Aries Spears is driving through the hills of Los Angeles when we connect by phone. While he’s lived in Los Angeles since the early nineties, he remains true to his New York roots. “Los Angeles is where the business is, but I’m a die-hard New Yorker, and for most New Yorkers, it’s blasphemous to like LA. I came out here in ‘93, when I wasn’t really a man yet. Everything kind of became “mine” as I grew into manhood. My first car, my first home, my first relationship. And again, the business is here. If you want to win the game, you need to get off the bench and get in the game.”
Aries has had no problem getting in the comedy game or staying in it. Whether it’s a movie, a tv show, his podcast “Spears & Steinberg,” or his packed touring schedule, he continues to find success in whatever he does.
As a kid, what initially attracted you to comedy?
Aries Spears: I grew up watching a lot of movies because my dad was a big comedy fan. Blaxploitation movies in the early seventies and more high quality urban movies like “Let’s Do It Again” and “Uptown Saturday Night” with Bill Cosby and Sydney Portier. Even some black and white stuff like “Abbott & Costello” and “The Marx Brothers.”
At such a young age, what made the career of stand-up a possibility in your mind, something you could tangibly go out and do?
Aries Spears: I knew I wanted to get laid a lot. Being a mathematician wasn’t going to do it.
[Laughs] I just sucked at everything else. I kind of always knew I wanted to be rich and famous and shit, so comedy seemed like the most logical thing [to do to get there].
What was the catalyst for you to start impressions?
Aries Spears: I’m an eighties baby, so Eddie Murphy was “the guy” when he was on SNL. He was my biggest inspiration. I loved all the impressions he did on the show. One of the most famous is the “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub.” All that stuff stood out to me. When I found out that I had the ability to do [impressions], it felt like the perfect thing to do.
And was James Brown your first impression?
Aries Spears: No, my first impression was probably the great jazz legend, Louis Armstrong. My mother was a jazz/blues singer, so I heard a lot of jazz in the house.
How did your dad’s love for comedy and your mom’s music career impact your decision to pursue a career in the arts?
Aries Spears: My mother was probably my biggest helper. My dad was always a funny guy and very entertaining, but I don’t think he really had the guts to pursue [comedy]. Whereas, my mother had a lot of guts. She really supported what I wanted to do and pushed me in that direction.
Most parents would probably have their kid shy away from foul language and stuff like that. I grew up in a household where my parents loved Richard Pryor and watched really dark, R-rated comedies. If anything, they influenced me to be who I wanted to be comedically, without putting any constraints on me.
Early in your career, what motivated you?
Aries Spears: The impressions thing, if I look it at in basketball terms, is like being able to dunk. Unless you are just totally fucked athletically, anybody can dunk in the NBA. Even Larry Bird could dunk, and it was said he couldn’t even jump over a phone booth. [Impressions] to me were the easy part, and I didn’t want people to go, “Oh, that’s what he’s known for.” People do say that, but those are people who obviously don’t know my work. I always wanted to show people I wasn’t a one-trick pony.
Again, when you look at a comedian like Eddie Murphy, who was an icon, he had the ability to do dead-on incredible impersonations, but was also strong outside of that. I always wanted to show people that [impressions] weren’t the only part of my game. I can improvise, I can do crowd work, I actually do well-written material that’s smart and provocative. I just wanted to show people that, like Michael Jordan, I can do it all.
Having that direction and focus at such a young age is incredible. You knew what you wanted and you went after it.
Aries Spears: My path was a little unconventional. I had a certain amount of naiveté. Certain amounts of “New York Cockiness” that I wasn’t going to fail. And if I did fail, well maybe this might be a whole different conversation. My intent was to move out [to Los Angeles] and never have to move back to my mother’s house. And I’ve been doing it for 30 years.
When I was a teenager, I worked regular nine-to-fives, stocked grocery shelves and was a cashier at Burger King. Then at night, my mother would take me to comedy clubs in New York and New Jersey. After I did Def Comedy Jam at 16 and Showtime at The Apollo at 17, I started making professional money.
Obviously, the money wasn’t enough to sustain me, but by the time I moved out to Los Angeles, when I was 17, I was getting holding deals from all the networks. Between the ages of 17 and 21, I probably made over a million dollars in holding deals. Then I started headlining after “Mad TV” at 22.
As I’ve often said on my podcast, we all have dreams. Most people don’t know how to go about [achieving them] or are too scared to do [what it takes to achieve them]. If you can get past fear, even if you don’t know how to do something, you’ll learn as you go. What’s better than that?
You have a new film coming out, “The 420 Movie.” What’s it about and what’s your role in it?
Aries Spears: It’s a comedy about these two white girls who get into the business of selling weed due to circumstances beyond their control. I play a dirty, crooked sheriff of a town. Basically, I get to live out the dreams of every black man in America and be a crooked cop who harasses white folks.
What’s your relationship with cannabis in real life?
Aries Spears: She’s my bitch. [Laughs] We love each other. You know, I don’t smoke as much as I used to, which is because I’m usually on the road. When I’m on the road, I don’t smoke. I’m only home two or three days out of every week. But I like it. It’s like “The Matrix.”
There’s a sweet spot with weed and alcohol. And if you mix the two – and you hit that spot just right – again, like Jordan, you’re dropping 45’s on ‘em. But if you don’t hit that spot just right, it can also be a sloppy disaster.