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The Underrated Masterpiece ‘Joe Dirt’ Is the Perfect Quarantine Binge

Critically panned, David Spade’s love letter to being white trash might be a comment on class inequality — or it might be just dumb fun

Now is a time for optimism. It’s also a time to examine the structural pervasiveness of class inequality. Joe Dirt meditates upon both. 

David Spade’s 2001, 11-percent-on-Rotten Tomatoes white trash manifesto is the perfect film to watch as the coronavirus exposing our country’s healthcare disparities keeps us at home with nowhere to go. More than that, though, I just want you to watch it because it’s fun. What else are you going to do with yourself? 

Joe Dirt chronicles its titular character, an L.A. janitor whose mullet is surgically embedded into his scalp. This detail alone captures the attention of a popular radio jockey in the building where Joe works (and, as is soon revealed, secretly lives in a closet). The jockey finds Dirt’s plight so pathetic, he has him return over multiple days so listeners can relish in Dirt’s tragic life story. At eight years old, Dirt was abandoned by his parents and sister at the Grand Canyon. After cycling through a few foster homes, he eventually decides to live on his own, camping and traveling. Thus, Dirt has no formal education. 

Throughout his life, he encounters various embarrassing attempts at earning money and finding happiness. More than one of them involve massive amounts of shit. His foibles are mostly those of bad luck and a few missteps, but ultimately, his misfortune is one where the odds have always been stacked against him. Abandoned first by his family and then by the state, Dirt is so low on the societal rung that few people even know he exists. 

The DJ runs with Dirt’s story as the ballad of a complete loser. In no veiled terms, the film treats class as a moral boundary: From the DJ’s perspective, there is nothing wrong with publicly degrading Joe. The discourse surrounding class equates being poor with being bad, and so it’s acceptable for the DJ to call Dirt stupid, pathetic, a failure — but only ultimately because he is poor. And notably, because Dirt refuses to feel bad about it. Abiding by the mottos of, “Life’s a garden, dig it” and “You gotta keep on keepin’ on,” Dirt maintains an optimistic persistence until the film’s climax, where he learns that even familial love can be exploited for capitalist gain. 

The explicit parallel of class and taste that the film presents is almost refreshing. It’s a false parallel, of course, but if Joe Dirt indicates anything, it’s that this correlation exists in most people’s minds. Joe Dirt isn’t afraid of the C word, and acknowledges that class is ultimately the true north on many people’s moral compass, though they may not admit it. 

It’s possible to view Joe Dirt as exploitative in itself, parodying the lower-class experience. The problem with this take, however, is that Dirt’s story is ultimately one of persistence and even pleasure in one’s experiences. I’m not going to pretend the film is entirely without its problems, particularly in moments surrounding race and gender. But I’d like to think the levity of the film, and acknowledging that 2001 offered a completely different landscape, make these moments easier to swallow. 

Spade isn’t the only absurd source of light in the film. Christopher Walken plays Clem, a New York mobster relocated to Louisiana as a school janitor in the Witness Protection Program — truly, what more needs to be said. Jaime Pressly plays Jill, an idealized white-trash hottie, a prototype to Margot Robbie’s role in The Wolf of Wall Street but without the upward mobility. The scene where she and Joe first encounter each other at a carnival has proven to be formative in shaping both my personality and interpretation of the erotic: 

My fondness for Joe Dirt is largely nostalgic; I grew up watching it, as it was nearly always playing on Comedy Central, and its jokes were common references among my closest friends. But today it seems I glean something new each time I watch it. I’ve crawled a long way from the rural mountain town with no traffic lights and a heroin problem that I grew up in, distanced further by a regimen of sociological and critical theory texts. I want to analyze Joe Dirt through a Marxist perspective, or in relation to Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of taste and the bourgeois. And I could. But what I enjoy best about Joe Dirt is that it brings me back to my own white trash roots, to who I was before I became pretentious enough to want to apply academic literature to a David Spade movie. 

I enjoy Joe Dirt because it’s funny. I enjoy Joe Dirt because it’s stupid. I enjoy Joe Dirt because it’s one of the rare movies that admits that class inequality is a thing that shapes popular culture. Maybe Joe Dirt is making fun of me, but I’m still laughing. And right now, that’s the best anyone can ask for.