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Bo Burnham on His New MTV Show, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, and His YouTube Years

Musician Bo Burnham performs during the Second Annual Hilarity For Charity benefiting The Alzheimer's Association at the Avalon on April 25, 2013 in Hollywood, California.
Bo Burnham. Photo: Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images

Bo Burnham first made his name on YouTube at the tender age of 16, but in only a few years, he moved on from “Internet sensation” to become one of the most inventive and imaginative comedians working today. Now 22, he’s back with his own MTV show, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, which follows an 18-year-old who hires a film crew to make a reality show about his life. The show, which premieres Thursday at 10:30, documents Stone’s various attempts at fame — including, of course, a sex tape. Vulture spoke to Burnham about reality shows, getting confused for his character, and what the Internet thinks of Zach Stone.

I feel like I’ve been hearing about this show for so long. It’s been in the works for a while, right?
Yeah, I think we filmed the pilot, like, two years ago? And then the series itself was filmed last year, and you can actually see from the pilot to the second episode my brother [played by Cameron Palatas] gains ten pounds of muscle and gets a jawline. [Laughs.] It’s like he completely hits puberty. But, yeah, the great thing about working on the show is that we wrote the whole show, then we filmed the whole show, then we edited the whole show. So I was able to be there through each process, and it helped me to hopefully make the show a cohesive thing.

Do you ever worry that the kids watching won’t get the satire? Or am I underestimating the MTV audience?
I’m not too worried about that. Maybe they won’t fully get exactly what I’m saying, or what we’re trying to say with the show, but maybe subconsciously the ideas of fame as something that’s a little bit poisonous, a little bit toxic, even if it just subconsciously gives them an idea. But I mean, there are kids tweeting at me every day thinking that my real name is Zach Stone. [Laughs.]

And in choosing to do a show like this, you’re obviously inviting comparisons between yourself and the character.
Yeah, I am. I sort of conceived the show as a comparison to myself, to be like, I was not this person. I was definitely not the kid that just wanted to be famous for no reason whatsoever and then happened to find comedy. Fame and all that stuff have always been slightly terrifying to me, and it makes me very anxious. As opposed to Zach, who, it just thrills him. The idea of fame and notoriety, even infamy, is so enticing to him. So, yeah, it’s slightly worrying when people actually think that I am. Like, the person that I literally created to be the antithesis of me, people are thinking is me.

But you do seem like you have sympathy for him.
For sure. And the thing is, I went into it thinking this is going to be this biting satire that slams this kid for having shallow priorities. And then, as we had to actually write where this kid is coming from and why he feels this way, I realized that I don’t have any problem with youth. I just have a problem with youth culture. I didn’t want to bash young people. I don’t want to bash a kid for dreaming or wanting something or being slightly ambitious — that’s not the problem. The actual problem is with the culture surrounding him. He is just this scared little kid that is self-conscious, so he wants to change his body or change the way people perceive him. He never thought he was good enough, and fame is sort of this fix-all for kids now. I totally have sympathy for him, and hopefully the audience does, too.

You’ve obviously dealt with a lot of Internet commenters. God only knows what the Internet would say about this kid if it were a real reality show.
Well, the good thing is that some people do think it’s a real reality show, so you can actually go on the Internet, because I think they’re saying it right now.

Oh, I look forward to spending all day just reading what people on the Internet think about Zach Stone.
Yeah. Just search on Twitter for Zach Stone. It’s been really fun for me. It’ll be like, “Why does this kid get a show? I want to be famous! I should get a show, too!” It’s really awesome.

In an old interview, you described yourself in your early videos as “like Michael Cera with a guitar.” I was wondering how close Zach is to that character you played at the beginning of your own career.
Yeah. That’s totally true. I was being slightly derivative and leaning on this awkward comedy. And then my stage act sort of became something else, and I think I’ve grown out of that. But when I went to play Zach, I definitely tapped back into that old thing. It’s so funny, because it’s something at the time that I was genuinely doing to be funny, and then when I would look back on it, I’d be like, Uggh. [Laughs.] I’d find it so annoying and grating, and so it seemed perfect for Zach, that just smiley energetic goofiness that is so punchable to me. I’ve always liked TV shows that have slightly unlikable leads, where you root for them in spite of a lot of things. I know it’s not common with shows with young people; they have to be so likable. But, I mean, teenagers just generally aren’t very likable. I know I wasn’t as a teenager.

Bo Burnham on His New Show and the YouTube Years