Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
When it comes to the list of Jewish rappers, it is, well… short. Matisyahu and Andy Samberg come to mind, the latter of whom evolved the art form with his Lonely Island parodies.
But none do it quite like Dave Burd (aka Lil Dicky), co-creator/star of Dave, FX’s most-watched comedy series ever. Having recently premiered its second season, Dave returns with Burd reprising his inspired-by-real-life role as an insecure, somewhat neurotic suburbanite rapper.
But now Dave has a record deal and some fame to his name, so we’re seeing an artist deal with the pressures of the music industry, which require you to show up in more ways than one. For instance, in the first scene of season two, he’s relatively stressed out backstage prior to presenting an award at the Korean Musical Awards. When he goes to present, his nerves cause him to blurt out, “We have BTS in the house” while looking out at the crowd. But BTS, in fact, is not in attendance, as his co-presenter points out. So, Dave follows with, “…Not!”
Upon his return to the States, we get a peek at an artist in a dry spell, trying to drum up inspiration in all sorts of places. One very telling solo “creative” session in the studio shows Dave procrastinating in every way imaginable — from smoking weed to experimenting with sex toys. It’s a memorable and pretty on-point glimpse into the creative process of an artist in turmoil.
In Burd’s highly approachable Dave, we have a portrayal of a character unlike anything else on TV: shamefully honest, acutely self-aware and sensitive to the point of sweetness (see his relationship with his hype-man GaTa). The character blasts through any tropes or preconceived notions about what the rapper lifestyle is all about. Dave is an artist first and foremost and does what he can to preserve that whenever possible. Yes, his self-involvement levels are off the charts, but his observations about the world are fresh and give a welcomed snapshot into the world of artistry — as cringey as it is to watch at times. But what do you expect from a guy who named his rap persona after his genitalia?
But it all bleeds into his art form, which is no joke. He’s got talent, and it’s evident every time he starts rapping. You need only watch the season one finale to see what Dave’s capable of, where he campaigns to get the label to support his desire to drop what he thinks maybe his greatest work of all time. It’s a track that graphically follows Dave through a jail sentence — his expressed goal being to “lure people in with absurdity through the lens of a privileged perspective.”
Let’s just say: Not all around him agree.
As fresh and honest as Burd’s performance is, it wouldn’t be as good if he wasn’t surrounded by castmates who put his particular brand of neurotic genius into focus. Namely, Andrew Santino as his best friend/manager Mike and his ex-girlfriend Ally (Taylor Misiak), who deals with Dave’s shenanigans on the reg. Then there’s his previously mentioned real-life hype-man GaTa, good friend Emma (Christine Ko) and Benny Blanco, a music producer who Dave spends a good 15 minutes with during episode three (of season two) taking the word bromance to the next level.
Throughout it all, Burd’s Dave soars to heights few have seen on TV or streaming before.
Much like Bo Burnham, who recently put his genius musical performance artistry on display for us in the Netflix special Inside, the origins of Dave Burd (and his rapper/stage name Lil Dicky) can be traced back to an internet viral success story back in 2013, “Ex-Boyfriend.” (Note: I’m not linking to it here ’cause it’s pretty filthy — but by all means, feel free to check it out on your own.)
Upon its release on YouTube, “Ex-Boyfriend” racked up over a million views in 24 hours, putting Lil Dicky on the map. Given the newfound boost of confidence, Burd continued working on his craft, eventually dropping the 2015 album Professional Rapper, which was funded using crowdsourced money through Kickstarter. Snoop Dogg was featured in the title track, which had Scooby Doo-like animation, and as of July 2021, has accrued over 210M+ views on YouTube.
In Professional Rapper, Burd raps in part about how he used his bar mitzvah money to partially finance his rap career and how he worked an office job (in advertising) after college that he just wasn’t digging. Cut back to his burgeoning career as a rapper dropping YouTube viral sensations, which culminated with his worldwide hit “Freaky Friday” in 2018 (garnering 671M+ views on YouTube to date), where he switches bodies with hip-hop star Chris Brown, for a day.
And, if you’re looking for any early clues on what led to Dave’s love interest in the show, it can be traced to the Philadelphia-born Burd’s “Pillow Talking” video (2017), which features Dave co-star Misiak. It’s a brilliant live-action video with animation contemplating everything from vegetarianism to the origins of the planet to what your brain would sound like if it could talk. (Think “This is your brain on drugs” campaign, but way smarter than an egg sizzling in a frying pan.) On a related topic, Burd also raised money for nonprofits when he released another widely seen video about fighting climate change in 2019 in hopes that we don’t fry the planet.
Now, with Dave enjoying season two on FXX, it will be interesting to see what hooks Lil Dicky can cook up next. Not just for Jewish rappers, but for this genre of musical artistry as a whole.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.