Hear Me Out: Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous

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Hear Me Out: Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous

Hear Me Out is a column dedicated to earnest reevaluations of those cast-off bits of pop-cultural ephemera that deserve a second look. Whether they’re films, TV series, albums, comedy specials, videogames or even cocktails, Hear Me Out is ready to go to bat for any underappreciated subject.

Although he’s now considered a somewhat divisive figure due to his YouTube edgelord beginnings, Bo Burnham was once one of the most promising young comics around. Burnham procured his first Comedy Central stand-up special at just 19 years old, and has maintained a devoted cult fanbase ever since. While I do think those that worship the ground Bo walks on and stream the songs from his specials in isolation are at best, missing the point, and at worst, strange individuals, Burnham’s nearly two-decade long career still has its hidden gems. And chief among them is Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous.

Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous was the short-lived mockumentary sitcom that Burnham executive produced, wrote and starred in. It aired on MTV in the spring of 2013, and was canceled after the first season due to poor ratings. After finding out about the cancellation, Bo immediately took to Twitter to ask, “@McDonald’s are you hiring?” The show immediately faded into obscurity after it finished airing, and was not easily accessible to rewatch until it was on Netflix between 2021 and 2023 (or via less savory means—respectfully, I was not paying Jeff Bezos $15 for this), which caused a slight uptick in its notoriety.

The reason Zach Stone failed is today its biggest strength: The show was years ahead of its time. As someone that is smack-dab in the middle of Gen-Z, the reason I open my mouth to defend Burnham’s work is because nobody portrays internet culture quite as accurately and tastefully as he does. The show follows its titular character (played by Burnham) throughout the summer after his high school graduation. Zach is hungry for fame, and concludes the best vehicle to achieve it is to hire a camera crew to produce a reality TV show about him. Each episode follows a different method in which Zach attempts to accrue fame, whether that be by becoming a recording artist, a celebrity chef (a la Gordon Ramsay), or getting on the news by going missing. Although certainly satirized here, the persistence in which Zach attempts to “blow up” through all these different mediums was a prescient look into the rise of influencer culture. Many creators and influencers throughout their careers often change their direction in line with their perception of the public’s interest, and that idea is condensed and explored thoroughly in Zach Stone’s 12 episodes. The early days of Bo’s career were entirely housed on the internet, so this is truly a satire of both himself and the worst of his peers.

With this format, the show very well could’ve gotten lost in the sauce of its own absurdity, but Burnham grounds the show in its “off-camera” moments, as Zach navigates the pushback his antics receive from his family and two best friends. The stakes for the majority of the series surround winning over the attention of his life-long best friend and bubbly girl-next-door Amy (played by Caitlin Gerard). Their friends to lovers arc is genuinely captivating, and the moments of sincerity both brought on by his feelings for her and his inherent love for his parents and younger brother are what allow Zach to be a rootable protagonist despite his outwardly selfish behavior. The quick-witted, secondhand embarrassment humor is very in line with the rest of Bo’s work, and in my opinion, works best in this sitcom format. Even throwaway gags like Amy finding a box in their friend Greg’s room and asking who “Hen Tai” is had me laughing out loud on rewatch.

Burnham takes full advantage of this medium in a way that enhances both the humor and storytelling. When Zach’s cameras are following other characters when he’s not in the room, it’s accounted for. When half the camera crew is in the car with Zach’s parents during a tender moment, it’s because Zach ran out of room in his car. When the camera crew is filming Amy while Zach is in the bathroom, it’s because “Zach likes to record people looking sad when he’s not around.” A lesser show would not acknowledge the camera crew past the pilot episode, but here they’re used as a character themselves. Zach’s family is shown to build relationships with them, and they’re spoken to directly by almost every character, acting as both a comedic device and grounding the audience in this reality of metacommentary.

The writing of Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous becomes more interesting after realizing the entire show is a Burnham self-insert. Zach is, to an extent, the caricature that Burnham thought people perceived him as after turning down his acceptance to NYU to continue pursuing his comedy career. Zach’s attention-hungry, selfish, and antic-prone personality is a manifestation of Bo’s insecurities in this early stage of his career. Almost all of Bo’s work in the 2010s surrounds this idea of life being a performance. “If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it” is the final line of Burnham’s 2016 special Make Happy, and this motif extends both backward into Zach Stone and forward into the similarly masterful Eighth Grade. Using life as a performance in order to avoid confronting what’s beyond the surface is an especially resonant message today, even in comparison to when the show aired in 2013. Much of our lives exist in a vacuum of social performance (online or otherwise), and this personification of that facet of life is both a fascinating character study, and makes for a damn funny TV show that shouldn’t be forgotten.

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