thought there’s got to be a finite number of scams Zach could run to become famous. Is there a second season?
The first season is over the span of that summer before college. There is definitely a second season and definitely a turn. I think you could make this a cyclical thing where he just keeps on trying. But, without giving too much away, the finale will certainly feel like we’ve opened Pandora’s box a bit.
Before you uploaded your first video on YouTube six years ago, what were your expectations?
I really didn’t have any expectations because at the time it really wasn’t a vehicle for anybody. It had never been proven to launch anyone’s career. It was just sort of this new website that I heard you can post a video on and then send it to, like, your brother across the country and he can watch it. That’s all it was for me. I certainly didn’t have thoughts of being famous, let alone expectations of people even watching it. It was wild. I didn’t even know what the site was. I thought my brother would watch the video and then maybe he would show it to some friends. I didn’t even have an idea of what ‘going viral’ was. Zach has what my priorities at that time completely backwards. He has complete expectations of fame with complete certainty and yet zero substance.
At what point did you realize there might be something more than just uploading videos to YouTube?
It’s hard to remember. And at a certain point it gets fictionalized in my own head to a certain degree. The videos started getting all these views. And slowly over the course of a couple of years in high school I started to perform and I realized that maybe I can give this a shot as a career. And even when I was about to go to college I decided to just take a year off to experiment with it. And then I recorded my CD [Bo Fo Sho] in that year. So I was pretty hesitant all the way through and then it sort of clicked for me.
We last talked around the release of Words Words Words in 2010. Part of our chat was what type of live show you wanted to do next. You’re about to go on tour. So, What kind of live show did you put together?
It’s much bigger than Words Words Words. There’s still stand-up, music and poetry, but it’s a little bit more thematic. It’s more theatrical. It incorporates a lot of backing tracks so that I can listen onstage and hopefully expand the world a little bit more. I’m hoping it breaks the fourth wall slightly more and then at other times it seals it much better than I ever had— so that it feels like you’re watching a one-man show instead of a kid singing songs and telling jokes.
I also think the songs are a little more mature and a little better written. Words had elements of serious, meaningful stuff and then silly stuff and they were sort of compartmentalized. And I hope I synthesized them a little bit more in this new show. I have bits that I hope are as meaningful as the stuff I’ve ever done and as funny as some of the stuff I’ve done. It’s bigger. It’s got these backing elements as well, which were sort of a revelation for me. And hopefully it’ll be something people haven’t really seen before. It’s also very much a love letter to theater and it’s all about live performance. I don’t want the backing tracks to feel technical. I want them to feel very weird and raw.
You were working on a musical comedy film with Judd Apatow. Even though it didn’t get made, what was that experience like?
It was amazing. I wasn’t that well-equipped to write a musical. But I got so much out of it, just learning to write a script. I didn’t know anything about three-act story structure or anything. I had days where I would just go in and he would stand at a white board and walk me through how to write a story, which was so valuable. He was amazingly helpful and humble, especially to a little 18-year-old kid who didn’t know anything. He was amazingly respectful of my thoughts. It truly wasn’t anything but positive. I got so much out of it. It might have been better that I just get all of this life experience, all of this writing experience and I don’t have this overexposed musical that maybe I wasn’t ready to write at the time.
Because of the premise of Zach Stone and because of your own career trajectory, I have to ask what you think of A.J. Clemente, the news anchor who became famous this week because he said ‘fucking shit’ on air. He’s been on Kelly and Michael, Today and Late Show with David Letterman. Why is he famous?
I think that situation simple. People watched him do this and they felt so bad for him. It was like a collective feeling bad for this guy who fucked up so terribly. Then they just come to his rescue and say, ‘Oh, put him on this, put him on Kelly and Michael. Oh, see, he’s on a talk show having fun.’ I don’t think there’s a lot of longevity to his gaffe. I think that was just simply going viral and people just feeling bad for the dude.
They put him on Kelly and Michael and the worse thing that can happen is he fucks up again and then Kelly and Michael have a viral hit they can put on their website. If this guy has a reality show in the next year, then we can talk. Then it’s gotten out of control. For now, I think it’s just residual empathy.