Dave Burd is Über-confident. And not like his satirical rapper alter ego Lil Dicky, whose constant garish flexing and bravado are so blatant it borders on the absurd. No, Burd is simply self-assured to an extreme degree. “These guys would be crazy not to green-light this,” the curly ’froed rapper, who turns 32 later this month, remembers thinking when he pitched the executives at FX’s comedy-focused sister network FXX on Dave, a fictionalish comedy loosely based on his life as an up-and-coming rapper in Hollywood that premieres Wednesday night. “That’s just my honest opinion,” says Burd, who, for all his occasionally off-putting presumptuousness, is thoughtful and deliberate in conversation. “I totally understand how rare and lucky it is that I’m even in this position,” he acknowledges of his minimal output as Lil Dicky (the latest: 2019’s guest-star-stuffed charity song “Earth,” a “We Are the World”–style plea to stop polluting the planet), having no acting experience, and then not only landing a show on an acclaimed network, but also roping in Jeff Schaffer, co-creator of cult classic The League and executive producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld, to create Dave with him.
Burd grew up a smart Jewish kid raised in the upper-middle-class Philadelphia neighborhood of Elkins Park and worked in advertising after graduating from the University of Richmond in 2010. In 2013, while still holding down his day job, he began releasing one song a week online. Just before he dropped the now-viral video for his self-deprecating single “Ex-Boyfriend” his closest friends and family staged an intervention, telling him the video could hurt his chances at future employment. So, he released it anyway … and it raked in more than 1 million views in its first 24 hours. Burd soon quit his job and hired a music-industry manager, pivoting to hip-hop entirely. Later that year, after releasing 32 songs and 15 music videos, he ran out of money and launched a Kickstarter that brought in over $100,000 and helped finance his sole full-length album to date, 2015’s Professional Rapper, which featured Snoop Dogg and Fetty Wap. Arguably his biggest moment to date, however, has come via his Billboard Top 10 single “Freaky Friday,” which found him swapping bodies with collaborator Chris Brown and also drew criticism for its lyrics, which, among other things, made light of Brown’s history of domestic abuse.
“I think it’s funny that I’m even capable of doing this,” Burd, who is now co-managed by Scooter Braun, says of Dave but ostensibly of his entire career as a quasi-rapper-cum-comedy-star. “But I am aware of my capabilities and I have seen the proof in the pudding, so I would have been surprised if the people in charge of decision-making didn’t see that, too.”
What gives someone with zero acting experience the confidence to conceive, pitch, and ultimately star in his own TV show?
I’ve always dreamed and believed that it was possible. But I was certainly aware I had zero résumé in this space. I had no experience and didn’t know what I was doing. It’s not necessarily easy for a company to listen to a man say, “Trust me, I can do this,” and all they have to reference is music videos where I’m rhyming. It’s like a totally new genre.
So what qualified you to do this?
My whole life, I wanted to be a comedian. I grew up idolizing the Larry Davids, the Adam Sandlers, and the Seth Rogens of the world. I loved movies. I loved TV shows. I loved Seinfeld. I loved Curb. I felt like the feedback I was getting as a child when I met people was, “Oh, you’re really funny.” I found that very validating. I thought to myself, I don’t believe the Larry Davids or Seth Rogens of the world began as anything more than somebody’s funny friend.
Then how did Lil Dicky come about?
I knew nobody in the entertainment industry. I had no connections. So I initially conceived Lil Dicky with the hope of being noticed for being funny. I didn’t necessarily even take myself seriously as a rapper. I started rapping because I wanted people to notice my comedic sensibilities. I realized by accident I was actually capable of being a legitimate rapper. Which was always a dream of mine, too — even when I was a kid, I said I wanted to be a comedian, I also wanted to play in the NBA, and I also wanted to be a rapper. But I just felt, of the three goals, being a comedian seemed like the logical thing to go for.
So even as Lil Dicky the rapper was reaching more and more musical goals, it was always completely at the top of my mind that I was going to have to make a very serious attempt at creating a TV show.
How confident were you as a rapper at the start? Your character is a relative unknown, yet he believes he’s “the best rapper in the world.”
I recognize how ridiculous it sounds for anyone to say, “I’m one of the best rappers alive.” But I feel like every rapper does actually feel that way. That said, I was always confident, but it was not necessarily about being a rapper. It was about being an entertainer. The character in the show — rap for him was what comedy was for me.
How do you see Dave in relation to your career as Lil Dicky? As a chance to prove you’re more than a rapper wielding dick jokes?
I didn’t necessarily view it as, Oh, I want to prove myself. I viewed it more from an optimistic, glass-half-full perspective: Oh, here’s a good opportunity to contextualize who you are to anybody who has reservations. I totally understand if someone would look at me as a rapper and have an opinion. I feel like I get feedback when I meet people: “Oh my God, I thought you were gonna be an asshole. You’re so nice.”
You speak in a manner of extreme confidence that teeters on bravado.
I am not kidding when I say I always knew I could make a TV show. But I wouldn’t be happy with it if it felt like an average TV show. That would have been a huge loss. I’ve always totally believed I was capable. And deep down I do belong there.
So I take it you were happy with how it turned out?
Once the pilot was made and I saw it one time, I said, “Okay, you’re one-for-one. You can definitely do this.” It’s like my first concert. Before I did my first concert, I’d never performed a rap in front of anybody my entire life. And then all of a sudden I had to do a show in Philadelphia in front of 2,000 people. And that day I had no idea what I was doing. It was the most stressful day of my life by far and the most nervous I’d ever been. And then I went onstage and I did great. I learned then and there, Oh, you’re a natural at this. And then I was never nervous again.
And the same goes for acting?
I think as the season goes on, it gets more and more impressive. There’s not an episode I don’t like. In my mind, they range from “really, really good” to “different levels of really good.” I’ve known I was going to make a good TV show. It was just how good?
It’s a bit amazing to me that you just assumed you could act.
I never really even thought about how I’d be as an actor. I don’t know why I never even took that into consideration, but I didn’t. I never felt the need to do training. But I’m acting like myself. Some people just can’t do that.
You worked for years before putting out your first rap mixtape. I’d think that required a different sort of confidence from conceiving a TV show.
When I look back at my first mixtape, it’s just objectively not good. I don’t know why I believed in myself as a rapper the way I did back then. Because I really don’t think I was making good music. But I think my floor as a comedian was much higher than my floor was as a rapper. I’m more naturally geared to do that without having to work for years and years at perfecting the craft the way it has been for rap. Only now, seven years after my first song, as a rapper do I feel like I’m really on the level of other rappers.
Your character freestyles for YG in a recording studio … and crushes it. Would you have had the balls to do that back in, say, 2012, if you’d met a rapper of his stature?
Probably not. But in reality, back then, if I was somehow an extra on the set of a Seth Rogen movie and they were like, “Hey man, come here and do this line in the scene,” I think I would have had that confidence the way my character does in that studio.
[Spoilers ahead] I think it’s important we talk about episode three. In the episode, Dave opens up about his shame over having what he perceives to be a deformed penis. In fact, he’s so embarrassed by it that his girlfriend has never even seen it up close. For all the humor involved in the show, this episode actually showcases your vulnerability.
That episode is the ultimate “living my truth.” I think honesty does a lot in terms of resonating with people, so that’s why in that moment, it was easy to go all the way and push the envelope. And just do it to its full potential. Anyone who has a deep-rooted insecurity, I think, can relate to this episode.
So, um, is this episode autobiographical?
[Pauses.] Whatever… okay, so my penis has always been a big issue for me. Even as a child. There’s no way to tell my life’s story without talking about my penis at some point. I’m being serious. That’s why my rap name is Lil Dicky. I literally had surgeries on my penis as a child. I’ve had the most lucky, privileged life ever. So on the one hand I’m very confident and rapper-y in my self-belief, but I’m always grounded in this insecure, self-deprecating place. And I think my penis is probably at the root of it. So to tell my origin story as an artist, as a rapper, as a human being, I couldn’t possibly do it without dedicating a good chunk of time to talking about sexual insecurity. So you can write it off as some big dick joke, but it’s actually way more personal than that.
I’m not surprised. Your music and this show strike this balance between the absurd and the sentimental.
If you hung out with me, I think you’d hear me say a lot of absurd things, but know it’s coming from a place of genuineness. That kind of combination is who I am at my core as a person. So that’s always going to be ever present in my art.
There are a lot of music-industry cameos in the show: Justin Bieber, Young Thug, YG, Macklemore. Though there’s a fine line between them being effective and frivolous. The way they’re deployed reminds me of a middle ground between Curb and Entourage.
Entourage I found to be a very entertaining, enjoyable show in my childhood. But also every moment is so glamorous and you can’t turn a corner without a beautiful woman walking by. And I wanted to show the non-moments as opposed to just big-ticket moments. I wanted to show the gritty reality of life. Like, “Yah, I’m a rapper, but I can’t even get into a bar because the bouncer has no idea who I am.”
Where does your acting career go from here?
I have nothing but confidence now. I’m so absolutely confident that the general public is going to love this show. The thought of Is this good or not? is not even in my head.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.