In the second episode of FX’s new sitcom, Dave, a running gag turns into a masterful punchline when show star Lil Dicky is confronted with nonstop comparisons to fellow white rapper Macklemore ahead of his first performance ever. The fact that said performance is to take place at the funeral of 10-year-old boy who was a fan of both Dicky and Macklemore has already ratcheted the discomfort level to historic highs, but when that punchline lands, it’s the sitcom equivalent of the big twist at the end of Common’s “I Used To Love H.E.R.”: You see it coming, it’s almost too on-the-nose… but you can’t help but laugh your ass off. Dave is one of the best comedies on TV because with Dave finally finds the perfect outlet for his quirky comedic voice.
Dave is the brainchild of Lil Dicky, but Dave — as in Dave Burd, the name Dicky’s mom gave him — is the mastermind behind Lil Dicky. Conceived as a side door into comedy — or maybe a backdoor into rap — Lil Dicky emerged on the internet in the midst of the so-called “blog era,” when new rappers were cropping up as quickly as DatPiff could buy data to host their mixtapes. Nervous about his place in the landscape as a skinny, neurotic, Jewish, white guy, Dave conceived of Dicky as a way to confront his incongruity with preconceived notions of a rapper — as well as to confront his greatest shame, which he addresses in Episode Three of the show, “Hypospadias.”
Lil Dicky rapped in a jokey, absurdist style that allowed him to poke fun at the tropes of hip-hop — or so it seemed. He took the piss out of exaggerated stereotypes of manliness, of flossing and flexing, of being too cool to pretend that it’s not all an insecure bid for both attention and acceptance. In fact, Dicky was bald-faced in the justification for his schtick, telling HipHopDX he started rapping “simply to get attention comedically, so I could write movies, write TV shows and act.” That openess worked against him as much as for hm, despite hip-hop’s professed fondness for “keeping it real.” When he was put on the 2016 XXL Freshman cover, many in hip-hop flipped their wigs. Purists saw him as a culture-appropriating, insulting, offensive interloper. Even I called him out over the popularity of his song with Chris Brown, “Freaky Friday.” Dicky’s willingness to cast himself as an outsider seemingly left him outside looking in — until now, that is.
Along the way, Lil Dicky decided he liked rapping, but was hamstrung by the jokey persona he’d cultivated — ironically, no one would take him seriously. They did when he actually rapped though. As quiet as its kept, Dicky is one of the better technical rappers of his generation, capable of juggling complex syllable sounds, tempos, and gut-busting punchlines every bit as well as or better than his counterparts. Those peers and contemporaries slowly but surely became Lil Dicky’s friends in the business rather than competitors; over the years, Lil Dicky collaborated with respected rap vets and contemporary stars including Fetty Wap, Gunna, Rich Homie Quan, Snoop Dogg, T-Pain, Trinidad James, Trippie Redd, and Young Thug. It turned out he was a pretty nice guy on top of being a nice rapper, accumulating a celebrity contact list as extensive as any veteran Hollywood producer or agent.
So when he pitched Dave to FX’s execs as a fictionalized version of his own slow climb through the ranks of rap, he had a phone full of guest stars ready to go. Rappers like AD, Macklemore, MadeinTYO, OT Genasis, Young Thug, and YG dot each episode, emphasizing the authenticity of their encounters with Fictional Dicky (who still introduces himself as “Dave”) with bemused and bewildered expressions that often heighten those situations’ absurdity. Dave takes himself completely seriously. He knows he’s the best rapper, he knows he’s destined for stardom, and he’s charismatic, earnest, sweet, and bold enough to actually pull it off. He’s also crippingly insecure, overthinking nearly every situation with a Woody Allen-esque neuroticism that that subtly manages to pull at the seams of hip-hop’s grand charade — and expose just how silly he seems for worrying so much.
Prime example: “Hypospadias.” (You knew it was coming back. That’s what we call shooting Chekhov’s gun.) In the show’s breathtakingly funny third episode, Dave is forced to confront his insecurity about the congenital defect of the penis with which he was born (I’ll spare you the details — and the spoilers). It’s one of the primary drivers of his reason for calling himself “Lil Dicky” but it’s also one of the main driving forces holding him back. He’s so sensitive about his weird dick, he goes to great lengths to hide it even from his longtime girlfriend Ally, leading to one outrageous conversation as his rap world and real world collide. But his vulnerability and sensitivity in addressing his real-life issue in his show with warmth and empathy are part of why the show’s so good; it’s just as willing to drop the funny facade to let its characters emote and deal with serious subjects.
As I write this, I’m watching the latest episode, “Hype Man,” about Dicky’s fast-talking friend Gata (pronounced like “gator”) revealing just how fast he talks and why. It leads to a touching discussion of mental health and a truly heartwarming hug-it-out session among the show’s core quartet, then right into a side-splitting scene as the guys film their promo for an upcoming tour and use Gata’s diagnosis as an awkward-funny bit within the scene. If it sounds terribly meta, that’s probably because it is, but in a good way. It’s heady but it never gets its head stuck up its ass. That’s why it works where Dicky’s rap career always seemed a little like a cheap gimmick. This time, we’re in on the joke, and being shown just enough of the stitching holding it all together to peel back the layers ourselves.
Once you do, you realize Dicky isn’t poking fun at rap itself or even just its tropes. He’s poking fun at himself, at his inability to fit into those archetypes, and crucially, his early inability to see that he never really had to (this was, after all, a post-Eminem world). White rappers are a dime a dozen. His story sets him apart, but only in that it makes him interesting enough to draw some attention. The important thing was what he did with it. With Dave, it seems that he’s finally figured that out. And because of that, he may very well get the last laugh after all.
Dave airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on FX.