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Snark Victory

How David Spade, a chess-playing, coin-collecting, chicken-chested twerp, grew up to be the brat prince of Hollywood

David SpadeDavid Spade

David Spade

Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

“Hey,” says David Spade, answering the door of his Scottsdale, Arizona, home.” Come on in.” He heads down the hallway. “I cleaned up a little,” he says in that over-it voice of his. “I hid all the copies of Asian Beaver.”

There is no chitchat, no would-you-like-a-drink. He just starts riffing. “I’ll give you a tour of the house,” he says, passing a framed family photo from the Seventies. “Look at how hot my mom is,” he muses. Spade’s bright, airy abode is done in Tasteful Southwestern — cognac-colored antique leather chairs, walk-in fireplace, lots of dark wood. The den houses a fat couch, creamy white, and a billboard-size TV. It is here that Spade watches his beloved episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music. One of his favorites: the harrowing Leif Garrett episode, which recounts a grisly car accident. “Although I couldn’t watch Leif talk to his buddy that he whaled in the car, and then, like, split.” He smirks. “How about that guy?” he says of Garrett’s handicapped pal. “I go, ‘There’s Edgar Winter! Some people can’t wear short bangs, long hair and a wheelchair, but he pulls it off.'”

The riffs continue. At this point, Spade the guy behaves in exactly the same manner as Spade the comedian and star of Just Shoot Me. It is surreal but sort of exciting: What will he say next? The only constant is that it will be daring, smart and very likely un-PC. It is the same reason why, despite Just Shoot Me‘s fine ensemble cast, legions tune in just for Spade’s smarmy character, perennial assistant Dennis Finch.

“Spade has the easiest gig in show business there,” says his buddy Chris Rock. “He just sits there and throws wisecracks like a damn Muppet in the balcony.”

Said Muppet is continuing the tour of his crib. Up the stairs, past a short picture gallery of his career so far. Highlights: a scene from Saturday Night Live with Chris Farley (“I started laughing on camera, which I don’t think I had ever done”); a poster of 1995’s Tommy Boy, regarded by many as a comedy classic.

He steps into the bedroom. A Jacuzzi beckons in a distant bathroom, but the bed is the real showcase here. It’s large enough to humble Larry Flynt. “When a girl sleeps over, once in a blue moon, the problem is, they never stay put,” says Spade. “They’re always crossing over midfield. By the middle of the night, they’re trying to be a spider monkey, and I’m five inches from the end, teetering like Nadia Comaneci on a balance beam. I pry them off, but by morning they’re back on you like the fucking squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

He winds up in the kitchen. On the counter is an address book. Hmm. One of the entries is Pacino, Al. Another is Posey, Parker. Spade is extremely low-key about it, but famous people want to be his friend. Not long ago, he was in line for a movie in L.A. “It was sold out,” Spade recalls. “So this girl’s like, ‘I’ve got a ticket. I’ll give it to you if you sit with me and my boyfriend. He thinks you’re funny.’ I said, ‘All right.’ I thought she was a fan.” The girl was Rose McGowan. “It’s me, her, Marilyn [Manson] and Twiggy [Ramirez],” Spade says. They all went out afterward, then Rose and Marilyn flew up to see Spade’s gig at the Vegas Hard Rock Cafe the next weekend.

There is a conspiratorial air to Spade; when you are with him, it’s as though you and he are the most popular kids in high school and the party begins when you show up. He’s much more smoking lounge than VIP lounge — a feeling helped along by Spade’s liberal use of words like spazzing and gnarly and phrases like such a burn. Let’s ditch these losers, his demeanor seems to say, despite the fact that he was a chess-playing, stamp-collecting geek when he was a kid.

These days, Spade wears the cool mantle well, although there are occasions when geekdom rears its cowlicked head. On the cool side: He recently dated Lara Flynn Boyle — before she moved on to Jack Nicholson. Last spring he played his first romantic lead, in Lost and Found. But on the geek side of the ledger: The New York Times review proclaimed him a “leering, chicken-chested twerp.”

Look, there’s Dunkin’ Donuts,” says Spade, taking a drive though Scottsdale and its environs and pointing out the landmarks. Riding high in a black Toyota SUV, we are back in the land where the young dweeb once roamed. It is your typical suburban sprawl, with car dealerships and fast-food joints blotting out the soft pastels of the desert sky. Spade splits his time between Scottsdale and L.A., but he loves Arizona. “I love that cheap old sign,” he says. “I used to walk there. We called it Drunken Donuts. I had some A material even back then.”

Dressed in ratty sweat pants and a gray T-shirt and sporting three-day stubble, Spade resembles some of the cactuses that sprout in tufts from the sandy landscape: slightly scraggly, a bit dusty, but hardy.

Born in Michigan in 1964, Spade and his family — father Sam, mother Judy and older brothers Andy and Brian — moved to Arizona when he was four. Shortly thereafter, his father took off. “My dad just split one day, and then he’d show up once a year and give me a Nerf football for Christmas — thought he was my hero again. ‘Wow, it’s two colors!’ “

“We didn’t know where he was,” recalls Spade’s mom. “I was planning how I was going to survive. We soon divorced, and I had to make a living fast. In our day, you were to be a wife and that was it.”

She embarked on a series of jobs, including teaching. A few years later, she met and married a doctor who, it soon became apparent, had emotional problems (“My crazy stepdad,” says Spade), and the family moved to Casa Grande, Arizona, “this dirty little copper-mining town outside of Phoenix,” says Spade. The new family lived in Casa Grande for about four years. “My stepdad wanted to be a doctor in a small town and help people,” he says. “We were just like goat-roping gunslingers — just hicks. If my friend and I got home late or something, my friend’s mom or dad would be like,’ Ricky, pull down your pants and give me your belt. I’m gonna whip your ass in front of your friend.'”

The family then moved to Scottsdale, where Spade (nickname: Shrimp Cocktail) settled into life as a nerd, hanging out with a Vietnamese math whiz and working on his chess game, although a case of the measles kept him out of the state chess finals one year. The first time he lured a girl to his house, he proudly showed her his coin collection. (From his act: “She’s like, ‘Aren’t you going to fuck me?’ And I’m like, ‘Let me just show you this 1916-D Mercury dime.'”)

David was a quiet, sensitive child, says his mother, a bubbly blonde with a great laugh. “He is not a performer,” she says. “I always think of Chris Farley as a performer. With David, you just have to listen. And if you’re not tuned in, you’ll miss it, and he doesn’t care.”

“Here’s where we used to live,” says Spade, slowing his SUV in front of a small, tidy, adobe-style apartment complex. “It was so great. There was a pool and a big field to play football. I feel sorry for poor people, but then I’m like, ‘I was totally poor, but I didn’t give a shit.'”

With help from his older brothers, Spade shed his geekdom in time for high school. “I had cool blond hair parted down the middle, feathered,” he reports. “And then, on the first day of high school, I showed up with two broken arms because I wiped out skateboarding. It was a PR dream.” He dusted the Vietnamese kid.

When Spade was sixteen, his stepfather, who had been chronically depressed, committed suicide, and the family was in financial trouble once again. (Spade even had to sell his coin collection — “It was a team effort; we had to pay rent,” he shrugs.)

Spade pulls out onto the strip where he has driven countless times. “This is a favorite of mine,” he says. “Anything that stays the way it was, I love. Anything that’s different, I hate.” He pulls into Sajuaro High School, a treeless stretch of concrete. School’s out, and the parking lot is eerily still. Spade climbs out of his SUV and walks up the steps, observing that someone has scrawled “Penis 99” on the wall. (Is this a band? A goal? School slogan?)

Spade was popular in high school, “but I was kind of a buddy to all the hotties,” he says. “It was always, ‘You’re so sweet. Now I’m going to go fuck my boyfriend, I’ll be right back!'”

He passes a bronze plaque on one of the school’s columns, in memory of his friend Steve. “He was mowed over on a corner on the way to spring break,” he says. “That was the beginning of people I know dying.” He says this in the same offhand way that he says everything else, but he looks steadily at the ground, and his shoulders hunch inward. It becomes fairly clear that his over-it attitude is a bit of an act. “There was my stepdad, then Steve, then the suicide of one of my buddies, then my buddy Bob.”

Bob was Spade’s closest friend — the two were inseparable. In Spade’s junior year, Bob was killed in a motorcycle accident. “Bob was darling,” says Spade’s mom. “That was the hardest thing for David. He couldn’t talk for three days.” Spade remains close to many of his friends from back in the day, because he knows he can trust them. “There’s just something uncomfortable about people just meeting you beyond a certain point in your life, your career,” he says, climbing into his rig. We are off to his favorite restaurant.

“Hey, David!” calls the woman at the Blimpie’s counter. She waves a bun. “Toasted?” “Yeah,” he says. Unbidden, she slaps some turkey on the bun. He’s a regular, y’see.

“Doing a show tomorrow night?” she asks. He nods. “I saw this woman the other day,” he says. “She was like, ‘I’m comin’ to your show, Davey! I paid $200 at the ticket broker!’ I go, ‘Fuck a duck, are you serious? I got three dollars’ worth of show in that set.'”

Spade started doing stand-up around Scottsdale while he was enrolled at Arizona State University. His mom went to his debut at a local club. “My heart was beating so hard,” she says. “I thought I was going to die. But he took the mike and made me laugh! I have never seen him misstep, ever.”

After a brief stint at Arizona State, Spade went to L.A., gigged at the Improv and won a role in Police Academy 4 (which, he will tell you, answers all the questions in parts 1, 2 and 3). In 1990 he landed a spot on Saturday Night Live.

Following a few nearly invisible years there, Spade finally gained notice with his “buh-bye” skit, playing a dismissive steward on Total Bastard Airlines, and with his scathing “Hollywood Minute” (“Hi, I’m a mess,” he says as a picture of LaToya Jackson appears. Up comes a photo of Keith Richards: “Hi, I’m Skeletor. Have we met?” Vanilla Ice: “Hi, I’ll rap for food”). When Spade and Farley began to team for skits, audiences ate it up, and the pair soon starred in Tommy Boy.

The next year, the two best friends made the less-successful Black Sheep and were planning to pair up again when Farley died of a drug overdose in December 1997. For months, Spade couldn’t speak about it. Nowadays, the photos of Farley all over his house do not pain him too much. “I just think he was funny,” he says simply. “If I don’t stop and get into it, I’m OK. They’re always on the wall — they’ve always been there, and they always will be.”

After having his talents mostly wasted on the big screen (8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, anyone?), Spade joined the cast of Just Shoot Me in 1997 despite his reservations about acting in a sitcom. It promptly became a hit.

Spade, who contributes around ten percent of the show’s jokes, wants to push the show into more-experimental territory. “If an audience laughs too much, maybe it’s because it’s a familiar area,” he explains. “Sometimes you have to take a swing at something that doesn’t work right away. When Bill Murray sang the words to Star Wars or said, ‘You’re a knucklehead, get out of here,’ it’s something different you haven’t seen. It’s funny, for some reason. If you stick to it, they’ll come around.”

His other TV project, out in midseason, is Sammy, a prime-time cartoon that’s based on Spade’s early years, including his relationship with his errant father — the toon’s namesake (Spade does the voices for the father and the son). His dad, with whom he has reconciled, has been named a creative consultant on the show.

Spade and his father see each other quite a bit, he says. “We’re all older now, and we’re all having fun,” Spade says breezily. “He’s keeping up on the whole schmoozing game now. [Does imitation of father] ‘Hey, I read in Variety today that …’ And I go, ‘Please don’t. Please don’t try to get in the game.'”

Spade says his dad is such a rich source of material because “it’s always a little wrong, a little too rough. Old school, like Archie Bunker.”

“I said to David, ‘What should I tell ROLLING STONE about you?'” recalls Sam Spade. “He said, ‘Anything.’ ‘Fine,’ I told him, ‘I’m gonna say that I’ve been a fag for the last seventeen years, you’re also a fag, and we’re a fag duo and we go cruising in bars.'”

OK, seriously. The cartoon? “We talk back and forth; he writes things on little slips of paper,” Sam says. “I won’t hear about it, then a month later I see it on the show.”

SPADE HAS SOMETHING ON HIS mind. It’s about his ongoing rep as a ladies’ man. He phones from his car. “Something I get a lot is, ‘I hear you only go out with models,’ ” he says in that way where you don’t know whether he’s being serious. “It just makes you sound like such a jackass,” he continues, “because if once in a while I go out on a date and the girl’s not ugly, then I’m fuckin’ nailed.”

Chris Rock, by the way, dismisses Spade’s Lothario status: “Any guy that makes more than a hundred grand a year is a ladies’ man, OK? These single guys on fuckin’ TV are all ladies’ men.”

Spade is off to the set of Just Shoot Me. “I’m on my way to the fuckin’ salt mines,” he carps. “I’m gonna be there from 10:30 to 1 today, busting my ass. And for what? Money? Pussy?” He cackles. “Anyway,” he says, “in terms of dating, the older you get, the more tired you get of really putting on a show. If I was on a date and ‘Nobody gonna break-a my stride’ came on the radio, I’d fuckin’ crank it. I’d be like, ‘Don’t say another word until this is over, and then you can tell me how you got into stripping.'”

In This Article: Coverwall, David Spade


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