David Spade on Why He Turned Down the Chance to Replace Letterman
(Originally appeared in Esquire, November 2015)
Three decades into a career that has included stints as a standup, a featured player on television (Saturday Night Live, Just Shoot Me), lead parts in movies (Tommy Boy, The Emperor’s New Groove, Joe Dirt), and numerous appearances on radio and podcast interviews (with Howard Stern, Dennis Miller, and many others), David Spade has succumbed to the inevitable and produced what these days seems almost mandatory for anyone involved in showbiz: a memoir. (Almost Interesting, out now.)
The difference, however, is that this memoir was written without a ghost writer and manages the not-so-easy task of capturing the author’s unique comedic voice. David Spade has been playing the sharp-tongued, sarcastic (self-aware) asshole for so long—and playing it so well—that it’s difficult to imagine him as anything else. And yet off the stage and on the page, Spade is humble, intelligent, honest, and, yes, seemingly sweet—not the smarmy host of “Hollywood Minute” so much as a nice guy from white-trash Arizona, very aware of how far he’s come from his difficult beginnings and thankful that he made the leap.
Esquire.com talked with Spade about being raised by a single mother along with two brothers (one of whom is also famous), as well his decades-long feud with Eddie Murphy and his relationship (both on-screen and off) with the brilliant, yet deeply troubled, Chris Farley, who passed away nearly twenty years ago.
ESQ: This is something I’ve always wondered when it comes to comedians: Why a book? Stand-ups and actors can express themselves so well and so easily on stage or on podcasts or on radio or television interviews. So why go through the tortuous process of actually sitting down for a year or more, alone, and writing a book?
David Spade: It was different, and it was challenging. It reminded me of school and doing a research paper, something where you have to really focus and get shit done. It’s very overwhelming.
I got approached about a book years ago, and I met with a ghost writer. I had one lunch with him and I was like, “Yeah, go write it. Send me some money.” And he goes, “No, we meet for lunch every day for two months.” I thought, Oh, fuck that.
For this book, I had a chunk of time, and I thought, Let’s try it. Why not? I’m persnickety about making sure that everything on the page sounds like me. My editor for this book wrote a line like, “And then I did this, and then this happened. Wait for it . . . wait for it.” And I said, “I don’t say ‘wait for it.'” The editors would sometimes jump in there with a little doozy or a zinger. And I’d go, “Oh, that sounds mean.” You got to keep your eye on it. I wanted it to sound like me.
In the book, you describe growing up in Arizona in the ’70s and how much freedom you and your two brothers experienced. I’m wondering if all that freedom affected your comedy in any way?
Well, it toughened me. I didn’t even always know it at the time, but it still comes out when I’m tough on my friends to get things done. I’m sort of driven. A lot of people I knew growing up died. And there was also…money. We didn’t have enough of it. There was always an underlying instinct of survival, like, Hey this could be it for you. Every day.
How did people you knew dying have an impact on you?
I didn’t know anyone who died. And then, all of a sudden, my stepdad dies, and then my best friend, and then someone else at school, and someone else. I thought, Oh shit. So, you don’t live all the time? I didn’t really get it. And so I go, I better jumpstart my standup. I better just try to get some life in.
Your mother raised three kids alone while working as a secretary and in a department store. All three turned out to be successful. Your oldest brother is in construction. And the middle brother, Andy, is married to Kate, as in the “Kate Spade,” head of the designer empire. They started the company together.
People would give my mom shit for being away from us all the time. They would say that it wasn’t the way you should be as a mother. But it’s either that or a foster home. When you don’t have money and there are three kids, sometimes you have to leave the kids with the neighbors all day. Then the neighbor runs away for two hours to run errands because they’re not her kids. You’re left in the desert. I don’t know if we all needed guns and ammo, but once you get through it, it’s fine. I rode my bike three miles to get to school. But I now see my buddies with their kids, and they’re so on them, it’s very… It’s just a new world.
So your upbringing had an effect on your drive to succeed, but did it have any influence on the comedy itself? Would it have been different if you weren’t left so alone?
I don’t know. There’s an underlying anger because of my dad that I didn’t really pick up on until I started writing this book. I was really nice to him forever, but now that I have my own kid, it’s different.
In my case, it wasn’t even the perfect scenario because I wasn’t planning on having a child, but my father was planning us, three kids, and then he left. I can’t really imagine just turning your back. Even if I had $80, kick ’em $20. Anything. But nothing like that. So I faded out on him because I had a daughter. I didn’t think that she should get to know him, because that’s not the type of person I wanted her to know.
That surprises me because your father, Sammy (or as you call him, “Scrammy”), has been featured in your act as a rapscallion. Maybe a loser, but also harmless and funny.
He’s in a nursing home now, and I said, “I don’t know if that’s a great idea to meet my daughter.” It makes me feel bad in one respect, but there has to be some penalty. He’s had a great life. I bought him a condo, I got him a car, he gets Kate Spade stuff from Andy, he used to get whatever he wanted. He’s been covered. He’s had girlfriends, he’s been proposed to, and he’s got a great life. But at some point I had to say that there has to be a negative to it all, and this is probably it.
And yet, you did thank him at the end of this book.
I did. Because if I wasn’t this fucked up, I wouldn’t have a book. And that’s sort of a joke, but of course it’s also sort of true.
I remember watching your very first performance on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show in [August] 1991. One thing that struck me at the time is just how nervous you came across, which I hadn’t seen before on that show. Everyone was usually so cool. Your reaction came across as very real. I never forgot it.
I was nervous. It wasn’t like Paul Reiser or Jeff Altman, the stand-ups they had back then who would be so smooth.
Here’s a related stupid story: I ran into Louis C.K. not too long ago. I don’t know him really well, but he’s always certainly nice. He said that when he auditioned for SNL [in 1993], all of the cast members came into the room to watch his act, but we came in late. And he said, “I was so scared back then, and I’m doing my set and I’m realizing no one’s even here yet, and then you guys all came in. But you were shushing everyone to sit down and to actually listen.” And he goes, “I’ll remember that forever. That was nice of you. You tried to get everyone to quiet down so they could hear my set.”
Meanwhile, I had no recollection of that.
That’s an interesting thing. A lot of people seem to forget what it was like to start off and to be nervous, to be the new guy in any environment, whether it’s in an office or onstage. But it seems like the good ones who stick around are the ones who remember, who are sensitive to those early years.
You see Louie today and he’s confident, brilliant. You see him as someone who never, ever would be nervous. But at the time, when he was auditioning for SNL, he was shitting his pants, just like I had the year before. So I was just trying to be a normal person and be like, “Hey everybody, listen to this guy and what he’s saying.” Meanwhile, everyone’s blabbing and talking.
Did you ever talk to Carson later after your first appearance on his show?
Carson was so scary. I knew him a little bit just from TV. It was really my mom who loved him when I was growing up. But he visited me backstage afterwards when I was in the dressing room. He knocked on the door, and I opened it with my shirt off like a psycho, because I thought it was all over.
I didn’t realize this at the time, but I would never see him again in my life. I had my shirt off and I was a fucking B.O. festival. I’m sure a wave hit him like one of those nuclear bombs knocking over houses, in like, slow motion. I had a bottle of Pepto-Bismol and was chugging it, and I’ve got it all over my mouth, and he goes, “Hey, I wanted to tell you you did a good job out there, but you didn’t come over to the couch.” If Johnny really liked a comedian, he called them over to talk.
And I said, “Oh my God, I was so nervous! I didn’t think I was supposed to go over!” And he goes, “You did a good thing out there.” I apologized for the Pepto and he said, “I’m trying to quit the stuff myself.”
He gave you a joke.
He gave me a joke! I’m sure this all meant nothing to him, but I loved it.
Why hadn’t you gone over the couch when he beckoned you over? That’s a huge honor for a stand-up. It happens very rarely.
The producer, Jim McCawley, told me before I went out: “Don’t go over to Carson.” And I said, “What if he waves me over? I heard he does that.” And he said, “Get off, just come back.”
Johnny was trying to get my attention. Martin Short, who was next to Johnny, said, “Great stuff.” Johnny gave me the okay sign, and Short goes, “Why isn’t he coming over?” Johnny’s waving me over. I’m not looking. And he said, “Oh, he’s not looking. Oh, okay. There goes David Spade, he’s too nervous to look over.”
So I get backstage and the producer says, “Why didn’t you go over there?” And I go, “You told me not to, dick.”
Switching now from The Tonight Show to Saturday Night Live. I’ve read many books about the show, but I have yet to ever read any book written by a former cast member who has in any way enjoyed their experience. And your book is no exception.
I maybe should have woven into the book that I laughed a lot when I was on SNL. You know, don’t get me wrong, we laughed so hard when we were making crank calls or when Farley jacked off onto my fucking Playboy.
You wrote about that in the book. One night, when you left your shared office, Farley masturbated onto your Playboy issue. Just for laughs.
Yeah, he would do things like that. I had a good time. Stuff like that can be funny as shit. But it’s strange: I think for some reason people just like to read about the less fun times on that show.
But the reason I included the less fun parts was to sort of tell people that I didn’t make it overnight. That it wasn’t so easy. And to tell people who might want to try comedy that it’s hard; it is fucking hard. You can do it if you hang in there. It’s talent, but it’s also not blowing your brains out. That’s the formula.
The book does make clear just how close you came to not being a success on the show. You started as just a writer, not as a performer. You struggled to get material on the show. There were weeks when your work never appeared at all. You eventually became a “prime time player,” and hit with a few characters, but it all could have very easily not have happened.
I do like it when people say, “You were one of those bad boy in those videos,” or, “You and Sandler and Farley rocked,” or whatever. I love being a part of that. But that show was tailor-made for Sandler and Farley. I was just an amusing person who happened to be on it. You didn’t need to be a song and dance man on SNL, but you needed a lot of shit.
I eventually got better and understood it better. On the other hand, I think I did okay after SNL because I wasn’t so cartoony and character-y, you know? And for some performers, it can be hard to adjust to a drier delivery after SNL—and that’s what I like better.
Were there any stories that you had to leave out of this book for legal or other reasons? Any you could share with me now?
I got offered [Late Night with David] Letterman when he left NBC [in 1993]. How the fuck I spaced that, didn’t put that in the book, I don’t know. But when I was going through the final version of the book, I thought, Oh shit, that happened. It occurred to me that it might have been interesting for people to know that I got offered Letterman and didn’t do it.
That’s fascinating. I had no idea. Does anyone? That you were offered Late Night before Conan?
From a guy who couldn’t even get on the show to then being offered it, you know what I mean? But then I got “Hollywood Minute” [on SNL] and things picked up.
For those who are too young to remember—and I shudder to even say that—as the host of “Hollywood Minute,” you went after numerous celebrities with very honest, piercing jokes.
Yeah. And after that started, I started to cruise a little bit. In fact, I was asked to have lunch with Bernie Brillstein and Lorne [Michaels] and Brad Grey. And they said, “We talked to NBC, and we’d like for you to take over Late Night.”
Now, in fairness, there was a rumor that they had first gone to Garry Shandling and Dana Carvey, and they had both said no. I said, “Why me?” And they said, “Well, you sort of brought a new attitude to Saturday Night Live and a little edge, and you’re not like People magazine. You’re going after people, and we like that.” And I was young and new. And I said, “Aw, I don’t think I’d really want to do a talk show.”
And they were all sort of stunned. They went, “Well, it’s like a million dollars a year. It’s Letterman!” Which was huge.
I couldn’t believe they were handing me this. I thought, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing! They said, “We’ll get you writers, you know.” I said, “I always pictured maybe a sitcom or something like that. I want to try that first. I want to go try that. And a talk show feels like the last job you would take. You don’t have another job. That is it.”
I mean, I was just excited that I was at lunch with these three. “Nah. Anyway, pass the salt.” And so I left and Brad went to the valet, and we were waiting, and he goes, “What if I get you two million a year?” And I said, “Nah.” And so when they went to Conan I thought, Oh, they really shaked it up. I mean, I love Conan to death, and he wanted to be a performer, but I thought I had low experience. Conan had even less. But he wound up being good at it. So I didn’t really say anything about this in the book; I didn’t want to make Conan feel bad.
Did you ever regret the decision not to take Late Night?
No. I mean, I like what I’ve done, and I think hosting is a hard job. I look up to the Fallons and Lettermans. Like, “Goddamnit, it’s tough!” Just to go on there as a guest is tough. I was on Fallon the other night, and the next day I went to do Ellen. You really have to try to be funny and try to relate and still mention the product. And that’s just as a guest, let alone host. It’s hard.
Fallon has got this new thing where he’s singing and dancing and all that stuff. It really plays into his hand, and he’s great at it. I would have been more like Letterman. Just do one thing, and it’s dry. That used to work, and I don’t think it does anymore with all the viral stuff and shit you need to do.
You don’t think your style of comedy is as conducive to success in this current social media?
No. I understood why Letterman left, because I don’t know if that style is appreciated as much. On Fallon or Kimmel, there’s a clip of something they did the night before and then there’s a game they play and then there’s the magazines and all the shenanigans. It’s a lot happening instead of just a talk show. It used to be, “Oh, we have Harrison Ford, you don’t!” Now they have Harrison Ford in, like, Go Karts or whatever.
Nowadays, SNL takes advantage of social media, but that didn’t exist when you were on the show.
I wish we had that back then. It would have been so fun to have “Hollywood Minute” making the rounds on Monday. And you now get a quadruple following with everyone knowing about it. We had to go by the rerun. You missed it, and you were like, “When’s the rerun?”
So how would you even know if a sketch had hit when you were on SNL?
We didn’t really know. I kind of knew the next day because everyone told me. But it took a while. I think Lorne goes by a hunch, and you hear it from your friends or writers when they say, “Great job, great job.”
Do you think Eddie Murphy was upset with your “Hollywood Minute” joke because you had the balls to do it or because it was accurate and well written? The joke was that you showed a close-up of Eddie Murphy’s face. This was in the early ’90s, a time when his career wasn’t going particularly well. You said, “Look, children! It’s a falling star. Make a wish!”
God, I think maybe it was a little of both. I think he was shocked that we would “turn on him,” and he was shocked that Lorne wouldn’t go, “Hey, no!” and then quietly get rid of that one. I think it was not so much he was mad at me as it was this sense of, “What are you doing? I got you guys there! I kept that show on the air!” And that was true, but you know, the show was making fun of me as soon as I left. I mean, I was like, “Let me get out of the building first.” We at least gave Eddie Murphy a couple of years. With me, I hadn’t even cleaned out my office yet. The body wasn’t even cold.
I don’t like that sort of thing either.
You don’t like what?
Well, when they make fun of me. I wouldn’t say it’s flattering. When they do certain sketches and everyone plays a celebrity. When someone plays me, I’m like, “Boo!”
I never understand people who laugh at their own impressions. I mean, I get upset when someone in the office just imitates my walk or something, let alone being parodied in front of millions.
When Tom Petty came on the show [in 1991], I was like, “He’ll be so excited to see me! I do an impression of him!” Everyone was like, “Why? You make him look like a fucking idiot.”
You were in the “Living in a Van Down by the River” sketch with Chris Farley [that aired May 1993], one of the most well known sketches in SNL’s history. Did you know at the time that it was going to be such a big hit? So memorable?
No. I just knew it was a good one. And one that I was happy to be a part of. But I didn’t know it would live on and on. And that’s without the Internet.
In the original “Down by the River” sketch, Chris fell onto a table prop, and it exploded beneath him. He did that for all three of the sketches with this motivational-speaker character, but in the first one, was it even planned? It looked like you and the rest of the actors were stunned.
I knew. Well, sometimes in rehearsal you go, “Then I’ll jump on the table” or whatever, and you don’t really picture it. Until you really see it, and then you go, “Oh fuck, this guy is for real!”
In a later “Down by the River,” he picked me up and we both fell backwards and I sort of snapped my head back. We got in the hall after and he goes, “Why did you act like you were hurt? It bummed me out.” And I go, “I was hurt, you dick!” He didn’t think the audience thought it was funny, and he was very concerned about that because he would put a lot into those. In rehearsal he’d say, “I’m gonna jump, and I’m gonna fall here.” Live, he jumps up and flies into the table; it’s all about air.
Last question: do you feel that Chris Farley could have possibly survived? If he didn’t die from a drug overdose in 1997, would he have lived on? Or was he just one of those performers who burned way too hard and was doomed to die young?
I think he just would have died a week later. It was going that way for so long. Every day it was one of those things where you call and he doesn’t call back right away, and the first thing you think is, Is he dead? Then he calls, and you go, “Okay, good!” But you get scared like that. It was not working, and I don’t know how he could have fixed that. I mean, rehab seven times or more. That means it’s just a speed bump. Unfortunate. As sad as it is. But it was going to happen.
It was too much. It was way too much.