Not-so-real life of EDM star now a series
Among tens of thousands of people in California at Shaun White’s Air & Style at Exposition Park in February, a man in a black shirt and matching baseball hat reading “Decent” across the front is running along the front barricades, collecting high-fives from delirious fans.
It’s a typical, celebration-ready scene at electronic dance music festivals, which in this case was headlined by the booming, Caribbean-informed beats of Major Lazer, a group co-founded by the superstar DJ known as Diplo. Except the figure in the crowd was not the in-demand producer who has worked with M.I.A. and Beyonce.
It was James Van Der Beek in a wispy mustache acting as Diplo for the new Viceland series “What Would Diplo Do?”
But for all the fame pop stardom affords, not everybody noticed the difference.
“The funny thing is half the people were like ‘James Van Der Beek?’ And other people — you know, it was dark out; I’m sure some people were intoxicated,” says 31-year-old series director Brandon Dermer, who worked with Diplo (born Thomas Wesley Pentz) and festival organizers to arrange the guerrilla-style shoot that appears in the show’s first episode. But many people had no clue.
“He’s wearing a shirt that says ‘Diplo’ on the back; he’s got the hat,” Dermer says. “Some people were coming up, ‘Dude, I saw you in Vegas last month, you were great!’ ”
It’s that kind of blur between reality and fiction that makes up the bulk of material for the series, Viceland’s first scripted comedy. Co-created by Dermer and Van Der Beek, the series (with Diplo as executive producer) tweaks the persona of the pop star in a way that combines the playful satire of “This Is Spinal Tap” with a show business version of “The Office.”
The result is something of a workplace comedy revolving around a pop star’s misadventures and the attempts to manage those mistakes by his team, which includes comic Bobby Lee, Groundlings veteran H. Michael Croner, DJ and festival fixture Dillon Francis and Dora Madison of “Friday Night Lights,” who appears as one of Diplo’s assistants and the only person anchored in the real world.
Between takes at a buzzing Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, Van Der Beek excitedly recalled how the show captured its concert footage, which included his striking Diplo’s widearmed “Jesus pose” in front of a capacity crowd while the real Diplo performed behind him. Dermer later recalled Diplo coaching Van Der Beek before another live shoot at the Mad Decent Block Party concert in LA last October, showing him which buttons to press while onstage and when to crowd surf to find the most believable performance.
“(Wes) is allergic to taking himself too seriously,” Van Der Beek says of the DJ. He added that, if anything, the writers had to rein in Pentz’s ideas for how he was portrayed.
“Being in the public eye, everyone wants to speculate on who you are, what you do in your personal time, pass judgments on how you live your life,” said Pentz, who was reached via email while touring overseas. “I’d rather embrace the speculation, turn it into a joke and have fun with it.”
Van Der Beek is no stranger to the meta-comedy game, having played an outsize, arrogant version of himself on ABC’s “Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23” from 2012 to 2013. He credits that series’ executive producer, Nahnatchka Khan, for preparing him to be showrunner for this series.
“In terms of making a sustainable, fully fledged character, blind spots are the gold that you’re looking for,” he said in a later phone conversation. “The fun thing about playing somebody meta is you can give them a superpower. So in the case of Diplo, it’s this musical genius that 99.9 percent of people struggle with or don’t have.”
Recalling his experience on “Apt. 23,” Van Der Beek says he told that show’s writers, “Don’t ever be afraid of offending me. You have to go for what’s funniest, and if there’s anything that hits too close to the mark or I’m afraid is going to be bad for my kids then I’ll let you know privately. And that’s pretty much what Wes said to me when I sat down with him the first time to explore the idea of turning this into a series. That’s kind of the only answer that would make it worth doing.”
The idea for the series began with Dermer, who with the help of Diplo and his manager, Kevin Kusatsu, created a video promo for the Mad Decent Block Party tour last year that featured Van Der Beek as Diplo.
“I’ve always been approached to kind of break EDM in Hollywood,” says Dermer, who got his start making music videos. “Like, ‘Hey, we’re trying to make “Ballers,” but for EDM,’ “Entourage,” but for EDM.’ That’s really not what the world’s like, especially for the guys that I’ve worked with. So I kind of took both the Hollywood interpretation and the public interpretation of what these guys are like, and I’m like: ‘I’m going to make that.’ ”
The video made a splash (more than 350,000 views), which is when talk of a series began.
When Viceland first approached Van Der Beek, he thought it was a cute idea, but it wasn’t until he got better acquainted with Diplo’s music that the concept clicked.
“I put on headphones at night, and it just hit me,” he says. “A musical genius who sucks at life. He can communicate with 80,000 people, but he sucks one-on-one.”
Actress Dora Madison, actor and series co-creator James Van Der Beek and DJ Dillon Francis discuss the Viceland series “What Would Diplo Do?”