In 2010, James Van Der Beek stood in front of a camera and acted out emotion after emotion after emotion as comedy writers for the website Funny or Die shouted them out at him.
This was during a “career ebb,” as Van Der Beek described it to HuffPost. “I mean, I had a couple pilots that didn’t go. I was trying to figure out just what I wanted to do. What was my mark?” He decided it was time to start “letting crazy win.”
The end result was a project called “James Van Der Memes.” The actor had initially contacted Funny or Die as a fan to see if they’d be interested in working with him. The collaboration became an attempt to parody the fact that a GIF of Van Der Beek crying as the titular character from “Dawson’s Creek” was one of the most ubiquitous memes on the internet at that time.
“It’s my wife’s favorite thing that the crying face was your 404 page,” Van Der Beek said. Indeed, the GIF was so popular that at one point pages that failed to load on HuffPost would simply show the moving Dawson image to alert readers something had gone wrong.
A Funny or Die writer “tentatively asked” if Van Der Beek was aware of the GIF, unsure what his reaction would be. “And I was, because I’d seen it on Twitter,” he explained. “And they said, ‘Well we’re thinking you maybe just run towards it, and make a whole bunch of memes.’ And I thought, ‘Hilarious, let’s do it.’”
The reboot of Van Der Beek’s career had begun. He ended up making three videos in a row with Funny or Die and acting out dozens of GIFs for the unlikely meme project. Of course, one of the emotions Van Der Beek performed was the infamous crying face.
Fans gushed over the performance. “Today the internet changed forever,” BuzzFeed wrote. In a rare compliment without snark, the late Gawker hailed Van Der Beek for addressing the original meme “brilliantly.” HuffPost called it “hilarious.”
Today, Van Der Beek’s decision to get in on the joke might seem unremarkable, but the project predated, for example, Jimmy Fallon’s meme-factory turn as host of “The Tonight Show.” At the time, Fallon was still finding his footing with “Late Night,” and, in general, viral segments with celebrities were, too.
“Now it’s almost expected,” Van Der Beek said of leaning into silly, viral content.
But back then, Van Der Beek’s good humor was almost revolutionary, evidenced by just how much it changed his career soon after. As he explains it, the actor got his next high-profile job (playing himself on the ABC show “Don’t Trust the B― in Apartment 23”) specifically because of the Funny or Die project.
“So Funny Or Die came out, and then like a week or two later, I got the call that [creator] Nahnatchka Khan wanted to meet me.”
Van Der Beek was hesitant about leaning into more meta-comedy. The role Khan was offering involved another exaggerated version of himself, with this fictional Van Der Beek expressing frustration at the idea that his career was sagging, in turn taking on bizarre roles in desperate attempts to revitalize his fame. But he decided to go for it.
“It was just a matter of, well this sounds like a crazy idea, I’ve never heard of a show like this ... But this woman really knows what she’s doing,” he added, recalling the feeling of “why not?” he expressed to Funny or Die. “On a gut level, it just felt like, this is really weird. I think I wanna do it.”
Over the last few years, Van Der Beek has continued his streak of putting out charmingly self-aware projects. He made a cameo in a Ke$ha music video. He starred in a gritty, unauthorized “Power Rangers” reboot that earned over 21,000,000 views on YouTube.
In a major network role, he was also the focal point of CBS’ “CSI: Cyber,” a show about internet-based crimes. The role could be read as a nod to the “Van Der Memes” project, in which he acted out an emotion dubbed “CSI: JVB.” For that GIF, he yanked sunglasses off his face as if a shocking new piece of evidence had just come through.
Van Der Beek is now promoting the latest iteration of his meta-comedy: playing fellow celebrity, Diplo, in Vicelands’s “What Would Diplo Do?” The weekly show follows a fictionalized version of the notoriously arrogant musician as he struggles with the daily tasks of simply being a person in the world, while having almost no trouble making hit songs. Besides starring in the project, Van Der Beek also wrote and produced it. He claims that Vice trusted him with all four roles because of his history with uncommon career decisions.
“It was an opportunity I’d had in a weird way, because I had learned the ropes, and had this kind of unique experience ― in that meta-world,” said Van Der Beek. “It was a good ace up my sleeve to try to convince somebody that I could write and run a show. Because I’d had this experience, which was unique.”
“So therefore, I’m qualified to write this, even though I hadn’t written a show before,” he added, with a notably self-deprecating tone.
Van Der Beek cites the 1999 movie “Being John Malkovich” as inspiration for his own brand of meta-roles.
″‘Being John Malkovich’ was a huge movie for me,” he said, referencing the surreal, Charlie Kaufman-directed film in which the actor John Malkovich plays himself. “That really started making me think that playing yourself could be cool. I remember thinking, ‘Oh yeah, if you’re famous, then you get to do that.’ I don’t know what made me think that ― I just thought that was awesome, what [Malkovich] did with it.”
Van Der Beek was quick to point out that he believes “Being John Malkovich” is so great not just because of the “meta” premise, but because of what the project managed to do with the plot that followed.
“Malkovich playing himself, that’s a one-off joke,” Van Der Beek said. “If that movie’s not super weird, and well shot, with a crazy dark aesthetic ... you know, I mean, even ― even the orangutan in the cage had an arc!”
He knows that his new project has to actually be good to convince you to watch. The concept alone, of embracing meta, can only get him so far. Garnering media interest in yet another surprising career turn is different than keeping an audience genuinely engaged.
“The least I could do is commit 1,000 percent,” Van Der Beek said of his approach to these uncommon projects. “And bring whatever I have to the table. And play for keeps.”
Van Der Beek paused and then added, “And have some fun.”
CORRECTION: This article originally stated James Van Der Beek directed, “What Would Diplo Do?” Brandon Dermer directed the new series.