TORONTO — Spencer Rice is used to playing a loser.
For years, the Toronto comic endured crushing public humiliation at the hands of frenemy Kenny Hotz in their outrageous televised battle of wills Kenny vs. Spenny.
The near-constant degradation — in which Rice’s overly sensitive alter-ego Spenny pretty much lost every time to the unscrupulous Kenny — established the downtrodden performer as the quintessential underdog, complete with a sad-eyed, hangdog expression that became his trademark.
Since the series ended late last year, Rice is no longer obligated to undergo Hotz’s demeaning torment for laughs, but he says he does have another browbeater to shatter his fragile self-esteem: his own mother.
Rice says their real-life relationship inspired the unusual dynamic in his new Showcase series Single White Spenny, debuting Thursday.
“My real-life mom is quite self-absorbed,” Rice freely admits in a recent interview alongside castmates Deb McGrath ( Little Mosque on the Prairie) and Nikki Payne.
“I absolutely adore her, she adores me, there’s nothing malicious or malignant about the relationship but it was not a traditional mother-son relationship. I think the net result of that . . . was that I tried to sort of be the opposite, which is where the whole idea of wanting societal conventions of marriage and love and family and children . . . comes from.”
In Single White Spenny, Rice again plays a dour version of himself, but this time he’s a guy searching for the love of his life while trying to shed stifling maternal baggage.
McGrath plays Spenny’s mom Sheila, describing the character as: “the most self-absorbed mother in the history of motherhood.”
Sheila is the type of woman who aggressively questions the sexual orientation of her unmarried son, compares the size of his penis (unfavourably) to other adult family members and seems to have no knowledge of his personal interests.
“I’m dying to meet your mom,” McGrath says to Rice.
“I think the mother (on the show) thinks she’s a fabulous mother,” she continues. “At least (that’s) the way I chose to play it. I think she thinks she’s done the best she could do and I think she actually did the best she could do. I’m sure the pregnancy was not planned.”
When asked whether Sheila’s transgressions are based on actual incidents, Rice suddenly erupts in a rueful laugh and his hangdog expression is back.
“My actual mom has absolutely no filter about anything in life,” he says. “I’m not saying she (is the same as Sheila). Well, maybe I am. Let’s move on.”
“I think your mother loves you deeply,” McGrath offers helpfully.
In a roundabout way, Rice credits his showbiz career to his mother. She lived in Los Angeles after splitting with his father and dated an actor on the ’80s nighttime soap Dallas.
In promotional material, Rice recalls visiting the set where Victoria Principal gave him a kiss on the cheek and says “it was at that moment I knew I wanted to work in the entertainment industry.”
For his first scripted series, Rice says he sought to cultivate a subversive comedy that blended traditional themes with twisted storylines.
“I love the idea of a guy who is really a sweet person who’s in a very dark world,” says Rice, who allows that his character can also be pompous and self-righteous.
“I think a lot of people can relate to it on some level. And hopefully they’re going to want to root for me as they have in the past.”
Unlike Kenny vs. Spenny, the storylines are scripted in Single White Spenny.
“The scary thing for me was the memorization process, which I never had to deal with before,” says Rice.
“I was in a great number of the scenes obviously, so that sort of like, scared me. But I was proactive about it and I went to a friend of mine who’s an acting coach and he just said the simplest thing, which is: ‘It’s a muscle. Practice.’ And I practised my lines.”
Canadian comedy legend David Steinberg offered a wealth of expertise as executive producer, adds Rice. The “Curb Your Enthusiasm” director also directs one episode of “Single White Spenny.”
“We’d toss stuff out to him, ’What do you think of this? What do you think of that?”’ says Rice. “He’s just amazing.”
“We had these incredible dinners where he would wax poetic about his career…. and I’m a student of comedy so (I) was just like, sitting there, drooling about him having lunch with Groucho, weekly lunches with Groucho (and) George Burns.”
A longtime standup comic and frequent contributor to MuchMusic’s “Video On Trial,” Payne says she was amazed to land her first series role.
“I remember when I got chosen to be on the show,” Payne says to Rice.
“We had a meeting where David was staying and you were all talking to me about the show and I was nodding and looking like I was taking it in but the entire time I was like: ’I can’t believe this is happening! This has to be a dream!’
“I remember nothing from that meeting.”
“Single White Spenny” debuts Thursday on Showcase.