Noted wiseass David Spade is more than Chris Farley's little buddy By Jane Wollman Rusoff DAVID SPADE is the thirty-one-year-old comedian best known for skewering celebrities during his snide "Hollywood Minute" segments on Saturday Night Live. This season, with his "Spade in America" spots, he is struggling to adopt a kinder, gentler attitude. ("I'm trying to get away from being smart-assy, because I don't want to get laughs by being mean to people. When I was a nobody blindsiding stars, it was funny. But I'm kind of one of them now, so it doesn't make as much sense.") He is also trying to diversify by adding physical shtick to his brand of cutting verbal humor, co-starring as wrangler to oafish S.N.L. alumnus Chris Farley in the new film Black Sheep and last year's Tommy Boy. ("At first I was scared of being pigeonholed as an overpaid actor, but then I was okay with that. Actually, to make a film once a year would be fine, but doing movies only with Chris wasn't in the plan. I don't mind, but I'd like to mix it up and do something else in the interim.") He has met many celebrities as a result of his run on Saturday Night Live, and has particularly fond memories of his encounter with Sean Penn. He is in his sixth season on the show, where he also created the snooty receptionist--"And you are . . . ?"--and the brusque, "buh-bye-ing" flight attendant. He says he will not return next season because it is too taxing on his nervous system. ("When I leave, it will be to ease the pressure, not to be a movie star. You can't stay there forever--it kills you inside. It ages you in dog years. It's a tough place.") He is totally bushed on Sundays, after S.N.L.'s week-long workout. ("I lay low, sulk a lot, and try to get my head together for next week.") He has chronic neck pain that doctors say is caused by stress. He routinely kvetches about life to his apartment doorman, who suggests that he count his blessings. ("He's like, 'Yeah, you've got a TV show and a movie. It must be rough.'") He was born on July 22, 1964, in Birmingham, Michigan. He says, however, that he considers Scottsdale, Arizona, where he moved at age four, to be his real home. His parents divorced around the time of the move, and his mother, raising three kids, had to work two jobs. ("It was hard for her, but she kept it from us.") He spent some lonely years in elementary school, where his advanced reading and math levels made him an outcast. ("It wasn't the road to a social life. In grade school I was smart, but I didn't have any friends. In high school, I quit being smart and started having friends.") He dropped out of college, where he was studying business, to pursue stand-up comedy, and supported himself by working in a skateboard shop. His stepfather's suicide, followed closely by his best friend's death in a motorcycle crash, propelled him into comedy full-time. ("When my stepfather died, I just kind of fell apart. I felt pretty vulnerable, like there literally could be no tomorrow--that while I was doing a lot of talking, everything could end. So I figured if I don't go after it now, I might never get to do it.") He had enjoyed Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, and Eddie Murphy on previous incarnations of S.N.L., but he never dreamed of being a comic himself until he happened upon an open-mike night at a club. ("I was horrible, but I kept doing it because it was an overwhelming challenge. When I got to the point of doing it professionally, I couldn't believe it.") He got his big break thanks to former S.N.L. star Dennis Miller. His first season on the show, he was on-camera only three times. ("I was a writer-performer, but they didn't want me to perform because Dana Carvey was there. Also, they wanted me to pay my dues.") He divides his time between apartments in Manhattan and Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley and a house in Phoenix. He has no significant other at this time. He favors women not in the public eye. ("I have no stories to sell. A lot of my relationships are with civilians, and no one wants to hear about those.") He reads U.S.A. Today and a variety of magazines on everything from showbiz to coin collecting to skateboarding. ("I have two skateboards, but I don't get to use them much. I have a snowboard, which I've never used. The second you get enough money to screw around, you have no time to do it.") He hasn't had a fistfight since the sixth grade, when a fellow Little Leaguer started an altercation. ("I was very scared. But he was hitting me, so I had to unleash my big guns. I just snapped. Eventually, I won the fight.") He dates his worst haircut to his senior year of high school. ("It was this feathered cut, combed to the side--which I continue to wear today. I have no detectable hair style.") He likes toasted onion bagels with butter or cream cheese. His Manhattan apartment notwithstanding, he has not seen much of New York's other boroughs, and has been to Brooklyn only once. ("I was constantly scared. Chris Rock and I drove his shiny new Corvette through a bad neighborhood. I told him, 'You're asking for trouble dangling this candy.' A week later he got mugged. They shouted, 'Yo! You Chris Rock?' He goes, 'Yeah!' So they beat him up and took his wallet.") He is a sound sleeper who likes his bedroom window shut at night. His favorite bedwear is a pair of "silk jammies" he received for Christmas. He has the softest, most expensive bed he could find in each of his three homes. ("I have a big, juicy bed. Because of my neck problem, I just want to squish down like a marshmallow.") DAVID SPADE'S BEST DIGS By Lloyd Grove Washington Post Staff Writer Wednesday, February 25, 1998; Page D01 (THANKS CAMILLE!!) "You're with your new buddy now," David Spade claims. This is a bit of a stretch. Given his biting comic persona – with its tone of unctuous geniality that suddenly turns into snide disdain – it's easier to believe that Spade is just setting up another of his caustic punch lines. After all, he established himself in the popular culture of the '90s as the stiletto-tongued entertainment reporter who presented the "Hollywood Minute" on "Saturday Night Live" – once obliterating "SNL" alumnus Eddie Murphy, whose film career was in decline, with: "Look, kids, a falling star! ... Make a wish!" He has reinforced this mordant pose with his portrayals of a sarcastic assistant at a fashion magazine on the hit NBC series "Just Shoot Me" (which this week joins the network's formidable Thursday lineup, airing at 8:30) and a rich, snotty frat boy who torments financial aid student Marlon Wayans in the movie comedy "Senseless." So is this self-avowed "new buddy" zinging his interviewer about the soul-killing superficiality of the celebrity/journalist co-dependency? Or is it just possible that Spade merely wants to be ... friendly? "It's just easier to make fun and cut down," he explains quite amiably, deconstructing his trademark humor over breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. "It's kind of a way of life in America. So if you can make that an art form, where people want to hear what you're going to say about something, it can be cruel and funny. ... And, hopefully, underlying all my jokes is an element of surprise." It's the morning after the 33-year-old Spade, taking advantage of a recent break from "Just Shoot Me," visited New York for guest appearances on Howard Stern's radio show and David Letterman's television show, where he was obliged to discuss the December drug-overdose death of his comic soulmate Chris Farley. Then Spade trekkedto D.C. to do his stand-up routine for an audience of 3,000 at George Washington University. Stubble-chinned and sleepy-eyed, wan and waiflike, he resembles a college kid recovering from an all-nighter. He barely belongs amid the sleek power-breakfasters who populate the Four Seasons dining room. A skinny 5 feet 6, he suffers from hypoglycemia, a stiff neck and a bad back, among other complaints. His left hand is blackly inked with scrawled names and phone numbers he would otherwise forget. A baseball cap is jammed over his straw-blond, shower-wet hair. "There's always really a hint of truth that makes it worth saying," Spade continues his humor analysis, furtively forking his scrambled eggs, garnished with an artery-clogging rasher of bacon and sausage. He washes it down, incongruously, with a bottle of Evian. "Sometimes that makes the joke a little harder. "If you hung out with me and my friends for five minutes, I would be eliminated from show business," Spade goes on. He's alluding to his comic stance as a victimized white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, ashamed of his political incorrectness but resentful of such daily affronts as an inconsiderate Hispanic hotel maid, screeching "House-kipping!" at 6 a.m., or a fast-talking Chinese real estate agent trying to gouge him on a Beverly Hills rental property. Both are staples of his stand-up act. "Some of the things you say offend so many people," he says. "Like that stupid JonBenet joke." The day before on Stern's show, Spade had complained about seeing yet another photograph of JonBenet Ramsey in the National Enquirer. He observed: "She's not as hot without makeup." That prompted Spade's 60-year-old mother in Scottsdale, Ariz., to call him and chide, "That was a terrible thing to say. I hated myself for laughing." "It's so weird to see her wearing that red cowboy hat with sparkles on it, singing 'I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy,'‚" Spade says, analyzing his quip about the bludgeoned beauty princess. "It's so creepy. ... I'm saying: 'Don't make your kids look hot and dirty and sexy when they're 5 years old! It's really not the place or the time. You're about 11 years early.' " Similarly, Spade's jokes about his deadbeat dad, who abandoned his mother and two older brothers when Davey was 5, are bristling with indignation. "My dad just took off. It was one of those divorces, he split one day and then he'd show up once a year and give me a Nerf football for Christmas, thought he was my hero again. 'Oh thanks, Dad. Wow, it's two colors! You spoil me, you [contemptible expletive]!' "I talk to my dad all the time, he's more like my buddy than my father, and he's not happy that I use him in my act," Spade says. "But I tell him, 'Hey, Dad, I'm sorry, but I have to get something out of this.' " Sometimes Spade's humor has a dark moral center. And sometimes it's just . . . dark, as in this perverse vision of Spadian bliss: "I just want to get away from it all. Get away from showbiz. Get some girl out in the middle of the boonies, like in Montana, hundreds of miles from civilization, sittin' in a cabin with some cutie, curled up in front of a fire. And just say stuff to her like: 'Scream all you want, sugar! Ain't nobody gonna hear you! ... Yeah, there was a rock in that snowball.' " "I think that comes from when he was a kid, when there was a lot of anger," says his 35-year-old brother Andy, a former advertising executive who, with his fashion-designer wife, runs the tres chic Kate Spade handbag company. "David's best stuff is that dark stuff – the stuff that comes from within." "David is a watcher," says his mother, Judy Todd, a freelance writer and editor who was owner of Arizona's Tempe magazine until she sold it last year. "He would always watch everyone very carefully – he was always very subtle – and then he'd come up with a zinger. He can pick apart your words and memorize them as though he had a photographic memory. Even today, he'll stand in a corner at a party, and he'll have everyone's character down when the party's over." Spade was born in Michigan, where he lived until he was 4. Then his father, Wayne, an erstwhile advertising copywriter who goes by the nickname Sam – and is known as "Peewee" in his son's routine – moved the family to Arizona and vanished shortly thereafter. "I was a somewhat bright child, which led to different sorts of problems," David recalls. "In second grade, I moved up to fourth grade math and reading. There was an option to skip a grade but I was sooo tiny and microscopic that my mom was, like, 'He has enough [expletive] now, let's not make his life totally terrible.' I stayed in my grade but alienated everyone by being, like, 'brainiac.' " These are obviously painful memories, but Spade long ago converted them into material. "I was a nerd to the bone, buddy. I was a coin collector instead of a football player. But it was hard to get laid by telling a girl that you have a 1916D Mercury dime in very fine condition. That's not gonna close many sales for you. I literally had a girl in my room once, showing her, like, Indian pennies. She just wasn't into it. ... "And then, when I got to high school, my older brother was cool, so I was suddenly cool by association. And I totally dusted all my old math friends. I was, like, "Hey, nerds, why don't you go do some flashcards? Hey, c'mon, new friends, let's go to assembly!' Doo-dee-doo-dee. "I wanted to go to a big college, but my guidance counselor said, 'We're gonna try to get you into community college.' From there I went to Arizona State University. At ASU the wheels came off, because I started trying to do stand-up. Once I found something I liked, I didn't care about all that other stuff and school started to suck. ... "This was the start of the comedy sweep of the early '80s. The Improvs started to sprout up around the country. I was 18 when I first tried it, and I was horrible. It was tough for about six months, and to make money I picked up work as a busboy, valet parker, skateboard shop employee. Then I finally moved to California. Eventually I had a decent 20-minute act." He auditioned at the Improv in Los Angeles. "They let me in on, like, a scam," he says. "They didn't think I was the funniest. They just didn't have one of me. I had long, blond hair and I was 20 or 21. And I had a kind of different take. There was Richard Belzer, Paul Reiser, Seinfeld – who all had kind of a similar feel – and I just stuck out. They said, "We need one of you.' " Spade's career was launched. In short order he snagged a role in a "Police Academy" sequel and then scored big on Fox Television's "Joan Rivers Show," which was a mess and between hosts. The producers were so smitten with this fresh comedy phenom that they offered him a month-long guest-host tryout. It was a tremendous opportunity. And Spade said . . . No, thanks. "That was my first lesson in not getting too greedy and not biting off too much," he says, "because the six minutes I did on that show was my best six minutes. But to host the show, I had no idea what I was doing. I was, like, 22. It could have gone the wrong way and hurt me more than helped me. When I didn't do it, the people at Fox brought me in for meetings, because they couldn't believe that I would say no to that." Spade did believe, however, that he was born for "Saturday Night Live," which was entering its 15th season on NBC. In 1990, when Spade was 25, his friend Dennis Miller, for whom he regularly opened on the comedy tour, persuaded "SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels to give the kid a shot. "The hard part about 'SNL' is there's no real communication when you get there," Spade recalls. "It's not like people are being mean to you, they just act like you're not there. And I'm so excited that I got hired and we're all gonna have so much fun, it's such a great show, and you get kind of chilled. You kind of run around, excited, and you suddenly think, 'Hey, they're not joining in on the enthusiasm.' " In the beginning Spade seldom got air time, and was soon miserable and depressed. "If something came up in the show where they needed somebody who looked like Adam Sandler, Sandler would do it. If it looked like Rob Schneider, Schneider would do it. And if it looked like me, Dana Carvey would do it." Once, in 1992, Spade was elaborately made up as Ross Perot for a pre-taped presidential debate sketch, while Carvey was done up as President George Bush. First they taped the wide shots. Spade let himself believe that he would actually be permitted to play Perot – only to have Carvey emerge in full costume to say Perot's lines for the close-ups. "I was home, punching the walls, and you can't help it," Spade recalls. "It just builds up inside you." But Spade ultimately found his voice with the "Hollywood Minute." It was the voice of a frustrated nobody, eviscerating his betters. "It was a weird dynamic. I was just going to gun people down. It was going to be a bloodbath, because that's the only way I was going to get on," he says. "When you look at what he did, it was very nervy stuff about Hollywood," Michaels recalls. "David had to apologize lots of times to people who had no fear of calling him up and yelling at him, like Eddie Murphy. David is not threatening physically ... but he's remarkably strong for a frail guy. And when he's funny, he can be mean, but it comes from the right place. It comes from some sort of healthy place." The "Minute" became Spade's ticket to "SNL" success, giving him the chance to present a handful of other signature characters, such as a nastily officious receptionist and the rude flight attendant. Michaels put Spade in the "SNL" spinoff film "Coneheads" and also in the two movies that showcased Spade and his "SNL" colleague Farley as kind of a modern-day Laurel and Hardy. "Tommy Boy" came out to good box office and glowing reviews in 1995, but "Black Sheep" was less well received in 1996, the year Spade left "SNL" to join the cast of "Just Shoot Me." The overweight, overindulgent Farley was Spade's best friend. Spade was so devastated by Farley's death, his mother says, that he couldn't keep himself together enough to attend the funeral. Spade has been extremely reluctant to talk about his pal, lest the necessary process of publicity become a national bereavement tour. "I don't want to get that whiff of 'I'm trying to get something out of it,'‚" Spade says. "I joked once that we're trying to schedule our next movie around his heart attack, so sometimes it comes out rough. But I'm always making fun of myself and my friends. Chris liked it when I made fun of him. He thought it was funny if I'd rip on him." These days, Spade is busy making a fortune from "Just Shoot Me" – where his contract affords him an unusual degree of creative influence, allowing him to suggest lines for his character, Dennis Finch, and film at least one take his way. Meanwhile, he's revising a screenplay for an $8 million movie to be financed by Federal Express CEO Fred Smith, who recently started a Hollywood production company, Alcon Entertainment. The movie's premise is that in order for Spade's character, a working stiff, to date a high-class uptown girl, he must kidnap her dog. Life, for now, seems good, with the caveat that Spade's own dating experiences – he recently broke up with actress Kristy Swanson, star of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" – might be as fraught as the one in his movie. "The only thing I miss, when all these fun things are going on, is I'd kind of like someone to hang out with," Spade says. "I wish I had that carefree lifestyle. But I guess I'm more private, and more inside." © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
Mention the name of comedian David Spade and a few specific terms come to mind: Cocky. Sarcastic. Hilarious.
Afraid would not be one of the words.
And yet this outspoken funny man, revered by fans of Saturday Night Live and known to many as the diminutive sidekick to the larger-than-life Chris Farley, admits he's afraid to open his politically incorrect mouth in these hyper-sensitive times.
"You can go over the line, as long as it's under the guise of a joke," says Spade, who currently stars in the black comedy 8 Heads In A Duffel Bag. "But there is no real guise of a joke anymore. It's so crazy that I'm scared of slipping up, of just doing a joke that makes me laugh."
Spade's experience on SNL taught him that seemingly innocuous jokes could be misconstrued by splinter groups and special interest freaks who accused him of countless crimes against society.
"It's just ridiculous," he says. "My school of thought is 'anything goes,' but I can't do that anymore. I would do 'Hollywood Minute' jokes and one would be about MC Hammer and I would get all these letters about being a racist. People would say, 'How dare you attack Black people!' I mean, OJ can kill people, but if you say, he's guilty, you're a racist because he's Black. You have to dance around so much, and it's so hard."
Spade reflects on his upbringing in an Arizona mining town near the border of Mexico. "The population was 80% Mexicans," Spade says. "They were from Mexico and they were Mexicans. And it wasn't a cutdown to call someone a Mexican. It would kill my career to refer to someone as Mexican today. It's like calling me an American." He feigns shock and dismay. "'WHAAAAT? I'm an EARTHLING!!!'"
The current super-serious climate in American pop culture is affecting other writers and comedians, Spade notes. "It's really hurting comedy and the bigger comedies are getting so watered down. The ones I read are so unoffensive that they're uninteresting."
So Spade is taking matters into his own hands. He's just co-written a script titled Lost And Found, in which he kidnaps a beautiful neighbor's dog in order to be the hero who finally finds the animal. "It's a little dark in parts," he admits. "Of course, she finds out I kidnapped the dog. So I gun her down." (Just a joke, people.)
He says he was attracted to the 8 Heads project--in which he steals all his scenes as a sassy college frat boy (big stretch)--because it had a certain grim humor that appealed to him. But again, "it was a little darker" before the studio got its hands on the product. Some of the most brutal sequences between the gangster character, played by Joe Pesci (another big stretch), and Spade's fellow film frat boy Todd Louiso actually landed on the cutting room floor, much to the actor's dismay.
"There's a whole sequence that builds up to this scene where Todd and I are supposed to screw on broken glass, which they cut off," Spade says. (This is not a joke, people.) "Pesci has been torturing us a while, and then he breaks all this glass on the ground and says, 'Go ahead. Screw your buddy. I want to watch.' And my character goes, 'What? Are you serious?' And he goes, 'Yeah. That's a good way to kill an afternoon.'"
When he saw the movie, Spade reflected on that particular scene. "I guess it just came off as too rough," he admits.
And while the censors and the tact police do their best to protect Spade from himself, he still worries that he'll open his mouth on TV someday and single-handedly end his career with some half-witted statement. "My problem is that when I get nervous, I get looser and I say really stupid stuff," he says. "Like if they would have put me with Mel Gibson at the Oscars, I probably would have said something like 'Hey, dickweed, how's it going?'"
If Just Shoot Me has become this year's underdog hit, David Spade, 33, stands as its unlikely hero. With the possible exception of a swingin'-single Beverly Hills pad, the 5-foot-7 man-boy--a curious cross between preppie smug and cool burnout--doesn't play by the conventional rules of celebrity. He'd rather be grilled about his sexual exploits on Howard Stern's radio show than be coddled on ET. He's the kind of guy who'll personally dial a reporter well past midnight: "How ya doin'? David Spade here! Didn't I meet ya at a Gallagher Tent-'n'-Awning Convention?" Fun includes calling teenage girls who've written him letters inviting him to the prom ("Can't go. I have a bum leg that I cover up on TV with camera tricks"), or (true story) sneaking back into his Scottsdale, Ariz., high school to commandeer the loudspeaker; when the principal tried to cut him off, Spade mock-protested, for all the school to hear, "Let go of me! You shouldn't be drinking.... Put your shirt back on!"
All of which is in keeping with his trademark adolescent snarkiness. What might surprise you is his reputation among his peers; Spade is a comic who commands reverence. "We all do Spade," says SNL pal Chris Rock. "We steal little moves. I'd go to him with a joke I'd been working on for hours, and he'd always come up with a better one in seconds." Notes Segal: "He's so quick--a genius wit with boxer responses." Praises Malick: "He's one of the fastest minds I've been around. You feel honored being the focus of his sarcasm."
Perhaps that gift of sneer is rooted in his rough beginnings. Spade grew up in the small town of Casa Grande ("House Big, Trailer Wide," quips Spade), a bleak copper-mining outpost in Arizona. He was bullied at Little League; one of his two older brothers ran with gangs. At 12, he moved to Scottsdale with his mother and his stepfather, a doctor who committed suicide a few years later. (He's still in touch with his father, an eccentric sales rep whom Spade describes as "a freelance creative type.") "I know Spade is this cutesy little white guy, but he [had] the life of a rapper," chuckles Rock."I mean, I grew up in Bed-Stuy, and I had it better than him."
Typically, Spade makes light of the hard times, preferring material which skewers his own geekdom. "Once I had a girl in my room, and I pulled out my coin collection," he says. "She's like, 'Aren't you going to f - - - me?' and I'm like, 'Lemme just show you this 1916-D Mercury dime.' "
I called my house and had 33 messages. The first was from a paper in Chicago and I thought, 'Oh, no....' So I dodged it all. I dodged the funeral. My mom was saying 'You have to go,' and I was like, 'Don't make this harder than it is. I know what I'm supposed to do, and I can't do it.' "
Spade has since bounced back, if only out of habit. "I don't like throwing myself in a place that's going to rack my world," he says. "You can either look at things in a brutal, truthful way that's depressing, or you can screw around and have fun."
Of course, Spade's always done things a little differently. When he quit SNL in '96 because of "burnout," he nixed offers to star in his own show. "I would have hired a cast with a guy like me to come in, score laughs, and leave," he reasons, "so why not just be that guy?" His management, Brillstein-Grey, suggested a role on Shoot, which was willing to reshoot its pilot. "David was hesitant," recalls Levitan, "but it was never an issue of 'I want tons of screen time.' It was about 'I wanna be funny.' " Return to Main Page
Friday, June 05, 1998 The Fame Game: Spade adjusting to the type of celebrity status he mocks By Mike Weatherford Review-Journal David Spade had a good seat at the Hard Rock Hotel's Rolling Stones concert last February, a position he'd like to maintain in the larger sense of his career. "I was impressed just that it was a huge perk. Being a `B' celebrity I got free tickets and got to sit 4 feet from the Stones," he says. "I was between Johnny Depp and (Leonardo) DiCaprio and in front of Brad Pitt. Girls are looking at us and I'm like, `It's a package deal, ladies.' " Since then, the comedian's "B" status has come into question -- an issue of no little concern. With an HBO special and an NBC sitcom that's getting more attention, Spade admits later in a telephone conversation that it's getting harder to "fly under the radar" of the DiCaprio level of A-list exposure. Still, he must try. "You have to go, `How do you lay low but still do your job?' Try to keep some shred of dignity without being out there like Jenny McCarthy, where after about eight months people go, `OK, we get it! You can open your mouth and stick your tongue out!' " The sarcastic comedian is coming back to the Hard Rock Hotel Saturday, this time onstage with his stand-up act instead of in the audience. The date comes just when he's on the verge of becoming America's favorite smart-aleck pipsqueak. His NBC sitcom, "Just Shoot Me," became a bigger commodity this year as a temporary member of the network's choice Thursday night schedule. More or less by coincidence, April's HBO special, "David Spade: Take the Hit" let fans compare and contrast his "real" comic persona from the sitcom counterpart. Suddenly Spade -- who came to fame taking potshots at celebrities and mocking pop culture on "Saturday Night Live" -- finds his own face on magazine covers. "I get freaked out," he admits. "It was funnier when I was just like an unknown guy on TV, just an all-American kid takin' people's legs out," he says of his "Hollywood Minute" bit. "Then I started doing (the star turn) and making a profit off it. Now I'm kind of one of them." Still, even when he dated actress Kristy Swanson (who was "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in the movie that spawned the TV show), neither were so famous that they couldn't pass largely unnoticed while wearing Halloween costumes to goof on the Kiss concert at the MGM Grand in November 1996. Now that "Just Shoot Me" has brought Spade "a semi-middle-age crowd I didn't have before stopping me in the streets," he's maybe a little more sympathetic to the high-stakes world of show business he lampoons. "It's brutal," he says. "I see friends when their shows don't work, everything's riding on making money and all the pressure and how people scatter" when fortunes turn downward. "It's just such a gross business. I see why people get eaten from the inside out. Even when it's going well it's hard to deal with." But it's obvious he's spent time thinking about what he can do to steer his own career clear of show-business icebergs. "Now that I have the opportunities to do a lot I want to do less," he says. He wants to be the guy who's "always around, but never quite the guy in the spotlight. People come and go around you but you're never the one getting the big stuff. I kind of like that, because 10 years down the road (people like that are) still respected, because they never had to do that up-and-down thing." Even "Just Shoot Me' reflects that leveled caution. As the twerpy personal assistant to women's magazine publisher George Segal, Spade flexes his own brand of humor while working in an ensemble format. The stories -- and the pressure -- don't revolve around him every week. "It's great to tell people you have your own show, but that's where the fun stops," he says. These are media-hungry days when celebrity is as fleeting as it is calculated, and Spade is trying to stay one step ahead of the game. The Arizona native even sounds a little self-conscious that so much of his own past made it into the HBO special and more serious forums such as Rolling Stone magazine. Though he made comic fodder of a three-times-married father who abandoned the 5-year-old and his family, he doesn't plan to rehash his childhood woes in interviews. "Nobody wants to read about your ... life, who cares?" he says. "When I'm interviewed on (Jay) Leno, just be funny, period. That's all they want from me. I don't want to tell my life story, I don't want to talk about tragedies" such as the death of comic cohort Chris Farley. "If I try to cover too much ground, I think you start to get watered down and less interesting." But Spade is proud of the HBO special. Doing it meant passing on lucrative college gigs, but "it's not a money thing. It's trickier than that," he explains. The special is "more like a comedy calling card for the next five years." It's also evidence in case he needs to defend himself after another movie like "Black Sheep. The special says, "This is who I am, this is what I think, this is me with no direction, no punch-up guys, no studios involved and no editors doing stuff that I don't know about," he says. "This is me, what I think is funny, and from now on when you see me do `Shoot Me' or any movies and you see me do some (bad) line, you'll go, `You know, I bet he didn't think of that based on what I saw (on the special).' " Some would argue Spade already has that credibility, since "Saturday Night Live" introduced him in his own persona, not as a sketch player. But he says it still took him years to find his stand-up comedy voice. At one point, "I changed my act because I wasn't getting booked back" to venues, and used more conventional material. Dennis Miller saw the altered show and confronted him about it. "Don't go to them, make them come to you." Miller advised him. "If you just do what makes you laugh and your friends laugh, then you're cool. And if it doesn't work, get out of the business because you're not funny." Miller's final advice: "The payoff's bigger if you do it on your own terms." Spade still isn't sure if he's ready to join Miller in a regular Las Vegas showroom rotation. But he likes hanging out here, playing golf and taking in shows on the Strip -- "It's just a campy blast," he says. He'll just take it one step at a time. "I just want to do as little as I can and make it good, and try not to sell out," he says. "I'm sure I will, but I'm just trying to postpone it." DAVID SPADE, THE ACERBIC DENNIS FINCH ON NBC's "Just Shoot Me," IS ENJOYING PLAYING HIMSELF. by Thomas Johnson and David Fantle Comic actor David Spade reminds us of that old Charles Atlas body-building ad buried in the back pages of 10-cent comic books; the one where a beach bully kicks sand in the face of a guy with a stringbean physique and otherwise emasculates him in front of his dishy girlfriend. "I want to get back to my fighting weight of 98 pounds," Spade deadpans, ordering a diet tuna plate from Jerry's Famous Deli in Los Angeles. "I have the exact measurements of that guy from the movie 'Powder.' I wanted to watch that movie to see him get his butt kicked. But 30 minutes into the flick, I'm yelling, 'Powder, they're tricking you--he's hiding in the locker!' I cried 10 times during the movie because, growing up, I was Powder. Right now I am the reigning West Coast Powder." At Jerry's, famous for being the real life meeting place of the Seinfeld gang during breaks in filming their show, Spade is dressed casually in jeans and is wearing a bubble-back Rolex watch and a faded T-shirt that is far from taut on his hollow frame. In fact, the shirt seems to flutter a little each time a breeze is kicked up by a bustling waiter. The waiters here bustle a lot. "My goal in life is to be a wussy like Barney Fife on the 'Andy Griffith Show,'" Spade says. "He was a kind of fake tough guy, but deep down, he was a wimp." Spade may be on to something. His comic persona in movies like "Black Sheep" and "Tommy Boy," and on his hit NBC show, "Just Shoot Me," really is a cross between Don Knotts minus the herky-jerky nervousness and, perhaps, Wally Cox, absent the bow tie and horn-rim glasses. Indeed, Spade's stock-in-trade is an acerbic thrust and parry that is as prickly as the Saguaro Cactus that populate his home state of Arizona. It is just such interplay with his sometime movie partner, the late Chris Farley (this interview took place just prior to Farley's death), that vaulted Spade into the comedy big leagues after years as a cast member on "Saturday Night Live." In the pantheon of comedy duos, the Spade-Farley match-up owes a debt to Laurel and Hardy. However, in Spade's case, it's he--the thin guy--who played comic foil and straight man to the heavier, more animated Farley. Spade did say that Farley's weight was a cause of concern and cited John Candy's death from a heart attack a few years ago as probably stemming from obesity. "It's not totally my business," he says. "When I'm with Chris he doesn't want to hear anything from me. He used to drink and I was the 'concerned friend' for about three years." In a recent interview in Rolling Stone, Spade broke his silence since the death of Farley and offered his own explanation of why he did not attend his friend's funeral in Madison, Wisconsin. "I just couldn't have gone in a room where Chris was in a box." Spade added that the last months with Farley "were all good. He wasn't high. He wasn't drinking. It was all Diet Cokes and laughing." Lorne Michaels, the producer of "SNL," once told Spade that most cast members think they're famous after one year on the show, but it really takes about three years before acclaim begins to "seep into the public consciousness." For Spade, the show's "Hollywood Minute" and "Receptionist" sketches were his first attempts at winning that wider fame. The movies with Farley solidified his status as comic force. Now, with "Just Shoot Me," once a mid-season replacement, picked up for another season and moved to the venerable Thursday night lineup in place of "Union Square" after posting the highest ratings for the timeslot ever back in January, Spade is on a hot streak. And have we mentioned his HBO comedy hour, "David Spade: Take the Hit," premiering on April 17 at 11:30 p.m. (ET)? It's his first for the cable network. As for "Just Shoot Me," the show takes place at a fashion magazine and co-stars Laura San Giacomo and George Segal. "There were two roles I told the producers I wouldn't play in the show," he says. "One was an assistant and the other was a secretary. As the designated office manager, I wield more comic power--the staplers all have to come through me. I'm like a Dilbert cartoon. "The odd thing was that when we were taping the first episodes, I had a steady girlfriend and out of loyalty I didn't get one number or ask one cast member out; and this cast has some gorgeous members," he says. "The set was really fun, but it's like having copies of Playboy all over your apartment. You shouldn't look at them, but you do and that just leads to trouble. It's tough when the girls come up to you just before a scene and ask you how their butt looks in a skirt that fits tighter than Saran Wrap around a pot roast!" Spade, who is now single, finds himself a big fish in a small pond by calling Scottsdale, Arizona his home. "It's a big deal there because other than Governor Symington, who's just been indicted for corruption, I'm the only celebrity there now that Charles Barkley has left the Phoenix Suns," he says. Truth to tell, worshipful hordes hardly beat a path to Spade's door. Instead, he gets a lot of "drive-bys" from 14-year-old girls on bicycles; part of a demographic that makes up his prime movie audience. "One little girl even knocked on my door and gave me a cake she had baked," he says. According to Spade, the real hard cases are the teenage boys who make up the opposite side of that movie-going demographic. "As boys get older, they can't let on that it's cool to meet me," Spade laughs. "My mom brought a bunch of them to my door once and they wanted to fight me! She said they were just nervous. My take was that they were part of the Scottsdale Crip franchise!" There's an old Hollywood axiom that, roughly translated, says: if you get them when they're young, they'll be fans for life. By that reckoning, Spade could put on some real weight very soon in his journey to becoming a much bigger fish. "Just so long as I don't become a piranha," he says. David Fantle and Thomas Johnson's syndicated entertainment column, "Reel to Real," currently runs in more than 25 publications throughout the country.