Say, Didn’t You Used To Be on TV?

David Spade washes up in Dickie Roberts.

The gruesome legacy of SNL

Early in Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (Paramount), the title character (played by David Spade) and some former real child stars—Leif Garrett, one of the Coreys, the guys who played Greg Brady, Danny Partridge, and Screech—get together for a regular poker game, a mixture of reminiscence and resentment. (“You know who I don’t get? Brad Pitt.”) The writing (apart from that line) isn’t particularly funny; it’s the idea that sells the scene. It’s the fact that the filmmakers hired all those guys (and, over the closing credits, many more ex-child stars, in a hilariously vulgar music video called “Child Stars on Your Television”), and that every one of them holds the camera better than David Spade. 

I don’t find Spade entirely noxious: He can be bitchily funny on talk shows and as wise-ass squirts on sitcoms, where he’s scaled to the medium. But in starring roles on the big screen, he’s the reductio ad absurdum of the notion that a stint on Saturday Night Live equals movie stardom. There’s almost nothing visible in his elfin face except a desire to be taken as hip—removed from, and superior to, his material. He’s not an actor, he’s not a physical comedian (his attempt to do Jerry Lewis-style slapstick would fall even flatter without acrobatic stuntmen and whacking sound effects), and his timing is in the B/B+ range. In one of his few watchable scenes in Dickie Roberts, he ritually insults some elementary-school bullies on a playground, which suggests he could be an Eddie Murphy for 8-year-old white boys.

Dickie Roberts toys with the limitations of Spade’s persona: The joke is that Dickie, a ‘70s sitcom idol whose adorable catchphrase was, “Nucking Futs!”—never had a real childhood and, hence, doesn’t seem “real.” The bad news is that the joke leads not to a rambunctious, Larry -Sanders-style goof on celebrity infighting but to a formulaic scenario in which, in order to land a part in a Rob Reiner movie, he hires a family to help him relive his youth. In Mother (1996), Albert Brooks used a similar device to show a man desperately trying fix his primary relationship to help him relate better to women; but for Spade (and his co-scenarist, former head SNL writer Fred Wolf), it’s just a platform for Spade to tell smutty jokes to kids, fall off bicycles, puncture waterbeds, and, oh yes, learn the real meaning of family.

The film is a lot more watchable than Joe Dirt (2001)—quick, Marge, click on the link for tickets!—and it might make some money given the dearth of other movies opening wide this week. But it underscores the gruesome legacy of Saturday Night Live in American movies. Back in the mid-’70s, I’d have predicted that if SNL performers could make the leap to Hollywood, they’d be the cornerstone of a new countercultural comedy: fast, crazy, tasteless, with reckless disregard for square, old-movie “structure.” Today, they’re making tens of millions, writing gags that would have embarrassed Bob Hope, and getting justly ridiculed on SouthPark. They haven’t liberated screen comedy, they’ve left it neutered—or, should I say, Spade.