nostalgia fact-check

How Does Adam Sandler’s Early Work Hold Up?

More like bore-a-phyl?

The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered Heathers, Ally McBeal, Ace of Base’s The Sign, Ghostbusters, Dinosaurs, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Our latest installment: Adam Sandler’s mid-ninties oeuvre: Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, They’re All Gonna Laugh at You, and What the Hell Happened to Me?

Background: Adam Sandler made a name for himself with boyish, often idiotic characters during his four seasons as a performer on Saturday Night Live. But early nineties SNL isn’t exactly the show’s heyday: Sandler’s last season on the show, 1994–95, was the focus of a New York story called “The Inside Story of the Decline and Fall of Saturday Night Live,” and Sandler’s first major film, 1995’s Billy Madison, wasn’t much better received, critically or at the box office. (Time called it “one of the most execrable movies ever made.” It made $25.5 million.) His second movie, Happy Gilmore, was similarly critically maligned, but praise or no, Sandler’s 1993 comedy album They’re All Gonna Laugh at You went double platinum, as did its follow-up, 1996’s What the Hell Happened to Me? Since their initial release, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore (and similar fare like Tommy Boy) have become beloved near classics, thanks in part to frequently being on cable, but also owing to the films’ quotability and Sandler’s sustained star power.

Nostalgia Demo: People exposed to Sandler’s iconic characters (Operaman) and bits (The Talking Goat) before their 15th birthdays. Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore continually attract new fans, but album devotees were most likely born between 1979 and 1986.

Nostalgia Fact-Check: As a kid and a teenager, I didn’t have a favorite band or a favorite album. Those images of 13-year-olds stomping into their rooms and blasting rock music? That wasn’t me at all. I was much more likely to stomp into my room and blast “The Severe Beating of a High School Spanish Teacher” from They’re All Gonna Laugh at You (for some reason, the pathetically whimpered “biblioteca” still gets me). Other middle schoolers fixated on “All Apologies”; I fixated on “At a Medium Pace.” Every time I put on a sweatshirt, I still say, “I love you swea-he-hetshirt!”; when I hear someone say “We’re sorry,” I immediately fill in the “just kidding — you suck!” I remember what I was wearing when I saw Billy Madison for the first time. Adam Sandler was the funniest person on earth.

Which is why my heart breaks a little to report that these albums don’t hold up anywhere near as well as the films do. Billy Madison has aged surprisingly well. Sandler’s drunken, delusional, purposeless man-child delighted me in my adolescence and delights me now. Entertainment Weekly gave the film a D when it came out, and most critics agreed that Sandler’s high-pitched gibberish and affection for shouting were not the stuff of leading men. If that was true then, it certainly isn’t now: Will Ferrell’s film career and a great deal of Judd Apatow’s material works fits perfectly in the Sandlerlian genre of buffoon-makes-good. Billy Madison is dopey in almost every way, and no one seems bothered by the fact that Billy never expresses any interest in college or business school, but its laugh lines still work and its quotability has not diminished at all. Stop looking at me, swan!

Happy Gilmore contains more rage than Billy Madison, which is where it goes slightly awry. Billy is a vaguely noble hero who eventually acknowledges his own shortcomings, and, through the process of education and self-betterment, manages to woo the future Mrs. Pete Sampras. Happy, ironically, is more volatile and dramatically less lovable. He’s driven by frustration and desperation, whereas Billy is driven by the desire to become a worthy heir to his father’s company. Billy Madison was always better than Happy Gilmore (fighting words!), but the gap seems to have widened over the years. Arrested-development humor is as popular today as it’s ever been, while rage humor has fallen sort of out of fashion. The Bob Barker brawl that was once Happy Gilmore’s pièce de résistance doesn’t stand out anymore.

Gilmore, though, still has its charms (“Are you too good for your home?”). They’re All Gonna Laugh at You and What the Hell Happened to Me?, though, are excruciating. Fart jokes are still funny, but “The Hypnotist,” in which a patient and a hypnotist blame one another for a constant stream of flatulence, is over eight minutes long. Has YouTube ruined me for comedy bits longer than three minutes? Perhaps. Or maybe “Sex or Weightlifting,” about guessing, based on sound, whether people are having sex or working out, just doesn’t have six minutes’ worth of jokes in it. “Fatty McGee” meanders for over three minutes, even though the joke never heightens past the fact that the annoying character Fatty McGee wheezes loudly. Sandler stutters through five “Excited Southerner” tracks on WTHHTM. A high-school janitor, bus driver, science teacher, and Spanish teacher all receive serious beatings on TAGLAY. These albums are staggeringly repetitive.

That makes the bright spots seem even brighter, at least. “The Goat” is still wonderfully absurd (“quick goat thinking!”) and “Respect” is about as perfect as inappropriate-response humor can get (“Gotta respect the condoms!”). “Toll Booth Willie” is filthy and dumb, but it’s so filthy and so dumb that it becomes irresistible.

Sandler’s style of gleeful crudeness seemed iconoclastic in the early nineties; he said “cock and balls” so many times on the albums the words lost all meaning. But then American Pie and There’s Something About Mary, and eventually movies like Wedding Crashers and the Apatow canon far out-cruded Sandler’s early work. His little-boy pouts and cadences lost some of their charm as Sandler grew up, but rather than shift fully into the more dramatic or serious roles he’s shown he’s capable of (Punch Drunk Love, Funny People), Sandler’s still churning out movies like Grown Ups and Jack and Jill. Those rehashed, middle-of-the-road comedies lack the naughty-kid/class-clown persona that made Sandler’s earlier work so primed for teenage adulation. I’ll be surprised if Sandler ever makes another movie that generates the same kind of affection and devotion Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore once did, but to have made two at all is still pretty impressive. If enduring idiot classics are cool, then call Adam Sandler Miles Davis.

How Does Adam Sandler’s Early Work Hold Up?