Dawson is Once Again Our Meme Man

James Van Der Beek’s Internet comeback notches him a TV sitcom pilot – playing himself. But where does the reality end and the comedy begin?

By Jere Hester
|  Thursday, Feb 17, 2011  |  Updated 9:15 PM EDT
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BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 16: Actor James Van Der Beek attends HBO's Post 2011 Golden Globe Awards Party held at The Beverly Hilton hotel on January 16, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** James Van Der Beek

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Dawson can stop his crying now.

News that James Van Der Beek is set to play himself in a sitcom pilot for ABC is enough to put a smile on the faces of those who remember him as the sensitive star of the late 1990s teen melodrama "Dawson's Creek" as well as a younger crowd more recently introduced to him through the viral video snippet of his character weeping.

For Van Deer Beek, the TV role marks a big step in a comeback that began, in unlikely fashion, with the crying meme, which he cleverly exploited last month by launching a website and series of (mostly) hilarious self-spoofing videos on Funny or Die.

Van Der Beek's return – as himself – also comes at a time when we're bombarded by celebrities and pseudo-celebrities playing versions of themselves in scripted fare and in so-called Reality TV shows. It may soon get to the point where we won't be able to tell where the reality ends and the comedy begins.

Entertainers – primarily comedians – playing themselves in sitcoms is a tradition that dates to the early days of TV, from "The Jack Benny Program” to its spiritual grandchild "Seinfeld."

Somewhere along the way, some stars started presenting decidedly unvarnished versions of themselves. "It's Garry Shandling's Show," a brilliant meta sitcom, debuted nearly a quarter century ago on Showtime.

But HBO became the prime spot for celebrities play off their images in a not-always-flattering form. "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is the best of the genre, though other HBO fare like "Entourage," "Extras" and the underrated "Arli$$" have proven strong venues for edgy cameos. These days, Matt LeBlanc is playing against his "Friends" type – as a less-than-sweet rendering of himself – in "Episodes" on Showtime.

But Van Der Beek's web-driven return, in some respects, feels more in line with the serpentine path traced by the multi-media meta man of the moment, James Franco, who has turned up everywhere from the Internet to art galleries to classrooms to "General Hospital," presenting differing personas.

Van Der Beek also owes a debt to Jennifer Grey, whose “Dawson’s”-era short-lived sitcom, “It’s Like, You Know” – in which she played herself and poked fun at her controversial nose job – was in some respects ahead of its time. Maybe the audience wasn’t ready to see a C-lister playing herself, pre-Reality TV craze. But Baby recently came full circle (or twirl) with her recent “Dancing With The Stars” victory over, among others, Bristol Palin.

We don't know what side of Van Der Beek we'll see in the new show, called, "Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23" (which also seems to tap into the Shatneresque trend of profanity in network sitcom titles).

But we have high hopes, given that, as Deadline reports, "Modern Family" director Jason Winer is part of the creative team. We're also encouraged by Van Der Beek's recent display of comedy chops. His Vandermemes website features new mini-videos of him emoting in various goofy and viral-friendly forms. His Funny or Die videos – including this NSFW installment with even nastier profanity in the title than his new sitcom – are worth repeat viewings.

Check out Van Der Beek’s reintroduction video below as you contemplate life after the Creek:
 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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