David Spade: The Stealth King of Prime Time - Rolling Stone
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David Spade

David Spade is still cool. Not an idiot. Not some sellout loser

David Spade, JUST SHOOT ME, Brian DennehyDavid Spade, JUST SHOOT ME, Brian Dennehy

David Spade in JUST SHOOT ME! 'Pass The Salt' Episode 13, Pictured: (l-r) Brian Dennehy as Red Finch, David Spade as Dennis Finch, November 12th, 1997

Peter Iovino/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty


pend some time with David Spade and you notice that the words coming out of his famously smartass mouth often include fun and weird deal. For Spade, fun gets used with a shocking absence of irony in reference to just about anything the guy embraces — be it the love of a good woman, a reasonable level of creative satisfaction, a solid stand-up gig or the fact that his network sitcom, Just Shoot Me, is an emerging hit. Weird deal covers pretty much everything else in Spadeland, including a breakup with a beautiful actress, a crappy movie, a long-standing feud with a comic superstar and even the very public death of a close friend.

Tonight, all that is weird and fun is taking place at Orso, a prime star-grazing spot in Beverly Hills, California. Spade is quickly seated at a nice table with a lovely view of former Singled Out and Baywatch babe Carmen Elektra, whom he takes the time to hug warmly during a brief table-hop. “Yeah,” he offers coolly, “they know me here. And at Burger King.” Short and slight, with a curiously charming smirk, the thirty-something Spade resembles a cute but weather-beaten sixth-grade class president, a sly but likable little dictator.

After years on the stand-up circuit, and even more years at Saturday Night Live, Spade has honed a comic persona so caustic as to seem almost bloodless. He’s currently working the act to great acclaim in Just Shoot Me, NBC’s mid-season hit. In person, the sarcasm still oozes, but he’s more introspective than he is onscreen — willing to address painful personal truths, but not in a way that is ever embarrassingly confessional. Spade has just returned to Los Angeles from Phoenix, where he conquered what is sort of a comedian’s Everest — his own HBO ‘Round Midnight Special, David Spade: Take the Hit’. For him, having grown up in Arizona, it was something of a homecoming. “I intentionally didn’t really do stand-up around Phoenix for the last five years because I thought if I ever got to the point where I could do my own HBO special, I wanted to do it there,” he explains. “I wanted it to be a rowdy crowd that didn’t already know any of my jokes. But the week building up to it was scary. Aside from just getting hammered from all sides for tickets and stuff, my heart was pounding, because an HBO comedy special is kind of your comedy calling card for about five years. I talked to Chris Rock a week before, and he goes, ‘Spade? Why aren’t you in a club right now? I was on the road three months before mine.’ I go, ‘Chris, it’s already not going to be as good as yours. I gave that up a month ago. Mine’s just fluff and fold, just goofy stuff.’ “

Some of Spade’s “goofy stuff” turns out to be nicely barbed and even moving material about his less-than-idyllic childhood in the not-so-wild West: the mother who dressed him in fruity clothes and the father who talked to his son about his mother’s oral technique. Then there is the trademark slaughtering of a few sacred cows — in particular an inspired and tasteless riff about the time his grandmother was looking at his class picture, telling him how he was the cutest boy in his class, when she spotted his classmate Brad Pitt. “Oh, my God, I’d fuck that kid,” Spade has her declare. “Holy shit, do you know that dude? Hook me up, I’m your grandma. Take care of me now — I used to take care of you. Do something for me. That kid is a piece of ass. I wanna get in there and do some damage.”

David Spade — who did not, in fact, attend school with Brad Pitt — was actually born in Birmingham, Michigan, the youngest of three sons of Judy and, yes, Sam Spade. After dad abandoned the family when David was five, Spade grew up in various Arizona locations. He remains close with his mother, Judy Todd, who has remarried three times in the last thirty-five years. Spade’s relationship with his father seems more difficult.

“My real father’s the funniest, because he’s a dad who comes back into your life who doesn’t try to fix everything,” Spade says by way of an endorsement. “He’s a dad who comes back and says, ‘I’m kind of sorry I left, but let’s hang out … and I need a couple bucks, what’s your PIN number?’ He’s hysterical, a real charmer, really fun. I love him to death.”

For the HBO show, Spade asked his mother and stepfather to attend one of the rehearsals. His father, meanwhile, bravely attended the actual taping the next day. “Believe me, my dad got hammered,” Spade says. “My only payback is to do jokes about him.”

Comedy is often first of all an art of survival, and for the young David Spade, being the Funny Guy was a pragmatic as well as a fortuitous choice — a way of not being the Short Guy or the Guy Whose Dad Left. “When you didn’t have a dad around and kind of veered away from sports — because I didn’t have someone to walk me through it — that was kind of rough,” Spade says. “In high school, I was a little brainiac. I think it comes from being a microchild, so much smaller than everyone else.” To this day, Spade dreads being described as “diminutive.” He explains, “I fucking hate that word. There couldn’t be a more condescending, faggy word to call me. Except ‘unctuous’ — another one I have to look up when I read reviews.”

Andy Spade, David’s older brother, describes David as “a late-blooming great wit. He was always small, smart and funny, but not the sarcastic bastard he is today.” In fact, Andy — who now runs the wildly successful Kate Spade handbag company with his wife of the same name — never thought his brother would amount to much of anything. “David worked with me in clothing stores — he couldn’t even be a stock boy,” Andy remembers. “We thought he’d be … just nothing.” “My real father,” says Spade, “is a dad who comes back and says, ‘I’m kind of sorry I left, but let’s hang out … and I need a couple bucks, what’s your PIN number?’ I love him to death.”

Spade started making his name in stand-up while attending Arizona State University. Before long, he dropped out of school and hit the road, quickly making his way up the laughter ladder. His big break came when SNL producer Lorne Michaels saw him and signed him up as a writer and featured player in 1990. “When I saw his act, there was something fresh about it,” recalls Michaels. Unfortunately, it would be almost three years until a television audience got much of a chance to see what Michaels was talking about.

SNL is kind of built so it’s a race at the beginning to see how much you can get out of it,” Spade says. “I got hired, and then I was in the lowest rung, at the best place I could be. Rob Schneider, Chris Rock, [Chris] Farley all became cast members. For three years, everybody passed me. ‘Hollywood Minute’ was the turning point.”

A “Weekend Update” fixture, “Hollywood Minute” gave Spade the chance to sharpen his mean-spirited sarcasm and take on assorted pop icons great and small. A memorable line came in the mid-Nineties: Positioned in front of a photo of Eddie Murphy — then at a box-office low point — Spade said, “Look, kids, a falling star. Make a wish!” Murphy, none too pleased to be mocked on the show that he felt he’d once helped save, phoned SNL to make those feelings abundantly clear. All these years later, Spade remains unforgiven.

“I just saw Murphy in person at the Rolling Stones concert at the Hard Rock in Vegas,” Spade recounts. “He and Chris Rock came in. I had had dinner with Chris, like, three days before, and he was saying, ‘Eddie’s still mad at you, and that’s why I didn’t invite you to my birthday party.’ So three days later, we’re at the concert, and it’s Eddie Murphy and Rock. Every time Eddie turns his head, Rock looks back at me, going, ‘I can’t talk to you, Spade!’ They’re sitting a few rows behind me. In between us, there’s Brad Pitt and my manager. So I kept leaning back to Brad Pitt, going, ‘Friend or foe? When the shit goes down, where are you?’ “

“Hollywood Minute” helped make Spade an SNL star, though, as Michaels points out, “The way David is funny is as a kind of counterpunch.” And it was often Spade’s friend Chris Farley who served as his endlessly funny foil. Noting their chemistry, Michaels suggested the unlikely duo pair up for 1995’s Tommy Boy, a gem of a buddy comedy that established them as an extremely profitable and potent comic team. But in addition to succeeding as Laurel to Farley’s Hardy at SNL, Spade also proved to be one of the most able satirists in the cast, whether he was inhabiting the jeans of a Gap girl or the overly starched uniform of the Buh-bye Guy. He’s also a gifted observational comic, with a decidedly postmodern absence of Cosby-like cuddliness.

In 1996, a burned-out Spade left SNL to fly solo. Leaving the SNL nest was a frightening prospect, and some of his fears were realized in the form of film roles that were less exhausting but always much less satisfying than Tommy Boy. Even Black Sheep, a re-teaming with Farley, was a letdown creatively, despite being a hit at the box office. “It kinda got away from us,” Spade says now. Otherwise, Spade’s film oeuvre has been disappointing — apart from Tommy Boy and a cameo as the philosophical cokehead in Light Sleeper, Spade’s best film moment may be his memorable cameo in Reality Bites: In the midst of a condescending training session with Wienerschnitzel rookie Winona Ryder, he offers a cheery “Have a ‘tude, wiener dude” to a patron at a drive-through window.

Perhaps not the traditional leading man, Spade was having a hard time escaping roles as the second and even third banana in films. A film like the brainless 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag made his advertising spots for MCI seem important in comparison. In this year’s Senseless, he plays Wyle E. Coyote to Marlon Wayans’ Road-runner and feels that he comes off as almost too much of an asshole. “I will not do that move again, even for money,” Spade promises. “I’ll be clever, but I can’t be a guy who is an asshole without any redeeming qualities. If I’m just saying, ‘This guy is fat’ and ‘This guy is ugly,’ that doesn’t help me.”

At least in 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, Spade got to bond with Kristy Swanson, the big-screen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whom he would date for about a year, tying his personal best for longest romantic relationship. He blames his track record partly on his father: “My brothers and I always ask ourselves, ‘Are we headed the same way with our girlfriends and wives?’ None of us have kids, because of that.”

Spade found himself at a similarly troubling crossroads regarding his career when his managers approached him last year with the idea of doing some sitcom duty on the midseason-replacement show Just Shoot Me. Sitcoms, after all, are dangerous territory, where a comedian can potentially blow what-ever comic credibility he has. “That was the big concern, because I’m not God’s gift, but I have my own thing to look after,” Spade explains. “At the same time, the movies being offered me are like kind of middle-of-the-road ones that need a smart aleck. They’re not like what’s funny today or tomorrow, they’re what’s funny yesterday. So I had to not do some of those movies. And this is a TV show with some sharp writers, who worked on Conan [Late Night With Conan O’Brien] and Frasier and stuff, and good actors. And if I can’t do it, we’ll go our own separate ways.”

Spade does bring a nice bite to the show — which also features Laura San Giacomo, George Segal, Wendie Malick and Enrico Colantoni, and is set in a sexy Cosmopolitan-like women’s magazine. For Spade, the biggest negative was that he was once again playing the assistant. “That was almost a breaking point, because I played assistants in, like, four movies, and on SNL, but that was the only role they could fit into the existing show that would allow me to bounce off people,” he says. “I said, ‘OK, but I’m not going to be the femmie, fruity assistant. Just make me more slackerish.’ A lot of the writers are from Frasier, and I feel like sometimes I get a little Nilesish [Niles Crane from Frasier]. It works for him, but he’s done it. So now I think we’re slowly getting into a nice groove. Each week we get closer.” And even as he says this, his increasingly must-see-worthy show is getting closer to a heavily rumored Thursday-night time slot for the fall, when NBC will finally face life after Seinfeld.

Though he was a late addition to the show, Spade has gotten a large amount of the attention and praise for Just Shoot Me’s success — considerably more than, say, Carol, the similarly situated receptionist on The Bob Newhart Show. “I am the obvious comedian,” he says. “I’m from SNL, and I have movies on HBO, but George Segal was up for an Academy Award. Everybody has their audience — from George’s age group to my age group, there’s something for everybody. The show’s written pretty hip. It’s respectable to say you like it. The girls are sexy and pretty without anyone ever saying so. It’s not like, ‘Look at our two hot chicks.’ They’re the sleeper babes of sitcoms.”

“We accept the honor with pride and joy,” says San Giacomo, who feels that Spade is integral to the cast. “David brings the heart of the comedy to the show. Everybody is funny, but there’s something else that happens when David’s in a scene.”

Sadly, just as Just Shoot Me started really connecting with its audience, Spade found himself on the edge of a tragedy when Chris Farley died. Suddenly he was faced with reporters who wanted to question him ad nauseam about his friend, even about personal matters like his decision not to attend the funeral.

“I don’t mind if people think it’s wrong or right, but their reaction is just odd,” Spade says quietly. “There’s no room for privacy anymore. How do you get a moment to fall apart without Extra right there in your face? It’s a … weird deal.”

But the time when he was seen only as Chris Farley’s slighter half is getting further away. So, too, is his once very real nightmare of bombing out in prime time. “Your reputation is all you have,” Spade explains. “Six years of working my ass off on SNL could have been all stripped by two weeks on a sitcom — I would have been dead. You’re not cool anymore. You’re, like, some idiot. You’re just a watered-down guy who has sold out.” 


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