I find myself on the phone with Rob Schneider. He called me, left me a message. He calls you – sorts his own interviews. I like that. And, when I call him back I get to tell him I was held up because I was talking to Elvis Costello. He likes that.
“Wow, how is Elvis?”
He’s great, I tell him.
“Yeah, I don’t really know him, but I like him. I like that thing he said about how you’ve got your whole life to make your first album and then six months to do your next”.
I suggest that comedy’s a bit like that. Right? And making movies, once you’ve had your breakthrough…
And we’re off.
“I’m enjoying the freedom to do stand-up now”, Schneider says, almost breathless. He’s almost a bit agitated, there’s a nervous energy in his speech. And then he breaks off to tell some tradesmen they picked the wrong time to fix his driveway.
Where were we?
“Basically with stand-up you don’t have to wait for a response – it’s there. The audience is there. They’re coming with you. They’re there for you. With movies, it’s that whole deal of waiting to see how it goes and then of course you’ve got the movie industry, it’s not even about the audience and critics it’s about the studios and getting ideas by them first”.
Schneider can’t seem to get ideas by the studio anymore.
“I’m not sure what I want to do movie-wise. I’m, ah, I’m really not sure…”
He almost apologises for some of his movies – you may remember him from his cameos in Adam Sandler movies, often as the guy shouting the same one line. Sandler and he are buddies from their Saturday Night Live days, burgeoning comics; part of the it-crowd at the time. From there Schneider made Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, The Animal, The Hot Chick.
“I don’t think I could make those sorts of films anymore, I don’t think I’d want to. But I made them when I did. And that’s that. They’re there”.
Cue a mini-rant about studios only being interested in Twilight-styled films. Vampires. Fantasy. That sort of thing. Rob Schneider doesn’t want to do that. He’s not interested in that at all.
So what he wants to do is make people laugh. On stage. And that includes coming all the way out to New Zealand.
Kiwi audiences should know that Schneider – before he was a movie goof – was a respected stand-up, a wunderkind with so many voices and impersonations in his arsenal; his comedy toolbox stocked up with ideas learned from an obsession with comedy, with following the greats, with learning the craft.
“I grew up in an era of comedy greats, you know, post-Lenny Bruce where Richard Pryor was the guy. And George Carlin. And there’s probably not a comic alive that wasn’t influenced by them. And then Steve Martin came along – and he was different. He was silly. But he was silly at a time when America needed it. He did silly the smart way. He was silly. But he was smart”.
I’m trying to work out if Rob Schneider is smart. It always seemed like it to me. Catch-phrases and corny accents, sure. But he was the writer, often the director and I’ve seen him nail impersonations on SNL; he was young. He was hip. He was smart.
“Comedy is a form of aggression, it’s also a form of arrogance – it’s therapy without the healing. So it’s good to be back up there sharing thoughts, riffing, talking. Just talking to people. And comedy is hard work. It’s tough. I go out there and work. You know I’m working harder than Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock and Louis CK because I have to. I don’t have a TV show. And I don’t have an instant audience”.
Except he does. Kinda.
“Well, you know, returning to stand-up after movies there’s something of an expectation – people do know you from the films. And so you can talk about that – sure. And it’s an expectation, there’s a pressure, so that’s a challenge. Which is good. I guess”.
He’s not sounding so sure. That brief form of arrogance is drifting.
So we get back on track – almost – by talking about what inspires his comedy routines now.
“America is in decline, I think it’s good we’re so rich we don’t want to bomb Syria”.
I’m not sure if I’m meant to laugh.
“All good art comes in cultures that are in decline”, he continues. “And it’s a good time for comedy, also there’s a bunch of really great comics – some of the best”. He names Louis CK and Bill Burr instantly. “These guys are good. They’re really good. I mean they’ve got it locked down. They’re on. They’re always on”.
He shares some advice from another of his SNL chums. “Dana Carvey told me ‘get so good they can’t deny you’ and that is something that I think is still important”.
So is Schnieder good?
“Of course. I have the ability to be the best stand-up comic in the world. That’s the aim. That’s what I’m trying to do when I go out there. And I’ve been building up, working in secret. I’ve been working for the last couple of years, building back up, hitting up the clubs and doing two and three sets a night, doing five nights a week. I’m working hard. Some nights I am the best. Other times I’m not”.
He’s sounding like he coulda been a contender. And then he tries for a joke.
“My comedy comes, now, from a lot of what is in the news. You know they’ll talk about gun control whenever there’s a mass shooting here, and the gun lobbyists will say that it’s not just guns that kill people. You can be killed by a hammer. And that’s great. Because that’s where I get to come and say ‘yeah that’s true but that only happens once. You ever heard about the second guy killed by a hammer? Boy that’s gotta be someone pretty slow. Pretty dumb, right?’”
“It’s stupid doing fat jokes in America because half the audience is fat”.
That one just sorta, erm, sits there. If it’s observational humour it’s more observation than humour.
Schneider grew up listening to comedy albums, obsessing. His father, a musician, collected records. And Schneider learned his accents and impersonations the same way he did with learning music. He draws the comparison to practicing the trombone (“it’s a sliding scale, you learn by ear”). And so the young Rob Schneider, when he wasn’t learning about jazz, was recording classic films and reciting the dialogue, in character, bit by bit, line by line. Excruciating. Exhilarating.
“You take Casablanca”, he explains. “I’d record that off the telly and just practice over and over. Taking one single line. And first you’re Humphrey Bogart with the whole ‘Here’s looking at you’ thing”. Here he stops and moves perfectly into Bogart, reciting several lines from the film. He comes back, briefly, as Rob. “Then it’s Peter Lorre” and again he switches voices. “Then Sydney Greenstreet”. And on. And on…
It’s a pretty impressive party-trick; it has to be said. And he has me chuckling as he describes how, line-by-line, he built up a bunch of voices as he found his voice for comedy.
Then we leap to a story about Jay Leno, if you’ve tuned into Marc Maron’s WTF podcast then you’ve heard it – I get the feeling it’s a story Schneider has told often. But fair enough. It’s good. He’s a youngster driving a car and he’s got the job of taking Leno around town. At the time Leno is the guy on the comedy scene. I tell Schneider that New Zealanders might struggle to place Leno anywhere but in the snippets we see of him, most often now of him sending up his TV-host role. We don’t know him as a former genius of stand-up.
“Oh Jay was the guy, without a doubt. Ask David Letterman. Letterman hates Jay. Hates him. But even he’ll tell you that Jay was the guy at that time. There was no one better”. So cue a very good Jay Leno impersonation from Rob Schneider. But through it he offers some of the best advice he ever got, the building of his stand-up routine.
“Jay said ‘don’t worry about getting an hour of material. Who has an hour? Get five minutes that kills’”. And so that is what the young Rob Schneider set about to do.
“I worked on my five minutes and I got five minutes that absolutely destroyed and then I got the other great advice I’ve had in my career, from my manager of the time who was a heroin addict. So we get this call to be on Letterman and my manager tells me to turn it down. The logic was that nobody turns Letterman down and if you do they’ll only want you later on. My manager said that they’d call again in six months and by then I’d be the guy that turned them down and I’d be six months better. And they did. I went on Letterman at 22, I was the youngest comic to go on there at the time, and I had my five minutes I’d worked on. And I killed”.
From there Saturday Night Live beckoned and then the movies. And now, somewhat chewed up and spat out by films Schneider is back to stand-up. He’s sure he can do it again. And – hopefully – for longer than five minutes.
It was a bit like talking to a punch-drunk fighter or world-weary traveller. He tells me he’s looking forward to coming to New Zealand. And to absolutely killing while he’s here. Hopefully not with just the hammer.
I almost add, You Can Do Eeet!
And then I don’t.
To be in to win a double-pass to either the Auckland or Wellington show leave a comment below stating your favourite Rob Schneider film and the city where you’d like to attend the gig. I’ll pick one winner for Auckland and one for Wellington and announce them here next week.