Before Rob Schneider was makin’ copies as “The Richmeister” character on “Saturday Night Live,” he was a San Francisco-born Jewish boy who loved making jokes.
In the 27 years since “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels tagged him to write and act on the show in 1989, Schneider has been credited on more than 50 films, performed stand-up all over the world and starred, alongside longtime friend Adam Sandler, in popular hits including “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” “50 First Dates” and “The Hot Chick.”
Schneider, 53, who is currently in production on the second season of his Netflix sitcom “Real Rob,” will be returning to the Bay Area on Sunday, Nov. 13, for a performance in Palo Alto. He spoke to J. recently about his return to stand-up, his take on capitalism and how Jewish restlessness motivated him to pursue comedy.
You’ll be performing this weekend at the Oshman Family JCC. Can we get a sneak peak of your opening one-liner?
Depends on who wins on Tuesday.
While you grew up in the Bay Area, it’s been a while since you called this place home. How are you feeling about the big return?
My family, by now, has all moved away, so I feel a little rootless. But even though I haven’t lived in San Francisco in 25 years, it still always feels like home. I have a San Francisco sensibility. It’s a bubble of intellectual openness and artistic freedom, a great place to have grown up. If you weren’t a socialist in your 20s in San Francisco then you were a heartless bastard.
How has it changed since you were living here?
Now I feel it’s a bubble of uber internet-wealthy millennials. But let’s be honest, the cool cities are now bastions for the young and rich. It’s just capitalism being more mean.
Your performance this weekend is a return to stand-up after about 20 years. Why did you stop, and what’s brought you back?
Capitalism (laughs). I was making a lot of money making movies for a long time. And then Chris Rock, I did a movie with him, and Adam Sandler were both talking to me about going back to stand-up. Chris does the greatest stand-up in the world, and he said “you could be the best at it,” and that scared me. As an artist, it’s important to do the stuff that scares you. I think this role on my current TV show, “Real Rob,” is the best role I’ve ever had because it absolutely terrifies me. I’m playing this asshole version of myself. It’s completely narcissistic and megalomaniacal, but there’s a heart to him and you can root for him.
You seem willing, almost gleeful, about showing yourself in a negative light. What’s that about?
My hero is John Cleese, and this guy loved playing, basically, a rascal. Seeing how much you can get away with. Cheating, scheming. He’s a big child, and it makes me smile thinking about [my] potential to do these potentially horrible things while making people laugh hard. And there’s no one that can play me better than me.
I love doing it with Netflix because it feels very relevant. The network system is crumbling right before our eyes. By 2030, only the super old baby boomers who haven’t dropped dead yet will be watching regular TV. And the show gets to show all those rough edges, the inhumanity of show business.
There is a renaissance in how people communicate in this information age. Interestingly though, it’s not increasing freedom or freedom of ideas, because people go on the internet just to find the stuff that they’re interested in.
That’s the big catch, right — the belief that because we can talk to more people at one time, we’re somehow more connected, or because there’s more access to information, we are more informed.
All capitalism offers is hopelessness. If you can break away from that and find a connectedness, to the universe and yourself, that’s a workable example of how to live a decent life. That’s the idea I try to talk about in my stand-up act.
You grew up in Pacifica with a Catholic mom and a secular Jewish dad. What was your relationship to Judaism as a child?
The definition of Judaism, to me, is being an outsider. It is someone who is drifting and trying to find a home. And I think that if there’s a commonality to all Jewish people, it’s a sense of trying to find that place, a sense of both fitting and not fitting in. Wherever Jews have gone, they have thrived, but always somewhat on the outside. Like when the Jews left Spain in the 12th century and made their way to what was the Czech region, they were not allowed into most industries, but they were allowed to go into banking and jewelry making, and they thrived.
The wandering, I feel very connected to that. Trying to fit in wherever you go. The strength is holding onto your culture and your people. And part of that trying to belong is our sense of humor. You’ll never meet a Jewish person without a sense of humor. It might be a mean one. When I was a kid, when we went to my Uncle Norm’s house, you had to stand up and tell a joke. You’d better know one and it’d better be funny. Because if it isn’t funny, no one’s going to laugh. I’ll never forget that — if you wanted to go, you had to bring a joke.
Jews and humor: Can you tell me more about that relationship?
It’s a survival technique. When you’re in a group, it relaxes everybody. It bonds people. I think the Jewish sense of humor is unique, it is able to go to that darker place. Nothing is off-limits, because of the pressure that the Jews have been under for thousands of years.
As more and more people in our world are being displaced, do you think the world is going to get funnier?
I hope so. I hope the world becomes more passionate. I think the foreign policy of the U.S. is to blame for the problems in Europe right now. You can say what you want about Putin, but Putin is right: The United States destroys nations. I’ll bet some very interesting senses of humor are going to come out of all this.
You often play the underdog in your movies. Do you connect your Jewish identity and influence in any way to the roles you play?
I totally do. I totally see myself as a guy proving himself every time. Every time out, there’s a combination of, I hope they accept me. I have to overperform, overdeliver, trying to fit in. I think that’s part of my genetic makeup. But it has another side to it.
What’s the other side?
That by trying to fit in, you end up finding what you love and are passionate about. Starting from a place of needing to please brings you to discovering your art form, and becoming great at it. And then hopefully, if you become lucky enough, you can give it back. In the end, that’s what really matters.
I never thought to connect the need to please with my Jewish heritage.
It makes sense. It’s a beautiful quality. Imagine not having that striving? A lot of kids were told, hey, have a good day today. Have fun. But being Jewish is totally different — you’re supposed to be the best, it’s in your genes. There’s no excuses now. Sorry, but you can do better than a B+.
Did you get that from your parents?
Yes. And it was, like, be the best and don’t congratulate yourself either. It does some psychic damage, I’ll admit. But at the end of the day, if you can make it mostly a positive thing, then it’s great. Maybe it’s too much pressure on us Jews, but I think more good comes out of it. And more therapy bills.
That’s the fun part about being in your 20s, therapy bills.
It’s OK. You’re supposed to be exactly where you are right now. Give yourself a break. You’re doing perfect. The idea that you’re supposed to get to some other place is just an illusion.
You are the father of three, including a baby born in September. How do you incorporate your Jewish values into your parenting?
Complete and utter positive motivation and acceptance. All good things come from positive motivation. It’s not about perfection, as long as they feel valued.
Rob Schneider performs at 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13 at Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. $35-$50. www.paloaltojcc.org