On Saturday, February 11, The Dispatch kindly published my essay “In Defense of the Real Adam Sandler.”
To give you a good idea of what this essay is about, I will post here the opening and closing paragraphs.
The opening paragraph:
On March 19, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will present Adam Sandler with their twenty-fourth Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The award celebrates individuals who have, in the mold of Twain, entertained and informed the country through their comedy. Previous recipients of the Mark Twain Prize include such great comedians as Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Tina Fey, Carol Burnett, and Sandler’s idol, Eddie Murphy.
The closing paragraph:
Adam Sandler deserves a critical re-evaluation as a great American artist working in the low- and middle-brow. In recent years, critics have begun to recognize Sandler, but only as a talented character actor, due to his work with directors like the Safdie brothers, Noah Baumbach, Jason Reitman, and Paul Thomas Anderson. However, it seems sure that in the future film critics and historians will reflect on Sandler’s filmography and see him for what he is as a star: a great comic artist, auteur, even a poet, for the working class and average American concerns, especially in the 1990s and 2000s but with continuing relevance into the 2010s and 2020s. When Adam Sandler accepts the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in March, he will take the award as a worthy popular star who has something to say and has been successfully saying it for over thirty years.
If I can boil the essay down to a single sentence, it’s this: Critics (other than Armond White) and cinephiles tend to dismiss Adam Sandler as an artist, though they do occasionally enjoy him as more of a character actor, but this is a mistake, because Sandler is a great American comic artist with many worthwhile things to communicate through his comedy, especially as pertains to traditional, ethnic, and religious values in America. There is a deep misunderstanding of Sandler’s work among critics and wannabe critics that regular people just get, intuitively. Other than Mike Judge and the husband/wife team of Jared and Jerusha Hess, no one recently is really making comedy with the ordinary Americans’ concerns like Sandler has done and still is doing.
Just to be clear, “In Defense of the Real Adam Sandler” is an essay about, yes, Adam Sandler, in which I quote or reference Mark Twain, Eddie Murphy, Al Pacino, Brad Pitt, Forbes, The TLS, Dana Carvey, David Spade, John Ford, Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman, John Hughes, Shakespeare, Frank Capra, and more… Just so you know what you’re getting yourself into.
In this essay, I take Sandler seriously as a comic artist with worthwhile things to say via comedy, who has been saying those things quite successfully for over thirty years. I have to thank Eric and Sannah McDonough, of course, for helping me think through Sandler’s filmography, and for having me on their podcast, The Movie Shelf, for a two-part episode on Sandler: “Adam Sandler the Artist, Pt. 1 & Pt. 2.”
Eric and I have been talking with each other about Sandler for years now, and we finally decided to do all of this as a project together, the three of us. From Thanksgiving to February 11, we watched around thirty Sandler films (the insanely prolific Sandler had a starring role in forty-three movies from 1989 to 2022!); watched hours of Sandler’s SNL sketches, standup, and podcast/talk-show appearances; thoroughly discussed Sandler’s filmography in various chats; recorded the Movie Shelf podcast episodes; and I wrote my essay with revision help from Eric and Sannah. I had a blast, and never got tired of Sandler’s work at all. We did this at the risk of ruining the joke by explaining it, but I think we did a good job. Eric, Sannah, and I said we could write a book of essays on Sandler at this point, because we have enough material, but also because we so enjoyed the experience. This all, of course, in time for movie awards season, where Sandler’s artistry will be ignored yet again, beyond the Mark Twain prize. But the best comedy doesn’t usually receive attention from prestigious institutions, until maybe a great many years later.
As the Kennedy Center’s website states:
The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor recognizes individuals who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th-century novelist and essayist Samuel Clemens, best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist, and creator of characters, Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective on social injustice and personal folly.
“Adam Sandler has entertained audiences for over three decades with his films, music, and his tenure as a fan favorite cast member on SNL,” said Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter about this year’s recipient. “Adam has created characters that have made us laugh, cry, and cry from laughing. I am looking forward to a laughter-filled evening like no other as we celebrate his career at a ceremony that is sure to bring together the best in comedy.”
Adam Sandler deserves to be taken seriously, because he is a great American comic artist in the tradition of Mark Twain, Frank Capra, and Eddie Murphy. Why? For a multitude of reasons—and like any good American, Sandler does indeed contain Walt Whitman’s and Bob Dylan’s multitudes.
Most importantly for comedians and standup comedy purists, Sandler makes people laugh. His sold-out standup concerts prove this. His highly lucrative comedy movies prove this even more, especially in a time when most American comedy flicks die a swift death by obscurity at the box office and on streaming alike. As Jerry Seinfeld is fond of variously stating on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, there is only one real metric for comedy: make people laugh; anything else is superfluous. Most effectively, Sandler knows the best ways to reach Americans to convey his ideas: through comic art in the low and middle brow.
As Titus Techera wrote about Preston Sturges whose Sullivan’s Travels lessons Sandler knows well, it is difficult and tricky to be a comedian in America without coming across contemptuous, especially when always turning a professionally proud and comically critical eye toward one’s nation, and there are few things more damning with average audiences than appearing superior, especially in the absence of independent wealth. So what Sandler has achieved is by no means easily done.
For examples of the seriousness with which Sandler discusses ideas through his silly comedy, consider this: Many critics and cinephiles feel Sandler “fell off” after Mr. Deeds in 2002, but think of the things Sandler explored with his post-Mr. Deeds work (though the movies may be of varying quality).
- Sandler explored the way strong cultural, ethnic, and religious roots can beneficially tie people to community and family in Eight Crazy Nights, Spanglish, Grown Ups, Jack & Jill, The Cobbler, and The Ridiculous 6. Most critics had no true clue what Al Pacino was doing by toying with his public image in Jack & Jill, but Pacino seems to genuinely love having been in the film, and he especially enjoyed the Jill character. In Spanglish, traditional, Hispanic Catholicism supports contentment and decadent secularism causes unhappiness. In The Cobbler, which references Leo Tolstoy’s Russian short story “Martin the Cobbler,” Jewish spirituality, responsibility, and optimism beats despair, apathy, and predatory criminality both low class and white-collar. In all six of these films, Sandler also emphasized how much difficult work must go into maintaining these roots, yet all that work will pay off in the end. As Solomon’s proverb says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
- He stressed again the merging of passions, mutual prodding for ambitions, and taming of desire through marriage or marriage-reflecting relationships in Anger Management, 50 First Dates, The Week Of, Sandy Wexler, and Murder Mystery (Netflix’s most popular film of 2019).
- He illustrated the organized discipline of sports bringing men together and strengthening them in The Longest Yard and Hustle, like he had begun doing previously in The Waterboy, recalling Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman.
- He furthered his Capra connection by essentially reworking It’s a Wonderful Life, via the traditional “Peter and the Magic Thread” folk tale, for the Sandler audience and contemporary times with Click. Though their plots and characters differ greatly, both Mr. Deeds and Click have something to say about how culture, and sophistication, has changed since Capra’s day.
- He made comedy of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance sentiment, that in America the tragedies of war and violent culture clashes can be overcome and left behind, in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, reminding observers as well of the way Frank Capra combined both the genres of Greek tragedy and Greek comedy to proclaim America the sort of system in which tragedy can be averted and end happily like a comedy would. Even when America is not a place of great wealth or even great freedom necessarily, it remains a place where people striving together can possibly overcome individual differences without sacrificing uniqueness.
- He promoted the combined feminine and masculine presence of nuclear families with present parents who love each other and with children who respect and are taught discipline by their parents in Bedtime Stories, Just Go with It, That’s My Boy (on the cautionary side), Blended, and the Hotel Transylvania series.
- As he had begun considering in Big Daddy, Sandler examined how young men must now confront and work through the LGBTQ/queer elements of mainstream culture in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.
- He demonstrated how men across races, ethnicities, and classes are at their most unified and useful to their families and communities when encouraging each other through constant ribbing, competition, and mutual earned respect in Grown Ups 2, Pixels, and The Do-Over, recalling the good moments of Bulletproof, where he teamed up with In Living Color legend Damon Wayans.
- And as in Billy Madison and Little Nicky, he resumed insisting weirdos can find happiness in real society with Hubie Halloween (one of Netflix’s most profitable films to date).
These are not the unserious babblings of a court jester. Some of Sandler’s movies may be trash, but in the manner Pauline Kael celebrates in her famous essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” where she wrote, “When we go to the movies we want something good, something sustained, we don’t want to settle for just a bit of something, because we have other things to do… A little nose-thumbing isn’t enough. If we’ve grown up at the movies we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, but we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery. Trash has given us an appetite for art.”
I am quite serious when I say Sandler is the poet of the American working classes, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, and he is a poet of democracy as Titus Techera once wrote. He is loved across racial and ethnic divides, by the working classes especially. They love his comedies and have made him an unusual success, even now when very few comedians are super successful through mostly movies. He is a populist through and through, in a traditional American sense. He believes in the common good and in shared morality. He is always optimistic. He believes our differences are fascinating and should fascinate us. He portrays the lower and middle class, working class, average Americans without being condescending toward them. He believes the common life is a good life, though that should not hold a person back from making their way in life and from providing for their family. He always emphasizes both individuality and community in a uniquely American way, and he works to show this is possible without denying the inherent tensions there. Sophistication is often silliness, maybe usually is. And his movies illustrate that a freedom and a satisfaction often comes in embracing tradition, community, etc.—ahead of identity—in America through a compromise of sorts, not in leaving your past behind or in being too good for your past or embarrassed by it.
Sandler always believes that there was and still is value in traditional American values, morals, and mores, and these can be continued, although continuing them might be hard, complicated, and complex. The most important aspects of those values are the ethnic and spiritual components of them. Without those components, those values cannot be continued actually, and would be useless.
Sandler aspired to be Eddie Murphy as a young man training himself to become a great comedian. Like Eddie Murphy, Sandler is not ashamed to express every part of his ethnicity. He shares his Jewishness with everyone equally. It’s his contribution to pop culture.
Look, I was once one of the people I am criticizing in my essay, one of the people dismissing Sandler’s artistry. But this project I undertook with Eric and Sannah McDonough taught me to to stop dismissing him, just as my Dad and Armond White’s writing had taught me years previously, which I discuss on the podcast.