Welcome to the inaugural column of Enter Sandman: Splitsider Examines the Oeuvre of Adam Sandler! For an entire generation of comedy geeks, the Sandman’s comedy career presents a bit of a conundrum. Like most dudes my age, I can quote Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore more accurately than the Pledge of Allegiance. I often dream of a perfect world where those two unimpeachable classics are the only movies on Sandler’s IMDb page, in the same way that music nerds in my age bracket fantasize that Rivers Cuomo stopped writing songs in 1996. (The same year Happy Gilmore came out! Coincidence?)
But time didn’t stop in 1996. Sandler kept working and subsequently created a body of work as funny, weird, uneven and unwieldy as Sinead O’Connor’s Twitter account. For example, did you know that Sandler won the Gijón International Film Festival’s Best Actor Award for his work in Punch-Drunk Love? Oh, and he was also the producer of Paul Blart: Mall Cop. For every Funny People on his résumé, there’s an I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry close behind to cancel it out. In this column, I’ll sift through the flotsam and jetsam of Sandler’s career. I’ll talk to the people who populate his movies, dissect his comedy albums and obscure SNL sketches and try to make sense of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. It might take years, but I’m up for the job. This column is going to be an emotional roller coaster ride, and by the end of it, you’ll be tight with Steve Polychronopolous.
If I know the Splitsider demographic well (and as a comedy snob I think that I do), you’re probably reading this post on a Motorola RAZR while waiting in line to see Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star. No? That’s just me? Well, not only is today the debut of this column and the opening of Bucky Larson (which Sandler co-wrote and produced), it’s also the Sandman’s 45th birthday. And yes, he does share a birthday with Mario Batali. (Virgos love Crocs!) In honor of his birthday, let’s take a look at a common gateway into Sandler’s comedy: his characters on Weekend Update.
When Sandler was added as a featured player in 1991 after spending a year on the writing staff, SNL was stacked with one of its greatest casts. But the Carvey/Hartman/Jackson/Myers/Dunn/Lovitz/Hooks/Nealon cast was winding down, and ready to pass the torch to the next generation. That late-‘80s troupe was easily the smartest and possibly the edgiest in the show’s history, so to see Sandler make his first appearances on Update was jarring. His humor was a sharp contrast to the razor sharp voice of the show, because what he was doing was so insanely dumb. Need proof? Watch this clip of Iraqi Pete, an early Sandler character who is part-Iraq citizen/part-pro wrestling heel:
Not only were Sandler’s characters patently dumb, but he seemed to be reveling in their stupidity. Sleepyhead, another early Weekend Update character, explained foreign affairs in his sleep.
In Live From New York, the essential SNL oral history by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, Sandler recalled struggling to find his voice when he first joined the show:
“I remember in the beginning when I would be on-camera, Lorne would hear, ‘What are they using that guy for?’ I guess whoever did the Q thing, they said I sucked and I was not fun to watch. And so I remember Lorne caught some flak from NBC saying, ‘Don’t use that guy. People don’t like him.’ But Lorne and [Jim] Downey and [Robert] Smigel, they kind of looked past that. Lorne always said, ‘When you first get on the show, it’s going to take the audience a while to like you, because they’re used to Dana and Nealon and Hartman and guys that they’re comfortable laughing with.’ Sure enough, they cut to one of us young buffoons, and they go, ‘Who’s that guy? Why did this idiot get a chance?’”
It wasn’t until Sandler introduced Cajun Man that his crisis of confidence ended. Make no mistake, Cajun Man is just as moronic as his other characters, but he finally seemed to harness that stupidity and present it as a character that the audience actually liked. Cajun Man’s game is overly simple (he just says words that end with an –un sound), and he’s allegedly based on legendary Cajun chef Justin Wilson .
Sandler really hit his stride with Opera Man, a character who would recap current events by singing about them in a mash-up of Italian, English and Sandlerese. Opera Man would prove to be so popular with the SNL audience that in addition to his numerous appearances on Update, he even crossed over and starred in his own sketch once. And years after Sandler left the show, Opera Man made an encore performance at the Concert for New York in October of 2001, and brought the house down at Madison Square Garden. Here’s the character’s first appearance on Update:
Sandler’s character work on Update is where he discovered his comedic voice and laid the foundation for his career. For better or worse, many characters Sandler plays in his movies (Bobby Boucher, Little Nicky, Zohan, etc.) are just feature film length Weekend Update bits. Speaking of which, Bucky Larson is about to start. I need to sign off. Till next time…
Alex Scordelis is a writer for Thunder Gulch, a sketch team at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. He also writes about music for Paper Magazine.