Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Whether he’s singing the news in faux-Italian at the Weekend Update desk as Opera Man, creating theme songs for lunch ladies, Hanukkah, and phone sex operators, or starring in an endless string of self-produced lowbrow films, Adam Sandler has evolved from a timid but ambitious performer into one of the most powerful figures in comedy today. While many of his films haven’t received the most positive critical response and his manchild persona and dopey-guy humor with Farley and Schneider led to their ultimate SNL firings, time has vindicated the comedian, and his films like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore have since gone on to gain cult status.
Sandler was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire. He started performing stand-up in Boston comedy clubs when he was seventeen years old and continued while attending NYU. By the time he graduated with a fine arts degree in 1988, Sandler had already appeared on The Cosby Show and MTV’s Remote Control, and he was discovered at a Los Angeles comedy club by Dennis Miller and hired as a SNL writer and featured player in 1990, but he didn’t appear on the show until February 1991.
Having more experience with stand-up than improv, Sandler found the most success during Weekend Update, the perfect venue for him to create characters like Cajun Man, Gil Graham (Update’s rock and roll correspondent who later evolved into Little Nicky), and Opera Man, the pseudo-Italian singer who appeared ten times during Sandler’s four-year run on the show. When not at the Update desk, Sandler also had recurring sketch characters like the grumpy old husband Hank Gelfand in the Zagat’s sketches (with Chris Farley playing his wife Beverly), twerpy monologue interruptor Audience McGee, gossipy Gap employee Lucy Brawn, Italian restaurant busboy Fabio, and Canteen Boy, who sparked a backlash after a sketch in which Alec Baldwin plays a scoutmaster who comes on to him. SNL has since added a disclaimer that Canteen Boy is not a boy but in fact a 27-year-old man.
One of my favorite Sandler sketches was “The Denise Show,” where Sandler plays a heartbroken man named Brian who hosts a show all about his ex-girlfriend Denise. “Okay, if you’re just tuning in, we’re taking calls. Tonight’s subject is Denise — have you seen her? Has she said anything about me?” Not only is the role perfect for Sandler’s jittery delivery, but it showcases his talent for the slow anger buildup perfectly, from meekness to irritation to yelling matches with his father, voiced by Phil Hartman. Sandler also impersonated celebrities like Bill Cosby, David Brenner, Pauly Shore, and both Mark and Donnie Wahlberg as well as musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Axl Rose, Bono, Eddie Vedder, and Steven Tyler. With his raw but inspired singing style, he could sing rock like the best of them, and SNL wouldn’t have another chameleon-style musician impersonator until Jimmy Fallon joined the cast years later.
After four years on the show, Sandler was fired along with Chris Farley and the next year started a new generation of SNL stars like Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, Darrell Hammond, Cheri Oteri, and Chris Kattan. After leaving the show, Sander went on to write and star in his own films, starting with Billy Madison in 1995 and followed with Happy Gilmore in ‘96, The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy in ‘98, and Big Daddy in ‘99, the same year he started his own company Happy Madison Productions, which released Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, Eight Crazy Nights, Anger Management, 50 First Dates, Click, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, and a long list of other comedies by Sandler and his frequent collaborators like Rob Schneider, David Spade, Nick Swardson, and Kevin James. He’s also released five albums, from They’re All Gonna Laugh at You! in 1993 to 2004’s Shhh…Don’t Tell. Sandler continues to star in comedies — most recently Jack and Jill and Grown Ups — and has won critical respect as a dramatic actor in Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish. This year he plays Dracula in the animated film Hotel Transylvania and also produces and stars in Donny’s Boy, set to release in June.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.