By CHRIS KAZARIAN
A little over a year ago, Carol Erickson and Cristina Calderon found themselves alongside one another in a Dana Point apartment, poring through the belongings of 35-year-old comedian Nick Spears. In one box, Calderon stopped and pointed to a white phallic object, laughingly asking Spears’ mom what it was.
It was a dildo, a comedy prop of Spears, most recently seen in his 318th and final Vine on February 20. “His mom is the sweetest woman; you would [never] cuss in front of her… I remember, I said, ‘Carol, look in the box’ and she just started cracking up,” Calderon laughed. “That was Nick right there, popping up in a different way.”
That dildo had made an appearance roughly six years earlier at a Halloween party that Calderon and Spears attended at a mutual friend’s house in Santa Barbara. She was an 80’s roller girl; Spears sported a Hawaiian golf shirt and short black shorts with the infamous dildo coming out of it. “That was the first time I remember really hanging out with him,” Calderon said. “I thought this guy was the shit… he definitely left a good impression on me.”
Today is the one-year anniversary of Spears’ death. It was a Friday and Spears, the director of SEO and co-founder at Irvine’s Incredible Marketing had not shown up to work.
“Our office is really laid back so for someone not to show up until 3 pm is not that unusual,” said his co-worker and partner at Incredible Marketing Zack Bujazia.
But Calderon, his then-girlfriend of over eight months, had grown increasingly nervous. The plan was for Spears to drive up to Santa Barbara from his home in Dana Point to visit her for the weekend, but she had not heard from him all day. “It got later and later in the day and I started to worry more and more,” Calderon said. “He always texted me when he woke up. I thought, ‘Maybe he’s sleeping in,’ but then at 2 pm I started to worry a little bit. One of my coworkers said to just call his work… So I called a couple of his coworkers who were friends with him and I started to get this gut-wrenching feeling that something was wrong.”
Bujazia and Dave Sveen, president of the Irvine firm, were the first to arrive at Spears’ apartment along with police. After knocking on the door to no answer, Sveen crawled through a window, finding Spears body lying on the floor.
As his childhood friend Derek Oberholtzer said, it was sudden. “From what we know, he died in the middle of writing an email on his phone. His phone flew out of his hand and he didn’t make it four steps from where he was writing the email and where he died on the floor. It was what you call an instant death,” he said. “It made my own mortality become fucking real.”
The media reported that Spears had died from a heart attack though Calderon said that is not entirely accurate. He died of heart failure.
Twenty years earlier, a 15-year-old Spears found himself in a hospital undergoing open heart surgery to address an issue with his aortic valve. It was such a life-changing event that on February 21, 1994 – the same day he died last year – Spears wrote out a will. Though he survived that ordeal, Spears still needed a second surgery that he ultimately never went through with.
For someone who friends say had such a big heart, it was cruel that this would be the organ that would eventually lead to his death.
“Not a single day goes by where I don’t think about him,” Oberholtzer said. “It is daily. It is a huge, huge vacuum of emptiness.”
To the outsider, Spears was simply a comedian. He was the middle-aged nerdy baseball card collector with a funny lisp Bob Masters. He was the hyperkinetic scientist Geoffrey Simmons blurting out words and phrases like electromagnetic particle waves, cybernetics and molecular structure. He could make you laugh out loud with something subtle like a glance or giggle or something more overt like pretending to have sex with a ghost.
Whether it was in short six-second bursts on Vine, longer fare on YouTube, created with his LurkSquad buddies Chris Marquis, Adam Marquis, Mark Magid and Garrett Lynn or telling jokes on stage at clubs along the California coast, Spears had a knack for comedy.
But he was more than just a clown.
Spears grew up in Santa Barbara, graduating from San Marcos High School in 1997 before attending Sonoma State University. As Oberholtzer tells it, Spears “had this big, bright super outgoing personality,” even as a kid.
He was the type of person everyone wanted to hang out with, a quality he would retain as an adult. “When we went to the [funeral] service there were about 50 to 60 guys who all thought they were his best friend,” Oberholtzer added. “He always made you feel super warm or welcome… He was the only guy who could walk into a room and make everyone laugh and just brighten up a room. He was always a special guy.”
At work, Bujazia said Spears was known as a “very, very hard working guy. He was very serious at work. People who worked with him had no idea he had this funny side at all.”
Calderon said Spears was a caring, loyal person who was always there for his friends and family.
He was also profoundly impacted by other’s suffering. After the loss of an ex-girlfriend due to cancer, he put his stand-up career on hold. He eventually channeled that pain into something positive, volunteering for the FC Cancer Foundation, also known as FxCK Cancer, whose mission is to fight cancer through awareness and education about the importance of early cancer detection. Spears later used his Vine fame to support the nonprofit, shooting a six-second piece in which he can be seen, dressed as Thor, hitting Bujazia in the face with a hammer as he lights up a cigarette.
Though, he had no kids of his own, Spears was a favorite of his close friends’ children, many of whom affectionately referred to him as Uncle Nick. “He would have been a fantastic parent,” Oberholtzer said. “Even to this day my kids still talk about him.”
In the hours and days that followed Spears’ sudden death, a host of notable celebrities from Colin Hanks to Chris D’Elia to Crystal Heffner took to Twitter and Vine to express their sympathy. There was an outpouring of tributes on Vine and Twitter, from social media stars who worked with him (KC James, Sunny Mabrey) to those who simply admired his work (Woodsie, Ryan McHenry, Jethro Ames).
His Vine followers vaulted over the magical 100,000 follower count shortly after his death and currently stands at 167,800 followers. Even today, Spears is making people laugh.
With someone so young, it is easy to ask, “what if,” were he still alive. Just two months before he passed, Spears returned to stand up, performing two sets at the Comedy Hideaway in Santa Barbara, Earlier that same month, he posted his excitement about signing a YouTube deal on Facebook.
“With the Vine stuff, it felt like he was getting that recognition and it definitely felt like it was a good upward trend for his comedy career,” said Bujazia. “He was meeting a lot of great people and definitely taking comedy very seriously again and putting a lot of effort into it.”
Romantically, his life could not have been better. “When he was with Cristina, I never saw him happier,” said Oberholtzer. “I definitely saw a very different, very happy Nick. Every time I saw him, you could tell she had an impact on him.’
As to where their relationship was going to lead, Calderon said, there was talk about moving in together, “making baby steps to being more serious.”
Today, at a memorial pot luck at Goleta Beach in Santa Barbara, there will only be fond memories of Spears shared by those who knew him best. It is the little things – the texts, the calls, simply hanging out – that Calderon, Oberholtzer and Bujazia say they miss about Spears.
“I miss his funny jokes and not being able to pick up the phone and call him,” Calderon said. “I knew he’d be able to make me feel better or send me funny pictures or Snapchats, just stupid stuff that was hilarious… I guess I miss everything.”
The sum of who we are can not be defined by one single incident, one six-second video clip or one 140-character tweet. Instead, it is the amalgamation of all our experiences and relationships over the seconds that add up a lifetime, So it is unfair to label Spears as simply a Viner. Or a comedian. He was more than that.
“This was like losing a brother,” Bujazia said. “We still have props from his Vines and a memorial set up for him in our office. He is someone we will never forget and he was close to everyone because he really cared about people and, in return, everyone cared about him.”
Over the past year, Oberholtzer and a handful of close friends have dedicated themselves to keeping Nick’s spirit alive through the website www.nickspears.com. “One of the goals for us to build it into a really big archive so he continues to live on and his memory lives on,” Oberholtzer said. “It is really helpful to me. Cathartic isn’t the right word, but it makes it easier for me to deal with everything.”