How far would you go for a little fame? Would you try your hand at becoming a celebrity chef? Intentionally go missing? Or use your life savings to hire a camera crew to follow you around?
Zach Stone attempts all of the above in Bo Burnham’s wildly entertaining 2013 MTV sitcom Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous. Co-created with Dan Lagana, the mockumentary premiered a decade ago—but foreshadows today’s conflation of self-documentation and influencer culture in a manner that is more pertinent than ever.
A 22-year-old Burnham served as a writer and played 18-year-old Zach in the show, an ambitious young man hanging in the void between high school and college. While his friends prepare to wave goodbye to their hometown, Zach and his main character syndrome are busy concocting a plan to become famous. Using the college fund his parents saved for him, he hires a film crew to follow him around, documenting his every move.
At its core, Zach Stone is about that desire to be seen and understood. Zach is an outsider and just wants to win the affection of his childhood crush Amy (Caitlin Gerard) but his goofy methods—whether recreating a found footage horror film or creating a Bachelor rip-off show called The Zachelor—are practically always misguided. In one episode, Zach screams, “I’m living my dreams!” before belly-flopping into a pool while his family and friends look on warily.
Canceled after just one season, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous was quite simply a show ahead of its time. Predating the dawn of Internet celebrity and rolling out during a time when Vine was still alive, Burnham’s show captured the craving for viral attention that has been programmed into society. While the show is heavy on satirizing such a person, there’s also a poignant empathy that comes along with those desires. Zach’s not just a shallow, indistinguishable teen online—but a portrait of a modern coming-of-age story. Zooming in on a young person’s relationship with self-documentation, the show implicitly showcases how damaging such performativity and obsession with algorithmic praise can be.
With every episode centered on a new method to strike virality, one man’s warped desire for fame proves wildly entertaining. The first episode sees Zach, accompanied by a three-man camera crew, headline his grandmother’s funeral like it’s a comedy show. He also asks for a second take when his mother (Kari Coleman) delivers news of the death, hammering home Zach’s questionable morals when it comes to achieving success. In this sense, he’s a glorified vlogger, asking for a redo of real life like it’s a movie scene for him to perfect. He puts on a production to supposedly capture his rise to fame but there’s no authenticity to-camera, just an extravagant show.
Zach Stone digs especially deep when we see flashes of off-camera Zach. Really, this is a desperately sad tale of a young man who feels loved only when he’s given attention. In the moments where Zach asks for a minute to himself, he’s at his most vulnerable; the agonizingly heartfelt moments see him baring his soul, admitting he just wants to be liked. Such longing echoes our collective existence online—and with his own career beginning on YouTube, Burnham was privy to an industry that was only just emerging in the eyes of mainstream culture when Zach Stone premiered.
This meta-existentialism underscores nearly every project Burnham has produced. His style has always embraced dichotomy: warm yet abrasive, funny but painfully relatable. Finding moments of sincerity among the comedy, Burnham looks beyond Zach Stone being a cringe coming-of-age comedy. In hindsight, Zach Stone is a warning about influencer culture that no one heard. The show was sandwiched between cheesy sitcoms and cringe reality shows that ultimately engulfed the commentary Burnham offered. He’s verbalized this sentiment more explicitly in his work since; in Inside, his pandemic-era Netflix comedy special, Burnham states: “I’ve been thinking recently that maybe allowing giant digital media corporations to exploit the neurochemical drama of our children for profit was a bad call by us.”
The show’s final moments contain seriously underappreciated commentary on the phenomenon of Internet personalities. After appearing on a local news network, Zach leaves the building, having expressed to Amy that he loves her while promising to abandon his dreams of grandeur. It seems like the perfect allegorical conclusion—until the pair walks outside and there’s a huddle of fans chanting Zach’s name and squealing for autographs. He lights up. The camera pushes in on Amy’s grimace; she breaks the fourth wall and looks directly into the camera to confirm what we feared the most: Zach hasn’t changed. A decade later and that shot is still ripe in my mind, paired with the question Zach will forever ponder: who’s really paying attention?