Fame Lessons from Riki and Dicky

Want to be a success in the entertainment biz? Here are six things you can learn from two rising stars.

This is a weird advice column. I’m writing about two performers who, on the surface, don’t have a ton in common except the fact that I’m zero-degrees-of-separation from them both.

This is about actress/comedian/musician Riki Lindholme and rapper Lil Dicky.

Riki is well known as one-half of the musical duo Garfunkel and Oates and has an impressive list of TV and film acting credits, including the Comedy Central series Another Period, which she co-created.

Lil Dicky’s debut album in 2015, Professional Rapper, went gold and his videos are some of the most inventive and talked about of the last few years.

AND I AM BEST FRIENDS WITH BOTH OF THEM.

OK, that’s not true. Like, not-at-all true. But I DID know and work with them both in San Francisco, early in their careers, before they were famous. No, I’m not in regular contact with either of them and I can’t claim an iota of credit for any part of their success.

But I HAVE followed them from a distance, have been impressed by the way they’ve navigated their careers, and think they have some lessons to teach people who want to be successful in the entertainment business.

(Now, they may read this and totally disagree with everything here, but we’ll see.)

Um, Why are You Writing This?

It’s weird, right? Feels a little thirsty? Like I’m trying to get credit for somebody that I used to know?

Well, there IS a reason. A few years ago, I wrote up some audition advice for actors (here and here.) As a result, I get emails from actors on a regular basis looking for advice.

But what the hell do I know? If you want to be a 40-something ad writer, then I can drop some wisdom. But if you’re looking to be the next big thing on TV or in movies or in music, you’d be better served by looking at people who have done just that. Ms. Riki and Mr. Dicky are two good examples, IMHO. Also…their names rhyme.

I met Riki when we were both cast in a San Francisco theater production of “Dimly Perceived Threats to the System” way back in 2001. And I met Dicky (who was just plain old David Burd) back in 2010 when we both worked together at ad agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

From my vantage point, they’ve both “done it right” to achieve their current success. And while their careers are very different, I think they have some things in common in how they’ve made it up the ladder in a nutty business.

1. Have a plan.

On stage in San Francisco, back in 2001, before we all took megapixel photos on our phones. Sixteen years later, my face actually looks like this gray blob.

When Riki I worked together in San Francisco, she was a young actress doing what a lot of young actresses do: going on auditions, doing a play here and there, taking classes, and landing an occasional on-camera role (mainly commercials and industrials, which were the bread and butter for SF actors back then.)

But she was also one of the most focused actors I’d ever met. She had a plan. She was working hard to get her SAG card in the smaller market of San Francisco before she made the move to Los Angeles. Yes, there were fewer acting opportunities in SF than LA, but there was also less competition. She was being smart and strategic about her time so that when she hit the “big leagues” she had her shit together and was ready to roll.

Me interviewing David on his first day at the ad agency. (It’s a long story.) But now he’s an international star and I’m writing Medium pieces, so it really worked out for us both.

Lil Dicky also had a plan.

When we were both working at the ad agency, then-David had moved from junior account executive (he will admit, he wasn’t very good at it) to junior copywriter, but he had bigger creative dreams.

Now, I’ve worked in advertising a long time and you meet LOTS of people who have big creative dreams. People who are going to “record an album” or “make a video” or “write a screenplay.”

But talk is cheap. David did it.

He spent TWO YEARS recording his “funny raps” in his apartment at night and on the side of his day job. And then he took it a step further and decided that he was going to make full-scale, well-produced music videos for his songs. 
 
He released his mixtape, So Hard, in 2013 and started rolling out videos for his tracks, one by one. Just like a real record company. But it was just him. When Ex-Boyfriend was released, it went viral almost immediately and, suddenly, a lot of people were asking, “Who is this guy?”

He would got on to release 32 songs and 15 music videos (funded in part by his saved bar mitzvah money.) And once that was done, he rolled right into phase two of his plan — a Kickstarter to fund his next album, music video and tours. His goal: $70K. He raised $113K. It would go on to debut at #1 on the iTunes chart and Billboard’s rap album chart.

Both of them had a plan, worked the plan and made it happen. Respect.

2. Go where the action is.

At some point, if you want to be big league, you have to go to the big leagues. 
 
Riki and Dicky moved to LA. 
 
Trust me, it’s hard to leave Northern California. It’s NICE up here. I mean, the Bay Area and the people are nice…but also the creative hustle in SF, while still competitive, is also just more supportive and less cutthroat.

LA doesn’t give a shit about you. And that’s the truth.

Busloads of talented and beautiful people show up in LA and New York every day. Being talented and beautiful doesn’t make you special in those markets; it’s table stakes. 
 
(Side Note: I went to film school in LA a million years ago. My friends and I used to go to the beach on the weekend and feel terrible about our bodies. Because the best looking guy and girl from every small town in the country moves to Los Angeles and then walks by you every day with their shirt off. It messes with your mind, people!)

BUT New York and LA are where it happens. The amount of opportunity in those cities is exponentially more than any other market. And if you want to take advantage of those opportunities, you need to be there, especially at the early part of your career.

Yes, it’s more competitive, but competition is good. You can measure your skills against others and it can help you sharpen your talent. And the chance to collaborate with the best of the best makes you better.

Again, Riki and Dicky didn’t show up completely green. They had some credits and credibility before they made the move. That’s smart. But they knew that, to take it to the next level, they had to move to that level.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a big fish in a small pond. And lots of people can have satisfying careers in smaller markets. But if you want to be FAMOUS as an entertainer, odds are you need to get your butt to the big city.

3. Make your own thing happen.

When Riki got to LA, she auditioned like crazy, got connected with an amazing theater company, and worked hard to meet the people who could help steer her career.

But she didn’t just wait around until somebody gave her a job. She and her friend Kate Miccucci started Garfunkel and Oates. They wrote songs, performed wherever they could, and made videos. Nobody told them to do it, they just did it. 
 
Lil Dicky owes his entire career to “making his own thing happen.” Nobody was asking, “I wonder if there are any junior copywriters kicking around advertising that could be the next big thing in rap.” 
 
But David had this insane idea that he’d pour all of his bar mitzvah money into making a mixtape and a bunch of funny videos. That’s hutzpah, people! And then he leveraged the momentum into an impressive album debut.

(He tells his story better than I could in GQ and W and The Hundreds and Adweek.)

Now, whether Riki or Dicky’s brand of comedy and music are your cup of tea is beside the point. They didn’t wait to make something that was focus-grouped or studio-approved or planned out by marketers, they just made something that THEY liked and a group of fans responded to it. Which leads us to…

4. Develop a relationship with your fans.

In the old days, up and coming performers — whether they were stars in the old studio system or artists under contract by the record labels — had a PR machine behind them. There was a team of people that help shape an entertainer’s public persona and how/when that performer interacted with the public.

That’s not the way that it works any more.

The smart entertainers have taken control of their own image and communication because they know how important it is.

Riki has 76K Twitter followers and 102K follow Garfunkel and Oates. Lil Dicky has 339.4K Twitter followers and another 711K on Facebook. That’s a lot of people who have signed up to hear directly from them. And both of them take the responsibility seriously — they communicate with their fans frequently. Not in an overly scripted way, but in an authentic from-the-heart manner that feels genuine.

Don’t think it matters? Tell that to all the “influencers” who are making money because of their fan bases. But even for traditional entertainers, there is word that your social media following may now be a consideration in whether or not you book the job.

Having a direct line of communication to your fans is important. Taking time to nurture those online relations is important. (Here’s a nice primer from Backstage about actors and social media.)

Hell, one day an entertainer may even leverage his/her fans to become president of the United States! (Kill me.)

5. Work with the best collaborators you can find.

When Riki landed in LA, she got connected with Tim Robbins and the Actor’s Gang. She wrote, produced and co-directed an award-winning short film, featuring Alexis Bledel and Seth MacFarlane. She started collaborating with Kate Micucci on Garfunkel and Oates. (Did I mention that Ms. Micucci and I both graduated from LMU? OK, I’ll stop.)

When it came time for LD to make his first professionally-produced album, he set his sights high: Snoop Dog, T-Pain, Brendon Urie, Fetty Wap, and Hannibal Burris all appear on his album. (And you should really watch the Snoop video if you haven’t already. 61 million views!)

Talented people rise because they surround themselves with other talented people. Nobody does it alone, so hook up wiht the best people you can find.

No, these sort of connections don’t just drop in your lap. But see the point above about getting your rear end to LA or NYC, where you’re more likely to cross paths with A-list collaborators.

6. Be talented and work your tail off.

Now this probably goes without saying but the two of them are also talented as hell. You can do all the things outlined above but if you don’t have IT, you ain’t gonna make it. (Sorry, it’s a cruel business.)

Both of them have also worked their tail off. Riki was a delightful actress when I met her all those years ago, but she’s worked hard at her craft and is a true pro now. And her writing and song-writing and comedic chops are next level. 
 
Lil Dicky is sort of a freak when it comes to work. Given his persona, you might think that this guy is just winging it and is super lucky. Nope. He works at his craft, writing rhymes and tweaking beats and just trying to get better all the time. He’s spoken eloquently about the fact that he doesn’t do rap has a joke, he has respect for the form and wants to be the best at it, so he works hard.

So there it is! A long, strange advice column about two people I barely know. But if you’re looking for fame, you could do a lot worse than to follow some of their footsteps.


About the Author

John Kovacevich is a writer and creative director based in San Francisco. If these two crazy kids end up getting a sitcom deal together out of this article, he gets 10% (gross, not net) on the deal + a cut of the merch, right?

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