My introduction to Jewish rapper Lil Dicky came several years ago when one of my younger, cooler cousins recommended some of his part-comedy, part-rap YouTube videos.
I was immediately taken with “Save Dat Money,” a satire of hip-hop excess in which Lil Dicky finagles his way into a mansion, onto a yacht and into a club by offering the owners nothing more than free publicity.
After releasing a well-received studio album in 2015, Lil Dicky had his biggest hit three years later with the music video “Freaky Friday,” a coarse and undeniably catchy reimagining of the Disney movie. Featuring R&B pop star Chris Brown, the video has more than 600 million views. I’m responsible for more of those than I care to admit.
Lil Dicky’s artistic MO is to take something familiar and flip it on its head through shocking humor (usually of the sexual variety), brutal honesty and technical innovation.
In “Dave,” his new show on the FXX cable channel, he applies that same formula to a TV sitcom framework. All 10 episodes are now streaming on Hulu.
The semi-autobiographical show, which premiered on March 4, follows an unemployed, mid-to-late-20s Jewish rapper living in suburban L.A. named Dave Burd — Lil Dicky’s real name — as he tries to make it in the music industry.
Along for the ride are his girlfriend (a kindergarten teacher), her roommate, his loquacious hype man, his roommate (who becomes his manager) and a childhood friend. While “Dave” relies on a few tired sitcom tropes, it is silly and surprisingly touching, and it has given me more emotional release than anything else I’ve watched during quarantine.
Over the course of the season, Burd emerges as a millennial, musically inclined Larry David who lacks social graces but not self-confidence. (One of the co-creators of the show is Jeff Schaffer, 50, a producer and writer for hit shows such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Seinfeld” and “The League.”)
In the first episode, Burd barges uninvited into another rapper’s recording session with a tuna sandwich, stinking the place up. Later in the season, in the middle of a Larry David-esque rant about how bars are too loud and crowded, a friend interrupts: “Why are you so passionate about the least important things?”
Burd is passionate about lots of things — talking about his genitals, sparring with haters on social media, the black Jewish rapper Drake. But what he is most passionate about is being taken seriously as a rapper. He sees himself as the next Kanye West, while record executives envision him as more of a comedian than a rapper.
For Burd, there are only two kinds of people in the world: those actively helping him achieve his dream and those standing in the way. The main tension of “Dave” lies in Burd trying to figure out who falls into which camp. There is also a genuine sweetness about Burd, and it shines through most often in scenes with his girlfriend, Ally. He may be a narcissist, but at least he is a charming one.
“Dave” is silly and surprisingly touching, and it has given me more emotional release than anything else I’ve watched during quarantine.
Rapping is a historically black art form, and any show about a white rapper needs to address the issue of race. “Dave” does not shy away from this and other sensitive topics, including sexual insecurity and mental illness. During a pitch to a record label, Burd bemoans the fact that white rappers like him tend to sell more records and tickets than black ones, saying: “It sucks, but it’s the cold hard truth. I hate that it’s true, by the way.” He’s being sincere.
Burd has tackled race before — to mixed reactions. In the “Freaky Friday” video, he revels in the fact that he (like Chris Brown, who is black) can finally say the N-word after they switch bodies. After the song blew up, the music site Genius called out Lil Dicky for dancing around the word, wondering if he was “laughing at hip-hop culture or with it.” “Dave” shows that Burd takes debates over cultural appropriation at least semi-seriously.
Beneath his Jewfro and beard, Burd wears his Judaism lightly.
There is a reference to his bar mitzvah (he uses $10,000 of his gift money to jump-start his rap career), a smattering of Yiddish is spoken by his delightfully anxious parents (played by Gina Hecht and David Paymer) and matzah is consumed at a family dinner.
But, ultimately, “Dave” presents Burd’s Jewishness as a disadvantage in his chosen field. When he becomes blocked creatively, his camp friend and sound engineer Elz mockingly suggests, “You could always rap about the struggles of a young Jewish man.”
While Jewish media mostly focus on shows like “The Plot Against America” and “Unorthodox,” about Jews who feel oppressed by history or tradition, “Dave” is a respite from those serious examinations of Jewish identity.
The show does stumble at times. But the season finale — which begins as a darkly humorous music video about prison life and transitions to a truly uncomfortable appearance by Bird on “The Breakfast Club,” a hip-hop-oriented, syndicated morning radio show — hints at more ambitious narrative arcs and devices to come, now that the hugely popular show has been renewed for a second season.
By the end of season 1 of “Dave,” you may not want to be friends with Burd, but you definitely are pulling for him to succeed.