Inspired by today’s YouTube generation of young content creators, Disney Channel’s new live-action comedy Bizaardvark goes to great lengths to put the “a” in authenticity. Beyond reaching 24 million total viewers—including nearly 12 million kids and close to eight million adults—since premiering June 24, the tween-targeted series marks some big milestones for the House of Mouse.
For starters, Bizaardvark is the first series to get the greenlight from the inaugural session of Disney Channel’s Storytellers program, which looks to foster the next generation of show creators. Secondly, in an effort to bring veracity to the show, real-life YouTube stars Miranda Russo and Tracy Bitterolf of the hit web series The Wing Girls were hired as staff writers, making them the first YouTube comedy duo Disney has placed in a writer’s room.
The music-themed series (previously entitled Paige and Frankie) was created by former Storytellers participants Kyle Stegina and Josh Lehrman. It follows two quirky 13-year-old BFFs—played by newcomers Olivia Rodrigo and Madison Hu—who write funny songs and create videos for their online channel, Bizaardvark. When it hits 10,000 subscribers on the influential video-sharing website Vuuugle, Paige (Rodrigo) and Frankie (Hu) are invited to produce their videos at Vuuugle Studios and take their work to the next level.
“Kids all want to start their own channel these days. So Disney’s being very smart…”- Miranda Russo, The Wing Girls
Disney also cast Vine phenom Jake Paul as Dirk Mann, a Vuuugle star with a Jackass-inspired series entitled Dare Me Bro, and secured numerous guest appearances by other real-life internet stars including fashion and beauty vlogger Meredith Foster, actress/rapper Lilly Singh and the world’s cutest Pomeranian puppy, Jiffpom.
When executive producer and showrunner Eric Friedman (Austin & Ally, Crash & Bernstein) came on-board last summer, he says the pilot was more of a friends-and-family show. But it was subsequently redeveloped into a workplace comedy to best reflect how kids today are influenced by online video platforms.
“The writing for these characters from Josh and Kyle is extremely sharp, and we have an incredible staff of talented and funny writers, but when Disney brought Tracy and Miranda to my attention, we met with them and loved their comedic energy,” says Friedman. “Our goal has always been to portray the world of internet stars authentically, so Miranda and Tracy have certainly helped guide us in terms of what really happens on YouTube, how influencers work and the scope of their influence.”
For Russo and Bitterolf, who currently have more than 350,000 subscribers and 200 million total views for their Wing Girls channel, landing writing jobs at Disney was a dream come true.
“We started our YouTube channel hoping that one day we would be able to work in TV,” says Bitterolf. “So getting the chance to transition to TV with Bizaardvark and work in a real writer’s room has been incredible.”
As far as introducing the lead characters to Vuuugle, Friedman says the temptation was to give the girls millions of subscribers, but for the sake of the story arc, the pair’s internet success had to start modestly. “They haven’t become big stars yet, but over time we could explore their growth as internet sensations and have them go to the Streamy Awards, for example,” he notes. “For now, we’re interested in their growth as friends.”
Russo says nailing the friendship dynamic is important in telling an authentic story about internet stars. “Creating videos together as friends and partners is a very unique experience to a YouTuber, so we brought lots of story ideas based on our own experiences,” she says. Her first day on the Disney set, she recounts, “was weird,” because it reminded Russo of her first time recording at YouTube Space and the feeling of finally meeting other YouTubers. “We had been doing it in our own bubble for about seven years. And all of a sudden, we had to deal with the fact that some other people don’t even like us,” remembers Russo.”We were also outsiders because there are fewer women in comedy on YouTube than men.”
For her part, Bitterolf says she’s extremely proud that the series encourages girls to be weird and have their own voices. “Miranda and I always subscribe to that. That’s why we were drawn to YouTube. You can do whatever makes you laugh,” she says. “It’s also fundamentally important to look at TV and see people you can relate to.”
On the production side, Friedman and Disney Channel EVP of original programming Adam Bonnett both agree the biggest challenge in making Bizaardvark was shooting the music videos Paige and Frankie upload to their channel.
“Shooting a really funny episode and a really ambitious music video every week is a huge creative challenge,” says Bonnett.
“On Austin & Ally or Hannah Montana we had a lot of musical performances, but it was really just putting Hannah or Austin on a stage and shooting that performance. With music videos, you have to change backgrounds, costumes and set-ups. It’s much more of a single-camera-type shoot and almost like making a mini movie.”
Friedman says sometimes extra production weeks had to be scheduled to get the music videos and ancillary digital content completed to everyone’s satisfaction.
“We did get to up the production value and make them like Lonely Island for kids because we want people talking about the videos, but they also had to look like videos two teenage girls could make,” he says.
So far, the extra effort is paying off. Bizaardvark’s first video, “The Comeback Song,” had nearly four million views on YouTube at press time. “To see that kind of connection is fantastic, but more important than the number of views is the number of videos posted by real kids doing their own version of the song,” says Bonnett.
According to Russo and Bitterolf, the biggest challenge they faced while shooting Bizaardvark was maintaining their own YouTube channel. “We are looking forward to our hiatus to be able to create more content to distribute over the next year,” says Russo. “We’re figuring out the balance, but ultimately we would like our own TV show and we know that this is getting us closer to that.”
Bonnett adds that although the inclusion of cameos by real digital stars added authenticity, it was an additional challenge, too. “You have to work around their schedules and some of them have never acted before, so you have to bring them up to speed. It takes just a little bit more work,” he says.
With so many online personalities attached to the show, including Jake Paul and his nine million social media followers, the opportunities for promotion have been plentiful.”Our marketing team has partnered with Paul on a number of initiatives, and his passion for growing Bizaardvark in the digital space is infectious,” says Bonnett.
Disney also live-streamed an event on YouTube during the night of the show’s preview, and produced short-form video content featuring the Bizaardvark cast at the Radio Disney Music Awards, Instagram’s headquarters and Vidcon, the latter of which took place in Anaheim, California in June.
“Kids all want to start their own channel these days,” notes Russo. “So Disney’s being very smart when it comes to incorporating what really goes on with YouTubers and fan bases into a TV show.”