David Spade is hot and his mom is pleasantly surprised. "Everybody who was close to him knew that he thought funny thoughts," says Spade's mother, Judy Todd. "He was very funny in the house, but real quiet. I don't think anybody expected him to do this." Spade left Arizona State University at age twenty to chase a career in standup comedy. And he recently has been anointed by two of popular culture's most powerful talismans--first by Saturday Night Live, where he's a staff writer and occasional performer, and now by Rolling Stone magazine. Spade's featured in the magazine's May 16 "Hot" issue beside the likes of actress Winona Ryder, rapper Ice-T and a glass-front refrigerator, picked by the magazine's editors as this season's haute kitchen appliance. Reached last week (via the usual subhaute office appliance) at the SNL offices in New York City, the 26-year-old Spade is only slightly shocked that his mom is doing interviews about him.
"The funniest thing about Judy is," he says, "every time I come home--there are kids next door who are, like, six and eight years old--I come back in town for two days and Judy says, `Now Davy, I promised those kids you'd ride bikes with them.' `What are you talking about?' `You can't forget your fans! They're what made you.'"
Perhaps Spade should empathize more with the kids next door. He may be the hottest thing in standup comedy right now, living large in Manhattan while a glowing write-up sits on newsstands across the country, but it wasn't so long ago that he was longing for someone to ride bikes with.
Mr. Hot claims he spent his childhood in Scottsdale as a friendless nerd, interested mostly in books. "In grade school I was, like, kind of an A student," he says. "Just like a little hermit. I was really tiny and I didn't have any friends. I was mostly into hanging out with the Vietnamese kids, who were really smart. I had no social life."
Spade's mom confirms this point, saying, "We thought he'd be a neurosurgeon or a computer whiz."
Instead young Einstein schlepped his way into Saguaro High School, where he received the break that launched him on the road to major hotness: Spade's older brother, much more socially adept than David, was a Sabercat. "He was already there, so I was cool by association," says Spade. "It opened up a whole new thing. All the grade schools merged together, so not everyone knew I was an idiot. But they knew my brother, so this rumor went around that I was cool. All the people from my school were saying, `Wait. He's a geek! You don't understand!' But it was too late, so I was cool. That's when I blew off studies and said, `This is better.'"
Better still was the stage of Saguaro's auditorium, or so Spade learned in his sophomore year, when he became a performer in the school's annual variety show. He wrote skits, "ripped off SNL stuff" and performed in the spring "Extravaganza" for three years. "It got in my blood," he says. "I worked all year on it." After graduation Spade enrolled at Scottsdale Community College and almost immediately began to feel lost. "I was thinking of ideas and still liked performing and all that shit," he says. "I wanted to do that again." So he tried standup at Chuckles, an early Valley comedy club, then became a regular at an amateur night for comics at Anderson's Fifth Estate. Spade admits his early act did not kill. In fact, he says, "It was really bad. I was eighteen but I looked like I was about six. But I had my little feathered haircut and I'd do my lame-ass jokes." Audiences, other performers and eventually Spade himself noticed that the impromptu patter between his jokes was much less lame than the written stuff. "The other comedians said, `You'd do good if you had any sort of material.'"
By this time Spade had enrolled at ASU, had become a fraternity man and was occasionally attending class. "I think I was an English major," he says. "I probably would've gone into advertising." Instead he chose to go into full-time comedy. Judy Todd's boy (she and his father divorced when David was a tyke) dropped out of college and hit the road. "It was a major fucking challenge," he says now.
In quick succession, however, big breaks came Spade's way. During a trip to Los Angeles, he auditioned at the famed Improv and was handed a coveted spot as one of the comedy club's standup regulars. Three weeks later he got a part in Police Academy 4 and was flying to Toronto for a ten-week film shoot.
Briefly the breaks subsided. "The day I got back from Toronto I took all my money and bought a car," Spade says. "It was stolen that night." After more grueling standup ("I went through a bunch of bullshit," he says. "I was barely making enough to pay the bills") and guest roles on TV's Alf, The Facts of Life, and Baywatch, Spade was ready for his luck to resume.
As it did when Dennis Miller, an SNL regular Spade knew from the road, helped wangle Spade a spot on an HBO Young Comedians Special.
The roll continued when Saturday Night patriarch Lorne Michaels saw the special. After a subsequent showcase performance for Michaels, Spade and two other comics (including Rob "The Xerox Guy" Schneider) were asked to perform for Saturday Night's New York staff.
The SNL writing staff traditionally is assembled from wise-and-witty-beyond-their-years alums of the Harvard Lampoon. The kid from Scottsdale somehow held his own. "I'm there with eight credits from SCC in anthropology," Spade says. "I'm like, `Hi. I know what's funny.'"
Hired primarily as a writer, soon Spade was pitching his ideas in meetings. According to legend--which Spade verifies as true--the show's weekly schedule is crippling. The staff typically meets the guest host on Monday night. The writers then usually work straight through to Wednesday, when a read-through occurs and sketch ideas are pitched to the cast, the host and Michaels. Sets are constructed Thursday and Friday and rehearsals continue until minutes before airtime.
Under such time constraints, diplomacy suffers. Even Harvard grads can get snippy. At first Spade tried to keep his head low. "All I did was try to not look like an asshole in read-through," he says. "I wanted to fit in my own little mediocre sketch and not hear, `What fucking reeks in here? Oh, it's your sketch.'"
As time passed, the newcomer's material began to appear on the air. As did the newcomer, who has done several spots on the show's Weekend Update segment and a couple of memorable sketch appearances impersonating Michael J. Fox and Tom Petty--two characters from Spade's club act. Counting last Saturday's performance, Spade has done 23 shows since joining SNL in April 1990. And now the heat, almost suddenly, is on. Next season's contracts won't be finalized until July, but Spade is almost surely due for a renewal--and, most likely, a lot more airtime as a featured performer. (Bonus scoop: According to a highly placed source at Saturday Night Live, Dennis Miller will not return to the show next season. Remember where you read this item first, especially if it happens to come true.)
During the summer, Spade plans to ride the Rolling Stone wave, touring clubs with either Schneider or Dana Carvey. He is booked to headline a homecoming appearance June 25 through 30 at the Tempe Improv. While in town Spade will get to catch up with several family members (one brother lives in New York, and according to mom the two boys sometimes skateboard between their respective dwellings) as well as old friends from Saguaro and ASU who remember Spade from his less incendiary days. "I've got a handful of friends I don't get to see too much who don't give a shit about the show," says Spade. "And that's great. `Me and Al Baldwin were just talking . . . ' And they're like, `Shut up.'"
In the transitionless riffing style acquired while spending his entire adult life in comedy clubs, Spade continues. "`You know, you remind me a lot of Sting in a way, because . . . ' They're like, `Listen, please stop.'
"It's actually good. They're excited for about a second. The first question they ask is, `How come you're not on more? Don't you want to be on more?'"
Mr. Hot claims he spent his childhood in Scottsdale as a friendless nerd.
"All the people from my school were saying, `Wait. He's a geek! You don't understand!' But it was too late, so I was cool.