20 Years Ago: ‘Joe Dirt’ Blends Sophomoric Humor and Sweetness
It's no surprise that virtually every film critic hated Joe Dirt, the cult classic starring comedian David Spade.
After all, the movie featured a nonsensical flashback-over-the-radio storyline, a misguided Silence of the Lambs parody, a brief yet excruciating guest spot from Kid Rock, loads of crude gags and one-liners, and a scene where Christopher Walken's mobster-in-hiding sprouts an erection while posing as a corpse.
There is, indeed, plenty to hate. But underneath that veneer of stupidity and raunch is a surprising sweetness, along with a somehow-charming lead turn from the former Saturday Night Live star.
Joe Dirt, which follows a mullet-sporting outcast's search for his parents, was never going to be an easy sell for high-brow comedy fans.
Watch the 'Zander Kelly Show' Scene From 'Joe Dirt'
But Spade, only five years removed from his SNL tenure and then co-starring on the acclaimed sitcom Just Shoot Me!, still carried a modest amount of cachet as the film opened on April 11, 2001. He also had a working relationship with former SNL head writer Fred Wolf, who helped create 1995's Tommy Boy and 1996's Black Sheep, a pair of spastic film comedies co-starring Spade and Chris Farley.
While Spade and Wolf collaborated on the Joe Dirt screenplay, direction was handled by Dennie Gordon, who previously worked on TV shows like Party of Five, Dawson's Creek and Ally McBeal — a far cry, stylistically, from the film's maxed-out wackiness.
The story opens with Dirt (Spade) working as a janitor at a Los Angeles radio station. A producer, perplexed by his anachronistic hair style, ropes him into an impromptu guest spot with shock jock Zander Kelly (Dennis Miller), who mercilessly belittles Dirt live on the air. ("Go get 'Free Bird' boy an all-access laminate for the show in perpetuity," he tells his crew, before turning to Dirt. "You are exquisitely pathetic. What's your name?")
Watch the 'Favorite Bands' Scene From 'Joe Dirt'
From there, Dirt begins a rambling, multi-part tale that gradually captivates the entire country. As the narration unfolds, he starts with his childhood: being left behind by his family during a trip to the Grand Canyon, roaming around the country and arriving at the fictional "Silvertown," where he meets his romantic interest, Brandy (Brittany Daniel), and arrogant antagonist Robby (Kid Rock, then in his multi-platinum rap-rock/country prime).
But the protagonist's flashback story — dubbed by Zander "The Legend of Dirty Joe" — later pivots to his parental search, sprinkling sentimentality between the crass comic detours (including cringe-worthy scenes involving frozen dog testicles and an RV septic tank mistaken for an atom bomb) and sequences seemingly built around classic rock staples from Blue Oyster Cult, .38 Special, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Doobie Brothers, James Gang and Thin Lizzy, among others.
While the film leans on offensive "white trash" stereotypes, much of its aesthetic was apparently autobiographical for Spade, drawing on his childhood in Arizona. "I had my sleeves ripped off, and I read Auto-Trader," he later told the Today Show. "I [wore] .38 Special T-shirts. I was part of that whole thing, so I'm actually closer to this guy than I'd like to be. … Also the people in the South who've seen it like it because I turn out to be kind of the hero of the movie."
Watch the 'Soldering Iron' Scene From 'Joe Dirt'
He does, particularly as radio listeners become invested in Joe Dirt's quest: At one point, he even winds up as a guest on Carson Daly's Total Request Live — a seal of celebrity during the teen-pop era. That unexpected fame eventually brings Dirt the family he craves, just not in the way he expects. His parents turn out to be money-hungry opportunists, but he manages to reconnect with Brandy and all the film's minor side characters (including Walken's Clem/Gert) in a corny, conveniently tidied-up finale.
Not that anyone is expecting Charlie Kaufman-level plot development here. The few pleasures of Joe Dirt are admittedly minor: Spade's wiseass line delivery ("Luckily, my neck broke my fall," "Van Halen, not Van Hagar"), the sketch-like breeziness of the cameos; the mere presence of Walken ("You're talkin' to my guy all wrong; it's the wrong tone. You do it again, I'll stab you in the face with a soldering iron"); even, yes, the absurdity of watching a dreadlocked Spade cruise around to "Funk #49."
For all its inarguable shortcomings, however, Joe Dirt's baseline geniality often rises above the sophomoric dialogue and literal toilet humor. Dirt's the kind of underdog you can root for: a scrawny backwoods philosopher brandishing souvenir T-shirt wisdom ("Life's a garden, dig it?") and maintaining an eternal pursuit of fun — even when he's covered in fecal matter.