David Spade Has Always Been In On The Joke

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Photo credit: WILSON WEBB/NETFLIX - Netflix
Photo credit: WILSON WEBB/NETFLIX - Netflix


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Photo credit: Brian Bowen Smith
Photo credit: Brian Bowen Smith

The first thing you notice about David Spade is the same thing he notices about himself: that famous blonde hair. "Not too bad today,’ he says, running his fingers through his feathery locks. “A little messy.” He tells me somebody came by to give it some texture. I have no idea what this means, but I have to say something. I tell him he looks like he could be a model for a fancy ‘90s hairspray brand. I mean it as a compliment. Spade blinks and stares back at me. My comment lingers. He appears to have not received it as the compliment I intended it to be. Will I be canceled for offending David Spade? I wonder. “I thought you were going to say troll doll,” he finally quips. “But I was going to go with either one.” It’s a textbook David Spade retort—a self-deprecating joke rooted in confidence that lets the other person win.

For more than 30 years, David Spade has been comedy’s rascally good sport. On Saturday Night Live, he gained a reputation as a clever insult comedian with the "Weekend Update" segment, "Hollywood Minute." ("Look children, it's a falling star!" he once famously joked about Eddie Murphy.) He carved out a role for himself—among a knock-out cast that included Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, and Chris Farley—as a pesky, pretty boy the audience couldn’t help but love. Six seasons later he left the show to make legendary buddy comedies with his pal, Farley. Nothing that comes out today enjoys the kind of mass appeal that the duo's comedies received in the mid-90s. If your favorite movie is Tommy Boy (I’ve always been more of a Black Sheep girl, myself), congratulations: You and Ben Shapiro have that in common.

Two successful sitcoms, a dozen or so movies (including Emperor's New Groove, the only film Spade says he's ever made that got good reviews), and one temporary gig as the host of Bachelor in Paradise later, Spade is back with his very first Netflix special, Nothing Personal. A few days before its premiere, he sat down with Esquire (over Zoom) to talk about returning to stand-up—and what impact so-called “cancel culture” has had on his approach.

Esquire: Comedy is a political minefield. Why in God's name would you release a Netflix special now?

David Spade: I wouldn't say it chose me, but listen after the Academy Awards, you go, "Oh my god, why am I doing a special when all eyes are on every comic at all times?" It’s almost like I’m looking for trouble, but this is my profession. As for having it come out now, it’s called Nothing Personal. I’m older so I'm not as rough as I was on "Hollywood Minute" in the old days. I make fun of myself more than others. I’m always part of the joke, and I think that helps balance out the times when you go after others. A lot of these jokes are goofy observations. I don't do politics. So, I at least don't get 1,000 percent shit on for that.

It makes you wonder, are you allowed to do anything? A lot of comics talk about race. I don't. I would love to, but I just feel like you can step in shit so fast. Ten years ago, you were supposed to talk about things, you were supposed to have discussions, comedies made you think. You didn't always agree, but you either laughed or not. I don't want to say things that will ruin my life. That's where it's getting into an area where you go, "Oh wow. You're not allowed to have opinions." And if someone doesn’t like it, even if it’s a joke opinion, they can come at you, it’s very troubling. That's all.

But you do wander into some tricky territory in this special. It seems like you wanted to go there, like you wanted to see if you could make the right kind of Caitlin Jenner joke.

If you say you have a trans joke, obviously that's a very tough Chappelle situation. But when you look at the act as a whole, all my stuff is about the most innocuous part of any situation. I'm trying to find a new angle. The angle of “Caitlin being a young name …” It’s just skimming the surface of that without diving into any sort of hate. I see Caitlin Jenner golfing. I have no problem with anybody. Even when I used to do SNL, I'd make fun of all these people, but I liked them all.

Will Smith has brought insult comedy under the microscope. Do you think the climate is worse now for that particular strand of comedy?

In hindsight, it feels like [the slap] was something with Will Smith. The joke was innocuous. It wasn't particularly mean. It wasn't particularly anything. It was filler. No one would've thought twice about it. Listen, I don't like jokes about me if they're really mean spirited or coming from a person that doesn't like you. I have problems. I don't really mind roasts when they are done by my friends, even if they are rough. But when it's a roast by people you don’t know … Chevy Chase got roasted, and they just hired some assassins. Imagine: Here's a new comic that's 23. He knows he's going to get famous by how fucking mean he makes this joke. It's going to make his career. You don't do well on the other end of it, because it's not coming from a loving, fun place.

In your podcast about Saturday Night Live, you reveal a lot about what goes on backstage. Do you worry about upsetting Lorne Michaels?

It’s meant as a love letter to Lorne because he’s the boss of it all. He's aware of the podcast, and we've invited him on. He's a buddy. When Lorne's not your boss, you realize it's a lot of smoke and mirrors where he's not thinking about you every day. You know what I mean? I go, "I hope Lorne's not mad at me. I hope Lorne doesn't think I didn't write anything this week. I'm so scared of Lorne." And in his mind, he’s just dealing with the networks and doing things and trying to figure out the show and the budget and hoping it’s a great show. It didn’t seem like he’s out to get anyone, but you're so paranoid when you’re there. It’s so built in.

I have a theory that Mike Myers based Dr. Evil off of Lorne Michaels. Can you confirm?

Yes, 100 percent. Not the character and how he acts, but just the voice and the finger … Dana and Mike used to do that around the office.

You and Dana Carvey talk a lot on the podcast about maintaining your poker face on SNL. What you think about the newer generation who are much more outspoken about their experiences. One cast member retweeted someone saying that they wished she got more air time. Would you have ever done that?

Listen, I would've liked to have said that. I said it to all my friends. I didn't have Twitter back then, but I don't think that's right or wrong. I just think you can do a lot more now. When I did a movie, it was for Lorne. Tommy Boy was Lorne's production through Paramount. Chris and I would go to the show, go to the party, go to the airport, fly to Canada, get up at seven on Sunday, shoot Sunday, shoot, Monday, Tuesday, fly home and come back Sunday. And that was beating the shit out of us. But now … Kate McKinnon or Pete Davidson, they take months off to do movies. We weren't even allowed to do commercials. We weren't allowed to do anything. Everything had to be run by NBC. I can't hate on it. It’s just a new world. I'm envious.

Photo credit: KMazur - Getty Images
Photo credit: KMazur - Getty Images

Tell me about Chris Farley. How did you two first meet?

I met Chris Farley on the very first day, but I’d already heard rumors about his characters and how funny he was. There was no Instagram. There's no way to find out. There's no YouTube. You had to wait to see it in-person. And he came downstairs at the hotel and I said, "You want to walk over together? I'm on the show too." So we walked over and laughed. We just goofed around, and he's very lighthearted and we were both nervous. They put us in an office together, and you had to walk through our office to get to Sandler and Rock, which was another eight foot by eight foot office. So, we were all jammed in the corner. Looking back, I had some smartest people around me. Farley, for looking dumb, could laugh at the smartest jokes. Nothing got past him. And he was a great laugher. It was so disarming. He always wanted to crack you up. It was great to have him around.

I just rewatched Black Sheep. You and Farley had amazing comedic chemistry. What do you think made you guys such a successful duo?

There was also Ace Ventura back then and Billy Madison. It was a big, fun time and the movies didn't cost a lot. It was a huge payoff for them. Two years after Tommy Boy came out they told us it made $100 million on video. We couldn't believe it. It really grew over time. We talked about doing another one, but Farley wanted to do more drama, so I said, go do that. I ran into him two months before [he died] and he was like, “Everyone always talks about Tommy Boy and Black Sheep. It's not as much fun out there. Let’s try to get one going again … .” I think about Farley every day. I have his old coat from Tommy Boy.

Part of your chemistry was the physical comedy too. Fat guy in a little coat …

That’s part of it. He liked me being smart and him being dumb. Farley and I were always goofing around. He always wanted me to make fun of him, because he thought it was so hilarious. We played off that. He was big. But the truth is, when you look back, he wasn't that overweight. He was big, but he really ballooned toward the end. He always said he was the fat guy, but he wasn't super fat.

You've experienced a lot of loss in your life. How do you heal?

You just have to keep on keeping on, because there's literally nothing you can do. You either do nothing or you just keep going like nothing happened. The Farley one still bothers me, then you gotta make room for the Norm [McDonald] one too.

I was just reminiscing with Dennis Miller about our last gig with Norm before Coronavirus. Norm was in pain, carrying a bottle of pills with him, prescription pills. We didn't know. We honestly didn't know. No one knew. So, you get mad at his flakiness. And they said it was because he didn't want to tell anyone he had cancer, but his flakiness was so ingrained in his life, there was no difference. If it was anyone else, you’d go "Something's up." But he was so crazy anyway that you couldn't tell what was going on. That was part of his charm. We're putting together a memorial for him right now, which will be hard.

I’ve heard you describe yourself as a pipsqueak growing up. But friends of yours have said you’ve been a ladies man since middle school. You can’t be both. Which one were you: a loser or a ladies' man?

The real story is when I got to high school, I had all of the components of a cool dude. I had long white hair. I was a skateboarder I had Carrie Underwood's legs. I was sort of tan, but I had no game. My brother, Andy, was cool though. Cheerleaders would say hi to me to get to him. I didn't even put that together. I was always in friend jail. Once at a boxer party, I got laid and then I think she immediately was like, "That was the worst sex of my life." Meanwhile, I was high fiving the entire school. Guys would say, "I heard it was horrible." I responded, “Who cares man? I did it. Start, middle, finish. Did it!" I thought I was kind of cool and nice, but I just was always a buddy.

I got a reputation when I spent six years on Just Shoot Me, dating models, and then six years on Rules of Engagement, dating models. And then in Grown Ups, I’m the single guy, scheming on everyone. It was a blurry line. I did try to go out with girls, of course. I was single, but the press made a thing of it, which I didn't like. I tried to put out that fire.

You’ve been a bachelor and a stand-up comedian for a long time. How have you managed to stay out of trouble?

I try to be a decent person, but who knows. I do pretty much get along with exes. I’ve been married before, I don’t know if I ever will be again. I’ve just seen how bad it can get—for my mom, even her second marriage. And she's such a lovely woman. I don't want to get to the point where I hate an ex. I have gone out with girls that are incredible and marriage worthy, but it’s tough to feel like I can beat the system and get it right. It's all just based on fear.

Photo credit: WILSON WEBB/NETFLIX - Netflix
Photo credit: WILSON WEBB/NETFLIX - Netflix

Are you close with your family now?

Family is the only thing that keeps me from floating around in space. My mother means everything to me. My dad passed away. He left us when we were kids. He'd pop in about every year, maybe twice a year. But he didn't give us his phone number. I didn't realize how controlling that was. He would call us whenever he felt like it. But if I was sick, I couldn’t call him. If I needed to ask him something, I had to just wait. Then when he showed up, we thought he was a hero. My mom didn't really trash him even though it was so tough for her. Now I'm just trying to make it up to her, because she dealt with us all. We weren't bad kids, but it was too much to ask of her. She was beautiful.

You've done comedies for more than 30 years. Do you think critics have a problem with comedy?

I don't think they liked Tommy Boy or Black Sheep. You get in this vortex of bad reviews so critics aren’t even allowed to like it. Even Wrong Missy, I think the best review was, “it's a delightful piece of shit.” That's what one guy actually said. They can't even tell the other reviewers they like it even if they accidentally do. One guy said, "I saw it three times and laughed. It's horrible." If you want to laugh, it's not bad! I'm like, "Well, that's a good review, you dick." You saw it three times. What are you talking about?

All the movies that we grew up on are almost nonexistent now because they are so hard to get made. They troubleshoot them so hard. You don't want comedians to be using the same seven jokes that are approved by America. Some people say you can't joke about stuff. Well, if you’re saying you hate someone, I get that. But if you're joking about it, I think you grade it on a curve. Sometimes jokes are too rough and that's the delicate balance we're going through right now.

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