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October 1, 2014

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Q+A: Rob Schneider talks George Carlin, Noam Chomsky and his return to standup

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Dinand Van Der Wal / Columbia Pictures / Associated Press

Deuce Bigalow (Rob Schneider) returns as a gigolo in Europe in “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.”

Rob Schneider

In this film publicity image released by Columbia Pictures, Rob Schneider, left, and Joyce Van Patten are shown in a scene from Launch slideshow »

Actor, comedian and director Rob Schneider might be best known for his tenure on “Saturday Night Live” and roles in films including “Grown Ups” and the “Deuce Bigalow” series, but the San Francisco native cut his teeth in standup.

Schneider has recently returned to form, and his latest tour hits South Point tonight through Sunday. I caught up with him to discuss Las Vegas comedy, the challenges of standup and talking — or not talking — politics onstage.

There’s a lot of talk about Las Vegas becoming a destination for comedy again. What does playing Las Vegas today mean from a comedian’s perspective?

For a standup, it’s hard to compete. People can pay 75 bucks or whatever it is to go see me, or they can pay the same thing to go see people diving off 100-foot platforms at Cirque du Soleil. These are really amazing shows that you can go see. So as a standup, you better be good to compete with that.

But it’s an interesting thing, I really believe that there has never been so many comedians in their prime at the same time as there is right now. Bill Burr, Chris Rock, Louis C.K., Daniel Tosh, Dave Chappelle. These guys are really good, so it’s also a challenge to keep up with those guys. In Vegas, either you’ve arrived, or you’re cashing in.

How does performing for a Vegas crowd compare to other cities?

I just played Washington, D.C., and tried to make a really political show out there. It’s not the same thing I’m gonna do here. I don’t know if people would care about that. But I’m looking forward to it.

I’ll tell you what, I don’t like playing Atlantic City. I like playing Vegas; I think you get a more real audience. Atlantic City seems to be cockier, not an audience that I can relate to or that can relate to me. I don’t know. I only did it once, and I’m not doing it again.

Tell me more about your upcoming shows — what should audiences expect from your standup?

If they want to see me do stuff from my movies, they’re going to be disappointed because I don’t do anything from the movies. I’m a real standup. I talk about gun control and (current events), but I do it for jokes. I think it’s an interesting time when you’re talking about the NSA spying on people’s cell phones and emails. But people don’t go to hear something interesting; they go to get laughs.

So that’s my job — to take that and make it funny. The last thing people want is to hear my take on politics. Who cares? But it’s nice to be able to bring something up and kind of subvert them to my point-of-view. That’s a fun thing to do.

Why did you decide to return to standup?

I started out in standup, but I’ve been doing movies and TV for so long that nobody knows I even did it. I saw George Carlin right before he died, and it was humbling. He was in his 70s and still great. He was very poignant, had a point-of-view, had great jokes and great timing. You could tell he wasn’t well, but, my goodness, he was still hilarious and brilliant. I was very impressed with that, and I wanted the challenge. I needed the challenge.

What has been the most challenging part of coming back to it?

Living up to expectations people have — that I’m going to be really funny. And not letting that be the be-all, end-all. I had to take that time to develop and find that point-of-view that I thought I could do again. I find that people who do come to see something from the movies, they’re not disappointed because I give them a funny, good standup show that’s current. The toughest part was just getting your stage legs again and trying to not be too weighed down by people’s expectations and my interpretations of what those expectations were and spinning out on that equation.

You’re a pretty politically outspoken guy. Comedy, and standup in particular, used to be a real force and platform for discussion about the country’s political climate. But in recent years, the subject seems to have become something comedians don’t like to touch. Why do you think that is?

It’s so polarized now, people don’t want to get stuck. This famous German soccer player, Franz Beckenbauer, he’s a national hero and could’ve run for chancellor of Germany if he wanted to, but he said something pretty interesting — “As soon as you run for office, you lose 50 percent of your popularity.” As soon as you define yourself, like Penn & Teller did, it limits you. I think you gotta straddle the fence, otherwise you get labeled. At the same time, you can’t be afraid to state your convictions about stuff. It is tough. I mean, if you ask Noam Chomsky, he says we don’t live in a democracy, we live in a polyarchy. Basically, four powers that control everything in our society.

And we fool ourselves into thinking it’s a democracy. What he says directly is that we are not really allowed to have a debate about the issues. What you can have is an unlimited debate on a smaller spectrum of issues, and get ferocious about that, but outside that, you can’t. Because when you start to talk about powers that really run things, when you start really peeling back the onion on the World Bank and how the Fed is a private institution and it’s not really connected to the government, and when you realize that the pharmaceutical industry really controls the FDA — when you start to question these things, you start to get to the real power behind the power structures.

And then all of a sudden the veil comes up, and the powers that be don’t want that. That’s why you don’t see Noam Chomsky on “Meet the Press.” Because they don’t allow questioning of the real power structure. And so, as a comedian, I’ve got to be aware of it and know, “What do (audiences) really want to talk about? What do they really want to hear about? What can I really talk about to entertain these people and not bore them to tears?” But as an entertainer and also as a citizen, I’ve got to make myself aware of these things and make the decision that I’m going to be there to entertain.

I’m going to be doing a tour with (legendary civil-rights activist and comedian) Dick Gregory. That’s going to be interesting. We’re not going to do comedy clubs, we’re not going to do Vegas. We’re going to work coffee shops, small theaters. We’re going to have thoughtful, transparent discussion, and it’s going to be lively and interesting and subversive. And that’s interesting to me. Frankly, I don’t need the money. I don’t need the fame. I’m doing it now because either I love it, or I ain’t doing it anymore. And that’s a nice place to be.

What else is next for you besides this tour?

I’m in production for a new comedy show, an independent sitcom. If this works, it’s gonna change the way television shows are done. I’m funding it myself, I got the studio spaces myself, I got the actors, the crew, everything and am releasing and distributing it myself. It’s called “The Real Rob.” We start shooting March 3. It’s about my life — it’s like my “Fawlty Towers.” That’s the greatest sitcom ever; I’m not saying we’re as good as “Fawlty Towers.” But for me, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, and I have nobody telling me what to do, what not to do. There’s no limits to it, my company’s paying for it. I got it sold in 40 countries already. It’s gonna be great.

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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