LOS ANGELES — Among tens of thousands of people 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?” which premieres Thursday.
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,” explains 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 adds. “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, Van Der Beek excitedly recalled how the show captured its concert footage, which included his striking Diplo’s wide-armed “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 L.A. 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 outsized, 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. In addition to his bro-ready “What’s up, fam?” greeting, the clip includes a harp-playing assistant, cash raining from the ceiling, ninjas and other goofily over-the-top slices of life for a dance music superstar. Or so it would appear.
“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, fresh from a few takes through an in-studio dog poop gag and a pratfall on the set. “A musical genius who sucks at life. He can communicate with 80,000 people, but he sucks one-on-one.
“What we pitched to Spike (Jonze, Viceland’s co-president) was parables about life through the eyes of a clown.”
“It’s like you don’t know who’s crazier, Diplo or us for catering to his every whim,” says Madison, sinking on a couch next to Croner in a room that doubles as Diplo’s office on the show. Neither have met the real Diplo and were only vaguely familiar with EDM music before the show. “I hope he doesn’t mind all the awful things we’ve been saying about him,” she jokes.
Though the world-conquering decadence of dance music provides plenty of material for parody, much of the show’s comedy comes from more personal moments. In addition to some mistaken-identity high jinks, the first episode includes fallout from a social media beef between Diplo and his fellow hit-maker Calvin Harris. While the tweets are taken word-for-word from Diplo’s account in another online beef, the incident with Harris was fictional.
For all the show’s built-in authenticity, neither Harris nor Diplo’s Jack Ü partner Skrillex appear. (But given the relative anonymity that comes with performing behind banks of electronics, at least one viewer was fooled by Harris.)
“One of our rules is nobody is themselves, they’re all going to be played by actors,” Van Der Beek said. “It’s a total parallel universe.
“Not that you’re the first person to think that was Calvin Harris, by the way,” he quickly added with a chuckle.