Bo Burnham doesn’t play many of the old songs anymore, the ones that made the Hamilton native a YouTube phenom before he even finished high school. That was just five years ago, but the 22-year-old has already moved on. He took a couple of years to concentrate on writing, staying in the public eye by touring, but not releasing a new album or special.
Now he returns with a new scripted sitcom called “Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous” (which airs Thursday nights on MTV), and a well-honed hour of live comedy he hopes to film for release at the end of the year. The kid who once recorded awkward white-boy hip-hop in his bedroom is growing as an artist. His new material includes “Nerds,” an ode to his younger fans who might feel uncool, and some experimenting with sketch comedy. He’ll donate his proceeds from Thursday’s show at the Berklee Performance Center to One Fund Boston. We spoke to him by phone from Boulder, Colo., at the beginning of his new tour.
Q. You’ve been stepping out from behind the piano and guitar more, as well. Is that something you’ve been working toward, that you want to do more of?
A. I don’t use the guitar in my act anymore. I still stay at the piano a lot. At one point when I was very young, when I was first starting out, I thought well, one day I’ll be able to put all the music away and become a real comedian. But then I realized there are amazing musical comedians out there, that musical comedy is probably something I’ll always want to pursue. I’ve been pursuing stuff away from the piano, but I’ve also been trying to pursue really well-written comedy songs that are hopefully funny and thematic and say something.
Q. Last time you were at the Wilbur, you were interacting with prerecorded tracks that allowed you to do one-man sketch comedy. Are you developing more of that for your stage show?
A. Basically that hour is now finished and that’s what I’m performing. That was sort of it in its earlier stage. I wanted to try to make this hour different from the last and I was experimenting with this backing track stuff as a way for me to listen onstage and expand the world and be able to interact with things. Things you usually can’t do in stand-up, which is listen, interact with somebody. Usually if you’re listening or interacting with somebody it’s a heckler and it’s not going well.
Q. Have you stopped playing most of the old songs live?
A. You know, sometimes I’ll play the old songs at the end if people want to hear them. But first, I perform the whole new show.
Q. Have you been able to write new music while you’re doing “Zach Stone”? Does it include new music?
A. There’s a different theme song every week that I wrote, but I didn’t want to make a television version of my stage show. And I definitely didn’t want to play myself. The concept is a kid with no real ability or talent trying to become famous so I didn’t want to make him me, I didn’t want to make him a comedian or a songwriter or anything. So even when I was writing songs for the show I had to purposefully make them bad and just think, OK, this is what Zach would write.
Q. Is any of the show based on your actual experience?
A. I chose to do comedy instead of going to college. And my parents are probably similar to Zach’s parents. It’s just that Zach is like a bit of a psycho and a slight sociopath. And has a hunger for fame and infamy that I’ve always found slightly terrifying. It just makes me anxious. He’s pursuing the thing that is the one thing I think is the downside of all of this. And the upside, which is doing the work and experiencing things and writing things, is something he has absolutely no concern for.
Q. It seems like you were pushing back at the idea of fame on the song “Art Is Dead” on the “Words Words Words” special. Is this an extension of that?
A. Yeah. Exactly. It’s more of a roundabout way of saying those things. “Art Is Dead” is more on the nose. Part of it is biting me on the [expletive] because there are people on Twitter and stuff who think that “Bo Burnham” is my stage name and that Zach Stone’s a real person. There’s all these people on Twitter going, “Zach Stone has a show? Why don’t I have a show? This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.” Like, “I want to be famous!” It was like, oh my goodness.
Q. The “nerds, got your back” song was especially compelling. Have you been able to connect with your fans in an “it gets better” kind of way?
A. A lot of my fans are really young and seem slightly unsure and nervous about things. Hopefully for young people watching my show, it comes away that I’m pretty weird up there. I’m clearly doing what I want. I hope kids can see my act and feel like they can be slightly more comfortable in their own skin because I’m being so ridiculously comfortable in mine. I’m not that comfortable in my skin the moment I walk offstage. But I try to project that while I’m on it.
Q. Talking about that two-year hiatus, does that make you nervous to come back after being sort of out of the public eye for that long?
A. Not really. I don’t really care about capitalizing on momentum. That’s what I was being told. I get really annoyed by that. Well, you’ve got to keep your brand alive and you’ve got to stay in people’s face. That just seems so terrible to me. Even if I get less fans because of my time off, I’m confident that I’ll have enough to make a living and that’s all I need. I’d much rather wait till my material is up to par, in my opinion, than rush it just so I can stay in the limelight a little longer.
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at email@example.com.