SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains light spoilers from the first two episodes of Season 3 of FX’s “Dave,” which premiered on FXX on April 5, and is streaming on Hulu.
In Season 3 of “Dave,” the rapper known as Lil Dicky is looking for love, probably in exactly the wrong place: on tour.
Liberated from the writer’s block that plagued him throughout Season 2, Dave Burd has gathered his friends and collaborators in a suitably obnoxious pink bus for a nationwide tour — and brought all of his shortcomings and neuroses along for the ride. Series co-creator and “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” alum Jeff Schaffer spoke to Variety the show’s two-episode premiere “Texas” and “Harrison Ave,” about where Dave is headed this season after the “weighted blanket” of recording an album was finally lifted, the mechanics of humiliation in a show about a rapper who talks incessantly about his genitals, and the overall series trajectory as Burd grows older — but not always wiser.
How much, if at all, was the show was constrained during Season 2 because of the pandemic — and what position did that put you in as you started Season 3?
The only constraint that the pandemic put on Season 2 from a logistical standpoint was the fact that we lost some days due to people getting COVID. Creatively, we weren’t constrained at all.
But to answer the question in a different way, in Season 2 there’s a lot of angst. There was a lot of strife within the group, because their captain was just a navelgazing anxiety monster because he can’t write, he can’t write, he can’t write. We wanted this season to be very different. I mean, you can’t fall down the stairs twice the same way. So this season is almost the antidote to Season 2, in that there is no group strife. They’re on tour where Dave, as in real life when he’s on tour, he doesn’t have to write music, and when he doesn’t have to write music, there’s this giant weighted blanket that is taken off of him. I think last year’s angst-ridden journey paid off supremely in the season finale. This season starts in a more fun place, and the group’s together, and Dave’s not looking inward. The whole group is looking outward.
It’s clear from the first few episodes of Season 3 that some conflicts still linger. After working on shows like “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where characters really actively resist growth, what have you learned about pushing things forward without it feeling like somebody is falling down the stairs the same way over and over again?
The first season was about Dave and his group of friends, and everyone was supporting Dave. Season 2, everyone’s like, “Wait, I’ve got my own thing,” and it was a zero-sum game. This season, I think everyone’s finding a balance of how to be their own professional life person. Emma is filming a documentary on the tour. Is Dave going to micromanage it? Dave is Dave. But we’ll see. GaTa is now VMA GaTa. He’s gotten a little taste of success, and as the season progresses, we’re going to see him gander. Is he going to try and monetize his mental disorders? Of course he is. It’s all part of the gander. So we’re going to see this season how everyone starts to find their own path, and it doesn’t have to be at Dave’s expense.
Who is the person in the writers’ room who went skydiving and will not stop talking about it? Mike (Andrew Santino) brings it up in every scene of the first episode.
Our writers are very brave, but none of them are brave enough to have done that. But it did happen. It’s a story of a friend of a friend of one of the writers, I believe. But it seemed like the perfect thing for Mike, just to have found what he would call depth. He had an experience. I mean, I don’t know how much of it he’s really absorbed other than I got to tell everybody all the time. It’s frequency masquerading as philosophy.
What the series does extremely well is interrogate Burd’s role in hip-hop, particularly where more than ever, conversations are happening about how much ownership of that community a person can take when they don’t come from it. How much of that is a component of this season?
Building off last season where he was on the VMAs, and now he’s on tour, he’s achieved a certain level of fame, and we finally got to the point where we could explore fame in a way that we could not in Season 1. I remember when Dave and I were talking about the pilot, and he had this list of stories, we literally went through just like, “No, not famous enough. That’s later.” Now, he really wants to explore what fame means, why it’s so important to have it, what you do with it, what’s your responsibility with it, and how important is it to you? So we finally got to a season where we could talk about things that are happening in Dave’s life now.
At the same time, the other big theme of the season is, and he sort of said [in the first episode] basically a thesis statement, “I’m on tour. I want to find love. I want to find a relationship.” Now, of course, because it’s Dave, it’s like, you’re looking for someone to fall in love with Dave Burd while you’re on a tour where everyone’s coming to see Lil Dicky. How are you going to find someone who loves you for you when they’re coming to see your onstage persona, and realizing how wrongheaded, how just quixotic that goal is on tour. Everything’s heightened on tour. I mean, Elz [Taco Bennet] says it: “It’s not real.” But as the season progresses, you’re going to see those two themes, fame and love, sort of intertwined and become the DNA of the season.
What have you learned over the years as a storyteller about how much humiliation you can subject a main character to without them just becoming pathetic to the audience?
Well, the thing about Dave is he is amazingly fearless. This is a story about Dave. He’s playing a character called Dave in a show called “Dave,” and yes, he’s approached it with all the enthusiasm that a narcissist can bring to a show called “Dave” starring David about Dave. But think about how brave he and GaTa are to be telling their real story out there. First it was about body image, and then it was about the creative process. This season, you’re going to see equal bravery and transparency on a subject that’s actually very touchy, which is my art, my music, and my relationship to my fans, and what is my music? What do my fans say about me, and do I want to change it? Could I change it?
Again, this is not a roman à clef. This is Dave talking about his music and his fans. He’s touching every sort of third rail he can, and it’s his real life. So, that to me is really, really just impressive. The North star for the show has always been authenticity, and now Dave doesn’t have to worry about writing music, but he is making music. He’s making this art, and this art is affecting people, and he’s seeing it firsthand. He’s brave enough to look at himself and his effect on people and really explore that this season. So, to me, it’s not about how much humiliation is he’s subjecting himself to. It’s how brave does he have to be to be that transparent.
Where do you set the threshold for how best to dramatize things that he’s really experiencing for maximum entertainment value?
Well, it’s interesting. So, [the second episode] “Harrison Avenue,” for instance, is something that was very personal to Dave, this story of “the 33rd wheel.” It basically happened, and it was a story that he wanted to tell, and we didn’t quite know how to tell it. This show went through many iterations — he was on tour, and it was at a college, and we tried other things — until finally, rightfully, we figured out we should just bring it home, and that was the most authentic way to tell it, and to have his old girlfriend there. By the way, how good was Jane Levy? I mean, we needed someone who could hold her own with Dave, and she more than delivered. But the writing process of that episode actually mirrored the story of the episode, because Dave had a story where he was a victim. “Look at what happened to me.” Through the writing process and all of us talking about it, it became what it is, which is, wait, you’re trying to make a video to appeal to your female fans while you are blaming this woman, and also having a machine that’ll generate a Schuylkill River of semen? So the writers’ room was a mirror to this story, and that mirror got put into this show and made the story great.
But I love this episode. It’s always like history’s written by the victors, but this time, history’s written by the most famous, and he’s going to tell his side of the story. As the show progresses, he realizes he wasn’t the victim, and he’s a little more honest with himself, and what comes out of it is a much more honest, much more beautiful piece of music and art, all credit to Dave for being self-aware in the writers’ room.
How much have you found the show’s storytelling to be therapeutic or cathartic to the real Dave Burd?
One of the great things about Dave is that he’s not afraid to show what he doesn’t know, and that’s one of the calling cards of the show, that Dave sort of blunders through, but is able to accept being made fun of or being slapped down for it, and then he comes out a better person. I think that’s one of the things that surprised me the most about working with him, is how thoughtful he is. To show that he’s gone somewhere, you have to show that he was wrong, and he’s not afraid to do that. He’s willing to look bad to tell a better story. A lot of people want to tell stories about personal growth, but they start out awesome. Dave’s not afraid to start in the right place to allow growth, and that’s why people root for him.
Ally was so instrumental in the first two seasons, and Dave went through a pretty devastating rejection in Season 2. Will Taylor Misiak come back, and how much can people expect to see her as a character in this season or the series going forward?
Well, as I’ve always said, the world is better with Taylor in it, and the show is better with Taylor in it, and Taylor, Ally is in the show. In fact, she’s going to join them on tour. She misses her friends. She’s got a different agenda also. She’s not just coming to visit, which you’ll see in Episode 4, and then she’s a part of the show moving forward, too. She’s so marvelous, and she brings so much to the show. We couldn’t not have her in it.
The entirety of Season 2 was about him trying to make an album, but much to his fans’ disappointment, he didn’t release one in real life. How much is his music career going to be reverse-engineered from the show as opposed to the show originally being created around his burgeoning music career?
The show did start around his music career, but he is still a musician. He’s been working on an album for a little while that he’s very excited about, and I think his music has grown a lot as the show has progressed. But no, he still wants that album to come out. He knows his fans are waiting for it. He wants it to come out, too. He is, as has now been documented for three seasons, a bit of a perfectionist. He likes to turn over every stone. So, I don’t know how many stones are left, but I hope also as a fan that his album comes out soon.
As the show progresses, is there even a loose map or a trajectory that you want to arrive at?
There are multiple maps. There are forks in the road for the continuing story of Dave Burd that we are constantly debating. Some of them are insane, so I don’t know. There are some triggers we haven’t pulled yet, for sure.
Are you exploring his story season by season, episode by episode, or are you going, “We hope that we get to a place where we he’s going to be fully transformed, on top of the world, successful, emotionally well-adjusted and mature?”
David’s never going to be completely happy with himself and emotionally adjusted and mature. I mean, he’s a human being. So, no, we have not thought about it in terms of, “Oh, this journey has a timer on it.” We never think about the journey has a timer on it. The mantra has always been, “How do we surprise people?” and I think you’re going to be very surprised — and then you’re going to be very surprised again.
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Seinfeld” are the templates, for many reasons, for a show like this that really explores characters that are not necessarily deeply unlikeable, but they lose more than they win. How do you master the balance between a character getting a well-deserved comeuppance and audiences are still being entertained while that’s happening?
How you get people to watch people do horrible things? It’s really simple. If it’s funny, you can get away with it. If it’s not funny, then it’s either horrible or sad or whatever. But if you’re laughing at it, then that’s all you need to know. I always joke that I know where the line is because I can look back and see it, and I think that’s right. I mean, this show is doing things that you would never expect to see. It’s lining up audacious comedy with heartfelt emotion, and they’re slamming right into each other in unexpected ways, which I love, and I think that it’s so hyper-specific, and the journeys are so personal, and the embarrassments and the jokes are so personal, that they’re universal. That’s been the key to the show, I think.
I mean, everyone does not have the same unique anatomy that Dave does, but everybody’s got something. The more he tells his personal story, the more other people think, “That’s me. It’s just not my dick.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.