"You're with your new buddy now," David Spade claims.

This is a bit of a stretch. Given his biting comic persona -- with its tone of unctuous geniality that suddenly turns into snide disdain -- it's easier to believe that Spade is just setting up another of his caustic punch lines.

After all, he established himself in the popular culture of the '90s as the stiletto-tongued entertainment reporter who presented the "Hollywood Minute" on "Saturday Night Live" -- once obliterating "SNL" alumnus Eddie Murphy, whose film career was in decline, with: "Look, kids, a falling star! . . . Make a wish!" He has reinforced this mordant pose with his portrayals of a sarcastic assistant at a fashion magazine on the hit NBC series "Just Shoot Me" (which this week joins the network's formidable Thursday lineup, airing at 8:30) and a rich, snotty frat boy who torments financial aid student Marlon Wayans in the movie comedy "Senseless."

So is this self-avowed "new buddy" zinging his interviewer about the soul-killing superficiality of the celebrity/journalist co-dependency? Or is it just possible that Spade merely wants to be . . . friendly?

"It's just easier to make fun and cut down," he explains quite amiably, deconstructing his trademark humor over breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. "It's kind of a way of life in America. So if you can make that an art form, where people want to hear what you're going to say about something, it can be cruel and funny. . . . And, hopefully, underlying all my jokes is an element of surprise."

It's the morning after the 33-year-old Spade, taking advantage of a recent break from "Just Shoot Me," visited New York for guest appearances on Howard Stern's radio show and David Letterman's television show, where he was obliged to discuss the December drug-overdose death of his comic soulmate Chris Farley. Then Spade trekked to D.C. to do his stand-up routine for an audience of 3,000 at George Washington University.

Stubble-chinned and sleepy-eyed, wan and waiflike, he resembles a college kid recovering from an all-nighter. He barely belongs amid the sleek power-breakfasters who populate the Four Seasons dining room. A skinny 5 feet 6, he suffers from hypoglycemia, a stiff neck and a bad back, among other complaints. His left hand is blackly inked with scrawled names and phone numbers he would otherwise forget. A baseball cap is jammed over his straw-blond, shower-wet hair.

"There's always really a hint of truth that makes it worth saying," Spade continues his humor analysis, furtively forking his scrambled eggs, garnished with an artery-clogging rasher of bacon and sausage. He washes it down, incongruously, with a bottle of Evian. "Sometimes that makes the joke a little harder.

"If you hung out with me and my friends for five minutes, I would be eliminated from show business," Spade goes on. He's alluding to his comic stance as a victimized white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, ashamed of his political incorrectness but resentful of such daily affronts as an inconsiderate Hispanic hotel maid, screeching "House-kipping!" at 6 a.m., or a fast-talking Chinese real estate agent trying to gouge him on a Beverly Hills rental property. Both are staples of his stand-up act.

"Some of the things you say offend so many people," he says. "Like that stupid JonBenet joke."

The day before on Stern's show, Spade had complained about seeing yet another photograph of JonBenet Ramsey in the National Enquirer. He observed: "She's not as hot without makeup." That prompted Spade's 60-year-old mother in Scottsdale, Ariz., to call him and chide, "That was a terrible thing to say. I hated myself for laughing."

"It's so weird to see her wearing that red cowboy hat with sparkles on it, singing I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy,' " Spade says, analyzing his quip about the bludgeoned beauty princess. "It's so creepy. . . . I'm saying: Don't make your kids look hot and dirty and sexy when they're 5 years old! It's really not the place or the time. You're about 11 years early.' "

Similarly, Spade's jokes about his deadbeat dad, who abandoned his mother and two older brothers when Davey was 5, are bristling with indignation. "My dad just took off. It was one of those divorces, he split one day and then he'd show up once a year and give me a Nerf football for Christmas, thought he was my hero again. Oh thanks, Dad. Wow, it's two colors! You spoil me, you {contemptible expletive}!'

"I talk to my dad all the time, he's more like my buddy than my father, and he's not happy that I use him in my act," Spade says. "But I tell him, Hey, Dad, I'm sorry, but I have to get something out of this.' "

Sometimes Spade's humor has a dark moral center. And sometimes it's just . . . dark, as in this perverse vision of Spadian bliss: "I just want to get away from it all. Get away from showbiz. Get some girl out in the middle of the boonies, like in Montana, hundreds of miles from civilization, sittin' in a cabin with some cutie, curled up in front of a fire. And just say stuff to her like: Scream all you want, sugar! Ain't nobody gonna hear you! . . . Yeah, there was a rock in that snowball.' "

"I think that comes from when he was a kid, when there was a lot of anger," says his 35-year-old brother Andy, a former advertising executive who, with his fashion-designer wife, runs the tres chic Kate Spade handbag company. "David's best stuff is that dark stuff -- the stuff that comes from within."

"David is a watcher," says his mother, Judy Todd, a freelance writer and editor who was owner of Arizona's Tempe magazine until she sold it last year. "He would always watch everyone very carefully -- he was always very subtle -- and then he'd come up with a zinger. He can pick apart your words and memorize them as though he had a photographic memory. Even today, he'll stand in a corner at a party, and he'll have everyone's character down when the party's over."

Spade was born in Michigan, where he lived until he was 4. Then his father, Wayne, an erstwhile advertising copywriter who goes by the nickname Sam -- and is known as "Peewee" in his son's routine -- moved the family to Arizona and vanished shortly thereafter.

"I was a somewhat bright child, which led to different sorts of problems," David recalls. "In second grade, I moved up to fourth grade math and reading. There was an option to skip a grade but I was sooo tiny and microscopic that my mom was, like, He has enough {expletive} now, let's not make his life totally terrible.' I stayed in my grade but alienated everyone by being, like, brainiac.' "

These are obviously painful memories, but Spade long ago converted them into material.

"I was a nerd to the bone, buddy. I was a coin collector instead of a football player. But it was hard to get laid by telling a girl that you have a 1916D Mercury dime in very fine condition. That's not gonna close many sales for you. I literally had a girl in my room once, showing her, like, Indian pennies. She just wasn't into it. . . .

"And then, when I got to high school, my older brother was cool, so I was suddenly cool by association. And I totally dusted all my old math friends. I was, like, "Hey, nerds, why don't you go do some flashcards? Hey, c'mon, new friends, let's go to assembly!' Doo-dee-doo-dee.

"I wanted to go to a big college, but my guidance counselor said, We're gonna try to get you into community college.' From there I went to Arizona State University. At ASU the wheels came off, because I started trying to do stand-up. Once I found something I liked, I didn't care about all that other stuff and school started to suck. . . .

"This was the start of the comedy sweep of the early '80s. The Improvs started to sprout up around the country. I was 18 when I first tried it, and I was horrible. It was tough for about six months, and to make money I picked up work as a busboy, valet parker, skateboard shop employee. Then I finally moved to California. Eventually I had a decent 20-minute act."

He auditioned at the Improv in Los Angeles. "They let me in on, like, a scam," he says. "They didn't think I was the funniest. They just didn't have one of me. I had long, blond hair and I was 20 or 21. And I had a kind of different take. There was Richard Belzer, Paul Reiser, Seinfeld -- who all had kind of a similar feel -- and I just stuck out. They said, "We need one of you.' "

Spade's career was launched. In short order he snagged a role in a "Police Academy" sequel and then scored big on Fox Television's "Joan Rivers Show," which was a mess and between hosts. The producers were so smitten with this fresh comedy phenom that they offered him a month-long guest-host tryout. It was a tremendous opportunity. And Spade said . . . No, thanks.

"That was my first lesson in not getting too greedy and not biting off too much," he says, "because the six minutes I did on that show was my best six minutes. But to host the show, I had no idea what I was doing. I was, like, 22. It could have gone the wrong way and hurt me more than helped me. When I didn't do it, the people at Fox brought me in for meetings, because they couldn't believe that I would say no to that."

Spade did believe, however, that he was born for "Saturday Night Live," which was entering its 15th season on NBC. In 1990, when Spade was 25, his friend Dennis Miller, for whom he regularly opened on the comedy tour, persuaded "SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels to give the kid a shot.

"The hard part about SNL' is there's no real communication when you get there," Spade recalls. "It's not like people are being mean to you, they just act like you're not there. And I'm so excited that I got hired and we're all gonna have so much fun, it's such a great show, and you get kind of chilled. You kind of run around, excited, and you suddenly think, Hey, they're not joining in on the enthusiasm.' "

In the beginning Spade seldom got air time, and was soon miserable and depressed. "If something came up in the show where they needed somebody who looked like Adam Sandler, Sandler would do it. If it looked like Rob Schneider, Schneider would do it. And if it looked like me, Dana Carvey would do it."

Once, in 1992, Spade was elaborately made up as Ross Perot for a pre-taped presidential debate sketch, while Carvey was done up as President George Bush. First they taped the wide shots. Spade let himself believe that he would actually be permitted to play Perot -- only to have Carvey emerge in full costume to say Perot's lines for the close-ups. "I was home, punching the walls, and you can't help it," Spade recalls. "It just builds up inside you."

But Spade ultimately found his voice with the "Hollywood Minute." It was the voice of a frustrated nobody, eviscerating his betters. "It was a weird dynamic. I was just going to gun people down. It was going to be a bloodbath, because that's the only way I was going to get on," he says.

"When you look at what he did, it was very nervy stuff about Hollywood," Michaels recalls. "David had to apologize lots of times to people who had no fear of calling him up and yelling at him, like Eddie Murphy. David is not threatening physically . . . but he's remarkably strong for a frail guy. And when he's funny, he can be mean, but it comes from the right place. It comes from some sort of healthy place."

The "Minute" became Spade's ticket to "SNL" success, giving him the chance to present a handful of other signature characters, such as a nastily officious receptionist and the rude flight attendant.

Michaels put Spade in the "SNL" spinoff film "Coneheads" and also in the two movies that showcased Spade and his "SNL" colleague Farley as kind of a modern-day Laurel and Hardy. "Tommy Boy" came out to good box office and glowing reviews in 1995, but "Black Sheep" was less well received in 1996, the year Spade left "SNL" to join the cast of "Just Shoot Me."

The overweight, overindulgent Farley was Spade's best friend. Spade was so devastated by Farley's death, his mother says, that he couldn't keep himself together enough to attend the funeral. Spade has been extremely reluctant to talk about his pal, lest the necessary process of publicity become a national bereavement tour.

"I don't want to get that whiff of I'm trying to get something out of it,' " Spade says. "I joked once that we're trying to schedule our next movie around his heart attack, so sometimes it comes out rough. But I'm always making fun of myself and my friends. Chris liked it when I made fun of him. He thought it was funny if I'd rip on him."

These days, Spade is busy making a fortune from "Just Shoot Me" -- where his contract affords him an unusual degree of creative influence, allowing him to suggest lines for his character, Dennis Finch, and film at least one take his way. Meanwhile, he's revising a screenplay for an $8 million movie to be financed by Federal Express CEO Fred Smith, who recently started a Hollywood production company, Alcon Entertainment. The movie's premise is that in order for Spade's character, a working stiff, to date a high-class uptown girl, he must kidnap her dog.

Life, for now, seems good, with the caveat that Spade's own dating experiences -- he recently broke up with actress Kristy Swanson, star of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- might be as fraught as the one in his movie.

"The only thing I miss, when all these fun things are going on, is I'd kind of like someone to hang out with," Spade says. "I wish I had that carefree lifestyle. But I guess I'm more private, and more inside." CAPTION: David Spade says his biting humor works because "it can be cruel and funny. . . . And, hopefully, underlying all my jokes is an element of surprise." CAPTION: David Spade on his show-biz break: "There was Richard Belzer, Paul Reiser, Seinfeld . . . and I just stuck out. They said, We need one of you.' "