Talking to Bo Burnham About His New MTV Show, Working with Judd Apatow, and Playing an Unrelatable Character
After becoming one of the first people to rise to fame via YouTube as a teen writing funny songs from his bedroom in 2006, comedian/musician Bo Burnham is making the big jump to TV this week. He’s starring in Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, a new comedy he co-created that premieres this Thursday at 10:30pm on MTV. A mockumentary about a fame-obsessed high school grad who foregoes college so that he can stay in his hometown and hire a camera crew to follow him around, Zach Stone is Burnham’s first-ever starring role. I had the chance to talk with Burnham this week in advance of the premiere of his show, discussing how he is similar and different to the narcissist he plays on TV, how he’s using technology to expand his stand-up act, and being mentored by Judd Apatow.
What was it like playing such an unrelatable character on the show?
I went into it writing someone that the audience is supposed to hate. In his conception, [I] was basically putting up a straw man of “this is who I’m not.” ‘Cause I’ve heard people maybe think that I was obsessed with fame and that’s why I wanted to do this or something. Whenever I’ve heard that, I was like, “Well, that wasn’t me, but that sounds like a cool character.” As we started writing it and I got to start playing it, I had to realize what actually makes a kid be obsessed with fame. Where does it come from? Is it his own insecurities? Is it his own feeling to want to be better than he is? I sort of actually in doing that related to him a lot and didn’t hate him as much, so it was basically a journey of thinking I was gonna be completely unrelated and actually relating a lot in the end.
In terms of the stuff with your character’s peers going to college while he’s pursuing his career, you related to that, I imagine.
Yeah, for sure. I stayed home to do my own thing while all my friends went to college. And that was rough for me. I had a lot of anger towards college that I think Zach shares that is completely ungrounded. It’s just because I was jealous and sad that they were all gonna go have fun and have friends and I was gonna be home with my parents. But yeah, I don’t really share a lot of his enthusiasm. And I don’t share his smiles or his high voices.
You do imbue the character with a lot of humanity despite how much of an ego monster he is.
He’s almost more outwardly human than maybe I am. I’m just sort of a low-key shy person who doesn’t have a giant raise of emotion over a day. I just stay quiet, working. And he just is constantly bouncing back and forth on the spectrum. As much as he has his amazingly egomaniacal moments, he’s so outwardly vulnerable and he has such a thin layer around him. It wasn’t a conscious effort to endear him with humanity as much as it was this constant thin layer over his true feelings. It makes it so in every situation, you can react in the 9s and the 10s of emotions [and] very quickly get to know him.
Did you have other comedy characters who you looked to as a model for Zach Stone?
My biggest influence is probably like David Brent. The British Office is like my favorite show ever. Even the American Office. I didn’t watch the American Office at first because I was so obsessed with the British Office and I didn’t want to watch the American Office. And then, I started watching it, and I feel Steve Carell is closer to Zach than Ricky Gervais’s was because Michael Scott is coming from such a positive place. It’s that mix of ego and positivity that’s so particular and, hopefully, funny. He’s got like a little bit of a young Larry David, but a little bit of a Bugs Bunny in him too.
Besides those shows, what are some of your other favorite comedies and influences?
Um, yeah, British Office. Larry Sanders Show. The Comeback – that Lisa Kudrow show that ran a season. With this show in particular, we tried really hard to maintain the premise that there’s actually a camera crew following these people. We cast the camera crew, and we show them in reverse angles. We really tried to keep the logic. A lot of mockumentaries nowadays, they don’t keep with the logic at all. Most of them don’t. A character will randomly run outside, and all of the sudden, the camera will be waiting for them there. They break the rules all the time, and we really tried hard to keep with that. A lot of Christopher Guest stuff and a lot of the mockumentary stuff were good references.
When did you write your first screenplay?
When I was 18, I was in this high school musical with Judd Apatow that was gonna be a movie. By the end of it, it never really came together as it should and probably for the best, it didn’t end up going forward. But yeah, that was my first script [at] like 18.
How far into the process did that script make it?
It was probably like three drafts. It was great. I got so much out of it because I was able to learn how to write a script from him, which was huge. I got as much out of it as I could really hope for. We did three whole drafts, which is hours of sitting and watching Judd on a whiteboard with a marker, showing me how a story was supposed to be written because I had no idea.
So you used a lot of stuff that he taught you for the show?
Yeah, he taught me everything about basic story structure. I learned a lot from the writers in the room because television was its own format. This whole thing was a huge learning process.
How did the show’s cast come together?
It was important for us to get people who were just gonna act real and make this seem like a legitimate show, and, more importantly, be able to play the straight man to this idiot. It wasn’t important that everyone comes in so wacky and being really funny because we thought it was really only funny if this was grounded in reality and if you believe that this kid is dealing with real people. We weren’t really trying to find names or anything. We weren’t really concerned with that. So yeah, we just sat down with a bunch of people and chose the best ones … We didn’t want to have scenes that were just funny-offs between two wacky characters because then you can’t believe that it’s actually happening in a real universe.
What was your favorite episode that you filmed this year?
I liked the finale. There’s one where Zach becomes an actor. It’s him auditioning for this student film, and you see the film performed three times – once in the audition, once in the rehearsal, and once in the performance. All three of the performances are different based on how Zach’s feeling in that specific moment. I liked the ones where the personal and the fame story dovetail well, and we tried to do that in every one.
As you guys were moving along throughout the season, did it feel like it got easier and you got a stronger grasp on the show, or did you have it from the start?
The pilot, we filmed a year before we filmed the rest of the show, so, actually, the pilot is the only one that feels it might be a slightly different show … I think like [episodes] 4, 5, and 6, it starts to hit its groove. I know you’re supposed to say, “It’s amazing from the beginning, and watch!” but uh, I think it’s good from the beginning … Like every show, it starts to find its groove.
Do you have a new stand-up special on the way?
Yeah, I do. I just finished my new hour. I’m gonna tour it this month, and then, hopefully, I’ll record the special in the next couple months and then release it later this year.
Do you plan to release it yourself or through a TV network?
I’m not sure. I don’t really want to do a network, I don’t think. But it could be myself, maybe Netflix. I’m just trying to find the best way to get as many people to see it as possible. I know if I release it through myself for five dollars, I don’t have Louie’s crowd. I just want a bunch of people to see it, and I’m trying to think of the best way to do it.
What’s the new special like?
In my new hour, what I’ve done is kind of incorporate the idea of backing tracks to expand the show into this slightly bigger thing where I can now be listening to people talking to me and interacting with them. Then, I can do songs away from the piano, but I can also hopefully make them just feel like I’m talking over tracks. Hopefully, it feels a little theatrical, a little weirder. That’s sort of been the revelation of this last hour, adding and using backing tracks to expand the form of my show. I don’t know if I pulled it off. Hopefully, I did.
What’s it like in anticipation of your TV show coming out? Are you excited or nervous about it?
A little stressful. I’m definitely excited. I like the show, and I’m happy with it, and my mom likes it. That’s good. It’s like the one thing I can actually show my mother that I do. It’s a little bit stressful, and it’s been a little strange. Strangely, I don’t love putting myself out there. It being out there is definitely one of my least favorite parts of the process. Filming it and writing it is a lot more enjoyable than stressfully having to put it out there and get yayed or nayed for it. It’s weird. The good thing is it’s not like this giant, huge thing where it’s everywhere and I feel like I’m in everyone’s faces, so that it’s this giant make-or-break thing. Hopefully, it’s just a cool thing that people can find and check out and hopefully dig.
Does it feel like your life’s changing drastically, with you being the face of a TV show for the first time?
Not really, no. It’s pretty normal. There aren’t like billboards everywhere and all that stuff. No, it feels like it’s just a little show. It’s on Thursdays at 10:30. I always like feeling a little bit like an underdog, so I’m still feeling a little like an underdog with this show. I feel like the little boy that could.
Do you have any other projects that you’re working on?
I have a book of poetry that’s coming out in the fall. It’s an R-rated Shel Silverstein sort of thing. Yeah, that’s basically it. And this hour of stand-up, which is called what. That’s about it.