The Forgotten Bo Burnham Sitcom That Predicted the Future
Zach Stone was the first social media influencer.
Bo Burnham was barely out of high school himself when he signed on to create Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, the short-lived 2013 MTV sitcom about a doofus high school grad who decides that college is for chumps who can’t be recognized for, well, being recognized. The (still funny!) comedy was created at the height of reality TV trainwrecks like Jersey Shore and Keeping Up With the Kardashians, spoofing people who became famous for doing nothing. (Ironically, its MTV lead-in was Jersey Shore spin-off The Show with Vinny, just the kind of hot mess it was mocking.) But instead of simply satirizing reality TV, Zach Stone ended up predicting something else entirely: A social media world where Khaby Lamel and Addison Rae make millions simply because people know who they are.
In fact, substitute the flip phones and cumbersome video equipment for their 2022 equivalents and Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous could run today with nary an edit in the script.
Fame Is Within Reach
Prior to YouTube and Twitter, getting famous was, frankly, a lot of work. You wanted to become a celebrated comedian? Then you paid your dues by moving to New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, worked your way up through improv classes or open mics and prayed that someone would see you and recognize your talent.
But Zach Stone was one of the first to realize that you can get famous from home. It wasn’t hard for Stone to see other people achieving an insane level of online popularity, explains Jon Silberman, one of the show’s writers and executive story editors. So what’s to stop an ambitious person from saying, “I can do that too”? In 2013, that meant Stone spending his life savings on a camera crew to follow him around. With pro-quality cameras now built into everyone’s phones, documenting one’s life has gotten even easier.
You Need A Lot of ‘Hey, Look at Me!’ Ideas
Stone didn’t have much in the way of skills or talent, says Silberman, but he did have ideas. Check out a rundown of some Zach Stone episode titles:
- “Zach Stone is Gonna Be A Recording Artist”
- “Zach Stone is Gonna Make a Sex Tape”
- “Zach Stone is Gonna Get a Makeover”
- “Zach Stone is Gonna Be a Celebrity Chef”
- “Zach Stone is Gonna Go Missing”
Then head over to a YouTube channel like, say, Mr. Beast’s, and pop into a list of his most popular videos:
- “I Spent 50 Hours in Solitary Confinement”
- “I Ate q $70,000 Golden Pizza”
- “I Adopted EVERY Dog in An Animal Shelter”
- “I Bought the World’s Largest Firework”
- “I Went Back to First Grade For A Day”
The Zach Stone creators saw the future.
Life Only Exists When the Camera Is On
In the show’s first four episodes, Stone pursues the prettiest girl from his high school, Christy Ackerman. To his surprise, she’s into him too! Well, sorta. The attraction is palpable — at least when the cameras are on.
Christy invites Stone to the kind of party he was never allowed to attend as an actual high school student, but the invite comes with a caveat: “Bring your crew!” It’s telling that she invites our hero to her house for a night of physical ecstasy when her parents are gone — but when it’s time to get down, it’s the cameraman’s hand that she leads into her bedroom.
Once Stone decides he’s not filming, Christy is out. Literally. She never appears in the show after the fourth episode.
Narcissism Rules (But Real Human Beings Still Exist Inside Somewhere)
“Zach is narcissistic,” says Silberman. “A low-key sociopath.”
Living a videotaped life drives Stones’s narcissism but the best moments of Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous are the ones when he believes the cameras aren’t rolling. The obnoxious self he puts on to make us admire him isn’t nearly as likable as the real guy who’s desperately trying to figure out who he is.
Silberman recently rewatched the series when it popped back on Netflix and appreciated “those real moments. They're very impactful. (Show co-creator) Dan (Lagana) really wanted to thread those moments through the show to make Zach feel like a real human being. It’s like The Office with Michael Scott or David Brent — those real human moments make you feel for them even though they’re so pathetic and deserve everything they get.”
Burnham himself didn’t create the show to criticize people like Stone. “I don’t want to bash a kid for dreaming or wanting something or being slightly ambitious — that’s not the problem,” he told Vulture. “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.”
That’s even more true a decade later. Which begs the question: What would have happened to Zach Stone if the show had continued beyond its single-season MTV run?
“We talked a lot about what would have happened if we’d gotten a Season Two,” Silberman tells me. The hints were there at the end of Season One. A local news crew does a story on Stone’s failed pursuit of fame, and just when he seems to have seen the folly of his egocentric dream, a group of newfound fans shows up outside the news station. Is he going to be a celebrity after all?
“Provided he did become famous from that last moment in the series finale, then maybe he’s dealing with the negative aspects of fame,” says Silberman of where the series might have gone next. But even if he did achieve a level of notoriety, Silberman doubts Zach ever would have been happy with it. “He would have still looked at other people who were more famous for stupid f***ing reasons. I think he’d become really frustrated and disillusioned by fame.”
Without the benefit of a writers’ room to figure out the character’s direction, Silberman imagines a future where Zach Stone is always trying to reinvent himself, whether that means fighting a celebrity or getting into politics (a path he believes Stone would eventually follow, resulting in “an amazing disaster”).
But with no additional seasons forthcoming, we’ll have to be content with pondering the show’s prescience. We are definitely living in a Zach Stone world. “It seems like such a large population of people has this desire to be in front of the camera. I don’t know if it was always that way,” says Silberman. “There are so many Zach Stones out there.”