The measure of success in the entertainment industry is purely relative. You win some, and more often than not, you lose some. For Spencer Rice, it's a matter of mastering both.
For six years, the Toronto-based comic starred alongside childhood friend Kenny Hotz in the reality television hit Kenny vs. Spenny, where the two took part in various competitions – some more outlandish than others – with the loser having to perform a "humiliation" at the end of each episode. More often than not, Rice was on the losing end.
"You know, Kenny vs. Spenny engenders a certain kind of meanness. Which is in the comedy, it’s in the fan base. And I was sort of the whipping post in that show and took a lot of abuse and continue to take it on Facebook . . . I find it amusing," Rice told Digital Journal.
Once the show wrapped in Feb. 2010 after 86 episodes – although Hotz and Rice reunited for a series finale in Dec. 2010 – Rice began pursuing other projects, resulting in an idea for a sitcom that would eventually become his latest show, Single White Spenny. He began brainstorming with fellow comedian Chelsea Handler and came up with an idea for a show focusing on one-off episodes, each dedicated to a series of one-night-stands based off Handler's personal life. Although the original concept didn't quite pan out, Rice eventually reworked the idea with comic writer Stevie Ray Fromstein.
"We worked on the project and his idea was to make it more of a sitcom, but to keep the idea of someone with some kind of issue with romantic relationships," Rice recalled. "So we looked at my life a little bit, where I come from, my mother and some of the things that happened to me maybe 10 years ago."
Single White Spenny, which made its debut on Showcase June 2, stars Rice as the endearing "lovetard" Spenny, who was raised by a self-absorbed, less-than nurturing mother and therefore failed to develop the skills to get what he wants — which are essentially standardized life benchmarks, such as marriage, having kids and buying a house.
"It's impossible for him to achieve it because he has no training, he had no role model to show him how to do it, so the comedy is centered around his pathetic attempts to find these things in life," Rice said of the character he refers to as an extension of himself. "I don’t want to do anything I don’t have some kind of relation to, in terms of my real life . . . It’s a persona that’s part really me and part something I’ve developed. And that character is someone who means really well, who tries to do the right thing, but for a multitude of reasons, doesn’t succeed."
Rice describes Spenny as a flawed but pure, well meaning person living in a world that might be corrupt, adding it's these kinds of stories he's drawn to and wants to be involved with.
"I believe that Machiavellian people get ahead in the world, and it’s an unfortunate reality and I see the comedy in a non-Machiavellian person trying to operate purely in a Machiavellian world," he said. "That's Single White Spenny in a nutshell."
While TV Guide calls the show a "highly entertaining series," after six episodes of the initial eight episode run, Rice said he's not completely sure how the show is being received, part of which he attributes to premiering during the summer season when people aren't necessarily staying home and watching television. Even still, despite fluctuations in viewership throughout the series, The Brioux Report states the fifth episode drew about 64,000 viewers in its 9:30 p.m. Thursday time slot and another 40,000 two hours later during its repeat, a feat surpassed only by the series' first episode which drew around 107,000 between the two time slots.
"One week it's up, one week it's down. That was certainly the case with Kenny vs. Spenny and it seems to be true here. At the end of the day, it's an important thing – the ratings – but if the network is behind it and they want to do comedy and they want to let the show have another shot at finding that audience, they will," said Rice. "I think there's a whole bunch of other people out there who would like the show who haven't found it yet, and they may or may not get the opportunity. We'll see."
Rice said feedback on his Facebook fan page has been mostly positive, despite negative comments from viewers who only know him from Kenny vs. Spenny and aren't familiar with him, his capabilities or Single White Spenny.
"The only way to find those people is to stay on the air and promote the show. If we get the chance to, that would be great. If we don't, I'll do something else," said Rice, who's also working on several other projects, including a documentary. "But I'm not going to be what I'm not, I'm going to stay true to what I love and to who I am, because otherwise I'm doing myself and I think the audience a disservice."
"I'm just going to do what I do, and if I can't, I'll work at Starbucks," he said jokingly.
Rice stretches out on a bench on Toronto's Beaches Boardwalk.
Coming primarily from a reality TV background, the test for Rice was combining acting with an evolved version of his persona from other works.
"For me the challenge was trying to get out of that persona, but at the same time keeping the comedic elements of that persona and staying true to aspects of my real life," he said.
Rice said he doesn't see himself as an actor in the traditional Shakespearean sense, noting it was difficult to transition from reality television – where he and Hotz enjoyed a cult following – towards scripted television where he would be asked to memorize a script. The only similarity between the two shows is the core of the Spenny comedic personality, which Rice believes is a necessary element to connect with the audience.
"You find something like Charlie Chaplin, for example. He was "The Tramp", and ‘The Tramp’ was down on his luck and always had the best of intentions and always got the shit kicked out of him," said Rice. "And so my persona is my persona, it’s a little different. But it’s something you can hang onto, and it’s something that when I look at a project or I look at anything, it has to conform to that thing I do that works for me."
He said viewers who can relate and see parts of themselves in Spenny will identify with him as he searches for love, while people who dislike the character will enjoy watching him suffer.
"We all want something, right? We all want happiness and he's willing to overreach," said Rice. "I'm just trying to cope with the existential realities and comedy is about conflict and failing. There's no comedy is someone who's successful."
When pressed on whether this was the hook of the show, Rice was unsure.
"The hook? Maybe. I don't know what the hook is. There is no hook, I'll see you at Starbucks," he joked.
Joining Rice on the show were Canadian actors Debra McGrath, Nikki Payne, Amy Matysio and Wayne Thomas Yorke. Together the actors supplement Spenny with a quirky band of friends and confidants that tag along with him throughout his exploits.
"Nikki Payne, for example, I can't say enough about her, what I've seen of her as an actress. When we auditioned she was good . . . we didn't require her to do some of the things that the series has required her to do and she's just knocked me out. I just love her," said Rice. "Deb McGrath has just been around for a long time and is extremely funny and we're getting a lot of positive feedback about her as my mom. Wayne Thomas Yorke I like, I think he has this oddball character which we're working out over time, hopefully."
Rice is adamant that a strong supporting cast was essential for the series, noting stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who also didn't come from a traditional acting background before creating the cultural phenomenon that was Seinfeld.
"One of the things Jerry Seinfeld did was he surrounded himself with phenomenal actors and I tried to do the same," he said. "It was really important for me to work with people who were heads and tales above my acting because it would only bring me up. I still have a lot to learn, but it is a sitcom, it's not Shakespeare. It's not a drama, you just do the best you can."
With only two episodes remaining in the season, Rice still isn't sure whether Single White Spenny will be
Courtesy - Spencer Rice
A heartbroken Spenny yearns for love in Rice's show, 'Single White Spenny.'
picked up for a second season, but if the show is renewed, Rice has more than a few story ideas in mind.
"I like the idea that I have financial problems, I like that for some reason," Rice said of Spenny, whose home and joke store business were financed by a book the character wrote called, The Book of Poop. "Through the different episodes . . . you see me trying to come up with novelty ideas, trying to come up with the next 'pet rock' sort of thing. I like that idea and I think it's a lot like the Honeymooners. I don't want to reinvent the wheel, either it's going to work or it isn't going to work with me just looking for love and not finding it."
With an uncertain future and no shortage of ideas, Rice is glad he got the opportunity to try and reach viewers and hopefully make them laugh.
"I'm certainly proud of the show. I really think the show has a chance to blossom, if it gets the chance, to go to interesting places we're just scratching the surface of right now," he said.
Ultimately though, Rice acknowledges the tragedy in comedy as readily as he does the very simple elements of what makes it work. The trick, it seems, is finding the blaring irony in life and highlighting it, if not parodying it altogether.
"Comic figures, you know, are fail. Comic figures are hard done by. I mean, let's go down the line. You can't name one, they have to have problems, they can't get what they want. There's nothing funny about that. Things might go well and go their way, but by and large, comedy works on conflict and misery," said Rice, who hopes this was communicated in the show. "I never really get what I want, and I didn't on Kenny vs. Spenny to a certain extent. Which is fine. As funny as I think Kenny is, I love his comedy; it's just, you know, you do what you do. I adore Howard Stern. Could I be like him? No. I just come from a totally different place than he does."
Spencer Rice, the man and character, is who he is and if nice guys finish last – in life or in comedy – then so be it. As for Single White Spenny, the measure of its success and how it resonates with the audience is out of his hands.
"I think I’ll quote the great Jackie Gleason, when they asked him what made the Honeymooners such a great show, and he said ‘because it’s funny’. And that’s it, if it’s not funny and entertaining, don’t watch it," Rice said.
"When you make a comedy or you make a drama, you sit in the audience in a movie, let’s say, and you watch it. You have no idea whether the film worked until you talk to people afterwards. But in a comedy, there’s a barometer. It’s called laughter. And you know, it may not be a bellowing laughter, it may be giggles, or snorts or smiles, but that’s it. Whether you’re doing stand-up or movies or TV, that’s all it is. No more, no less…"
Single White Spenny airs in Canada Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. EST with replays at 11:30 p.m, and again at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays, on Showcase.