A great stand up…knows that bombing doesn’t matter. Bombing is part of the art, part of the performance of it…If you can offend people and still get laughs, you’re in some kind of real special ethos.
So said the late Bob Saget, who passed away last week at age 65, of Norm Macdonald in a tribute episode of Bob Saget’s Here For You after Macdonald died in September 2021. But this “special ethos” also applies to Saget’s 1998 directorial debut Dirty Work, made in collaboration with Macdonald, the film’s co-writer and star.
A buddy comedy about down and out best friends Mitch (Norm Macdonald) and Sam (Artie Lange) who open a “revenge for hire” business in order to get the money for Pops’ (Jack Warden) exorbitantly priced heart transplant, Dirty Work was a massive critical and commercial flop. It bombed so badly that Saget, who was always proud of the project despite its status as a failure, even claimed to have received a personal bill for $30 million from MGM. Maybe Dirty Work bombed—maybe Saget and Macdonald offended people with their crass, politically incorrect brand of humor—but they certainly got plenty of laughs. In the decades since its release, Dirty Work has rightly earned its place in the comedy cult classic hall of fame for its stacked lineup of comedy legends (Don Rickles, Chevy Chase, Chris Farley in his final film appearance and an uncredited young Adam Sandler as Satan, to name a few) and sheer concentration of well-timed jokes per minute.
Critics’ main issue with Dirty Work was that the jokes were too lowbrow, too “terminally stupid and brain dead,” to quote the New York Times review. Sure, the humor is crude, low class and not aiming for levels of intelligence much higher than that of the seventh grade, but that doesn’t mean they’re not funny as hell. Mitch gets revenge on cruel car salesman Anton Phillips (David Koechner) by interrupting the live shooting of his commercial by hiring sex workers to play dead in the trunks; thanks to Saget’s keen directorial timing and Macdonald’s dry delivery, Mitch and Phillips play dead prostitute whack-a-mole, popping trunks open and closed, trying to prove their respective points.
Critics failed to see that it’s this dynamite combination of Saget’s brash cheekiness and Macdonald’s sneaky, dimpled charm that makes them soar. Another one of Dirty Work’s most famous gags involves Mitch and Sam planting fish around a house for a client, only to be interrupted by two warring drug gangs who take the fish scent as a signal to start killing each other; instead of showing the violence, the camera never leaves Mitch and Sam’s gleeful expressions, turning to horror in the other room as they realize the destruction they’ve caused. The question of whether Saget’s decision to use off-screen space and sound was made out of financial necessity or artistic expression is irrelevant because the gag lands so smoothly.
Another possible explanation for critics’ initial dislike for Dirty Work could be that the joke was on them, and Saget didn’t care much if they “got” the joke or not. Although it would be inaccurate to say that all of Dirty Work’s jokes are punching up—Saget and Macdonald take more of an “aim at everyone including themselves” approach—many of the jokes are aimed at high art, and those who can afford to enjoy it. For their final act of revenge against Travis Cole (Christopher McDonald), the wealthy real estate tycoon who screwed them over, Mitch and Sam lead a stampede of prostitutes, homeless guys and skunks through Cole’s opera house on opening night of Don Giovanni. “They’re using skunks to heighten the atmosphere of squalor and despair. Brilliant!” exclaims one opera critic as hoards of well-dressed operagoers flee the scene.
“You’re ruining Don Giovanni!” Cole laments to Mitch. “Don Giovanni? Who’s that dude?” Mitch asks, genuinely puzzled. “The opera! You’re ruining the opera!” cries Cole. “Oh yes, well, we are ruining that,” Mitch responds blithely.
Much like Mitch and Sam within the world of Dirty Work, Saget and Macdonald weren’t at all unfamiliar with “ruining the opera”—with disrupting the entertainment industry as troublemaking outsiders. They brought Dirty Work’s ethos of “don’t take crap from anybody” into their real lives by pushing boundaries in bad taste, asking questions about what “lowbrow” actually meant, and to whom. Instead of fearing backlash, they welcomed it…with material consequences, in Macdonald’s case.
Right before Dirty Work’s release, Macdonald was abruptly fired from Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update after he cracked one too many jokes about a close buddy of top NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer: O.J. Simpson.
“O.J. Simpson vowed never to rest until the real killers of Nicole Brown Simpson are brought to justice,” Macdonald quipped at his Weekend Update desk, before a photo of O.J. playing golf soon after his trial flashed on screen. “And the manhunt continues.” While jokes about O.J. Simpson may not seem particularly transgressive today, they struck a nerve, at least with the affluent upper-level ghouls at NBC.
Saget’s comedic style pushed the envelope of bad taste in another way: Pure, unadulterated, in-your-face raunch. Although Saget’s lasting legacy will be his beloved role as Danny Tanner on Full House, he earned the moniker “America’s filthiest dad” by telling some of the dirtiest jokes of all time. In an early set at Rodney Dangerfield’s club, Saget joked, “I’m a happy guy, because I got married. Married my girlfriend of seven years. That’s her age, I’m going to jail.” His version of “The Aristocrats” in the 2005 documentary of the same name—made up mostly of pedophilia, incest, shit, piss, fisting, blood, etc.—is still shocking to the average listener today. Saget may have cut his teeth on blue humor, but he launched himself into the cosmos of American popular culture through wholesome dad charm.
A lot of time and energy has been devoted to discovering which side of Saget was the “real” him—was Saget able to get away with cackling his way over the line by using Danny Tanner as a shield, or did the dirty jokes play off of and overcompensate for his untouchably pure persona? There is room for threads of both these ideas to be true. Perhaps Saget was best able to be curious about human nature through both extremes, the naughty and the nice. Why shouldn’t audiences appreciate the virtuous nature of Danny Tanner, while also acknowledging that dirty jokes make us laugh despite ourselves, even if that’s uncomfortable to admit out loud in polite society? Saget’s Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy—clean personal morality for the family viewers at home, X-rated jokes at the club—is another thing he shared with Macdonald, a man whose jokes often toed offensive lines while maintaining his wholesome persona.
It is Saget and Macdonald’s strong bond, outsider’s perspective and commitment to finding humor in deep, human vulgarity that makes Dirty Work work, even though much of the heavy raunch was cut in favor of a family-friendly PG-13 rating. (Note to self: Snyder Cut is out, Saget Cut is in). While the cuts to Dirty Work have historically been written off by the studio’s overall negative attitude toward R-rated comedies, or as punishment against Macdonald specifically due to his NBC feud, they could also be seen as an early example of tangible backlash against Saget and Macdonald’s shared envelope-pushing comic sentiment. It’s not that the bits left on the cutting room floor were particularly transgressive (most of them are dick jokes), but it’s the principle of Saget’s artistic intentions, no matter how silly or vulgar, being trespassed upon by studio execs who determine what “good taste” is. Saget and Macdonald might both be gone, but Dirty Work lives on as a testament to their long lasting friendship and shared love of bad taste for bad taste’s sake.
Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.