LOS ANGELES — “Can I have 45 seconds off before I start the next horrible thing?” David Spade asked.
He was standing on a corner of the set for his new Comedy Central late-night series, “Lights Out With David Spade,” which has been built to look like a sleek and uncluttered bachelor pad. The studio audience that had watched that day’s test show — a comic round-table where Spade and a rotating cast of stand-ups riff on popular culture and internet memes — had been dismissed earlier that June afternoon. Now it was just the host, playing straight to the camera as he engaged in the tedious if time-honored tradition of recording corny promos that would run on TV and radio before the program’s debut on July 29.
In his dry, disaffected drawl, Spade read from a script in which he called himself the winner of an Ellen DeGeneres look-alike contest; he fiddled with a “Bachelor”-esque rose and said his new show will “make you thorny”; and he did a generally poor job of trying to hide his disdain for the ritual.
“This is so humiliating,” Spade said to the laughter of his crew.
The appearance of being perpetually over it is a crucial element of Spade’s stage persona; it’s what has helped propel him from “Saturday Night Live” in the 1990s to a string of sarcastic second-banana roles on sitcoms like “Just Shoot Me” and “Rules of Engagement” and in movies like “Grown Ups” and “Tommy Boy.”
That withering cynicism doesn’t entirely summarize Spade, who turns 55 on Monday. He is more analytical and a smidgen more sensitive than he wants audiences to know. He is also someone who, beneath his dispassionate demeanor, has sustained a number of significant losses in his life, even if he won’t quite allow himself to outwardly acknowledge this.
“I don’t want to say I’m immune to it,” Spade said, “but there’s a way you just have to learn to shut off the tear valve. It’s just too brutal.”
He comes by his skeptical worldview honestly, and it has sustained his career for more than three decades. He has persevered personally and professionally, and now finds himself with a valuable piece of TV real estate, immediately following “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” that could give him a kind of relevance he’s never commanded before.
Maybe you stopped keeping tabs on Spade after he left “S.N.L.,” where he played his share of unctuous flight attendants and receptionists, palled around with his co-stars Chris Farley, Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, and set off a 20-year-long feud when he called Eddie Murphy “a falling star” on “Weekend Update.” Or perhaps you wondered whatever happened to him since “Joe Dirt,” the mullet-haired doofus he played back in 2001. If so, well, fair enough.
Spade is just as baffled that he’s managed to stay employed. “My perception is, I’ve been treading water for 30 years,” he said. Being asked “Where have you been?” gets under his skin — “I’m on TBS every day in a rerun of something,” he said with a laugh.
But that ubiquity has been self-perpetuating and kept him working consistently in films, sitcoms and, more recently, several made-for-Netflix movies, often alongside Sandler. (Spade recently wrapped “The Wrong Missy,” another Netflix movie in which he has a starring role.)
“Lights Out” is a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is moment for Spade, who has always loved to deride the shortcomings of the rich and famous — a group in which he conspicuously includes himself. “I’ve basically turned into one of those people,” he said. “I have to share the wealth and make fun of myself. I’m stupid, they’re stupid. I try to call their bluff.”
Despite the air of indifference he projects in his work, Spade really does want this show to succeed. But he is finding it difficult, at least at the outset, to put his stamp on the overdetermined late-night format while knowing that all praise or blame will ultimately rest at his feet.
“When you’re trying to be different, in quotes, nothing’s really that different,” he said. “My sense of humor is the only thing I have that sets me apart.”
The night before his test show, Spade was performing a short stand-up set at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood. Dressed in camouflage pants and a Girls Gone Wild trucker hat, he quipped with equal facility about his day-to-day gripes, like flying on Southwest Airlines, and his encounters with fellow celebrities, like running into the rapper Nelly after the Woolsey Fire. (In Spade’s telling of the tale, he cannot resist making a reference to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.”)
Afterward, Spade explained his enduring fascination with celebrity culture and how the internet has fundamentally redefined its rules and boundaries. “I’m from the old school, and the new school is, brag about everything,” he said. “It’s very hard to watch everyone be O.K. with it.” With a wry chagrin, he pointed to an online squabble he had in 2017 with Danielle Bregoli, a viral star who raps under the stage name Bhad Bhabie, and who he’d mistakenly dismissed as a nobody. “I didn’t know she ran Hollywood or I wouldn’t have gotten into a fight with her,” he said. (The two are now friendly and Spade has appeared in one of her music videos.)
Spade has built himself a perch on Instagram, where he has 1.7 million followers and posts short, guerrilla-style comedy segments, making fun of people he observes on the streets or cars he sees in parking lots. These clips helped bring him to the renewed attention of Comedy Central and he started developing what would have been a weekly series for the network called “Verified,” a panel show that would mine social media for source material.
Then, last summer, the network canceled “The Opposition With Jordan Klepper,” its second attempt at filling its 11:30 p.m. time slot since Stephen Colbert left for CBS. Spade was asked if he’d consider broadening the parameters of his program and going four nights a week.
“I took a second to think about it,” Spade said. “It’s a big opportunity and it’s hard, but it’s a good kind of hard.”
Comedy Central said its own market research showed that viewers still had a strong interest in Spade: “Not just familiarity, but affection and love and a desire to see him,” said Kent Alterman, the network’s president. “On the one hand it wasn’t surprising and on the other hand, it was like off the charts — it was just striking.”
Stranger still is the fact that Spade previously hosted a weekly series for Comedy Central, “The Showbiz Show With David Spade,” which ran sporadically from 2005 until 2007. Spade said the network’s erratic commitment to the program (under different executive leadership) caused him to lose interest in it; Alterman said that series “was on long enough ago that it’s almost moot.”
Spade has hired the former “Chelsea Lately” executive producers Tom Brunelle and Brad Wollack to be the showrunners of “Lights Out.” They say that the new series will have an inherent advantage at its outset because it is being defined around a personality who is already familiar to viewers.
In a late-night landscape oversaturated with political comedy, the “Lights Out” creators believe they can further differentiate themselves by staying away from Trump-of-the-day jokes: partly because they believe audiences are tired of this approach, and partly because this brand of comedy is just not in Spade’s wheelhouse.
“It’s too much to talk about all the time,” said Spade, who is proud that he can hang with left- and right-leaning friends alike. “It would look fake, anyway. I can’t write better jokes than all these guys doing it, and they’re funny. I think there is something to being brainless.”
Chris Rock, his former cast mate and sometime touring partner, said he and Spade bonded quickly in their “S.N.L.” days.
“Even though he’s from Arizona and I was from Bed-Stuy, our stories were very similar,” Rock said. “The little secret about show business is it’s probably 80 percent rich kids. Me and Spade were actually not rich. We had a lot of similarities in dealing with fame and money that have definitely kept us together.”
Rock praised Spade as “a gifted verbal guy” — “he might be short or whatever but he can kick your ass verbally, he can sum you up” — adding that his secret weapon was the longer stories he tells in interviews on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “The Howard Stern Show.”
“He’s a great story teller, in an era when no one tells stories and no one’s got time for stories,” Rock said.
At his “Lights Out” test show, Spade opened with a short monologue that took potshots at Lindsay Lohan, Kim Kardashian, Travis Scott and the BET Awards. (“Five minutes after they started, the Country Music Awards called the cops on them.”) For the rest of the program he sat in an upholstered chair alongside the comedians Bobby Lee, Andrew Santino and Esther Povitsky, mocking the latest celebrity headlines — how Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner had their secret wedding date spoiled by Dr. Phil — and introducing short comedy bits.
Spade told me later that the role of moderator did not come naturally to him. “It’s hard to play traffic cop and make it funny,” he said. “This is only the second time I’ve ever done it and it’s a lot of pressure.”
His close friends say his jaded exterior can be deceptive, and beneath that cultivated layer he is diligent and committed to his craft.
“He ends a lot of his summations with ‘Whatever,’ but he underplays things a lot, too,” Kevin Nealon, a longtime pal and fellow “S.N.L.” alumnus, said of Spade. “He will be dismissive of his material. He’ll tell me, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got nothing. I’m embarrassed for you to see me. I’m doing the same stuff I’ve been doing.’ Then he gets onstage and I haven’t seen any of it before and he’s hilarious.”
But Nealon added that Spade’s personality is not entirely an act, either. “A lot of comics hide behind a veneer to protect their insecurities,” he said. “We all have our insecurities. David wears his on his sleeve. It’s easy to see through him.”
There are some scars that Spade simply doesn’t try to hide. He is still reeling from the deaths of his sister-in-law, Kate Spade, the fashion designer, who hanged herself in June 2018, and the comedian Brody Stevens, a frequent opening act of his, who committed suicide in February.
“Katy was so funny,” he said of his sister-in-law. “I don’t know if agoraphobic is the word, but she didn’t like to mingle a lot; she’d have people at her house and she was always so funny.”
Reflecting on her suicide, he said, “I feel like Katy wouldn’t have done it, five minutes later. But these things happen and there’s no going back.”
The sudden loss of loved ones has been a frighteningly commonplace occurrence for him, whether it was his stepfather, who took his own life when Spade was 15, or close friends who died in his high school and college years. At a certain point, Spade said, “People just started going right and left, and I would sit and stare at a wall.” But it didn’t change that his life went on, nonetheless.
“I just said, O.K., I guess I’ll cross my fingers that it doesn’t happen to everyone,” he explained. “And more people would go.”
This was all before Spade met Farley, the boisterous and self-destructive star whose death seemed long foretold before he overdosed on cocaine and morphine in December 1997.
To this day, Spade said he still opens his social media to find hateful comments like “I wish you died instead of Chris Farley.” “The first couple times it was rough,” he said, “but now it’s the standard burn. I wish I didn’t get that three times a week.”
Spade said he knows, all these years later, that some viewers will never accept seeing him alone without Farley by his side. “But do you just stop doing what you’re doing because of a tragedy?” he asked. “You have to go, well, I still like doing this. Some people won’t be interested. But I did three sitcoms after that. It wasn’t totally horrible.”
Norm Macdonald, who also befriended Spade at “S.N.L.,” said he was right to do his grieving offstage.
“You never see it, and I think that’s good,” Macdonald said. “Comedy has become unbelievably confessional and I couldn’t hate anything more. So to me, Spade is how you should be, as a man but also as an entertainer.”
He said that in this respect Spade was similar to comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, describing them as “guys that are completely a product of their own imagination.”
“They’re pictures on a screen,” Macdonald said. “They bear no resemblance to the person that plays them.”
Spade said he has come to accept that a portion of his fan base recognizes him only from his Netflix comedies and Instagram posts and knows nothing of his primordial work on “S.N.L.”
“Listen, there’s people who don’t know who Farley is and it’s just a fact of life,” Spade said. “I meet girls that don’t know who Led Zeppelin is. They’re like, ‘Dude, I don’t know who Maroon 5 is, all right? I’m young and you’re old.’”
If it sounds here like Spade is starting to slip into his stand-up shtick, he avowed that his days as a Hollywood Lothario are long behind him — a past stage that he continues to crack wise about “just because it’s so ingrained I can’t turn it around now.” (He is also the father of a 10-year-old daughter, Harper, whose mother is Jillian Grace, a former Playboy Playmate.)
Asked if he could ever envision himself settling down, Spade got circumspect for perhaps the only time in our conversations.
“It’s very hard for me, for various reasons, which we won’t get into,” he said. “Too much data, too many gigabytes. But I have been trying to do that. I’ve known someone for a long time. I’ve been trying to make something work.”
Not that he would ever allow himself to express this in his comedy. “If I say, ‘Yeah, I’m seeing someone and it’s going well,’ they just go, ugh,” he explained. “I don’t think that’s what they want to hear.”
If time and experience have taught Spade anything, it’s that he shouldn’t approach “Lights Out” like his career depends on it, because, in fact, it doesn’t. “It’s not my first job and it’s not my last job,” he said.
This doesn’t mean he isn’t deeply invested in its success. But from this unencumbered vantage point, he feels the freedom to take the show in whatever direction he wants to and make it a repository for the kind of comedy he wants to do, rather than giving it away in increments on other people’s talk shows.
“Now that we’re a show, for however long we’re a show, I’d rather put it on here,” Spade said. “And if it’s forever, it’s forever. I got the forever deal. They said forever or three months, whatever comes first.”
Dave Itzkoff is a culture reporter whose latest book, “Robin,” a biography of Robin Williams, was published in May. @ditzkoff
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