Burd’s Brain: How FXX’s ‘Dave’ Went From Dick Joke to Must-See TV

·8-min read

Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with Dave Burd, star of “Dave,” the hit FXX comedy about a white rapper on the ascent and his entourage.

Burd’s rap alter-ego, Lil Dicky, was spawned by — what else? — not only his own micro-sized genitalia, but also a tangled urethra which required several childhood surgeries, and apparently caused a lifetime of shame and humiliation, but also spawned an impressive ambition.

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“I feel like my personality is the way it is because I was born with this abnormality,” says the 33-year-old, hard at work editing, scoring and mixing sound for the final of the 10 episodes in the show’s second season, set to air through the summer. “By default, I became this self-deprecating human as a coping mechanism, which is the root of my comedy.”

A frustrated creative director for a Philadelphia ad agency, Burd began releasing rap videos on the Internet, with 2013’s “Ex-Girlfriend” garnering over a million views in 24 hours upon being posted to YouTube. Subsequent videos led to a recording contract with Warner Records and a 2015 album, “Professional Rapper,” as well as a series of viral videos with guest cameos by everyone from Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber to Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes, Wiz Khalifa, Charlie Puth, Katy Perry and Leonardo DiCaprio. The first season premiered in March 2020 just as the pandemic was getting underway, and soon became FX Networks’ self-proclaimed most-watched comedy ever.

It’s no surprise Larry David and Donald Glover are two of Burd’s favorite performers, because Dave could be described as a mix of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-inspired self-involved narcissism with the communal entourage and rich secondary narratives of “Atlanta.” And, of course, it makes perfect sense that executive producer and co-creator Jeff Schaffer was a writer/executive producer at both “Curb” and “Seinfeld” (he’s credited with creating the Festivus pole).

Like the fictional Larry David, Burd’s Dave isn’t afraid to show the less pleasing sides of his personality, from his persistent back acne and urethra issues to such winning moments as suddenly projectile-vomiting on an ex-girlfriend’s back while gently trying to dress a wound.

“If someone is funny, it doesn’t matter if they’re unlikable,” says Schaffer. “It only works if you’re authentic and truthful, even if your version of the truth is warped and perverted. Does Dave have a prickly interface with reality? Does he lose sight of others because he’s focused on himself? Of course. But he’s also being brutally honest, which is what people respond to.”

“Dave’s” first year introduced the primary cast of characters, including his eternally patient, now-ex-girlfriend Ally (Taylor Misiak), straight manager Mike (Andrew Santino) and manic-depressive, bipolar hype man and would-be MC GaTa playing a version of his real self. And while the debut season saw Dave breaking through and, much to everyone’s astonishment, signing a deal with a major label, the current episodes show the darker side of celebrity, fame and music business compromises.

“Things are just more complex emotionally and psychologically this season,” says Burd. “Obviously, it’s still a comedy at heart and not the most depressing show ever. I feel we do a really good job of balancing that out. Life is not one-dimensional. I try to apply that to the show — (showing) that there are pretty much pros and cons to anything you do.”

That sense of working out his issues on camera came through last year in a segment where Dave is accused of cultural appropriation by radio’s “The Breakfast Club” crew, led by Charlamagne Tha God in an exchange that became heated when GaTa defended Dave against charges of exploiting his Blackness. This year, Dave has dealt with a similar issue in an episode featuring Kareen Abdul-Jabbar wondering why Burd chose to post a music video that featured him Photoshopping his own head on the NBA great’s body.

“The real Dave can’t stand offending anyone,” says Schaffer. “He can’t live in this world knowing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t like him.”

“All credit to Kareem,” says Dave about the legend’s marvelously deadpan performance as himself, possibly even topping his iconic turn in “Airplane” (“Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes”). Burd says the NBA Hall of Famer was in on the joke, even as admitted claustrophobic Abdul-Jabbar gets locked in Dave’s bathroom, injures a knee and has to be hauled off in an ambulance. “He was incredible,” says Burd. “I don’t think you can get much past that guy. He’s pretty darn brilliant.”

The other episode to blow up the Internet featured Dave’s nude romp around the swimming pool, shower and bed with his real-life best bro, songwriter/producer/performer Benny Blanco (Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Halsey). The two cuddle like nesting Russian dolls, as unself-conscious as two kids on a sleepover, mirroring the affection the two have for one another in real life.

“Unfortunately, life imitates art,” laughs Blanco, who has been following his pal Dave’s career since his first YouTube video. “Dave has a great way of showing how we all deal with a bunch of funny shit in life… things we don’t understand, that make us uncomfortable, that embarrass us. It’s slapstick, but there’s so much meaning behind everything.

“Is that me, exactly? No, but it’s an exaggerated, comic version of myself,” Blanco adds. “Dave has a way of turning everybody into their best possible self. He creates such a comfortable environment that it lets you free to do the greatest thing in that moment. He’s a fucking genius. And if you stand next to him, you’ll look like a genius, too.”

Dave Burd started rapping because he saw it as his way of breaking into comedy, then acting. Like Woody Allen, he has gone from his early, cartoon-like music videos to his “Annie Hall”/”Manhattan” phase, but Dave admits to being more influenced by Will Smith in “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” than he was by Allen, who was as ancient to him as the Marx Brothers were to a generation of boomers coming of age in the ‘60s. But the idea of the nebbish who gets the girl — even if Burd’s Dave at least temporarily loses her this year — is an eternal trope.

“When I first set out to become a comedian, I didn’t really know how it worked,” says Burd. “I knew I wanted to do my own stuff, but my goal at first was just to get noticed by people I admire, like the ‘South Park’ guys or Seth Rogen. I knew one day I’d get the opportunity to convey my comedic perspective; I just didn’t know what form it would take, so I became a rapper, and I just fell in love with hip-hop. It made me realize my comedy should be about my life. It came together very organically.”

With Scooter Braun (who doubles as his manager) and Kevin Hart among the show’s executive producers, Burd has some industry heavyweights believing in and backing his talent.

“I get more respect now from rappers than as a comic,” he acknowledges. “Rappers know who’s a good rapper. They know the skillset that I can apply. Rapping is like sports. The more you do it, the better you get. I discovered a level of talent I didn’t even know I had in me. It made me think I have no idea what I’m capable of, what is possible to achieve in life. Who knows what’s next?”

That’s the lesson of “Dave” in a nutshell: Anything is possible if you set your mind to it and work hard to achieve it. “My main goal is to make people laugh and have fun, but also for them to be inspired by my example,” says Burd. “If I can succeed, anybody can.”

“He’s the most complex, simple man I’ve ever met,” adds “Dave” co-creator Schaffer. “He’s a genius, but he also just found out what the toilet protectors are for in public restrooms. And he’s a germaphobic. He thought they were diaper-changing stations.”

“The show opens up to real issues,” offers Blanco. “Dave’s a white rapper, and rather than just dance around that, he finds ways to talk about it. He’s not afraid to show humility, that he doesn’t know everything, to articulate things people are afraid to say. He finds a way to make it funny but at the same time shine a light on important topics.”

For one, size isn’t everything… except when it comes to a career about to take off.

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