As “MadTV” breaks for the summer, cast member Aries Spears made a quick stop by Milwaukee and took the time to sit down with the Badger Herald. A four-year veteran of “Saturday Night Live’s” biggest competitor, Spears made his mainstream debut as Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s little brother in “Jerry Maguire” and recently played Carson Daly’s evil twin in “Josie and the Pussycats.” A bare-knuckled showdown with “SNL” and the future of his show were only a few of the things on the young actor’s mind.
BADGER HERALD: You dropped out of high school at 17 to enter the stand-up circuit and within a few years you had worked Showtime at the Apollo, Def Comedy Jam and had appeared in “Jerry Maguire” (as Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s brother). Did that quick start get to your head at all or pad your confidence?
ARIES SPEARS: I was fortunate enough to do all that stuff so quickly, but I’m so far from where I want to be in my own head. I have a long way to go so, no; I didn’t really let all that early stuff get to me.
BH: At the time, were you pretty sure you had made the right decision?
AS: Definitely. I always kind of knew at a young age I wanted to go to my grave not forgotten… I was getting in so much trouble in school — getting suspended left and right — that I knew I wasn’t cut out for blue-collar work. I figured if I was getting in so much trouble by making people laugh, why not get paid for it?
BH: What’s your take some nine years later? Did you do the right thing?
AS: I’m sure of it. No doubt.
BH: Who did you watch as a kid? Anyone in particular that lit a spark under you?
AS: Eddie Murphy. I had read he started doing standup when he was 14, which kind of got me going. I saw so much of myself in him. The confidence — it was unbelievable. When you watch his old standup, his persona was so incredible and you got the sense that he was really somebody. The way he could command the stage is something that I learned from him.
BH: Right now you’re doing “MadTV,” you’ve been in a number of films and you do some phenomenal standup — can we get Aries Spears’ take on the pros and cons of the three?
AS: Standup is complete control from once you hit the stage until you get off. Basically, it’s your rules, your way; whereas, until you reach a certain level theatrically or on television, you have to stay within a certain amount of guidelines. Even still, once you reach that level, there are always going to be guidelines. Of course, if you’re a big star, those lines get smaller and smaller. It’s a matter of control to me and I really enjoy the freedom of standup right now.
BH: Until you really hit it big with “MadTV,” you had a reputation around the industry as being “The kid with a lot of money who isn’t on television.” What was that?
AS: This was when I first came out to California. Hype can take you a long way, but like anything else, if you don’t produce down the line, hype can die out. For a while, I was billed as this new up-and-coming, kind-of-like-Eddie-Murphy, hot kid in town. I had every network deal with every studio and so much money being thrown my way, but nothing was being produced. So, for somebody who had never been on television, I had probably made close to or over a million dollars before I was twenty-two.
BH: “MadTV”–Has this really been a blessing for you and do you expect it to continue to help you get work in the future?
AS: It’s been a blessing, yes. Whether it will help me, I won’t say and I can’t speculate because, in my career, so much has been unpredictable. I think I’m definitely more known now than I was four years ago, but I think, because of certain politics within the show, we’re not getting the kind of push that the people on “Saturday Night Live,” for example, get — whether it’s making movies on original characters or merchandising characters. They’re not really doing that. For us not to get that support, that push, but still be able to stay on the air and constantly grow in terms of audience appreciation –that’s phenomenal.
BH: Do you see yourself staying at “MadTV” for a while?
AS: Let’s put it like this: If the bills need to get paid, yes. I’ve been there for four seasons and this will be my fifth, but in a perfect world, I’d really like to see something else happen. They’re not contractually obligated to me and I’m not contractually obligated to them for much more than that. I’ve got some seeds planted elsewhere.
BH: What about the cast — are you a pretty close-knit group?
AS: At times, like any other family, there are ups and downs. Bad days can be a pain in the ass. At the end of the good days, it translates on the stage and you can see the camaraderie. You can tell we’re veterans now and we bounce off of each other with ease.
BH: What have been your favorite characters to do on the show?
AS: The ones that I didn’t think I could do, but I’m finding myself able to do — those have become the most fun because it’s been a challenge and brought about a change for me. Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby and James Brown come to me so easily and they’re so fun to do, but every now and then if I can do Denzel (Washington) or maybe somebody I didn’t think I could do, that can be the most fun.
BH: Anybody you just can’t nail yet?
AS: I’d love to be able to do (Richard) Pryor. I don’t think anything is out-of-bounds.
BH: When “MadTV” started, before you came, they were taking “SNL” head-on at a time when they were really struggling and people were looking for an alternative. They’re slowly improving and regaining their audience again, so how do you approach the competition now?
AS: I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to truly compete with them. There are people who come up to us and say, “Oh, SNL is horrible; I like you much better…” yet they still watch it. They’ve kind of hypnotized people in a sense. It’s almost like “Star Trek” or something in that it has a loyal following, and I don’t think anything will ever be able to change that unless it goes off the air. It’s an institution.
BH: Do you see your show surviving in the long haul?
AS: I think what would eventually get us over that hurdle is the support of the network: more ads in the primetime spot, merchandising and movies. That seems so far from a reality, though, that I just don’t think it will happen. I think we can only survive for so long on just sheer hype. I think the true test will be how the show survives once the group that has brought it here is gone. How will the audience embrace a whole new cast?
BH: Do you guys feel the competition with “SNL?”
AS: Not really, but also yes. Neither one of us will admit it, but we’re always checking out the competition.
BH: If the cast were to hoop it up, five-on-five, with “SNL,” who wins? That’s assuming the two Wills, Sasso and Farrell match up in the post.
AS: Well, Sasso is unstoppable in the post. He’s two hundred and change, he’s six-feet-tall, and he’s strong. So, I think we would kill ’em. Oh yeah.
BH: What about in a dark alley — a free-for-all? Who’s left standing?
AS: We would definitely get them. I would have to include some of my own people on that. I might have to be a little bit of a cheat.
BH: You’re in a situation that is familiar to that which Chris Rock, Tim Meadows, Tracy Morgan and many others have dealt with — being the lone black male cast member on a sketch comedy show. How do you interpret that role?
AS: It puts a lot of pressure on me, but at the same time it’s also good because it does put a focus on me. As long as I shine when I’m supposed to, everybody can say: “He’s doing such great work and he is the only one.”
BH: Do you ever feel like you have to prove that you’re there for your talent, not because they need someone to play the black male roles?
AS: That’s always going to be there because it’s the politics of the situation. At the same time, everybody knows that as long as Tracy Morgan has been on “SNL,” he was never funny. Even as much of a genius as Chris Rock is — and he is brilliant — that wasn’t the place for him. So, that’s always going to be there, but I don’t feel any real type of pressure.
BH: What does the near future hold for Aries Spears?
AS: There are a couple of smaller movie possibilities, but the thing with low-budget movies is that you never know how they’re going to turn out. If they get the right backing and the right timing, they could come out and do well… “Friday” was made for 8 or 9 million, and it grossed 40. I don’t think Chris Tucker could have perceived that movie putting him on the map, but that was the movie that put him where he is. So, you never know, and I’ll keep trying.
— Interview conducted by Adam Duerson, ArtsEtc. Editor