How James Van Der Beek's Diplo Spoof Became a Scripted TV Series

James Van Der Beek as Diplo
Courtesy Photo

James Van Der Beek as Diplo in Day In the Life of Diplo.

Anything that incites fervor is ripe for parody, so it's not surprising that the world of big-tent dance music has inspired its fair share of send-ups: try Andy Samberg's Saturday Night Live digital short, where the bass drops with such force that dancers' heads literally explode; a skit based on the movie Whiplash, where a cruel teacher at "Skrillex academy" tortures would-be DJs by hurling lit glowsticks at their heads; or a trailer for the fake show NCIS: Ibiza, in which Moby, Nile Rodgers, Steve Aoki, and other mainstream dancefloor luminaries poke fun at the conventions of their business. 

Last summer, Diplo -- who was himself the subject of a spoof video by Thao Nguyen and tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus in March -- offered his own entry in the genre, which doubled as an ad for his annual Mad Decent Block Party. In "Day In The Life Of Diplo," James Van Der Beek, who became famous as a heartthrob on the '90s show Dawson's Creek, portrays Diplo as the pompous, amusingly out-of-touch emperor of a dance music kingdom. Van Der Beek punctuates all his sentences with either the term "fam" or a crass blast from a nearby airhorn, and he pays aspiring producers to create his beats — while decked out in elf costumes. All the while, the producer blithely dismisses his detractors with two-bit platitudes like, "ain't no compliment greater than a hater."

Van Der Beek's Diplo will reach a much wider audience at some point this year: Viceland, a cable network partnership between Vice and A+E that launched last year, ordered six episodes of a scripted series, titled What Would Diplo Do?, based on the Mad Decent Block Party promo. It's the network's very first scripted program. Van Der Beek will help write the show and serve as an executive producer along with DiploDiplo's manager, Kevin Kusatsu, and the director, Brandon Dermer; each episode will focus on a fictional account from Diplo's life on tour. TMWRKKusatsu's management company, produces along with Matador and Viceland. 

"The comedy of it is what attracted us," says Jay Peterson, who co-founded Matador in 2013. "[Diplo]'s sort of self aware about his identity out in the world. And it's taking a chance, which I think is what we love more than anything." "Vice is the perfect partner for this particular project," adds Jack Turner, head of scripted and digital content for Matador. "For them to be doing scripted is so exciting, given the audience that they have. They want to do projects that are not what people are going to expect."

The initial idea for the Van Der Beek treatment came from Dermer, who has extensive experience with music videos, including Major Lazer's "Scare Me" and Panic! At The Disco's VMA-nominated visual for "Victorious," and also worked for Comedy Central for two years. "Everybody has this idea of Diplo -- who he is, what he sounds like -- based on nothing but the music and social media," Dermer explains, slightly frazzled on the phone from L.A. after a four hour meeting with Viceland co-president Spike Jonze. "Even talking to friends back home, they're like, '[Diplo's] life must be crazy!'" Dermer continues. "So I thought it would be funny to do an interpretation of what he looks and sounds like."

The director immediately thought of Van Der Beek as a good candidate for spoof-Diplo. "I'm a fan of his from Rules of Attraction and Varsity Blues," Dermer says. "And obviously he played himself masterfully in Don't Trust The B---- In Apartment 23 -- he has a sense of humor." The hunch paid off: Not only did the actor meet with Dermer and Kusatsu, but Van Der Beek was so taken with the project that he asked to contribute to the dialog. "Obviously the dude has years of experience in television working with incredible people," Dermer notes. "He really brings a lot of that to the table. James is a great writer."

The spot that resulted from their initial efforts has accumulated more than a quarter of a million views to date, including, eventually, Jonze -- the famous director of both feature films and music videos who now helps run Viceland. Kusatsu started conversations with the network about expanding the project into a series; Paradigm's Head of Content and Distribution, Ben Weiss, helped close the deal with Vice. At the same time, Kusatsu reached out to Matador -- TMWRK and Matador are partners on several other projects, including a forthcoming documentary about Major Lazer's historic 2016 concert in Cuba -- about possibly producing the episodes. "James and I sat down with Jay over there, and he just gets it," Dermer says.

Peterson hints that the show may have some sort of life beyond the screen -- in a life-imitating-art moment, the line between Van Der Beek's Diplo and the real one may occasionally blur. "[Diplo] has a sense of humor about this," Peterson says. "He's helping us find people to be involved, other people from the world of rockstar DJs and producers. We may have it so that audiences go to see a Major Lazer show or a Diplo show and all of a sudden they see James Van Der Beek up there. We have a lot of ideas that Diplo fully supports." 

Peterson and Turner have no qualms about being the guinea pig as Viceland makes its first foray into scripted programming. "We're thrilled that we get to be the first thing out of the gate," Peterson asserts. "The idea is that being the first hopefully we will over-deliver and just do more and more with these guys." And though it's early in the process of putting the show together, Turner suggests that one season may not be enough to portray all the facets of Van Der Beek's Diplo. "All the projects that Vice wants to do, they want to have ongoing beyond just one season," he points out. "The amount of ideas we have, it's hard to totally capture them in just six episodes." 

"The best reaction we want from the announcement that went out [this week] is people don't know exactly what to expect from the show," Peterson sums up. "And that gives us more freedom creatively to really mess with people." If Van Der Beek's Diplo were around, he would surely applaud this sentiment with a blast from the airhorn. 

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