Q&A: Rob Schneider
Several years ago, actor and comedian Rob Schneider ended a lengthy standup hiatus, doing so at the urging of his friend and fellow former Saturday Night Live cast mate Chris Rock. Since jumping back onstage, Schneider has maintained a singular focus: to join Rock and others at the peak of the standup mountaintop. Ahead of his second summer engagement at the Tropicana on Sept. 2-3, Schneider spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Jacob about his drive to be the best, his Netflix series and the day he met Chris Farley.
You were introduced to America on HBO’s Young Comedians Special back in 1989. What do you recall about that show, which was hosted by Dennis Miller and also featured David Spade?
Dennis Miller has made his own contributions to American standup comedy as a terrific wordsmith and comedian himself, but he also helped launch the careers of several comedians—Adam Sandler, David Spade and myself. And I’m sure there were others, too. So what do I remember about that show? I remember I had just been on David Letterman right before that, so after doing (Letterman) and the Young Comedians Special, I felt like I was actually in show business. Before that, I was a standup, but I didn’t know if I was actually in show business. Right after that, Rosanne Barr offered me a job on her TV series, and at the same time, I got offered Saturday Night Live. It was always a dream of mine to get on (SNL), so I had to do that.
So would you call the Young Comedians Special your first big break?
I think David Letterman was my first big break, but this was even bigger. This was a life-changing event, for sure.
What was your reaction when SNL offered you a job to write for the show?
I was hired at the end of the 1989-’90 season, and it just seemed surreal. It was like the comedian’s version of winning the lottery. It just doesn’t seem real, like you have to keep looking at the (lottery ticket) numbers over and over again before it starts to sink in. When I walked into the studio, the first thing I asked was, “Where’s the stage where they did the ‘Wild and Crazy Guys’ skits?” because that was the thing that made me laugh so hard when I was a kid. They showed me the stage, and it seemed kind of magical. Anytime you had a sketch, you wanted to get it on that (stage).
You were part of an iconic SNL cast that included Spade, Sandler, Chris Rock and the late Chris Farley. With that kind of comedic talent, were you forced to raise your game?
It’s a sink-or-swim mentality. You have a bunch of young guys there trying to make it, and it’s very competitive. But it was very fair—the fairest place in all of show business in the sense that, if you write something, it gets read in front of everybody. And then whatever is funny, 90 percent of the time, it gets on (the show). That is as libertarian as it gets. It was pretty much comedic justice. If you were funny, you’d get on—unless somebody had a movie out, then they might get a little more favoritism. As I’m in show business longer and longer, I find (Saturday Night Live) to be more the exception than the rule, for sure.
Do you have a favorite Farley story?
The first time I met Chris, he was—I wouldn’t say the word “rude”; I would say he was hilariously belligerent, but in a benevolent way, not in a mean way. We were at the check-in desk of the hotel, and he insisted on getting a smoking room, because he really liked to smoke a lot. I was standing next to him, and he told the check-in person (mimics Farley’s voice), “Do you understand? I’m a smoker. I like to smoke and I need to smoke, so I need a smoking room so I can enjoy my smoking. If you look up my name, it should be on there. The name’s Farley.” I’d heard of the guy, because (fellow comedian) Bob Odenkirk had told me about him and how funny he was—and also how dangerous he was to himself. Then we went out for dinner that night at a Mexican restaurant, and I never was able to go back to that restaurant because by the end of the evening, 11 tequilas later, Chris was dancing on top of the table with his shirt off. He had an appetite for life. Unfortunately, sometimes the brightest stars burn out the fastest.
Your Netflix series Real Rob features you, your wife and your young daughter all playing yourselves. Describe the show in one sentence.
I would say it’s a modern I Love Lucy, except in reverse: I’m Lucy, and my wife is Ricky Ricardo.
How did you come up with the idea?
We did a show on CBS that I thought was just not real at all and (network executives) didn’t have a lot of confidence in. They kept questioning it, and recast it once. They didn’t want to have an actress who pretended to sound like she was Mexican, so they got a girl from Spain who was very nice, but didn’t either look or sound Mexican. I said, “Well, this isn’t very real. So if I ever do a show again, let’s just do it ourselves and we’ll call it Real Rob.” So we did it ourselves completely, and Netflix bought it after watching five minutes of it. It’s been fun—very liberating. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.
You’ve obviously had a lot of success in movies and television as an actor, writer and producer. But what motivates you to continue doing stand-up?
Well, it’s the freest of all forms of entertainment. It’s a one-person monologue where I can play all the characters, I can talk about what I want and I can bring the audience together and subvert them to my point of view—hopefully—and they get to see how my brain works for an hour. David Spade and Adam Sandler and Chris Rock would tell you: By the time we all became famous, we were never headliners. We each had about 25 good minutes, which is all you need to become a star in L.A. But even at my peak during my time on Saturday Night Live, I never had a killer hour. Then Chris Rock had that incredible HBO special in 1996 (Bring the Pain) which was probably the most important comedy special of the last 20 years. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, he did it.” And I just didn’t have the guts to really (commit) myself to it. Then about seven years ago, I jumped back into standup and said, “OK, I’m really going to give this a go here.” So I did.
This is your second time this summer headlining at the Tropicana. Is it still exciting to perform in Vegas?
Yeah! To get a billboard on the Strip and be in the big room in any of the Strip (hotels), you’ve achieved a certain amount of fame and notoriety. You have to be doing pretty good to be on a marquee and to be the headlining act at a casino. But it’s also a lot of responsibility, and I take it seriously. I promise people I’ll give them a monster show, because I’m going after the best in the business to be the best. Otherwise, why do this? Chris Rock is the one who talked me into doing this again. He said, “Hey, you could be the best at this,” and I take that very seriously. I plan on catching up to him. It’s the same competitive stuff from those days at SNL. I made it there, and I’ll make it here again.
You’ve certainly got a lot of competition, given that we’re in the midst of another golden age of standup comedy.
We’ve always had great comedians. I just don’t remember as many great ones all at their peak at the same time, like we have right now. Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Louis C.K., Chris Rock—I mean, that’s like four George Carlins. Those guys are remarkable. And there are funny female comedians, too. Sarah Silverman is fantastic. Whitney Cummings is really runny. And Amy Schumer, when she’s at her best, also is really funny.
Who is your comedy hero?
John Cleese. Monty Python was a quintessentially great, earth-breaking show—it was for comedy what the Beatles were for music. It changed the world. It was written by people performing it, like Saturday Night Live was written by people performing it when it was at its best. That kind of silly, crazy inspiration (from Monty Python) was my nirvana and my awakening as far as what I wanted to do with my life. You laughed so hard, you cried—you couldn’t breathe—and John Cleese was the quintessential big man. He was just hilarious, he had no boundaries and was so courageous. To me, it’s the high-water mark of comedy in the 20th century, and anyone who disagrees with that doesn’t know comedy. I was very lucky to meet John Cleese over the years—I sought his advice about my TV show, and he was very nice to me—and he told me, “The thing about Monty Python that people don’t realize is we all wrote it for ourselves knowing what we could perform.” I’m very grateful that he took the time to spend with me. I’m a huge fan and admirer.