Not-so-real life of EDM star now a se­ries

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - TV - By Chris Bar­ton

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.”

FREDERICK M. BROWN/GETTY

Ac­tress Dora Madi­son, actor and se­ries co-cre­ator James Van Der Beek and DJ Dil­lon Fran­cis dis­cuss the Vice­land se­ries “What Would Di­plo Do?”

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