“Before I can just show you my penis, I do have to kind of explain a few things about it to you.”
It’s the first scene of the first episode of Dave, and our hero Dave is at the doctor’s office, scared that he has herpes. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised that this L.A. twentysomething would start talking about his dick that soon in the show. For weeks, FXX has been advertising the series with billboards around L.A. that featured star and co-creator Dave Burd popping out of the underwear of a male torso, looking like a bearded, slightly disoriented human phallus. But five episodes in, what’s great about Dave is that while the show is very much about Dave’s dick, it’s not necessarily in the way that you think. This fictionalized chronicling of the rise of Dave (aka Lil Dicky) from stoned nobody to possible rap superstar might be one of the most honest, vulnerable shows I’ve ever seen about men’s insecurity about their penis. That it’s also really funny is just icing on the cake.
For those who aren’t familiar with Burd, he’s a 31-year-old rapper-comedian whose official album debut was 2015’s Professional Rapper, recorded under his hip-hop moniker Lil Dicky, which balanced solid rap skills with self-deprecating takedowns of his lack of sexual prowess. For instance, on “Lemme Freak for Real Tho (Outro),” Burd sent up lover-man clichés — “You know I only get with a bitch I mentally respect / We ain’t even gotta fuck unless you and me connect” — before going into amusingly specific detail about his sexual preferences. (Really, he’d rather have a hand job than head, because then he doesn’t feel guilty.) A Jewish white man from a stable Philly family, Burd checks his privilege constantly on Professional Rapper, but he’s not quite Lonely Island in terms of doing straight-up parodies. He’s goofy but also sincere.
That’s the same tone that imbues Dave, which premieres March 4th with two episodes that do a fine job of laying down the foundation for where this very promising series is going. In that first scene, Dave is anxious about showing his penis to the doctor for an understandable reason: When he was born, his urethra was badly tangled, requiring extensive surgery that resulted in scarring and disfigurement. (Turns out that’s not Dave’s only penile issue, but we’ll learn more about that in later episodes.)
On the show, Dave has just gotten his first taste of success thanks to a viral video he made for his song “My Dick Sucks,” but because he has no work ethic, he doesn’t know how to parlay that novelty hit into something bigger. He does, however, have some ideas: He’s working with his childhood buddy Elz (Travis Bennett), who’s an audio engineer writing beats in the hopes of getting discovered. And beyond his supportive girlfriend, a kindergarten teacher named Ally (Taylor Misiak), he’s found a new fan in super-cool hype man GaTa (Lil Dicky’s actual hype man GaTa), who wants to help introduce him to hip-hop royalty like YG. Surrounded by his colorful group of friends — which also includes his roommate Mike (Andrew Santino), who’s miserable at his day-trader job, and Dave’s pal Emma (Christine Ko), a funky graphic designer — Dave will stumble toward some semblance of an actual music career.
You get no points for guessing that Dave resembles two influential FX series: The star-playing-himself vibe of Louie meshes with the fake-it-‘til-you-make-it scrappiness of Atlanta. And like both shows, Dave is knee-deep in the entertainment business, showing how fickle and cliquish the music industry can be. But even if there is some familiarity to Dave, again and again the show finds its own way, and a lot of the credit goes to its main character, who keeps surprising us with what he’s capable of.
Burd gets a lot of mileage out of the disconnect between Dave (the quirky, lovable loser everybody in the show knows) and Lil Dicky (the rap persona that’s far more provocative). In one episode, Ally starts to understand what it might mean to date a celebrity — specifically, one who builds his brand through online interactions with his fans, giving them every morsel of his personal life — and what the downsides could be. (She’s thrilled to meet a Lil Dicky fan in the flesh — much less so when he compliments her boyfriend for tweeting about the fact that she just blew him.)
But even as Lil Dicky, Dave is defined by his self-doubt and the fact that he knows he doesn’t fit in the rap world. Never having played live before, he’ll get an unexpected offer to perform at a memorial service for a deceased young fan, which sends him into a downward spiral of nerves that culminates in an ending that’s a sly commentary on Lil Dicky’s standing in the pop music stratosphere. Even when he’s being outrageous as his rap alter ego, Dave can’t escape his own feebleness.
On Professional Rapper, Lil Dicky had no problem rapping about his small penis — it’s right there in his name, after all — and not since Howard Stern has an entertainer risen to such heights by telling the world that he has a tiny wiener. But if Dave was just about his dick, I don’t think the show would be able to sustain itself. Instead, the show’s embarrassing opening scene introduces a sense of how generally inadequate Dave feels — a belief instilled in him from childhood — that permeates most of his interactions.
And in their own ways, the people around Dave are similarly wrestling with insecurities. Ally cares about her students but didn’t really want to become a kindergarten teacher. Elz has to hustle as much as Dave, trying to convince stars to let him work on their upcoming music. For all of GaTa’s swagger, he’s holding onto sensitive secrets about himself. Even Mike, who seems the most stable and successful of these millennials, doesn’t like where his life is at, prompting him to become unexpectedly invested in Dave’s hip-hop dreams.
Of the first five episodes, two particularly excellent ones suggest this show’s potential. In Episode Five, we’re forced to reconsider everything we know about one of the supporting characters. But Episode Three is the real stunner. I won’t reveal the episode’s title, which gives a hint about what goes on, but it’s here that Dave’s panic over his supposedly mangled genitals puts him in a difficult spot with Ally, who wants to access the part of his raunchy personality that comes out as Lil Dicky.
Although it’s still a really hilarious episode — it’s a constant pleasure to listen to the characters’ sarcastic, quick-witted banter — it’s also surprisingly tender, showing how Dave has to confront his fears about his junk if he’s ever going to have a serious relationship with Ally. (In that scene with the doctor, Dave explains that he’s very careful about controlling the lighting when he and Ally are messing around so that she can’t see his penis.) What results is the sort of naked, intimate conversation about sex that you just about never see on TV or in the movies — the kind that actual couples have to have when they run into trouble in the bedroom. The real-life Lil Dicky often resorted to cheap dick jokes on Professional Rapper, but Dave cuts deeper, showing how those sexual anxieties play out in everyday life.
Dave is hardly the first guy obsessed with his dick, but he may be the first whose issues didn’t just seem narcissistic. It isn’t easy to do dick humor that owns up to the main character’s awkwardness and self-loathing, but the show’s so nonjudgmental that it treats his hang-ups as just another quirk, not a sign of his lack of manliness. Hip-hop has long been a testosterone-driven medium, filled with guys bragging about their sexual dexterity. Meanwhile, here’s Dave, about a shy, goofy dude whose junk makes him ashamed.
That takes balls.