David Spade for “Joe Dirt”

It has been quite a year for comic actor David Spade. His Disney debut, The Emperor’s New Groove, was one of the biggest films of the 2000-20001 Christmas period; his TV series Just Shoot Me is still going strong; he has a funny new movie coming out which he also co-wrote and talking about shooting, his personal assistant tried to kill him. Yet through it all, David Spade survives with humour intact, and talks exclusively to Paul Fischer about his work, facing death and life without friend Chris Farley.

David Spade needs to maintain his uniquely self-effacing sense of humour. After all, when your own personal assistant is attacking you, staring death through the barrel of a gun, it’s healthy to joke about it. “That was one of those things where I thought it could be over, and that lasted about 15 minutes. Then when I got out of it, the jokes started”. Not that it was a laughing matter to begin with Spade hastens to add. “It was really unfortunate and took me by surprise, and unexplainable, but it happened”.

Spade lived through his ordeal, and now is enjoying a major career turn. On the He stars in the new movie Joe Dirt, which he also co-wrote. The self-titled character bursts on the screen with a unique hairdo, searching America for his long-lost parents. A film that satirises the white trash mentality of urban America, Spade partly came up with this oddball creation. “My fellow writer and I have seen these guys all over America; they’re here and there’s a lot of ’em”, Spade laughingly retorts. In this wacky comedy, Spade is Joe Dirt, a janitor with this odd, mullet hairdo, acid-washed jeans and a dream to find the parents that he lost at the Grand Canyon when he was a stroppy, trailer park-raised eight-year-old.

Now, blasting Van Halen in his jacked-up economy car, the irrepressibly optimistic Joe hits the road alone in search of his folks. As his wandering, misguided search takes him from one misadventure to another, Joe finds his way to Los Angeles, where an aggressive radio DJ brings Joe on his radio show to insult him. But as Joe’s life story unfolds, jeers turn to cheers, and an entire captivated city tunes in to hear the adventures of Joe Dirt. Now Joe Dirt is not the kind of American hero moviegoers expect to see on the big screen. Spade aggress “that we’re always trying to hide these guys from the world; what we really want is Tom Cruise as our official representative”, he says. But Spade insists that the Joe Dirts of this world, at least in Spade’s America, “are under every piece of plywood and outside every 7 Eleven.” Ah yes, the real USA. “Oh yeah, this guy is out there en masse. So now the word is out there, and all the other countries will figure out that this is really the US.”

The best comedy stems from real life, and in the case of Spade’s Joe Dirt, there is some personal resonance, he admits reluctantly. “My dad did leave when I was about four, coming back a year at a time, but I still see him. I DO know what it’s like not to have around, so it was easy to feel for this guy.” In fact Spade’s trademark character is far more of the sarcastic variety; here, he wanted a chase of pace. “It was nice to play a character you could feel and root for.” It was equally important for Spade to create a character poles apart from Finch, the irascible assistant to George Segal in the hit sitcom Just Shoot Me. “You see Just Shoot Me for free every week, and there’s a lot of competition in the movies, so if they can see the same thing, why bother. I want to give them something that maybe they HAVEN’T seen from me. These characters are in me.” They were in the brash 35-year old comic’s numerous routines on the perennial TV favourite Saturday Night Live, and Joe Dirt became an amalgam of the kinds of characters he had previously created. “I wanted to play a character that everyone could relate to, that would be fun to play, and I relished growing out some sideburns and wearing a ridiculous wig.” Growing up in Arizona, Spade says that he also “knew guys like that, so this guy is really me – except of course I’m famous.”

Born in Michigan but raised in Scottsdale, Arizona, Spade first made a name for himself as a stand-up comedian. Spade recalls that the comedian within began with his height. “I was really microscopic growing up,” he explains. “I grew 5 inches the first year of high school and another towards the end. But it was a great defence mechanism and a good way to get friends to hang out with me, like a lot of sarcastic people. He grew a little bit more while developing his comedy routines, which began to bear fruit while performing in clubs, theatres and in college campuses during the eighties. He joined the cast of Lorne Michael’s long-running television show Saturday Night Live in 1990 as a writer and a performer, where he soon gained popularity for such recurring sketches such as “The Hollywood Minute” in which Spade would sarcastically shred some of this town’s biggest stars with his nasty comments.

Spade also proved an able impersonator of celebrities ranging from Brad Pitt to Tom Petty. Spade has appeared on many television talk shows and guest- starred on several series. He began his film career in the late ’80s playing a small role in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol. In the ’90s, he began playing major supporting roles in such films as Coneheads (1993) and P.C.U. (1994). He and former SNL alumni Chris Farley shared top billing in two popular comedies Tommy Boy (1995) and Black Sheep (1996). Farley was Spade’s closest friend, and even now, the comic’s untimely death affects Spade. “I think about him all the time. In fact his brothers have little parts in Joe Dirt, and they remind me of Chris a lot, which is a bit weird. But Chris was my best friend and I loved the work we did together”.

Spade is back on series television with his recurring role of Finch in Just Shoot Me, although originally, he wasn’t a part of the show when the pilot was shot. “I wasn’t in the original pilot, but then it didn’t make it on to the original schedule, so they asked me if I’d be in it, they re-shot the pilot and it’s a lot of fun to do”.

During his breaks from the series, Spade is ferociously busy. Audiences heard him gleefully as the spoilt dictator of Disney’s Emperor’s New Groove, a huge hit, and another boost in Spade’s career. “I was just glad that movie didn’t bomb. I’m not the MAIN reason it made a lot of money, but I was in it a lot and my voice is really connected to it, so I really wanted it to do well. I think Disney did a great job with it, made up a lot of jokes, hoped they used them and they used a lot of them. Kids and parents like it, and I get a lot of people stopping me in the street and it’s nice to be part of that”. It was a three and a half year process to bring the voice of his Emperor Kuzco to the screen. “We did a year and a half before Disney decided to scrap the whole movie [then called Emperor of the Sun]. They changed it all and fired people”. But, adds Spade, it was the right decision. “Even though it was a lot more money and a huge hassle, it was great, though challenging to do that voice over and over again, because by the end I was like: Guys, it’s 90 minutes and I feel like I’ve been here for 90 WEEKS”.

It was worth it. Emperor’s New Groove was a huge hit, and with Joe Dirt, it’s not just his voice “but every crazy inch of me” is there for the world to see. His next film, which he also co-wrote, is the zany comedy Pookah Pete. “It’s about a 60s, burn-out, peace-loving guy who gets swallowed by a whale, gets spit out on an island and wants to start a family. So 20 years later he gets rescued and starts looking for girlfriends”. Sounds like your typical Spade comedy. “Whatever is kooky and weird appeals to me”.