TV

In The Strangest Of Times, Adam Sandler Is Funny Again

Netflix

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the world is going to shit and we’re all going to die, but first we’re going to go insane. 60% of the world’s animal life has been wiped out since 1970, Trump wants to do away with birthright citizenship through an executive order… and that was just this morning. Every day I wake up thinking it can’t get any worse and every day Twitter tells me how it has (incidentally, Twitter was caught ignoring threats from the mail bomber’s account and has made no substantive changes in this regard, though it is considering doing away with the like button).

What I’m trying to say is, what a weird time for Adam Sandler to be funny again.

Like many of my generation, I’ve had a complicated relationship with Adam Sandler. I still remember exactly where I was when I heard Sandler’s “The Buffoon” sketches from his comedy album “They’re All Gonna Laugh At You” for the first time, a memory so vivid you’d think it was the Kennedy assassination. I remember the circumstances of hearing “The Buffoon” better than I remember 9/11.

I remember it because I’d never laughed that hard at a work of pop-culture before. I had one of those moments of clarity, where even as I was rolling on the floor like an idiot, I thought “Wow, comedy can be like this?”

I don’t know if I would’ve grown up wanting to write jokes without Adam Sandler. Sure, maybe it was simply a matter of right place, right time; and sure, maybe playing a character whose backstory is “he’s a moron” who screams about his grandma’s bush and his hairy balls wasn’t exactly a watershed moment in the annals of comedy. But everyone remembers their first, and Adam Sandler was mine. I continued to laugh with him through Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, which weren’t good, necessarily, but dumb in just the right way, transcending mere artistic considerations to become true cultural touchstones. His act started to get a little staler, as acts do, and somewhere around, I don’t know, 50 First Dates, or maybe his multiple collaborations with Kevin James, I sort of gave up hope of ever really laughing at Adam Sandler in quite the same way ever again.

And that was fine. All good things eventually come to an end, no one can be funny forever, your first love eventually moves on and has kids with someone else and moves to a new town. Such is the way of things. I never blamed Sandler too much for it (okay maybe a little). He always seemed like he was having a good time dicking around with his buddies or making money for his kids even if he wasn’t making stuff that I liked anymore. “Shills” always seem happier than “artists,” anyway. That’s probably why we resent them so much.

I probably wouldn’t have watched Sandler’s new comedy special, 100% Fresh, if I hadn’t heard multiple good recommendations. I didn’t quite believe them, but what the hell, I thought, I’d give it a shot.

Editing together what must be a good 10 different live shows, the special starts out more or less as I expected — Sandler’s goofy, lazy humor, a mix of non-sequitur observations and three or four line songs, charmingly R-rated but still middling. Eh, I’ll probably shut this off soon, I thought. But it lulls you, getting better and better until you’re fully invested. I would’ve been happy just to relive the kind of gleefully vulgar nonsense humor I loved when I was 13, and there’s plenty of that. In particular a song about a pair of astronauts who can’t stop “accidentally” sucking each other’s penises on an isolated outpost called Station 69 (on which Rob Schneider makes a cameo). That was a solid homage to early Sandler, in the way “Kokomo” was an homage to early Beach Boys. I barely even thought about Rob Schneider being an anti-vaxxer now.

But there’s one bit in particular that really cements 100% Fresh‘s place as more than just a reunion tour; as more than just a few minutes of pleasant nostalgia. It’s Sandler’s bit about taking his daughter to Disney World. He describes waiting in a rollercoaster line for an hour, only to get to the front and realize the coaster doesn’t have enough available seats for his whole family. His wife and daughter ditch him without a second thought (and dads getting short shrift in the familial love department has long been a stand up comedy staple, from Bill Cosby to Chris Rock to Louis CK to Carlos Mencia ripping off Bill Cosby), and Sandler finds himself riding the coaster with another abandoned dad from Oklahoma.

Sandler’s schlubby, almost schtickily low-energy style (“fuckin…”) is perfect for describing two grumbly, put-upon dads begrudgingly forced to acknowledge each other’s existence. They both try hard not to be over-familiar with each other — as guys do, and so forth — but through the enforced fun of a roller coaster, they both come to realize that, surprise surprise, they’re actually having fun. “I think to myself, ‘Holy shit, I haven’t been this happy in at least 11 years,'” Sandler describes, with a look of awe.

Through this shared experience, they imprint upon each other, and they have a moment. It evolves into a kind of love affair from there (and again, we’ve seen bromance comedy, in everything from Superbad to I Love You, Man), but for me it’s easily Sandler’s funniest bit since The Buffoon; maybe even his best ever. Part of what makes it so great is that it doesn’t strike you as particularly Sandler-esque based on his past work, but as he delivers it, you realize that he’s the perfect one to tell it.

It’s hilarious, simply through Sandler’s pacing, his frugal act-outs, and his perfectly timed asides, but there’s also something cathartic about it (conveniently never mentioned in all of this is the fact that Adam Sandler is a huge celebrity and if the story is entirely true surely the other guy must’ve been a little star struck). It’s about two dudes (yes, dudes again, sorry) pushed out of their comfort zones and forced to reckon with each other’s shared humanity, and those two dudes finding out that they like it.

That’s not just a funny story, it’s kind of a beautiful one. Because if there’s one defining feeling of our current epoch, it’s a vast and persistent loneliness. The more you read about the mail bomber guy, the more you realize that he was kind of a just a loser and that his radical Trumpist/fascist conspiracy hysteria was largely an elaborate scheme to meet people. He’s extreme, but not entirely alien.

Listening to two people find a positive respite from that same loneliness, and go the opposite way, to acknowledge a series of shared values, common goals, mutual feelings — even in a second-hand, possibly fictional story — it hits deeper than simple humor. It’s the kind of joke you enjoy when you’re not just 13 and listening to a guy scream about hairy balls anymore.

It wasn’t just something I enjoyed, it was something maybe I needed on some level.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can check out his film review archive here.

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