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Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Rob Schneider: Makin' Movies

This week, I decided to write about Rob Schneider after listening to him on Marc Maron’s WTF. The man who starred in dreck like The Animal, The Hot Chick, and Big Stan was on the show and he was laid back, interesting, and funny! He also had some fascinating insight into stand-up comedy. For example when talking about a venerated San Francisco comic, Schneider points out that while funny, the comic lacked the discipline to put together an act, which Schneider feels kept him from breaking nationally. Which is a pretty damned astute and reasonable advice for any comedian.

Which is weird, because, y’know, this:

However, when we look at Schneider’s career as a whole, there is plenty to remind us of just how funny Schneider can be. He has been doing stand-up comedy since he was 15, after all, at which point he debuted onstage at the legendary Holy City Zoo in San Francisco. After making a name for himself there, he worked his way up the comedy ranks, scoring a writing gig on Saturday Night Live after Lorne Michaels was impressed by the young comic’s performance on HBO’s Young Comedians Special. When we watch his set, we get an idea of what Michaels saw in the young man.

In this set, we see a Rob Schneider who is clever, absurdist, and funny. His bit about the word “dude” having much in common with the Polynesian catch-all, “aloha”, works into a hilarious crescendo that has an appropriately off kilter tag that perfectly subverts audience expectation of where the joke was headed. Which is the comedian’s job, after all and Schneider does it brilliantly.

As a cast member and writer on SNL, Schneider helped create one of the most enduring characters of the show’s 38-year run. That may seem downright blasphemous to long time fans of the show, but right now in several offices throughout these beautiful shining 50 states, someone is at a copy machine right now, waiting for pages to print out and sidling up right next to that person is a co-worker quipping, “Heyyy, makin’ copies!”

It was through his work on SNL that we see how Schneider was able to connect with filmgoers during his successful streak of films during the early 2000s. The character concept is inspired in its simplicity and Schneider sells the character with an idiotic friendliness underscored by a sweet vulnerability; sympathetically portraying Richard Laymer as a man who is just trying to reach out to his co-workers in the only way he knows how to.

Schneider had quite a few hits on SNL, which you can read about in more depth right here.  Honestly, my favorite Schneider sketch will always be “Tiny Elvis”. One of my closest and oldest friend and I sealed our friendship with our shared love of that sketch. While it originated with Nicholas Cage as Tiny Elvis, Schneider took over the role in the one or two subsequent sketches that followed. The sketch is a glorious spoof on the Elvis legend and his sycophantic band members. Elvis is about two inches tall. He sees something mundane, like a pencil, and says to his entourage, “Hey, look at the pencil. That pencil is Huuuuugge!”

His entourage agrees, “Ha! It sure is! That’s a good one, Tiny E.”

And Tiny Elvis responds by saying, “I’m just sayin’ it’s big, that’s all.”

That is pretty much the whole gist of the sketch. It is stupid, but underneath it all, it is a scathing commentary on the abandonment of self-respect inherent to the hangers on of reflected celebrity.

When Schneider was not the center of a sketch, he made for a wonderful utility player. In a cast that boasted Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, David Spade, Time Meadows, and Phil Hartman, Schneider was often resigned to the Zeppo role, meaning he was the put upon everyman, reacting to the crazy happenings around him. And he was really good at this! He was so good, that was the role he was relegated to in many of the supporting parts in movies he appeared in after he left SNL and struck out to Hollywood. Perhaps the most notorious of these films was as the side—kick to Sylvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd.

After Sandler made a big splash in comedy films with the back-to-back bro classics, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, Schneider got invited onto the Sandler train with The Waterboy, where his gleefully stupid townie character coined the phrase, “You can do it!” Since then, Schneider has appeared in nearly every Adam Sandler movie and Sandler’s Happy Madison productions also produced a few starring vehicles for him, starting with Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.

However, despite the movie’s success, his film career has been a little rocky. It is no secret that Schneider’s films are little loved by movie critics, but after a particularly scathing review by Los Angeles Times’ Patrick Goldstein, in which the critic was particularly vehement in his dislike for Rob Schneider’s 2005 Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, calling Schneider a third rate comedic actor. Schneider retaliated by taking out a full-page ad in Variety stating, “maybe you didn't win a Pulitzer Prize because they haven't invented a category for Best Third-Rate, Unfunny Pompous Reporter Who's Never Been Acknowledged by His Peers."

Afterward, esteemed critic Roger Ebert joined the fray writing, “As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks."

Ultimately, Schneider proved to have a pretty good sense of humor about the bashing he has received from critics. When Ebert fell ill a few years ago and went into surgery for cancer, Schneider sent him a bouquet of flowers to which he signed, “from your least favorite movie star, Rob Schneider.”

One of the hardest things anyone will have to deal with when embarking on any kind of career in which they are putting themselves out in the public eye is dealing with the scrutiny and criticism that comes with it. On WTF, Schneider confides to Maron that he has learned to become “zen” about dealing with criticism and it is an absolutely important piece of advice. As a stand-up comic making movies, that criticism must be even more frustrating. If you go up on stage and a joke doesn’t work or the show is off, you can go home, work on the material and return the next night and try it out. As a comic, you are free to have a bad show every once in a while as long as you take lessons from why and how you failed, but as a filmmaker, that failure just hangs there like an albatross and there is nothing you can do to make it better.

Which is not to excuse Rob Schneider. To be honest, his film work has not necessarily appealed to me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see why they became so popular. In his films Schneider is game for every ridiculous situation he is put in. Whether that be as a man filled with animal parts seducing a goat or as a reluctant prostitute dancing with a woman with a penis for a nose, he plays these roles with a disregard for vanity and a true sense of guilelessness.  He is the classic hapless comedy hero and if he and the Rob Schneider that we heard speaking with Marc Maron; confident, smart, quick, and funny, ever get together, that’s a movie I would love to see.

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  • Carson

    Yeah, Schneider has become a bit of a punchline himself, but I will eagerly defend his strength as a performer during his SNL days. Super underrated.

  • http://twitter.com/DaneSager Dane Sager

    I have never actually seen his stand up before, he's great. Thanks for writing this.