David Spade has a complicated relationship with celebrity. He spent years of his life cracking jokes about celebrities from behind various desks , and had his own personal business become obsessively chronicled joke fodder for TMZ. Even the name of his recent memoir, Almost Interesting, is a comment on his own celebrity, tweaking the title of the film, Almost Famous. With his new show, however, Spade is taking a look at everybody else’s complicated relationships with celebrity.
The idea for Fameless had been percolating at NBC for a few years before somebody pitched it to Spade. It would be a show that recruited people from the endless pool of overly eager self-promotional talent, and pretended to put them in the next would-be breakout reality hit. Spade was interested. TruTV was into it too, especially with the comedic actor and recently reinvigorated stand-up also onboard. Airing Mondays at 10 p.m., Fameless satirizes some of the more ridiculous offerings on TV, with fake programs like the cooking show, What’s In Your Mouth and Blind Blind Date, which features blind dates with, you guessed it, actual blind people. These fake shows are just dumb enough to exist, and they shine a brief, none-too-compassionate light on people who will do anything to become famous.
Little do aspiring stars realize that as soon as you become famous, it’s a constant struggle to decide what you’re famous for. It’s this rocky terrain that David Spade has been navigating for 25 years now, in order to stay successful on his own terms. As his new show premieres, the comedian and writer talks to Co.Create about some of the decisions he made over the years that helped him define and evolve the person we see onscreen.
Spade first started performing comedy in the late-1980s in Arizona, where there was pretty much no comedy scene at all. He was part of a two-man act for a while, but when the ever-stoned second half of the act dropped out, Spade ended up gravitating toward prop comedy. Eventually, there had to be a reckoning.
“When I was first doing shows on my own, I thought of something I could do with a xylophone, so I brought one along,” Spade says. “Then that bit sort of magnified and accumulated other props. You know when you try on sunglasses, especially in the old days at Sunglass Hut, on the nose they have a big price tag that made it hard to see? So I put a paper plate that said $7.99 on some sunglasses and put ’em on and I’m like, ‘These are pretty good, do you like these?’ Those are the type of props. I also wore a Tom Petty hat, a big top hat, and did an impression of him. And Dennis Miller was the one who ultimately killed the whole prop thing.”
“We were working together, and he said, ‘You don’t need those fuckin’ props.’ He said, ‘Most prop comics need ’em, but you have actually well-written jokes. Just do those.’ I was just starting out and I didn’t know prop comics were hacky or corny, but I started to figure it out so I started getting rid of that stuff. I weaned out everything but the Tom Petty hat. And then I saw Dennis like a year later on the road and I was carrying it, at the valet and he’s like, ‘You still sleep with that fuckin’ hat on?’ It was tough because Tom Petty was my big closer. It’s hard to get rid of a closer. You don’t want to take away ‘Don’t Stop Believin” from Journey.”
The snarky persona Spade has long been known for emerged on Saturday Night Live. He didn’t set out to carve this particular niche for himself, but he was determined to write whatever would get him more airtime.
“I was supposed to write for everyone else [on SNL] but I really only knew how to write for me,” Spade says. “I didn’t ever advertise I could write for those guys; they just hire you and say, ‘Okay you’re gonna write for Dana [Carvey], you’re gonna write for everybody Mike Meyers, whoever is here, the host.’ I’m like, ‘What do I write for Alec Baldwin? I don’t know what to do.’ So I was in over my head. It was like being a high school basketball player and jumping into the pros. I was a pretty good player, but I wasn’t LeBron. So here I am, like, a journeyman and everything I wrote for me was sort of dry, sarcastic stuff: the receptionist, the buh-bye guy. Since that was what I did that would get on, that’s what I did. Then that was like every part I did for the next 10 years.”
In 1997, after a pair of hit movies, Spade had enough clout to make The David Spade Show. Instead, he opted for a role in the ensemble sitcom, Just Shoot Me, which kept him in the public eye for several years, if not the spotlight.
“It was a safer bet,” Spade says. “I mean the ego in me wanted my own show and network people were saying I could do my own show, but my managers were producing Just Shoot Me, and it got all the way to upfronts, but they thought it was missing something. So they showed it to me and they said, ‘Do you think you could fit in here?’ It had a great writer, Steven Levitan. It had a great cast. It was pretty funny. I figured, just pepper me in there, I could fit in with it. I had just come from the hardest fuckin’ marine boot camp, which was SNL. Sandler, Myers, Carvey, Chris Rock, Farley, they can’t be better than those fuckin’ guys. And it ended up being a great fit. It was a fifth lead, but I thought if this works out, it’ll stick around and I can stay on the air for a while. Then I got on Rules of Engagement right afterward and it was a similar situation all over again.”
There was only so long Spade could get laughs with snide quips before wanting to explore something else. With his first lead role following the death of Chris Farley, he gave it a chance and ended up creating his most memorable character.
“Joe Dirt was a real departure,” he says. “It was hard because I wanted to be a likeable, nice guy for once and it’s very hard to take away your weapons and just make stuff funny by being the butt of the joke and be in love with a girl and be a very positive person fighting the world. But I had to take a chance on it, no matter how much it seemed like people would rather see me keep on doing what I’d been doing. And it didn’t end up being a blockbuster but other than Tommy Boy that’s the one I hear about the most. I really love Joe Dirt and I really did my best in it.”
Aside from returning to his earnest hero with a sequel to Joe Dirt in 2015, Spade also released a memoir last year. Telling his life story, though, proved to be the ultimate exercise in self-presentation.
“Writing everything is different than writing everything else,” Spade says. “Writing stand-up is different than writing a panel on Jimmy Fallon. Everything is a little different, and a book is different than a movie. I was just trying to figure out things in my life that were sort of tent poles and also things people would find funny. And then I realized I could do both. I could make these huge moments funny too. But it was hard to do that and it was a long process. It’s like a puzzle: You lay it out, you go, ‘Okay, what about this story? Well, that connects that.’ You also want it to be funny but not corny. I was writing these personal stories like stand-up or like I was on Jimmy Fallon. I didn’t want it to die for more than 30 seconds without saying something amusing. My editor said I could flesh some things out more but I decided that wasn’t comfortable for me. I don’t want people to go, ‘Oh shit, he’s gonna blabber about his stepdad who was crazy.’ So I tried to keep it light, even the stories about almost getting killed by my assistant. It’s never like ‘Boo-hoo me.’ I don’t feel that way and nobody wants that.”