Zabadooo! The Comedy of Adam Sandler

During interviews for the 2009 feature film Funny People Judd Apatow, who shared an apartment with Adam Sandler in Los Angeles during the late 80s before they made it, often said that Sandler was one of the funniest people he knew. So funny, in fact, that he started tape recording the prank phone calls Sandler would make to keep for posterity. It was one of those phone calls that Apatow used in the opening scene of Funny People.

In this brief clip, we see why Apatow was keen on capturing the moment and why he was so confident that Sandler would go on to be a big star. Adopting the old lady voice that would become familiar to Sandler fans, the prank is fearless, irreverent, and sophomoric, three adjectives that would define much of Sandler’s work in the years to come. However, just exactly how big a star Sandler would end up being, perhaps not even Apatow could have guessed.

When Adam Sandler first appeared on Saturday Night Live, no one really knew what to make of him. In the excellent oral history of SNL, Live From New York (which, if you haven’t read yet, just stop what you are doing and go here and get a copy), Bob Odenkirk says of Sandler, “…the things that Adam was doing were so sort of inconsequential — silly songs and just like basically dicking around.” Odenkirk goes on to explain that he liked what Sandler did, but that his fame and success after SNL  took him by surprise.

It’s no wonder that a disciple of the sketch form like Odenkirk would not have seen Sandler’s status as a global star coming, but the truth is not many people could have predicted that. At the time, even money was on Chris Farley breaking big. His comedy was outsized and physical and fit a template that audiences were already familiar with, or as Farley himself would say, “Fatty go boom.”

Sandler, however really did seem to just be “dicking around” on the show. In a time period of SNL that boasted not just great on air talent, but now legendary writers such as Jim Downey, Odenkirk, Jack Handey, and Robert Smigel to see Adam Sandler appear and sing a silly song like “Red Hooded Sweatshirt” seemed like the ultimate act of transgression.

That fact that something that silly and stupid was on television at all is remarkable. That was not the subversive, hard hitting comedy we expected from SNL! That seemed like some dumb song you might make up with your friends in the back of the school bus on your way to first period. Ultimately, it was that sense of familiarity that teenage boys found intoxicating in Sandler’s humor. It’s not the song itself that is inherently funny so much as the fact that a grown man was singing it on network television.

With the exception of perhaps Chris Elliot’s appearances on early Late Night with David Letterman and later on his pioneering sitcom, Get A Life, no one had done anything so aggressively stupid on television before.  It is no wonder that the early 1990s SNL was viciously trounced in the media; something new was happening on that show and no one really knew what to make of it. The humor of that era was juvenile and gleefully so. It often appeared as though the show was turned over to a bunch of high school students and were left to work everything out on their own.

While Sandler was definitely making his presence felt on the show, it was his first comedy album that helped him transition from a oddball cast member to a burgeoning comedy star. Released in 1993, They’re All Gonna Laugh at You went on to sell over 2,000,000 copies and was certified double platinum. To call the album juvenile or sophomoric is beside the point. The bits on this album are direct and filthy; there is no subtext; there is no comment on society other than high school really sucks (practically the entire album centers on the travails of high school life, with the exception of “Toll Booth Willie”). It’s not a little embarrassing to admit that, having not listened to this album since high school, the senseless aggression and violence throughout the album is still funny to me. Is it doubled up in tears, laughing so hard that I am gasping for breath funny the way it was when I initially heard this? Of course not. As a man who is creeping up on middle age, this album was not made for me. It was made for the pimply-faced kid I was.

And that was the secret of much of Adam Sandler’s early vehicles. He perfectly taps into the unrestrained hormonal rage, confusion, and vulnerability that is an unfortunate side effect of the horrific teenage years. It is no wonder that after the success of his comedy album, Sandler was allowed to make Billy Madison.

Like the Marx Brothers, Sandler displays an unprovoked hostility to anyone who expects him to behave with manners and show even the slightest respect to authority. It is this type of humor that provide a safe haven for teenagers who have absolutely insane impulses generated by churning hormones and a desire to be treated like adults, but on their own terms. It is material that Sandler would go back to for his follow up, Happy Gilmore and continue throughout his earliest films such as The Wedding Singer, Big Daddy, The Waterboy, and Little Nicky.

It would not be until starring in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, Sandler’s first dramatic effort, that we see Sandler softening this hyper-aggressive man-child character. It is a watershed moment for both Sandler and his fans’ expectation of him in that we see how disastrous it would actually be to live in this kind permanent adolescence up through your late twenties. Gone is the anarchic free spirit and in his place is a melancholy man who must choke back his aggression and anger to get through life (something that Sandler would explore through his 2003 film with Jack Nicholson, Anger Management).

Since then, Sandler has appeared in several ridiculous high concept features, which we see he is not above poking fun at in the greatly underappreciated Funny People. While Sandler was never a critical favorite, his films became ever more saccharine and formulaic, losing the anarchic spirit of earlier efforts.

Honestly, that’s okay. We cannot expect a man well into his forties to keep acting like a buffoon for our amusement, but we miss the subversive elements that were prevalent in his early work (although the critical backlash to a film like That’s My Boy seems to indicate we don’t miss it that much). On SNL, he was a guy who truly seemed to just be “dicking around” and his approach to comedy was refreshing in his seemingly lack of discipline and restraint that other, more seasoned cast members had. In his movies and his comedy albums, there was a lack of respect for authority that was reminiscent of The Marx Brothers. And in roles he has played in films such as Spanglish and Funny People we see a bright comic mind able to deftly interweave the dramatic with the humorous in a very human and relatable way.

It’s when we see Sandler in those roles that we become increasingly frustrated with his lazier efforts. It’s in those roles we see how good he can be not just a comedian, but as an actor. Sandler seems to have approached his entire career as goof, as if he is a teenage kid who was able to sneak backstage at a rock concert expecting at any moment for the jig to be up. While he has definitively proven that he is funny — and truthfully, even his worst film efforts have at least a couple of funny bits — we still get the feeling that he’s not expending his full effort.

Unlike a few of the previous entrants in this series who are actually doing the best they can, Sandler doesn’t seem interested in pushing himself. Like Eddie Murphy, fellow SNL alum, Sandler dazzled with talent early on, only to squander that talent later in big budget movies that, despite critical ravaging, provided huge paydays. Sandler is in a precarious position in his career. His more serious efforts proved to be box office poison, despite earning some begrudging critical praise, yet his lowbrow comedies continue to do obscenely well (that is, until That’s My Boy premiered this summer).

During the 2012 Academy Awards during a montage of different filmmakers talking about what they love about the movies, Sandler said, “I’m eventually trying to, one day, tell the truth.” It seemed comical for Sandler, of all people, to make that statement. After all, up to this point Sandler has seemed rather cavalier about the very prevalent career he has had in film and television, but throughout it all, audiences have felt that he was holding something back. We’ve seen glimpses of just how great he can be. Whether in his movies, comedy albums, or his early days on SNL, he has come close to that “truth”, but always seemed to pull back at the last moment, never truly committing. Sandler got close to that “truth” under the guidance of director and former roommate, Judd Apatow in Funny People, which makes his failure to follow up on that performance ever more frustrating for fans.

But perhaps the truth is that Adam Sandler is juts happy to make stupid movies. There are, in fact, much worse things a human being can do with this life. The fact that critics become so apoplectic over his films is, in their own way, even more childish than the stunted characters Sandler plays. Perhaps the truth is that Adam Sandler has no qualms with putting out mediocre movies that nonetheless appeal to mass audiences. Perhaps the truth is that people like me should stop waiting for Adam Sandler to meet our expectations and watch his movies on their own terms. Perhaps it’s time we gave Adam Sandler our begrudging respect.

Zabadooo! The Comedy of Adam Sandler