Though he is known as the hunky boy next door that made certain girls weak in the knees in the early aughts, James van der Beek, the titular star of the popular teen drama Dawson’s Creek, is an embarrassingly ugly crier.
In season three, episode 23 of the earnest, soap opera-like show, Dawson is so gobsmacked by being broken up with that he begins to cry. An animated GIF of that tender moment was soon splashed across websites from Reddit to Funny or Die. The meme is so prevalent that when you Google “James van der Beek,” the search engine even offers a correction: “James van der Beek crying,” it humbly suggests you search instead.
Following the end of Dawson’s Creek in 2003, Mr. van der Beek acted in off-Broadway plays and landed a spate of brief guest spots on shows like How I Met Your Mother and Medium, but none packed the same cultural punch he’d had with Dawson’s. It wasn’t until January 2011 when Mr. van der Beek reappeared on the scene, eschewing the traditional vehicles for stardom and embracing that notorious crying GIF.
“If you’re under the age of 20, odds are good you know me best from a five second clip of me crying that’s circulating the Internet,” begins a Funny or Die video where Mr. van der Beek pokes fun at his own memedom. The short was accompanied by a Tumblr, which–until last July–posted GIFs of Mr. van der Beek “emoting.”
“When I pitched him the idea, I was like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you’re aware of this phenomenon on the Internet about you…,” Lauren Palmigiano, the writer and director of the James van der Meme video, told Betabeat by phone. “And he was like, ‘Oh, certainly I’m aware.’ So I guess people tweet it to him all the time and he gets sent the image. He knew about it and was totally game to make fun of himself.”
“It’s the largest reaction face out there—Dawson’s crying face,” said Darryl Gudmundson, a “Gatekeeper” at Funny or Die who helped come up with the idea for James van der Memes. “We shot a bunch of GIFs the first day and he came back again and we shot another 300. We just made a repository of all these James van der Beek GIFs that we could release for six months.”
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