In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many architects were guided by the maxim that “form follows function.” In the early 21st century, based on the success of shows such as Modern Family and Parks and Recreation, many television writers are guided by the maxim that “mockumentaries make money.” While story structure differs from architecture, the symbiotic relationship between the format and content of Bo Burnham’s 2013 sitcom Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous makes for a triumph in bingeable situational comedy despite the show’s occasional lazy humor.
Zach Stone is a mockumentary series that captures the life of a high school graduate played by Burnham who chooses to use his college fund to hire a film crew to document his life rather than pursuing higher education. Each episode features a zany get-famous-quick scheme that inevitably goes awry, forcing Zach’s friends and family to save him. After one season, MTV canceled the show.
In 2021, Burnham released Inside, a musical comedy special he created completely independently while in quarantine. Inside became a universal sensation, which presumably led to Netflix’s release of Zach Stone in December 2021. I am not particularly fond of Inside as I believe it panders to popular opinions rather than exploring new ground, but Zach Stone maintains a perpetual undertone of biting cynicism despite its generally breezy tone. While I believe Burnham’s 2013 special what. and 2016 special Make Happy are more compelling than Zach Stone, it still has a lot to offer, especially considering it was Burnham’s first foray into the television medium.
According to a 2013 article in Teen Vogue, the creators of the show were inspired by a poll about what graduating high school seniors said they wanted to be when they grew up—the number-one answer, selected by 40% of the test group, was “famous.” In Burnham’s stand-up, he frequently adopts the persona of an arrogant artist, which translates quite well to this project.
The series shares its subject matter and mixture of wit and silliness with the Netflix original series BoJack Horseman, but Zach lacks BoJack’s self-awareness, inviting the cringe comedy of shows such as The Office while sharply satirizing our national hunger for fame. However, like BoJack Horseman, there are moments in which we can connect with Zach’s inherent insecurity in spite of his egomania, a testament to Burnham’s masterful performance as the deranged ringmaster of this fame-scheming circus.
Irish poet Oscar Wilde once said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Strangely, Burnham’s heightened persona onstage and in Zach Stone allows him to explore more vulnerable themes than most comedians while simultaneously enhancing the humor rather than detracting from it.
While the mockumentary format is typically chosen to enhance a show’s sense of realism or allow for multiple characters to speak directly to the audience, Zach Stone inventively utilizes it to examine the differences in behavior when characters are and aren’t aware they’re being recorded, which is particularly timely in an age when many teenagers and adults alike broadcast their lives on social media.
Each episode’s concept is expressed in a variation of the theme song, making for some of the funniest displays of Zach’s ignorance (unsurprising considering Burnham’s musical comedy origins). However, some of the show’s other jokes come off as cheap when they’re not grounded in the characters. Thus, the satire becomes more nuanced as the series progresses.
Zach Stone isn’t my favorite sitcom, but I admire that everything in it has a purpose. Although Burnham has been exploring more dramatic work in recent years, Zach Stone shows that he can even make a sitcom carry meaning. Zach’s antics are certainly over-the-top, but don’t let that fool you—there’s more of him in us than we may want to believe.