Dirty Work

June 12, 1998

DIRTY WORK doesn’t look like it comes from the same era as these other movies in this series. I remember noticing that at the time, too. It’s not that it’s visually simple and unadorned, it’s more that Norm Macdonald, with his loose fitting plaid shirts over plain t-shirts, looks like a schlub from a low budget ’80s frat comedy or the cover of an old Home Improvement DVD. (I’m not sure what I thought of Artie Lange’s more late ’70s/early ’80s style polos, which play as kind of stylized now, like SUPERBAD.)

I remember wondering, has this thing been sitting on the shelf for several years? Or do things just look different in Toronto, where it was filmed? Or is it because it’s directed by Bob Saget? Yeah, I know, even back then, pre-THE ARISTOCRATS, he made sure everybody knew he was actually real edgy, man, he told jokes about penises and buttholes and you name it, everything. Nevertheless he was still the dude from Full House and America’s Funniest Home Videos. That is an incontrovertible fact. It’s the same guy. He did those things.

But no, in retrospect I think it’s clear that DIRTY WORK looks crappy and out of date because Macdonald just does not give a shit about being cool. It amuses him to be really uncool, just like it amused him to have a joke bomb on Saturday Night Live and then sit silently as if waiting for a long laugh that he didn’t notice didn’t materialize. Or to tell ancient jokes at a roast where every single person is calling each other cocksuckers and his insults are, like, “Ladies and gentlemen, this man is for the birds.”

I mean, look at Norm on this poster here, pulling his sunglasses down. I think he knows he’s not fuckin Tom Cruise in RISKY BUSINESS. He knows that’s dumb as shit. But that’s how he prefers it.

And that shameless attitude is what makes the movie appealing. When the jokes land you might be buckled over and when they don’t you’re like “Oh Norm, you scamp!” more than you’re groaning. It’s very much of the Adam Sandler school where it’s kinda crappily made and the story is just an excuse for jokes and goofing around. The script definitely shows Macdonald’s affinity for straight up old fashioned joke telling – like, set ups and punchlines. And there are some great ones.

Also in the Sandler tradition: you have to accept a normal, pretty, adult woman (Traylor Howard, Boston Common, Monk) being interested in a guy who looks like Norm Macdonald and goes around causing wacky mischief all day. Yes, in this one she keeps getting mad at him for what he does and trying not to talk to him again, but even that is very charitable.

And Sandler has a cameo as the devil. No Rob Schneider, though.

Not that it really matters, but Macdonald plays Mitch Weaver, a dude in his 30s who has been fired from a long succession of jobs (most recently pizza delivery) and kicked out by his girlfriend. He learns this when he passes a bunch of people wearing clothes exactly like his and then gets home and realizes its’ because she’s throwing all his things out the window.

He goes to live with his life-long best friend Sam (Lange, who had been on Mad TV, and would soon be on Macdonald’s sitcom The Norm Show) and his elderly, ex-boxer dad Pops (Jack Warden, THE WHITE BUFFALO), who soon 1) has a heart attack and 2) confesses to Mitch that he’s his father and 3) proves it by showing him a locket with a picture of himself having sex with Mitch’s mom.

So Mitch and Sam need to raise $50,000 to get Pops a new heart (long story, sort of) and they decide that they’re good at pranking people to get revenge and start a business where they do revenge for hire. Just go with it.

So you get a montage of the different revenge scenarios they come up with. For example there’s a sideshow dwarf named Paul (Arturo Gil, “Station” from BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY) who hires them to avenge an abusive bearded lady (Rebecca Romijn, FEMME FATALE) and of course that involves her waking up from a drinking binge and realizing her face is clean shaven. But the punchline is when they show that outside of her trailer Paul is spray-painting over her “THE BEARDED LADY” banner so it just says “THE LADY.”

Sometimes they get in way, way, way over their head. Like when they go to prank a guy’s loud, partying neighbors by hiding rotting fish around their house, not realizing these are SCARFACE type gangsters in the middle of a drug deal. Luckily instead of getting caught they just instigate a total gun/chain saw massacre and listen to it from the other room.

Eventually they gotta get an antagonist, so Christopher McDonald (who I still think Paul Manafort looks like) is a sleazy real estate guy who pretends to be all about charity but is really trying to run low income people out of buildings so he can renovate them, and the Dirty Work boys butt heads with him.

For me some of the biggest laughs really have nothing to do with the story, like when Mitch encourages Sam to moon a line of people waiting outside of a movie theater, then parks the car right next to them and gets out, leaving Sam with his ass hanging out and then awkwardly pulling his pants up and sheepishly telling them “He was supposed to keep driving.”

Also there’s a whole bit about how their doctor (Chevy Chase, MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN) is willing to cheat them onto an organ donor waiting list because he’s in debt. This leads to a great bit about a great movie:

Of course this is not meant to be a realistic movie, but sometimes it’s not so much “this isn’t how it would happen in real life” as “do these guys even know that there is such a thing as real life?” In their world there’s a mutliplex where the whole staff is men in their thirties or forties and the boss (Don Rickles, QUEST FOR CAMELOT) makes them stand in a line and dresses them down like he’s R. Lee Ermey. Also car dealerships do commercials on live TV (so you can embarrass them by hiring hookers to play dead in the trunks of the cars).

Macdonald employs a certain style of humor, possibly considered “problematic” now, but also deliberately pushing buttons back then, where he talks sort of demeaningly to prostitutes and homeless people but in such an oblivious way that it almost seems affectionate. He hires groups of each sort of as cheap labor and addresses them with “Hey, homeless guys,” or “Listen up, prostitutes.”

An uncredited Chris Farley plays Jimmy, a Vietnam vet who hangs out at the same bar as Mitch. It’s kind of disturbing when he’s angrily chasing “the Saigon hooker who bit my nose off” with the implication being that he’s going to murder her. (He doesn’t.) At the time, though, we were preoccupied with the sadness of Farley having died before the film came out.

There’s a part where they go to jail so of course you have your prison rape jokes. I can’t say “your standard prison rape jokes” though, because Macdonald really does do his version of it. Many people are more critical of this joke topic now, but like so much of the humor here the DIRTY WORK version comes across as being very aware of the tastelessness and hackiness of the subject and trying to prove that he can take this thing that everybody jokes about and use it in a way that not one person besides him would. So after, you know, something bad happens to him off screen, this is how he responds:

He takes this awful thing and then reacts to it in such an old-man-threatening-to-write-a-sternly-worded-letter manner that it makes it seem like he’s being an uptight spoil sport. It reminds me of this joke I’ve heard him do more than once on his podcast where he starts telling a long and detailed story about the horrendous things that a certain cannibal serial killer did with body parts, and eventually he ends the story by saying, “I tell ya, this guy was a real jerk!

It’s really an unusual comic persona. He acts like he’s a regular joe everyman type of guy, but he’s not. He’s an amoral jackass, but doesn’t come across as arrogant or intentionally mean. And he’s the butt of many of the jokes, humiliating things happen to him all the time, but he doesn’t get embarrassed by them like, say, a Ben Stiller character would. He barely seems to notice.

For example, during the traditional part where he sticks it to the man by playing a tape of the villain saying something incriminating over a P.A. system, he rewinds it too far and plays everyone a recording of himself saying, “Note to self: remember to get ass wart cream for giant wart on my ass.” And he doesn’t freak out about it.

I’m not even sure what this tagline is supposed to mean, but it proves that everybody felt the need to respond to GODZILLA and its “Size Does Matter” slogan.

Macdonald wrote the script with long time comedy writers Frank Sebastiano (director of BEER LEAGUE) and Fred Wolf (JOE DIRT, GROWN UPS). According to Wikipedia it was planned for a February release but delayed until the summer, when it fared poorly against some of these other movies I’ve been reviewing. Apparently this was also the time when MacDonald was fired by NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer for making jokes about his friend O.J. Simpson, so Ohlmeyer prevented NBC from airing ads for DIRTY WORK until a week after it came out.

I was shocked to learn that the studio also cut it from “the original script’s raunchy, R-rated over the top tone” – it turns out that despite all the jokes about rape and hookers and showing Artie Lang’s ass it is in fact a PG-13 movie. I honestly didn’t notice.

Despite not looking like 1998, the soundtrack definitely sounds like the other shit I’m watching. You got your “Semi-Charmed Life,” your Better Than Ezra, your fuckin “Tubthumping,” some Green Day. There’s a Reverend Horton Heat song for cred and I guess a KMFDM. I can’t remember where that would’ve been used.

Since I mentioned homophobia in some of the other comedies it’s only fair that I say there are some button-pushing gay jokes here. A dog that rapes another dog is referred to as “gay,” and Mitch and Sam get back at their mean movie theater boss by switching out the theater’s print of MEN IN BLACK with a gay porn parody called MEN IN BLACK… HAVING SEX WITH EACH OTHER. But I think the childish way that they cover their eyes like it’s the Arc of the Covenant is hard not to take as making fun of people for that sort of performative not-at-all-gayness. Yes, they are using homosexuality for shock value, but to me it seems like the joke is on people being uncomfortable about it.

DIRTY WORK is always cheesy, sometimes dumb and tasteless, but often very funny. I’m not sure Macdonald’s talents would’ve been best served by him trying to become a movie star, but it’s too bad he didn’t make a couple more like this or better. Then again maybe this being the only one is what makes it special.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 25th, 2018 at 11:35 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

34 Responses to “Dirty Work”

  1. Lots of laughs (I still crack up at the off-camera massacre,and of course Rickles (“youuuu baby gorilla”)), but it’s tough watching Farley. Every time I see him in this, I think “Oh this was definitely his last movie.” He seems on the verge of keeling over any second.

  2. Glad to see a comedy that I love dearly reviewed on here.
    This is a very specific brand of humor- you either get it and love it, or think it’s the worst thing in the world.
    I brought my wife to see Norm do a stand-up set (actually the one he filmed for his last Netflix special) and she just hated every minute of it.

    And I have never seen so many dead hookers in all my life.

  3. Oh man, that prison rape joke.

    It makes me laugh every time, I have to admit that.

    This is another 98 movie that went DTV here and that nobody really seems to give a shit about, although unlike with CAN’T HARDLY WAIT, I actually knew people who rented it during the VHS days and it even was on TV a few times. So DIRTY WORK wins!

  4. Making me sweat to get to the 6 Days 7 Night debacle I see. I’ll take it, glad you enjoyed Dirty Work.

    I too was surprised to learn it was PG-13. Always seemed like an edgy R-rated comedy to me with or without F bombs.

    JesseSP, I agree, watching it in ’98 I found Farley’s scenes tragic and uncomfortable, especially the final outtake where he’s just laughing like good old Chris. When really he was dying. My friends told me he wasn’t actually dying while he was shooting, it was an OD, but I still felt like his body was running down. I wish he could’ve been helped.

    I think my favorite joke in this is when Jack Warden explains how he got Norm’s mom pregnant. “Back then we didn’t have these fancy contraception methods… like pulling out!”

  5. There are prison rape jokes in movies as recent and “woke” as 22 JUMP STREET. Vern already covered this, but I think the one in DIRTY WORK works better than most because, rather than being about the threat and ugliness of the act itself, its focus is on Macdonald’s call for authority and proper bureaucratic procedure among people who couldn’t care less.

    I almost saw this in the theatre. I was friends with some popular jocks from my high school who harboured secret nerd interests. We went to see THE TRUMAN SHOW and then decided we wanted to see DIRTY WORK after, but someone insisted we drive all the way to another theatre so the cute usher girl wouldn’t see us going to two movies in a row and think we were nerds. I bailed on the plan at this point out of principle. I can only be me, and cute usher girl will have to accept it.

  6. I think you’re right, Vern – Norm got away with some of that subject matter (and still does) because the people made uncomfortable by it are the butt of the joke. Men In Black Who Have Sex With Eachother was a great example, because it’s about freaking people out with this goofy porn. As we start getting more inclusive with our language and sensitive about what can be joked about, I think any subject matter can still be laughed at from the right angle, and laughing at the people who can’t handle it often works.

  7. This is one I hold dear to my heart. I remember seeing it opening weekend with my friends and my sides hurting by the end of it. It’s tailor made for 12 year old boys. And I have to agree with Vern, a lot of its charm is the totally not giving a shit approach to just about everything. “Ironic dumb laffer” is what Nathan Rabin called it, which is more or less accurate.

    I watched it recently with a friend who is, shall we say, slightly more “woke” than I am. I was a little worried about how she would react to the prison rape scene, and to my great relief she actually laughed a lot. I go back and forth on whether it works completely, but it’s hard not to laugh at “way outta line, way outta line!”

  8. “I’ve never seen so may dead hookers in my life!”

    “Lord knows i have.”

  9. Love Norm, but I’ve been hesitant to return to this one since high school. I remember some parts being very funny (the memory of that shot of Norm and Artie Lange holding fish and listening to the escalating massacre they accidentally incited with grins frozen on their faces still makes me laugh) but some of the more, eh, “problematic” stuff makes me hesitate. In particular all the “dead hooker” stuff makes me cringe a little, at least partly because I now have a number of friends in the sex work industry and know how seriously they take that kind of thing- their deaths are made a punchline in society pretty frequently, and it really does contribute to the real-life perception that their lives are less valuable than others.

    That said, I do agree that I don’t think it’s ever coming from a place of actual malice with Norm.

  10. Also with the Rocky III bet, we can extrapolate that Dr. Chevy bet on the rematch. If he’d just bet on the first Clubber Lang fight, he’d have won. So he got greedy and bet on the climactic fight.

  11. Norm is the stand up’s stand up, and my love for him is undying. His still-semi-recent Netflix special is well worth a watch, as is the Comedy Central special before that, as is his on-again-off-again video podcast, which you can find on YouTube. Hell, so is the Norm Show, which you can find on DVD.

    Chris Farley’s extended cameo and the Pina Colada song fight are the high points of the film. My favorite line is Jack Warden’s: “Back in my day we didn’t have all these fancy methods of birth control…like pullin’ out.”

  12. As a minor side note- Norm is also responsible for easily one of the best off-the-cuff jokes I’ve ever heard in my life, in the Conan O’Brian segment he was on with Courtney Thorne-Smith as she was attempting to promote the Carrot Top flick CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD. It is such an amazing burn delivered in the off-handed, nonchalant way so characteristic of Norm Macdonald- it’s a good enough punchline that I don’t want to ruin it here. If you haven’t seen it, I just encourage you to google that one.

  13. It’s amazing what Norm is able to get away with. On one of his podcasts he talks about hooking up with a stripper and then finding out that she had a boyfriend. He says something to the effect of, “now this fella was a certain color… a scary color” to the horror of his celebrity guest. I can’t imagine any other comedian pulling off a line like that.

  14. Also, when I was 16 I made my family go to see this instead of Godzilla. They weren’t happy (I later made them see Pootie Tang, which also didn’t go over well)

  15. If you watch Norm’s podcast or read any of his interviews or check out his twitter (guilty on all three counts…I’m a Norm head), you get the sense that he’s got that soft white male heterosexual privilege thing going on where he’s just a little bit viscerally uncomfortable with gay sex or being trans or being an unchaste female or whatever. Basically, he has “old-fashioned” sensibilities and stereotypes and double-standards about sexuality and is uncomfortable with things that deviate from the Leave it to Beaver days or whatever. Like, he’s continued to make trans jokes and stuff before, during, and after the whole Jenner transitioning thing.

    I don’t think it’s anything ideological or mean-spirited or that he would endorse any kind of overt discrimination, but I also don’t think it’s just some “soft bigot” character he’s playing like the old Colbert Show either. I do think he truly is homophobic and transphobic in the most classic sense that he’s weirded out and also a little preoccupied with what he regards as “deviant” sexuality and perhaps about sexuality generally. I think mostly he’s just uncomfortable about sex and I imagine Dr. Freud would have a field day with him. He’s got a bit of the Archie Bunker to him.

    But I also appreciate that he has a degree of vulnerability or honesty about it. I’m 40, and I find the degree of social and technological change to be pretty intense, and I already feel a little out of touch or threatened by some of the change (even identifying as a liberal). So, if you’re a white dude pushing 60 and a bit more conservative or apolitical by nature, it’s gotta feel even more wild to watch all the social justice movements that have emerged and feel a little gobsmacked or out of touch–“you kids these days,” etc. I think it’s good for him and others to have to confront all of that and their privilege, and I’m not defending his views or whatever, but that is just my best construction of his headspace as best I can track it. He’s a human being in process.

  16. Jerome (if you want to)

    June 25th, 2018 at 9:07 pm

    For whatever reason, the one thing from this movie that’s stuck with me over the years is MacDonald’s delivery of the line “Who’s that dude?!”. It’s completely unnatural but so absolutely hilarious that it still cracks me up when I think of it.

  17. There’s a YouTube clip of an interview (recorded in ’09) where Macdonald claims to have not had sex in about a decade, saying he finds the act “shameful” and too “repetitive.” The hosts push him to see if he’s just doing a bit and he keeps insisting he isn’t. So yeah, he probably has some issues about it.

    All this talk also somehow got me to look at his Reddit. Someone there claims that theatrically in the DIRTY WORK prison speech he used the phrase “except for the anal rape,” which was replaced in all subsequent versions with “except for the other thing.” I often wonder how many little changes like this happen following theatrical releases. Because unless you own an originally screened copy, it’s hard to prove it.

  18. Holy shit, Kurgan, that segment just builds and builds and just when you think it can’t get any more mortifying, Norm brings it home. That many be a famous clip because it’s the first thing that comes up when you search Courtney Thorne Smith on YouTube and there’s are several uploads of it. It’s such an immature joke too but everyone gets that it’s what needed to be said.

    David Lambert, I trust when your family eventually saw Godzilla they realized their lives were better off being exposed to dirty work, and later Pooty Tang.

  19. Note to self: must rewatch this as I remember loving it.

  20. There are a lot of comedians I’ve lost respect for after seeing Seinfeld’s COMEDIANS IN CARS GETTING COFFEE. But McDonald did okay.

  21. The new Red Band THE PREDATOR Trailer is just awesome.

  22. One of Vern’s rare comedy reviews. What a treat. I’ve found myself on many of nights with a drink in my hand poring over various Youtube clips of Norm appearances on Conan O’Brian as well as his standup and work on SNL. I’m far from a comedy connoisseur, but Norm is one of a handful of comedians who I’ll always pay attention to whenever a new special comes out.

    And please, do yourself a favor and listen to The Kurgan. That particular Conan O’Brian appearance is such a delight. (But, of course, any time he showed up on Conan, it was a time for celebration).

  23. I have never seen this, and mostly know of it due to Artie Lange’s association with Howard Stern. Yes, I listened to Stern briefly 15 or so years ago because I drove 3 hours a day and whatcha gonna do. They would always bring up this movie as kind of a vague insult, as if Artie was supposed to be embarrassed about being in it, and it was a flop. But part of that is probably just Stern comparing his “King of All Media” virtuoso movie PRIVATE PARTS unfavorably with all other movies of all time. Stern has a sort of Trumpian false ego where his stuff is the absolute best, without compare, except that Stern seems to be in on the joke to some degree whereas Trump seems deluded.

    Anyway, Norm gets old fast for me. He is great in short bursts but I can only take so much mugging for the camera before I want to watch a real movie with actual acting.

  24. If you want to understand Norm, I think one must know his father was older when he was born. Norm grew up around older men, so his comedic style seems out of time is some sense. If you really want to look deep into what makes Norm tick, I think he is the middle ground between his two brothers that he has discussed in interviews. While Norm was a fake news anchor on Saturday Night Live, his brother Neil was a real one in Canada. Norm’s other brother has mental issues that was mentioned when he interviewed Roseanne Barr for Norm’s YouTube show.

  25. All this talk also somehow got me to look at his Reddit. Someone there claims that theatrically in the DIRTY WORK prison speech he used the phrase “except for the anal rape,” which was replaced in all subsequent versions with “except for the other thing.”

    Uhhhh, I reviewed this movie and therefore saw it theatrically at a preview screening, and certainly it’s been awhile. But, I remember the line being the latter not the former. I remember this because it was the only joke I laughed out loud at.

    Seeing that I would laugh out loud four or five times during his six minute weekend update bits, and only once during his 90-minute movie pretty much sums up what I thought of this film.

  26. Fun fact: Norm briefly dated supermodel Elle MacPherson. Jay Mohr claims that he was a huge ladies man (or as he puts it, “one of the all time great cocksmen”)

  27. Car dealerships shooting live commercials is even more important in the Kurt Russell-starring USED CARS, which I saw for the first time not long ago. Also some sort of van-based TV signal hacking technology.

    I’m glad to be reminded of how good the DIRTY WORK joke where everyone’s wearing clothes that Mitch/Norm’s girlfriend threw out is.

  28. Tawdry: I heard that Norm is asexual. He actually did some comedy routines about it, I think.

    I just saw something today that heavily suggests that Artie Lange is back on drugs. It was talked about on Joe Rogan’s show the other day. You can look the clip up on YouTube. Be warned, it’s not pretty.

  29. Loved this movie back in the day. So awesome.

    One of my favorite comedies of the time period.

  30. I was devastated by the news. That God is a real jerk.

  31. Norm is the GOAT. An under-appreciated bit is the “Janice” abduction bit from the Comedy Central special ME DOING STAND-UP.

  32. Something seems very Norm about this comment section having a comment about how excited some guy is for The Predator.

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