A Candy Colored Clown They Call The Sandman: Adam Sandler Comes Of Age

When Adam Sandler’s Netflix standup special 100% Fresh was announced, the title seemed to be a goof on the less than stellar ratings for Sandler’s run of content thus far under his crazy multi-project deal at the online network. The Ridiculous 6, the Western spoof he co-wrote and starred in, has a 0% rating. But 100% Fresh currently has a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s garnered Sandler his best reviews in forever for a vehicle he wrote. Sandler’s career as a dramatic actor began in 1990 when he played “drug dealer” on an ABC afterschool special, just before he was hired as a writer and then cast member on Saturday Night Live. On SNL he was known for silly voices, and musical bits like Opera Man. My favorite Sandler SNL sketch is “The Denise Show,” where he plays a lovelorn teenager staging a public access show to try to get his girlfriend back. It catches the perfect Sandler timbre — switching between a quavering heartbroken baby voice and violent rage as he screams at his offscreen dad to stop interrupting the taping. It’s reminiscent of Robert DeNiro as Rupert Pupkin in The King Of Comedy. Sandler’s greatest strength as a performer is his ability to convey pathos, and then cut it with a laugh. Like many comedians, he turned out to be a great dramatic actor. His best performance is in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, which played beautifully on Sandler’s innate ability to articulate the masculine thin line between sadness and anger.

Adam Sandler’s influence on 90s comedy was so saturated in that it became hard to see. Billy Madison was the Animal House of the 90s and Happy Gilmore its Caddyshack, movies universally agreed to be nearly perfect by all comedy nerds and quoted like scripture. Billy Madison was directed by Tamra Davis, who made it feel like a real movie with characters rather than a long collection of sketches. Happy Gilmore was directed by Dennis Dugan, who aped the broad vibrant style of Billy Madison. 100% Fresh is directed by Steven Brill, who helmed Mr. Deeds, Little Nicky and most recently Sandy Wexler.

Sandler’s own movies have been a notoriously mixed bag. They have their moments, and their champions. Music publicist and Sander super-fan Eloy Lugo recently endured a punishing self-imposed year-long Sandler-fest, where a wheel of death determined which Sandler movie he would have to watch each day. The randomness of the wheel meant, for example, that he had to watch Grown Ups 2 for two days in a row. Despite this masochistic stunt, Lugo still came out a fan, and was the first to message me when I posted that the new special was great. He was excited about the idea of people rediscovering the greatness of the Sandman. It seems crazy that anyone could have forgotten, but Sandler’s reputation as a stand-up comedian has been muddled over the years by his movies which are by large measures lazy if competent and sometimes broadly offensive. Racist jokes about Native Americans in Ridiculous 6 were protested by Native American actors.

Sandler’s first comedy album They’re All Gonna Laugh At You was a staple in every tween’s tape collection. Adam Sandler’s joke songs work so well because they function as songs just as well as jokes. Early songs like “Medium Pace” were both filthy and catchy. 1996’s “Chanukah Song” became a hit in part because it was impossible to get it out of your head. The “Chanukah Song” showed that Sandler could work clean too. 100% Fresh is mostly songs, interspersed with stand-up. The songs are all very funny and wisely tend to end immediately after a punchline, making the special feel like a record of Sandler’s stream of consciousness.

Sandler’s dramatic work has not all been great (he’s in Spanglish), but the highs are extremely high. At his best he exudes soulfulness. He was praised for his recent work in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, and he’s already been memed in costume shooting the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems. Sandler’s own style of fashion has also come entirely back around. With his baseball jackets and t-shirts he looks somehow like the cutting edge of casual streetwear. But in 100% Fresh Sandler makes is clear that he is not against updating his style. The special is cut together from Sandler touring venues that ranged from small theaters to arenas (and in one interstitial bit, busking in the New York subway). It concludes with a couple of Sandler’s more sentimental songs — “Grow Old With You” from his best rom-com The Wedding Singer, a song memorializing his friend Chris Farley, and a song about Sandler’s bar mitzvah — but things never get too maudlin because you’re never far from a punchline.

Many recent comeback specials by beloved comedians have been ruined by the nostalgia-bursting realization that not all comedy ages well. A lot of comedians tend to double down on being edgelords, leaning into the homophobic jokes and racism that may have flown in comedy clubs in the eighties and nineties but now feels very dated and out of touch. I watched 100% Fresh waiting for the inevitable moment when it would dip into being racist or homophobic and was mercifully surprised when it never did. Who knows whether that means Sandler learned something from the Ridiculous 6 experience, but it’s hopeful. The joke songs are both violent and silly. Sandler talks about his wife and daughters a few time but doesn’t complain about them. While other comedians seem to become frozen in time, Sandler seems to have changed over time into the very thing his persona insisted he could never be: an adult man. That Adam Sandler, of all people, has matured so gracefully speaks to the idea that everyone can benefit from making sure their bits don’t grow stagnant over time.

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