The viral comedy boom made Lil Dicky famous. Here’s how he weathered the crash
For his new TV show, “Dave,” Dave Burd created a fictional character named … Dave Burd. Their histories are remarkably similar, particularly the fact that both are best known for being the rapper Lil Dicky, even though they both still introduce themselves as Dave. Still following?
Burd’s favorite artist is Kanye West, and like West he’s prone to making outlandish claims about his abilities and what he believes he’ll be able to accomplish in his lifetime. With barely any music out, he used to tell record labels that he was going to become one of the biggest artists in the world. Now he envisions that in 20 years, once the bush of curls atop his head has turned to salt and pepper, he’ll win the Academy Award for best actor for his performance in an emotionally gripping drama.
Burd acknowledges how ridiculous some of the things that come out his mouth may sound, even to himself. “I’m this really bizarre juxtaposition of an unreasonable amount of self-confidence, to the point where it’s like borderline irrational, combined with a ton of self-deprecating neuroses and just stress,” he said.
It was this outlook on life that attracted Jeff Schaffer, the co-creator and showrunner of “Dave,” to the project. Schaffer has worked as a producer and writer on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” for more than a decade and co-created “The League” for FX. He wasn’t looking to take on another show but agreed to a meeting at the home of Scooter Braun, the manager Burd shares with Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, among others.
“The reason I’m doing the show is that when [Burd] was sitting across from me, he’s telling me how he’s going to be the biggest entertainer in the history of entertaining,” Schaffer explained. “And I’m looking at this guy who looks like he should be voted least likely to succeed on Jdate, and I’m thinking, ‘He really thinks he’s going to be huge.’ The most interesting thing to me was that when he had done nothing six years ago, he still thought he was going to be the biggest entertainer in the world. That’s like cartoon-level insanity. Those are delusions of grandeur that are off the charts. As he’s talking, I thought, ‘This is a real interesting comedic engine for a show.’ Because he’s so sure of himself, but no one else in his immediate surroundings could possibly be as sure of him as he is.”
Their show, which premiered on FXX on March 4, follows the early days of Lil Dicky’s career, a time filled with promise and plenty of indignities. But it would be wrong to characterize Burd as yet another rapper who’s turned to acting, especially those, like Eminem and 50 Cent, who’ve mined their life stories to cross over. It’s better to understand him as a new type of entertainer, one who’s maximized the online comedy boom — even through its recent bust.
“Lil Dicky leaned into the internet and the internet leaned back into him,” said Mickey Meyer, co-founder of the Jash online comedy community and currently president of Group Nine Media.
When people count the many hundreds of series that make up this Age of Too Much Television, they tend to refer only to the obvious places – broadcast, cable and the big-deal streamers Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.
On a recent morning, Burd, 31, recounted his trajectory from inside his spacious, modern home in Los Angeles. He was dressed like Woody Harrelson in “White Men Can’t Jump,” in a heather gray top and loose-fitting pants covered in a faded multicolored pattern. In what during the 1990s would be called the family room — even though he lives by himself — there was a cozy, L-shaped couch, a voluminous bean bag chair, fresh carpeting and a large but not ostentatious television. “It feels like this is where you would have sleepovers,” he said.
In April of 2013, when Burd was working as a low-level creative at a San Francisco ad agency, he uploaded a $1,500 clip he made for his comedy rap song “Ex-Boyfriend” to YouTube. (Warning: Lil Dicky videos contain graphic humor.) He started a Lil Dicky Facebook page and sent the link to a group of his friends. Looking back, he said that if the video had made it to 100,000 views that would have been enough to sustain his dream of becoming an entertainer. Instead, “Ex-Boyfriend” got to the top of Reddit and reached 1 million views in less than 24 hours. (It’s currently above 38 million.) The vice president of Comedy Central immediately got in touch. Burd did an interview with TMZ from his desk at work and hoped his boss wouldn’t walk by. He described that day as when he “learned that I am who I thought I was.”
Immediately after “Ex-Boyfriend,” Burd built on his viral success with the first phase of Lil Dicky Hump Days. Every Wednesday for eight weeks he put out a new video or song. At the end of 2013, he raised more than $113,000 with a Kickstarter campaign that helped fund his move to Los Angeles. In 2015 he released his only album to date, “Professional Rapper,” which features appearances by Snoop Dogg, Rich Homie Quan and Panic at the Disco’s Brendon Urie. The video for his standalone 2018 single “Freaky Friday” with Chris Brown has more than 585 million views on YouTube; the one for his 2019 all-star charity song “Earth” has almost 230 million views and a cameo by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Three years ago, Burd released “Pillow Talking,” a nearly 11-minute, CGI-laden video. It has just 37 million views. He attributes that comparatively low figure to the sex scene at the start of it, which forces viewers to sign in to prove they’re at least 18 years old. He says including that scene is the biggest regret of his career — because it’s limited the number of people who’ve seen something he spent $750,000 of his own money on.
At one point in development, the first episode of “Dave” was going to be about that triumphant day when Burd posted the first Lil Dicky song, but the network advised that it would set up a predictable arc. Instead, the series begins a few months later, when his internet notoriety has earned him awkward interactions with (usually male) fans at restaurants, a blue check mark on Twitter and weird gigs like playing the memorial service for a prepubescent boy, but he’s still living in a messy apartment with his teacher girlfriend and two other roommates. In the season opener, the conflict comes when Burd wires $10,000 of his bar mitzvah money in exchange for a guest verse from YG but then gets ghosted by the Compton rapper’s manager.
Until “Dave,” Burd had mostly avoided the old mechanisms of the entertainment industry. He hasn’t released his music in physical formats, aside from a limited-edition vinyl run of “Professional Rapper,” or even signed to a record label. But having his own TV show has been a part of his vision for his career since before it began.
Burd grew up in Cheltenham Township, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. He said he routinely won class clown awards in school and would spend his days trying to figure out how to make his friends laugh. He knew he wanted to be famous for being funny; he just didn’t know how to do it or what talent he needed to unlock.
At the start of the 2010s, Burd noticed a market deficiency within the proliferation of online comedy videos aimed at wasted college students and bored office workers: quality comedy raps, a rarity aside from what the Lonely Island had been doing on “Saturday Night Live” and on their own. He decided that this would be his medium, even though he had no experience rapping.
“We’re in a phase of life where the cream rises and if you create the content, you’ll probably be successful,” Burd said. “So I started making music with that intention. And it works like a sport in that the more you do it, the better you get. I think in my quest to become a great comedian, I literally found out that I’m also a great rapper, which, you know, what a discovery!”
Although Burd amassed fans with his self-consciously clever and often off-color lyrics, some critics felt that he used his humor to distance himself from his genre of choice and tried to separate himself from an artistic tradition that was born from and is still based in the experiences of African Americans. Others have found his music and videos straight-up offensive: In his song “Freaky Friday,” after magically switching bodies with Chris Brown, he revels in the opportunity to repeat a racial epithet as many times as possible. Burd has previously explained away the critiques by saying that much of what he does is satire.
In 2013, when Burd uploaded “Ex-Boyfriend,” sites like CollegeHumor and Funny or Die were already institutions for online comedy videos. That year also saw the debut of Jash, which was first funded as part of Google’s $100-million YouTube Original Channel Initiative. It featured the work of established stars like Tim & Eric, Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera and Reggie Watts. A year later, Vimeo backed a season of “High Maintenance” for the first time and charged viewers to watch it.
While Burd did small projects with Funny or Die and Jash, he chose not to align himself too closely with them or any of their competitors. “I didn’t see myself as a cog in the machine,” he said. “I saw myself as, I could create my own Funny or Die one day. I saw myself more like the Will Ferrell of Funny or Die than the random comedy writer at Funny or Die.”
When making the video for “Lemme Freak” in 2014, Burd chose to work with Tony Yacenda, a CollegeHumor veteran who went on to make the Netflix series “American Vandal.” The two have since collaborated on four more pieces, including “Pillow Talking” and “$ave Dat Money,” in which they tried to replicate rap video conventions (big mansions, foreign sports cars, a yacht) by spending virtually no money and talking their way into getting everything for free.
What is turning out to be a great season for naturalistic comedies – “Atlanta” and “Better Things” having just begun on FX, with HBO’s “Insecure” and “Divorce” up ahead – continues this week with “High Maintenance,” which premieres Friday on HBO.
Though these videos continued to expand his audience, Burd always saw them as a launchpad. “The goal was always to do something bigger and do something narrative,” Yacenda said. “He certainly loves YouTube and the way the fans were able to interact with the material and share the material, and the way it was just him in his apartment in Santa Monica uploading a video and then people on the streets are talking about it. That was all cool, but the endgame was never: Let’s make stuff for YouTube.”
Now, as TikTok becomes a go-to outlet for young creatives, the older guard of online comedy hubs are mostly in disrepair. Once able to attract significant funding, the scale necessary to turn a profit — whether through ad-supported or sponsored content — means that the humor often has to be broad enough to attract a huge audience or safe enough that corporations feel comfortable attaching their names to it.
CollegeHumor recently laid off most of its staff. In 2018, Funny or Die continued downsizing and saw co-founder Adam McKay leave the company. Jash became a production company for outside content creators and brands. Vimeo pivoted from funding original content to providing tech for video makers to use. Super Deluxe and Seeso, digital comedy initiatives started by Turner Broadcasting and NBCUniversal, respectively, have shuttered.
By staying independent, Burd has remained unaffected by this downturn. “Looking at the remnants and how many companies came into play with him, not many of them survived, but he did,” said Group Nine’s Meyer. “He’s still thriving, and at the end, that audience he gained and awareness he gained gives him more firepower in negotiations for shows or specials or tours or whatever.”
The online world was once considered a place to grow stars before they could transition into more traditional, mainstream media where they could wring more profit from their work. That may not even be the case anymore. “What’s interesting about the notion of incubating something digitally and then it will go into the TV world, is that so many people have been spurned by that [move] that some of the luster has worn off of it,” said Meyer. “They don’t need to do it, necessarily. A lot of individual creators can maintain and continue to do their thing and probably make more money and make a higher margin off of going directly to their audience.”
“Dave” may be on a cable network, but it’s retained some of the sensibilities Burd developed through his work online. The episodes don’t follow the traditional A-B-C plots of most shows and instead feel like scrappy hangouts that wind their way to unexpected payoffs. The first three episodes were directed by Greg Mottola, the director of “Superbad” — one of Burd’s favorite films. The rest were helmed by people who also got their start in digital video: Yacenda; “High Maintenance” star and co-creator Ben Sinclair; and Andrew DeYoung, who has worked with Kate Berlant and John Early on many of their shorts, including the Vimeo series “555.”
“I just didn’t want the show to feel very overtly sitcom-y,” Burd said. “I also believe that there are no rules to the show. I believe that I could make an episode that’s one take where I go to the airport and it’s very, like, boring.”
As the title of show says, “Dave” is ultimately about Burd and his outlook, regardless of the context he exists in. “It’s great that he’s a neurotic suburban white Jewish rapper in a world that doesn’t look like that, but if he were a banker, the way he interacts with the world would still be really funny,” Schaffer said. “He’s prickly. He sees things differently. For God’s sake, the man doesn’t eat fruits or vegetables. Can you imagine what that’s done to his mental state, not to mention his insides? I swear, the only thing that works harder than him is his colon.”
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