When growing up in the New York City area, Aries Spears was the funny kid in his family. In fact, the first Aries Spears comedy show debuted at the dinner table with young Spears doing comical impressions of his family members and relatives. You can catch him in a more advanced role now, as he’ll be in town for a string of performances at the Pittsburgh Improv from June 26-29.
Perhaps one key to his ascent was being raised in a show-biz household. His mother, Doris Spears, is an accomplished jazz and blues singer. (He also has two sisters and two brothers; his father has since passed on.)
Amazingly, at the age of 14 Spears was going on stage for open mic nights at local comedy clubs. He had met the right people in the comedy community and his mom accompanied him to his gigs. They had to wait in the kitchen before he went on, since the clubs served alcohol and he was underage.
When Spears was asked if this early success gave him a “big head” and made him hard to parent, he proudly stated that his mom recognized and nurtured his burgeoning comedic talents. His career then took off and he has achieved success through the years as a comedian, actor, writer, and producer.
Early Influences and Hits Along the Way
Spears spoke to Entertainment Central by phone from Los Angeles. Fresh from a major European tour, he joked that he didn’t think the residents of some eastern European countries had seen many black visitors: “In Lithuania people just stared at me.”
Asked about his early comedic influences, Spears cited Eddie Murphy, Stepin Fetchit, Richard Pryor, and Redd Foxx. He said Murphy was an especially big influence on him. “Eddie Murphy is the Michael Jordan of comedy, a highly talented and versatile player. Murphy dominated on TV…’Saturday Night Live,’ at the box office, and even as a singer. I’m trying to be a multi-faceted entertainer like Eddie is,” he commented. Of today’s active comedians he loves Dave Chappelle. Others who’ve made him laugh are Corey Holcomb, and the late Patrice O’Neal.
Shortly after Spears had created a sensation in New York comedy clubs at 14, Russell Simmons put him on his HBO program “Def Comedy Jam,” and soon thereafter he was performing on “Showtime at the Apollo.” Spears said “Doing ‘Showtime at the Apollo’ terrified me, because you can kill your self-esteem in seconds”—audiences at the Apollo Theater will boo quickly if they don’t like an act—but, he noted, “I was prepared and I destroyed. On ‘Def Comedy Jam’ I was the youngest comedian ever on the show.”
After moving out to LA he landed a recurring role as Ty on the comedy “A Different World,” which featured a star-laden cast of Lisa Bonet, Kadeem Hardison, and Jasmine Guy. The TV networks soon came calling. First up was “South of Sunset,” in which he starred with Eagles’ guitarist Glenn Frey. Although the show had a brief run, Spears was now on everyone’s radar. Fox cast him in the TV series “Crosstown Traffic” and “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.,” the latter featuring Bruce Campbell of “Burn Notice” fame in the lead role.
Spears even played a recurring character on “CSI Miami.” Other diverse roles have included voice acting for an animated character on “C-Bear and Jamal” and appearing as himself on Fox’s “The Best Damn Sports Show Period.”
Fox continued to run with the hot Spears and in 1997 he joined the cast of “MADtv” for eight seasons. He gained additional fame for his impressions of Shaquille O’Neal, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Al Pacino, Mike Tyson and others. Highly rated Spears comedy segments from the series included “Talkin’ American,” “Mother Love,” “The Klump Family,” and “El Diablo Negro.”
He said he was paid the highest compliment when he ran into “Saturday Night Live” cast member (1995-2002) Will Ferrell, who told him that he and others from the SNL cast were aware of their Saturday night competitors on “MADtv” and highly respected them. “When ‘MADtv’ ended in 2009, it was bittersweet,” Spears said. “We knew we had a great show and the fans loved us, but we didn’t have the decision-making power” to keep the show going.
In 2006 Spears was a regular cast member on the Showtime sketch comedy series “The Underground.” Created by Damon Wayans, the show also featured his son Damon Wayans, Jr., and had music composed by his brother Dwayne Wayans. When asked what it was like working with this talented family, Spears humorously retorted, “The Wayans family are like the black Kennedys.” (That is, just as the Kennedys were the first family of politics for many years, the Wayanses have ruled as the first family of comedy.)
Big-Screen Credits, Big Names
Spears’ movie credits include portraying Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s character’s brother in the Tom Cruise movie Jerry Maguire, and playing comedian Redd Foxx in the movie about singer Frankie Lymon, Why Do Fools Fall in Love. Spears loved portraying Foxx and wished he could have expanded that role. He also teamed up with John Leguizamo for 1997’s The Pest. Spears has roles in two movies that are currently in post-production—Promoted and The 420 Movie: Mary & Jane.
One character impression Spears is especially well known for is Shaquille O’Neal. He said Shaq loves the routine and if he were here right now, he would say to do it: “Shaquille doesn’t take himself too seriously and enjoys having fun.” When asked if he updated the impression now that O’Neal is retired from basketball and is doing TV commercials for Icy Hot pain relief, Spears laughed and said “Shaquille is still Shaquille.”
As for what he’d like to do professionally that he hasn’t done yet, he replied “Work with Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington.” Either of those combinations sounds great.
Spears has a son from a previous relationship and is active in supporting various charities. He enjoys performing in Pittsburgh and mentioned eating at Big Jim’s in lower Greenfield on a previous trip. Spears early success has given him much confidence, which is evident in his willingness to take on just about any comedic role. Here’s hoping this versatile funnyman continues to entertain us for years to come.
For tickets and showtimes visit the Pittsburgh Improv site.
Special thanks to Ani Istanboulian.
Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and a lover of great entertainment.