Thursday, May 02, 2013

Review: MTV's "Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous" is great, as I breathe a heavy sigh of relief

     Zach Stone (Bo Burnham) sets up a shot on "Zach Stone
     Is Gonna Be Famous."
     Photo Credit: MTV

"Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous" premieres tonight at 10:30pm on MTV in the United States. In Canada, the show premieres Tuesday, May 7 at 10:30pm on MuchMusic.

Three or four years ago, a high school friend turned me on to the comedy of Bo Burnham, a lanky, awkward, teenaged theatre geek who first gained attention with original comedy songs he posted on YouTube like "My Whole Family" and "My Little Secret". As his popularity began to grow and his material matured, with songs even more complex and pun-filled like "New Math" and "Cookout," Burnham emerged as the poster child for late aughts Internet fame that would have been unheard of even five years prior. At 18, he became the youngest comedian to ever get his own Comedy Central standup special, and though he had plenty of critics tear him apart for his supposedly illegitimate use of music and rise through YouTube, he cemented his status as one of the most popular comedians of a burgeoning generation.

Burnham is a sort of perfect storm creation: no other comic had the same sharp writing and somewhat antagonistic stage presence, combined with his youth. It's a perfect energy to carry a television show, and I was thrilled when he and MTV announced in September 2010 that they were developing a comedy project.

The months went by. There was no news to report on the show's development. Burnham seemingly fell off the map in 2011, spending the better part of two and a half years touring, writing an hour of new material for an upcoming album, and creating "Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous". And as those newsless months became years, I started to have serious trepidations about this new show. When I found myself listening to tracks from his self-titled debut album or his follow up "Words, Words, Words," I often asked myself the same question:

"This Bo Burnham MTV show is gonna suck, isn't it?"

Burnham is hilarious and I thought in capable hands, perhaps on Fox, Comedy Central or HBO, he could really knock it out of the park. But this show wasn't going to be on a network that gave us "Arrested Development," "South Park," or "Curb Your Enthusiasm." It was going to the network of "The Hills" and "The Hard Times of RJ Berger."

As the 2000s came to a close, MTV began making a bigger entry into scripted programming. As you might expect, catering to an audience of shallow teenagers (a group that, in fairness, I should probably count myself among) is not going to generate quality, high brow content. I've seen a handful of episodes of MTV's sitcom offerings over the last few years and have come to learn that the general rule of thumb is that anything good happening on an MTV show most likely happened by accident. Somehow, a competent writer had snuck a moment of human fragility past a guy probably not dissimilar to a douchey Andy Samberg character. Even six episodes of "Awkward," a show that a lot of critics really like, failed to hold my attention as something I needed to watch week in and week out. It certainly wasn't offensive or shallow in the way the majority of "I Just Want My Pants Back" was, but I really only saw it as a second-rate "Undeclared."

So I fire up episode one of "Zach Stone," hoping against hope that nobody at MTV was paying attention that week, and...phew. Crisis averted. This show is really damn funny.

The genesis of "Zach Stone" came when Burnham read the results of a poll that asked what graduating high school students wanted to be when they grew up. The top answer was "famous," and so he decided to create a show about a kid with no talent (seriously, not even one discernible skill it seems) paying for a documentary crew to create a reality show for him. And just as I was concerned with him making this show at MTV, I respect and applaud the decision to produce this show from the belly of the beast. No doubt Zach Stone's desire to be famous came about from watching whatever show will air either immediately before or immediately after "Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous" on MTV tonight.

Zach Stone is not overly cruel to the friends and family whose lives he has decided to invade with cameras and boom mics. He's also not a particularly nice person, though. Without any talents of his own, he tries to pass off his younger brother's large collection of trophies and awards as his various achievements through the years. He stages overly dramatic reactions to things, including doing multiple takes when he learns that an elderly relative has died. Certainly there were edges to the character that I would like to see smoothed out in the coming weeks, and I'm now much more confident that he will be able to do so. Even in its current, borderline malicious form, Burnham's improvisational skills are top notch and he really makes the most out of every moment he's on screen (which, ya kind of every's Zach's show). Like his standup, his comedy can jump from loud and broad, to subtle and muted from minute to minute and it doesn't feel jarring because it's impossible for the audience to forget the artificiality Zach has created. One of the pilot's funniest sequences is just a short, 15 second montage of Zach sadly vacuuming all the rooms in his house as punishment for using his parents' credit card on a dozen dozen roses (144 roses whose petals he plucked off to impress a girl, a sequence that is of course constructed for his reality show). Burnham is very conscious of how the character is going to be perceived, and smartly never lets Zach get away with too much of anything (his parents, played by Kari Coleman and Thomas "Biff Tannen/Coach Fredericks" Wilson, make great foils).

And even as a one man comedy powerhouse, the hours Burnham spent doing dramatic theatre in high school really show here, writing himself some really good moments of just "acting." The MTV model should dictate "Hey look, teens, you probably sit next to a kid like this in homeroom. Isn't he a jerk? Laugh at him," and really nothing more. But Burnham takes the time to make his character three-dimensional: Zach is reluctant to put one of his close friends on the show because he does not want to misrepresent her in the heavily edited reality TV format. Burnham also injects his real life insecurities about missing out on going to college as he spent his days, as he puts it, "stuck in a Ramada Inn in North Dakota" while all of his friends were having the time of their lives. Like his best moments of comedy on the show, his dramatic beats are subtle but effective, and even though Burnham has a fondness for Shakespeare, I imagine the chances of Zach Stone reading lengthy soliloquies non-ironically is no better than his chances of actually becoming famous.

Sure, it has its moments of cliche, and it's not breaking any spectacularly new ground. But a) that's the point, and b) "Zach Stone" is a show that is very specific to a currently dominating pop culture landscape. Burnham, as he previously seemed to do inadvertently, has really tapped into a unique element of Generation Y and created a show that MTV's audience is either going to totally embrace or not understand at all. I'm gonna lean toward "totally embrace," even if it might be for all the wrong reasons of identifying with a character they don't realize is making fun of them (Burnham has mentioned in the press that when learning about the show, people seem to be thinking that "Bo Burnham" is a stage presence, and the real life Zach Stone is now the subject of a documentary). But hey, I'm being far too harsh in generalizing the audience of MTV: after all, they made the right call on "Skins."