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  • Writer's pictureStand-Up Comedy Historian

An Interview with Zachary Hamilton, Creator of the Incredible "Can't Handle This" Viola Cover

Updated: Jan 14, 2023

Hi, everyone!


With Kanye West doubling down on antisemitism and potentially ruining Bo's Emmys ensemble by appearing on Alex Jones in a black ski mask and saying how much he likes Hitler (Noooo!), it can be hard to watch anything related to the man currently.


However, a musician on YouTube named Zachary Hamilton recently uploaded an absolutely INCREDIBLE rendition of the Kanye Rant song at the end of Make Happy.



If you have not yet seen this stunning and innovative rendition of Can't Handle This, I suggest watching the video as soon as you can—it is WELL worth your time!



After watching the video repeatedly, I had so many questions about how all of the components (viola-playing, lyrics, and imagery from the special itself) work together seamlessly to create one of the best Bo videos I've ever seen (and I've watched a LOT of them haha).


Luckily, Zachary Hamilton was more than willing to oblige my request and explained the process of creating his work perfectly.


Here is my interview with Zachary, which has been edited and condensed for clarity purposes.


Bo Burnham Historian: Hi, Zachary! Thanks for participating in this interview.


First off, what's your background and where do you live currently?


Zachary Hamilton: For sure!


I'm 30 years old and live in Southern California, dividing my time between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. I'm a student at University of California Santa Barbara, but I am also a freelance violist, violinist, and music teacher—most of that work is in Los Angeles.


I've got a Bachelor's in violin and just finished my Master's in Viola Performance at the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague in Holland. This fall (2022) I started my Doctor of Musical Arts degree in viola at UCSB.


The Royal Conservatoire in the Netherlands


BBH: Wow, those are some impressive schools. Congrats on getting your Masters, and good luck with your doctorate!


When did you first start playing the viola? Did you pick up the instrument on your own, like Bo did with the piano and guitar, or are you formally trained? Do you play any other instruments?


ZH: I started playing viola when I was 25, but that's a bit misleading, since I started on violin at the age of six, and the two instruments are to some degree "mutually intelligible". My mom started me on violin and I have had private teachers most of my life. I currently have an excellent viola teacher, but there have been periods of months or years without a teacher here and there.


As a kid I dabbled in piano, and to a lesser extent guitar and trumpet, but I am terrible at those!


BBH: That's amazing that you've been playing since you were six—kudos for keeping it up over the years! I played the flute in middle school, but I was awful and quit after eighth grade.


When did you first discover Bo and his works? Are you a long-time fan, or did you become one because of Inside?


ZH: It's funny, I've been aware of Bo since he's been making stuff on Youtube, but I only really became a fan with the Kanye Rant, shortly before Inside. I first heard it in early 2020 and knew pretty quickly that I wanted to make a viola cover of it. 


BBH: That's cool! Yeah, you are similar in age, so it makes sense you would know his YouTube material.



Your video is absolutely astonishing. Did you compose all of the music for it? How many times did you have to watch Make Happy to match the syllables perfectly? I'd imagine dozens at the very least!


ZH: Thank you very much! After all the work we put into it, that's very gratifying to hear, truly.


In terms of "composing the music"...that's a little hard to say. I guess I'd break it down like this:


I'm sure Bo composed the original instrumental (or backing) track—my amazing producer Liam Tully recreated that from scratch for our cover.


In terms of what the viola plays: All of the lyrics in the rant have some sort of rhythm in Bo's original video. Some of this is extremely complex, like in the opening, or the beginning of the bit about burritos. Some of it is very straightforward ("I wouldn't'a got the lettuce if I knew it wouldn't fit"). Some of it is extremely fast, because Bo's speech, like anyone's, can be very quick at times. But it all has rhythm, and it can all be written down (transcribed), no matter how complex.


An example of the text overlapping


The pitches of each word are a bit more complicated. A lot of it is already set to a pitch—he's singing it. We can sing along to it, and be singing the same notes, even if we don't know what they are. But a lot of the original video, whether it's talking, or rapping, or something in between, basically has no sustained pitch. This is the case for the introduction, but also for a lot of the track throughout.


Zachary's transcription of Bo's lyrics


In those instances, I made up pitches that would fit with the chords and tried to create phrases that would be beautiful or interesting, or at least match the tenor of the speech.


One of the creative uses of text placement in the video


I guess for the viola portion of the track, I would really call it arranging rather than composing. And the question of how many times I watched the video? At least 100, conservatively.


BBH: Wow, that took a lot of dedication and effort. And you can certainly tell how much time and energy you put into your cover!


I saw that you listed Gretchen James as one of the editors along with yourself. How long have you been working together? The editing is AMAZING, by the way.


ZH: I have only worked with Gretchen on this one project. Originally I was planning to just do a very basic video, but when I decided to have her really film it, I was shocked at how awesome she made the visuals.


A favorite shot in the video


Another point of kudos—due to scheduling issues we filmed it before we were done recording the track—this led to some absolutely gnarly issues with syncing the video with the track. The way that Gretchen and Liam adjusted both the video and the track so that it could sync up relatively well, still sound good, and look amazing? That is 100% to their credit.


Another beautiful shot


I did list myself as an editor, because I input the lyrics after Gretchen was done with the video. Apart from that, she is the real editor and videographer of this project, and she did a phenomenal job.


BBH: Absolutely!


One of my favorite parts of the cover, and what kept me enthralled the entire time, was your use of the lyrics on the screen.


Who came up with the idea of manipulating the words and their placement in the video? It's such a wonderful component that keeps the viewer engaged.



When did you decide to change the font colors? The size of the words? Are the color choices symbolic (seems pink is for the silly lines, blue is for the more serious lyrics, perhaps)?


ZH: The placement and timing of the lyrics was always a core part of the project. I figured out what I wanted to do with them—sizing, placement, how quick they would appear and disappear—as I learned how to do it in Final Cut.



It was a really tricky balance, because on the one hand, I wanted it to be as clear as possible which notes correlated to which words. This meant some words had to appear very quickly. On the other hand, Bo is saying a lot, often very quickly, and I didn't want the screen to be full of words throughout the whole video. This meant some of the words would disappear very quickly.


I'm sure in the end there are moments where people won't catch all the lyrics, but I also wanted people to be on the edge of their seats with what I'm "saying" with the viola, and for it to not be too much like Netflix subtitles.



Regarding the colors of the words—honestly I tried to make them super meaningful, but I could not for the life of me figure how to change font colors easily and consistently. So what ended up happening was that I found a couple colors I liked through trial and error, and then did a lot of copy-paste 😂😂😂


BBH: Well, I thought you did an excellent job conveying the meaning of the lyrics, especially the more introspective sections of the song.


On a lighter note, I also adore the fact that you've transcribed Bo's "funny sounds" in the video. How did you come up with that? They are hilarious and pretty accurate!


ZH: I've played a lot of modern classical music, and those modern composers often ask instrumentalists to use all sorts of extended techniques to recreate sounds that you wouldn't find in, say, a Mozart symphony. So I'm used to hearing a sound and trying to recreate it on my instrument somehow.


With the extra "funny sounds" in this video, though, none of it was too challenging or outside of what a violist is asked to do normally.



For the burrito "brrbrbrbrrb" thing, I just did a sort of descending ricochet with the bow.



For the "blblblbl" thing later on, I went with a trill, which Bo was already singing at a distinct pitch. So both of those ended up being pretty straightforward!


BBH: Fascinating! Thanks for explaining.


Do you plan on making more Bo videos? I personally would love to see your take on All Eyes on Me (the spiritual successor to Can't Handle This) or That Funny Feeling (my fave song in Inside). The Chicken would be great too!



ZH: Yes. I'd love to do "White Woman's Instagram," "All Eyes on Me," or "That Funny Feeling". I was hoping to do "30" and release it on my thirtieth birthday, but I was too behind on this project to make that happen. Maybe for 31!


I think the tricky thing with Bo covers, though, or for any instrumental cover of a track that features the human voice, is just keeping it interesting. We may think we wanna hear the violin or cello or whatever play that Bo song, but would it really be interesting after a few seconds? I've made a bunch of covers that sounded fine, or even good, but in the end I scrapped them because they were just not as engaging as the human voice and the lyrics that the voice can deliver. So just like everything else, it turns out that the main question is just, "Is it engaging the audience for every second?"


A YouTube short Zachary uploaded recently


BBH: I would still enjoy hearing your take on any of those songs though! This one (Can't Handle This) has already been added to my profanity-free Bo playlist on Amazon Music, and I selfishly would like more classical music to play around my kids haha.


What's your favorite Bo song/special? You can name more than one.


ZH: It has to be Inside. Like much of the country, I really realized what a genius he is with that special. My favorite track might be "White Woman's Instagram"—the humor and sheer but subtle humanity of it really captured that 2021 American zeitgeist, and yet I think it will also age very well.




BBH: Yes, that song is so empathetic and makes you remember that everyone on the internet is a person going through shit too (minus the bots, of course).


Do you have any fun facts about yourself that you'd like to share? Enjoy any special interests or hobbies?


ZH: I watch a lot of television and Youtube. I speak a few languages fluently. I love coffee. I like to run long-distance, when I'm not lazy, which I usually am. Idk. I'm pretty wrapped up in music most of the time!


BBH: That's awesome that you're multilingual. And I'm not surprised you are focused on your music!


I read on your YouTube channel that you have a new album out. Can you tell us more about it? And do you have any other upcoming projects that you'd like to promote?



ZH: Yeah! My new EP is called You're My Favorite and is available on all streaming platforms. The EP was really a vehicle for me to get three entirely separate projects out into the ether in a way where I needed to hold myself accountable.


The first is a Theme and Variations on an old Scottish folk tune called "Loch Lomond" for solo violin (basically a cover). This one I basically composed, apart from the theme and most of the harmonies. It's got some fiddle playing as well as some standard classical fare.


The second track is a piece of modern classical music in the minimalist style, written by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in 1978. It's called "Spiegel im Spiegel," which translates to "Mirror in the Mirror," and was something I wanted to record for a long time. It's extremely peaceful, and extremely hard to play! I finally got the chance to record it with my conservatory colleague and friend Petra Alexandry in the Netherlands in 2021.


Arvo Pärt at the piano


I also recorded a version with the San Francisco-based classical guitarist Brig Urias. For legal/copyright reasons that version isn't available for stream, but you can watch on my Youtube channel or buy it as part of the Deluxe Edition of my EP on my website.


The last track is "Can't Handle This"—the streaming version is a bit different from (and much better than!) the video version of the track, thanks to my producer Liam.


The EP is called You're My Favorite for a couple reasons. The first is that these were my favorite pieces of music, projects from these different genres that I was really willing to sweat for.


The other reason is a bit more sentimental. I decided to record the second track, "Spiegel im Spiegel," when I was listening to it with my partner while we were out camping in the desert a few years ago. That memory really fueled me to finish the project. She's my favorite, and so the title is directed at her in that way.


BBH: That's so sweet! I'm sure she appreciates being your muse of sorts.


So how can fans best support you? Do you have any social media that you'd like to plug?


ZH: Sure! I'll start with my colleagues:


Petra Alexandry can be found with a quick Google search of her name—she's an active pianist and music teacher in the Netherlands.


My producer Liam Tully can be found on all streaming platforms, including Spotify, and his Youtube has a bunch of amazing music videos, some of which were also filmed by Gretchen.


More information on my guitarist Brig can be found at brigurias.com.


My Youtube, IG, Tiktok, and Facebook are all ZacharyHamiltonMusic, and my Twitter handle is @ZacharyMusicus. In terms of the EP, streaming links for any platform can be found here, or here if you just want the Spotify link. As I mentioned, you can buy the original or Deluxe Edition of the EP at zacharyhamiltonmusic.org.


Zachary's website


BBH: Awesome—I'll be sure to check out your album and your website!


Well it's been a pleasure talking with you, and congratulations again on making one of the most impressive Bo-related videos this year!


ZH: Thanks so much for having me!





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