Catch 'What Would Diplo Do?' on SBS VICELAND Tuesdays at 8:30pm and on SBS On-Demand.
You probably know who James Van Der Beek is, if only vaguely. As the actor who played Dawson on Dawson's Creek in the late 1990s and had the unlucky distinction of being the show's less-hot dude, even though he was its main character. Or, even if you never watched the series, as the face of a profoundly un-dank meme birthed from one of its most famous scenes.
You might also know Van Der Beek simply as himself, or at least as the self-deprecating version of himself that he played in the series Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23. The tragicomedy of Van Der Beek's post-Dawson's decline, his overinflated ego so out of tune with the reality of his washed up post-teen idol status, was central to the now-cancelled show. And it proved especially charming to those viewers who had once put up posters of Dawson. You really can't underestimate just how famous Van Der Beek was in the late 90s.
Or how quickly that famousness drained away when Dawson's Creek was no longer the teen show du jour. It's a pattern many once-ubiquitous teen stars have repeated throughout pop culture history. Heard from Jason Priestley lately? Though Van Der Beek has worked steadily-ish since his starring role on Dawson's Creek ended—with guest spots on Criminal Minds and One Tree Hill and How I Met Your Mother—he never made the coveted Leonardo DiCaprio-style transition from unserious heartthrob to serious Hollywood auteur. Van Der Beek actually reversed the paradigm: he became even less serious. He got goofy. He actively made fun of himself.
As he satirised all of the ridiculous ways that washed up teen stars do to make money—starting their own clothing lines, promoting Japanese energy drinks—Van Der Beek's Don't Trust the B character drew on an awareness of his own past to retain a perverse kind of relevance. The actor has done something that most once-beloved soap opera stars and teen actors, vanquished to the dusty direct-to-TV corners of IMDB, have not—owned up to the cheesiness. Leaned into a majorly loserish brand. And, because Van Der Beek is lucky enough to be genuinely funny, it worked. Adam Brody making a self-referential web series guest-starring The Shins might not have.
For an actor to whom the "washed up" label could easily stick, projecting an image of self-awareness—genuine or not—can be a saving grace. When the meaty roles start drying up, and the phone calls from your agent become scarcer, you've got to take PR into your own hands. For Van Der Beek, a short YouTube video making fun of the guy responsible for Major Lazer gave him credibility as a satirical comic in tune with the zeitgeist. The video became the SBS VICELAND show What Would Diplo Do? in which Van Der Beek plays Diplo without attempting to completely suspend the viewer's disbelief. Van Der Beek isn't really playing Diplo: he's playing himself playing Diplo. Being in on the two jokes—Van Der Beek's memey 90s fame, Diplo's memey clueless bro-ness—is all part of what makes the show so much fun.
Diplo, who in both real life and fiction tends to come across as very stupid and—Rihanna put it best—kind of tasteless, is actually a producer on What Would Diplo Do?. The fact the DJ understands a show that actively makes fun of him as a career vehicle rather than a career killer points to a hidden intelligence. Like Van Der Beek, Diplo knows that the key to remaining an insider is to be self-aware.
While there's something very internet about all this, the self-aware celebrity definitely predates the online confessionalism of Instagram and Twitter and YouTube. Early 2000s reality shows starring B-list famous people trying to get their pop or acting careers back on track provided some of the first big insights into how a formerly rich and beautiful person can still sell. On shows like The Anna Nicole Show, So Notorious and Newlyweds, Anna Nicole Smith and Tori Spelling and Jessica Simpson allowed the worst and most embarrassing aspects of their post-A List lives to be played for laughs on screen. But they knew what they were doing: staying in the headlines.
While Simpson and her contemporaries became tabloid fodder, there's nothing trashy or stupid about being a self-aware celebrity. It's probably the smartest way to manage fame, especially in an age where Gwyneth Paltrow attempts to connect with her fans by suggesting they pay $2000 for skincare. Stars trip over themselves to guest star on Saturday Night Live and prove that they get it—see Chris Pine singing on live TV about how Hollywood is filled with white guys named Chris. Or Michael Cera being exactly who you think Michael Cera is in This is the End, and being slapped by Rihanna—who probably has more self-awareness and poise than anyone on earth, famous or unfamous. Or Chris Martin (or Mariah Carey, or Harry Styles, or Katy Perry, or Ed Sheeran) straining to be normal on whichever cringe-worthy episode of Carpool Karaoke.
In many cases, trading on honesty can be the most artful thing an actor or comic can do. Especially if they're a slightly problematic schlubby white dude. Two shows nearly perfect the formula: Louis CK's Louie and Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm both offer up the unlikeable personalities of their lead actors to the audience. The more awful they are—to wives and girlfriends, to their friends, to the waitstaff serving them at restaurants—the more compelling they become.
To be self-aware is to be forgiven, to be self-deprecating is to be admired, to admit a flaw is to erase it. A lesson to any ex-teen idols out there in search of a career rebrand: make fun of yourself online, and the rest will follow.
Follow Kat on Twitter