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Growing Up Funny

The surprising and, at times, poignant story of the passage of time for four old friends who just happen to be among the most successful comedians of their generation: Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade, and Kevin James.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

If you're of a certain age, and grew up listening to Bob Seger on a eight-track tape, you'll probably remember when these 40-something guys burst on the scene nearly two decades ago.

They are a little bit older.  Not sure of the less bolder.

Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade, and Kevin James.

Four paths to stardom. Four very different backgrounds. 

That is, until their lives intersected in the world of standup comedy in the late '80s and early '90s.    

Adam Sandler and Chris Rock  both started in new York clubs, like the Comic Strip.

ADAM SANDLER:  I remember Rock, the first time I saw him, he came in and I remember going, "I thought I was going to be the handsome kid around here." And then I was like, "All right, I’ll be the kind of goofy kid."  I’ll let him be handsome. 

At around the same time, Kevin James's standup act, which began on Long Island,  was about to get national exposure on Star Search.

Kevin James, Star Search, 1995: Thanks very much, I feel great, I’m so happy I took the time to get in shape for the show…

KEVIN JAMES:   I was keeping a little journal for my standup.  I--

ADAM SANDLER: He's sweeter than us. 


KEVIN JAMES: And it was the same entry every time:  gotta lose weight.  Stop sweating on stage. Try to be more comfortable.

David Spade did stand up out west but soon joined Sandler and Rock at Saturday Night Live.

They were each in their twenties, each destined to be movie stars, each would become more successful than they ever could have imagined.

MARIA MENOUNOS: When you guys all started out, did you know back then that you would be here right now?  You kind of know, but you don't know it's going to definitely happen, right?

ADAM SANDLER: I was psychotic in thinking it's going to happen.  I didn't know this was going to happen.  But in my head I was like, "I’m never giving up."  I was very driven and determined and had no idea that anytime  I bombed, anytime I lost an audition, I was always like, "What the hell is the matter with these people?"  I never thought to myself. I’d always blame them. 

Some critics still don't get his act --  but his audiences do.

Adam Sandler became something of a Hollywood mogul with a long list of successful films like Happy Gilmore  and he's been loyal to his longtime friends.  He and Rock, Spade, or James, or some combination,  have appeared in several of his movies, such as "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry."

And at the NBA finals in Los Angeles Thursday night, they were all together.   

Because now, for the first time, Sandler’s comedic quartet is in the same movie, called "Grown Ups."

Teamed with another old friend and SNL alumnus, Rob Schneider, they go on a raucous romp at a summer vacation house.

Friends since they were teammates on a championship basketball team, they bring their families together for the first time. 

The overgrown teenagers  face the facts.  They're growing older.  But they're not quite ready to grow up.

MARIA MENOUNOS: It's hard  thinking of you guys as grownups. And then you make this movie. Why did you write this movie?                                

ADAM SANDLER: I hang out with my friends from growing up in New Hampshire.  And when I go home and I see them  and we like talking about the old days.  And like talking about the new days and how painful some of it is and how great some of it is and that kind of stuff.  And I just thought it would be fun to do that.

In fact,  making "Grown Ups" led  them to reflect on when they were kids.

ADAM SANDLER: There weren't that many Jewish people where I grew up. What would happen is I’d hear comments made from not, not my buddies but someone else in the class would say something. So, yeah, that would be painful. But when it happened, you know, my father would always tell me I’d have to smack the kid around whoever would say it.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Chris Rock was bussed to school but says the experience ultimately gave him strength.

CHRIS ROCK: Only black kid in my school for probably almost ten years.  So that was kind of weird.

DAVID SPADE: Were you worried?  I mean, did you get bullied at all?

CHRIS ROCK: I got bullied. But, you know, like there's this big get rid of bullying movement going on through America. Dude, bullies make the world go around, okay?  Thank god for bullies. There'd be no Microsoft without bullies.  There'd be no “Avatar” without bullies.  There'd be no DreamWorks. 

ADAM SANDLER: Just say it.  There'd be no Jews without bullies!

CHRIS ROCK: Thank god for bullies.

At school near Phoenix, David Spade had it rough, at times, too.

DAVID SPADE: I got bullied in school, I think that made me sarcastic and like just trying to stay alive.  I was shorter.  I don't know if we have clips. When I was younger. And called “shrimp cocktail” and it stung.

MARIA MENOUNOS: “Shrimp cocktail”?  Oh my god, that's horrible.

DAVID SPADE: It's horrible.

And Kevin James saw his first  dreams crushed.

KEVIN JAMES: I always wanted to be in sports.  Yeah.  But-- but when the-

DAVID SPADE: You haven't given up yet, have you?

KEVIN JAMES: No. (laugh) I’m still trying, I’m still trying.

MARIA MENOUNOS: How did you go from that to wanting to be a comedian?

KEVIN JAMES: When you suck at Division III football, it's time to tell jokes or do something else.

For all of them, the future would be bright.  But first, each had to go before the toughest crowd in all of comedy. The gang at Saturday Night Live.

On the set of the new movie "Grown Ups," the stories never seemed to stop. 

It was like a Saturday Night Live reunion.  There was Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, and David Spade. Along with Rob Schneider. And Maya Rudolph.  Tim Meadows.  And Colin Quinn.

And Kevin James  -- who never did SNL -- had to listen.

MARIA MENOUNOS: You guys were all talking about your SNL days, apparently.  And you said, "if you guys talk about SNL one more time, I’m taking an early lunch break."  Is that true? (laugh)

KEVIN JAMES: No, I always joke around with them.

MARIA MENOUNOS: But is it hard being the guy that's not had that history with them at all.

KEVIN JAMES: No.  No, no.  Because I like sitting on your side of the table and listening to them.  I love their stories.  Uh, I got to take a bathroom break.  I'll be right back…

Working together on Saturday Night Live in the early ‘90s, Sandler, Rock, and Spade created some memorable characters, among them:

Spade's sarcastic, bitter "flight attendant"...


Rock's "Nat X"...

CHRIS ROCK ON SNL:  If O.J. drove a bus, he wouldn't even be O.J., he'd be Orenthal the bus-driving murderer...

And Sandler’s "Opera Man"…

ADAM SANDLER ON SNL: Brad Pitt sexiest... Opera man say, recount the vote-o!

At the time, established stars like Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman were hitting big. 

Rock, Sandler and Spade, in their mid-twenties, were basically left to bond among themselves.

CHRIS ROCK: He kind of walked me around there, "Hi, I’m David Spade."  (laughter) Like it was like it was a corporate job or something.

DAVID SPADE: Running for mayor of  the 17th floor.

CHRIS ROCK: He's got a clipboard and is-- "And this'll be your office, and this is where you'll be--"

DAVID SPADE: No one will talk to you.  (laughter)

The atmosphere was competitive and demanding. The writing staff included Conan O’Brien and now-U.S. Senator Al Franken.  But the new young cast members stuck together.

ADAM SANDLER: One of my most vivid memories of the show and Rock was I did an update, and it went well. And I remember coming off and being, like, excited, like, a young 23-year-old buffoon.  And Rock comes running up to me and bumps chests with me like we were on the Knicks.  Runs hard at me (laughter) "Yeah, yeah."  And I was just like, "Yeah, all right, Rock."  (laughter)

MARIA MENOUNOS: I think that's so nice to see.

ADAM SANDLER: Well, we -- our cast -- I know Kevin wasn't in our cast, but--

KEVIN JAMES: Oh no, I was.  (laughter)

ADAM SANDLER: Our cast was crazy supportive of each other.  We loved each other.  Farley.  We all gave it up to Farley. Farley was the funniest. 

Chris Farley. Everybody's best friend. Chris Farley died of an accidental drug overdose in 1997.  He was just 33 years old.

ADAM SANDLER: He was the funniest guy to hang out with.  The sweetest . Ran up to your family when your family came to the show. Talked to everyone of your family members.  Was happy, laughing, hugging people.  Like he made everybody feel-- I mean-- nothing was cooler than Saturday night was coming.  We were all tense.  "And I’m going to go over my lines with Farley right now.  Where's Farley?"  He was in church. He always went to church right before the show.


DAVID SPADE: All nighter.  Go to church in the morning. 

ADAM SANDLER: Friday night was not in church.  (laughter)

At the show, Sandler and the other young cast members brought their back stories to the party.

Sandler’s  Jewish heritage inspired the now classic "Hanukkah Song."

To the young performers on the show, weekend update's Dennis Miller was something of a smart-aleck godfather.

CHRIS ROCK: I used to love how Dennis used to bust my -- everybody's -- b*lls.

ADAM SANDLER: Oh yeah.  Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHRIS ROCK: His thing to me, he'd come in the office and go, "So how's that ‘next Eddie hing’ working out?"

DAVID SPADE: And he goes, "Rock,"--

MARIA MENOUNOS: When's that--

DAVID SPADE: “…angry black guy, what else you got?"  Then he goes, "Tim Meadows, you're not even angry black guy.  You're just a black guy."  (laughter)

DAVID SPADE: Then he goes, "Spade," and I-- "you're not even on the show.  Farley: fat guy falling down?  Country's not buying it."

ADAM SANDLER: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

DAVID SPADE: He went through all of us.

ADAM SANDLER: He always used to go, "Sandler.  Thought you would have popped by now."  (laughter) Before going on.  (laughter)

DAVID SPADE:  "Country's not buying this guy.”

ADAM SANDLER: “He's got one move."  (laughter)

It was fun while it lasted. But in 1995, SNL let Sandler go.

MARIA MENOUNOS: You were actually fired from SNL, right?

DAVID SPADE: I don't think-- I don't remember that.  Were you--

ADAM SANDLER: Well, yeah, it was like I don't know exactly, no, I-- I might have told you I quit.  But  I was probably humiliated by it.

MARIA MENOUNOS: That's why I was going to ask you.  That must have been really kind of scary at that time.

ADAM SANDLER: It was very scary.  And also like being smacked in the face.  We felt like we were doing great.

He need not have worried.  He went to Hollywood and began a movie career that's thriving to this day.  And Kevin James? Believe it or not he had an SNL connection, too, sort of.

KEVIN JAMES: I auditioned for Saturday Night Live. Yeah, I did.

ADAM SANDLER: Did you really?

KEVIN JAMES: Yeah, and I didn't get it.  And that's when I got the show, though.

And that show was called "The King of Queens.” It ran for nine seasons and made him a multimillionaire.

We first met these up-and-coming movie stars when they were in their twenties.

David Spade starred in "Tommy Boy."  Later, Chris Rock directed, wrote and starred in "Head of State." Kevin James had a hit with "Paul Blart: Mall Cop.”  And Adam Sandler had huge commercial success with “ The Water Boy,” “Big Daddy,” and “The Wedding Singer.”

Now, Kevin James and David Spade are 45.

Chris Rock is 44.

Adam Sandler is 43. 

In "Grown Ups,"  their new comedy  opening June 25,  each plays a dad. Their role in real-life as well.

MARIA MENOUNOS: You guys are all dads now, right? You're a dad.  You're a dad.  Everybody's a dad here. 

ADAM SANDLER: Yeah, all-- all girls.

MARIA MENOUNOS: So, are you guys looking to do more films that your kids can see, now that you have them?

ADAM SANDLER: On this movie, "Grown Ups," when we're editing the movie, and there was something that for no reason was a little filthy.  I would say, "eh, we don't really need that."  Whereas 10 years ago I’d be like, why do I care.  I had parents come up to me and yell at me before.  They were just like, "Adam, what's the deal?  Why you got to do -- you didn't need to say this.  I was with my kid."  And I was like, "Eh, relax."  And now I’m like, "Oh sorry about that, you're right, I have to fix that."

MARIA MENOUNOS: Chris you said that -- your dad actually was the single most important figure in your life.  And there was a quote that you gave to Ebony magazine saying, "my father led by example."

CHRIS ROCK: You read Ebony?!?  You were really doing your research.  (laugh) I like you.

MARIA MENOUNOS: OK.  You said, "My father led by example.  If I would do something wrong, he would say, 'A man doesn't do that.'"  What did your dad teach you about being a dad yourself?

CHRIS ROCK: Eighty percent of being a dad is kind of just being there. It's not like a TV show.  My dad in a neighborhood where there weren't a lot of dads, I saw my dad every day. And we ate the same time every day.  You know what I mean. 


CHRIS ROCK: He taught me. Took me to work. But being there is 80 percent of the job. 

Chris Rock and Adam Sandler have both lost their fathers.  And for Sandler, his dad has been a tough role model to live up to.

ADAM SANDLER: I do have this thing where I feel competitive with my dad sometimes.  Because  I had it so great.  My dad was the best. I loved him more than anything.  And I want to make sure I’m that guy to my kids. 

DAVID SPADE: My dad it was different, because  he left when we were four.  Cue music.  (laugh) And when I got older, like he'd pick me up when I was like 10. And we'd go and get ice cream. He'd get mad at me about something, he'd pull over and spank me.  And I’m like, "Who are you again?"  Like "you still get to spank me?"

He can kid around but those days still resonate. 

DAVID SPADE: And we were broke and always scared about money.  And my mom crying for the rent and all that stuff.  That always scared me.  I get scared that I'll run out of money, you know?  That definitely, I don't want to be in that position again.

In fact, despite all their phenomenal success, the insecurity of their earlier days in stand up can still surface.

DAVID SPADE: I picked up Us magazine in my garage from six years ago.  Half the people aren't doing anything.  Like all the biggest stars.  You're like, “Oh my god, well, this guy is safe forever.”  Gone.

And they too fear their careers could end in an instant.

MARIA MENOUNOS: Do you all feel comfortable and safe now?

ADAM SANDLER: We don't really.  We talk about it sometimes.

CHRIS ROCK: I don't feel comfortable and safe at all.

ADAM SANDLER: Neither do I.  Neither do I. 


ADAM SANDLER: You feel like you could get blindsided, smacked in the head.

CHRIS ROCK: At least at SNL, you could get fired.  They don't always fire you from movies.  You just don't end up getting another movie made. 

ADAM SANDLER: Well, that's the beauty of standup. We've always got that.  If the movies got taken away, that would be horrible.  But we can get on stage, say jokes, get a live reaction, that's nice.

But if worse came to worst…

DAVID SPADE: I can always go back to valeting.  I was good.  I was a busboy.  Got fired from that.  Yeah, valet, got fired, busboy, got fired, dishwasher, got fired.  I was actually a busboy, and I go, "Can I be a waiter?" And the guy goes, "You don't got the stuff."

For now, though, they seem to have the stuff that will keep them at comedy's head table, as I kept finding out.

MARIA MENOUNOS: I got like Twitter questions.

CHRIS ROCK: I have a sh*#ter question!  I'm a dirty comedian.  Is this where we're outed as actually old guys!?

KEVIN JAMES:  It's an intervention.  You can tell us to stop doing what we're doing.  They're going to clear the cameras away, and we're staying here.  This is our place now.  It's an old folks home.