- Adam Sandler’s earlier works were what shaped the ’90s as the golden age of Hollywood comedy and helped define the genre for years to come.
- The secret to his popularity lies in his distinct on-screen persona of a man-child.
- The history of using a child-like persona for comedic effect is as long as the history of comedy in film, going back as far as the Chaplin era.
- Sandler’s career took a downturn when he outgrew the innocence he could portray.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Billy Madison: I leave the hair silky and smooth! Oh, really, fool? Really!
Narrator: There’s a reason why some people find this funny.
Billy: Stop looking at me, swan! Narrator: And the answer lies in the genius of Adam Sandler.
If you’re a fan of comedy, chances are you’ve seen at least one Adam Sandler movie. And it’s not just because he’s made a lot of them. Whether you love him or you hate him, Sandler has had a profound impact on the genre. And until recently, he was one of the most consistent and reliable comedians working in Hollywood. His earlier works shaped the ’90s as the golden age of Hollywood comedy and helped define the genre for years to come.
And although it can be said that a majority of his films aren’t exactly great, it’s hard to argue that Sandler isn’t watchable. In fact, it’s what draws us to his films. Not the story, but his almost suspiciously charming performances.
The reason behind his charm, I think, lies in Sandler’s distinct on-screen persona. Of course, every actor has a unique way in which they portray themselves on screen, but none are more exaggerated than in the genre of comedy. From Jim Carrey’s physically goofy performances to Bill Murray’s dry, nonchalant wit.
Rita: I studied 19th century French poetry.
Phil: [laughs] What a waste of time.
Narrator: Comedians rely on their signature persona perhaps more than any other actors. It’s the reason why it’s so shocking to see them in more serious roles that we’re not familiar with.
Adam Sandler is no exception. Over the years, Sandler has played almost every conceivable role, from the son of Satan to an ex-military hairstylist, but they all share the same personality that he has honed for ages: the persona of a child.
Sandler’s performance as an irresponsible and emotionally immature man-child has more or less become his trademark. It’s a persona that can be traced all the way back to the beginning of his career on “Saturday Night Live,” where he played a famous recurring character known as Canteen Boy, an innocent and naive scoutmaster who often became the target of ridicule.
Mr. MacEntire: Hey, Canteen Boy, shouldn’t you ask your mother before you buy something for the house?
Canteen Boy: Thanks for asking, Mr. MacEntire. Actually, I’ve been given carte blanche to furnish my room as I see fit.
Narrator: It was this character, among many others, that jump-started Sandler’s career and made him popular among younger audiences, eventually leading him to his first breakout film, “Billy Madison” in 1995, where he played a spoiled, rich man-child who had to repeat grades one through 12 to prove his maturity and inherit his father’s business.
In a lot of ways, “Billy Madison” was a film made for Adam Sandler, written by himself and screenwriter Tim Herlihy, whom Sandler had collaborated with in his years at “SNL.” The two understood the unique charm and humor of the childlike persona that Sandler was great at portraying. And it was their constant collaboration that led to some of Sandler’s best works, such as “Happy Gilmore,” “The Wedding Singer,” “The Waterboy,” and “Big Daddy.”
But the genius of Sandler’s performance is not his man-child persona alone. After all, he’s not the only modern comedian to consistently play this type of character. It’s also his unique ability of portraying innocence. And to understand it, we have to go all the way back to where comedy began. The history of using a childlike persona for comedic effect is as long as the history of comedy in film. The king of comedy, Charlie Chaplin, understood that a certain amount of empathy was necessary to achieve good comedy. It’s why his films often dealt with real-world problems and issues relevant to his time. Chaplin understood that while laughing at someone experiencing a series of misfortune might be sadistic, there is comedy in watching it happen to someone who doesn’t quite see or comprehend it as tragedy. This is what made his persona of The Tramp so popular and timeless. It showed that tragedy can be interpreted as comedy, depending on the angle from which we view it.
It’s the same philosophy that makes Sandler’s performances so charming. The ridiculous situations that Sandler’s characters find themselves in more often than not stem from real-life problems, like his grandmother’s eviction notice in “Happy Gilmore” or the abandonment of a child in “Big Daddy,” which, by the way, was clearly inspired by Chaplin’s debut feature, “The Kid.” But the characters Sandler portrays never see these issues as misfortunes, simply because they’re unable to comprehend them the way we do.
Happy Gilmore: But she’s an old lady. I mean, look at her. She’s old.
Narrator: In all his films, Sandler is essentially a child thrown into an adult’s world that he cannot understand. Nor do the real adults try to understand him, a force of innocence that refuses to change despite the obstacles he faces. Interestingly enough, it’s the reason why children are featured so heavily in his films. In fact, quite often, children are really the only ones who understand him, and it’s around children where he feels most at home.
There are a lot of ways Sandler portrays innocence, but I think it’s best exemplified in moments like this.
Robbie: Well, I have a microphone, and you don’t. So you will listen to every d— word I have to say!
Narrator: These almost random, violent outbursts are, I think, what makes Sandler’s persona so distinct. Although they seem completely irrational, the anger that he performs is always directed at people or things that he finds unreasonable and unjust. More often than not, it’s not anger, but frustration at his inability to understand and accept the realities around him. I think it’s moments like these that make critics describe his performances as earnest. Playing a childlike character disables any filters on his emotions, words, and actions, and we see the characters for who they are, warts and all.
And although comedy is Sandler’s forte, it’s this quality that makes him great in more dramatic films like the highly underrated “Reign Over Me” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” which many still regard as Sandler’s best work. PTA understood Sandler’s unique ability to capture this innocence and created a work that showcased a sense of vulnerability that came with it.
Barry: I don’t like myself sometimes. Can you help me?
Narrator: Once you begin to understand the genius of Adam Sandler, it’s easy to see why his career turned out the way it did. The biggest problem, I think, stems from the fact that Sandler has simply outgrown his innocence. His films portray the same real problems that they once did.
Jack: We can’t lose Dunkin’ Donuts, they’re our biggest client! We’re gonna go bankrupt, buddy. And we have 200 employees relying on us.
Narrator: But it’s no longer through the lens of a child, but an adult.
The humor that once originated from his childlike innocence began turning into more strangely political and racist jokes.
Jill: I love how nice we are to this homeless man, a person we don’t even know who probably is pretending to be homeless! You don’t look homeless to me! You’re fat! You’re al-Qaida!
Narrator: And without any of his former innocence, the outbursts simply come off as rude and obnoxious.
Jack: It’s not, it’s not, it’s not, it’s not, all right?
Jill: All right, then why are you getting so angry?
Jack: Why are you so annoying?
Narrator: It’s even sadder because we all know that Sandler is capable of putting on a good performance. His recent works like “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Uncut Gems” are proof of it. And as a fan, I miss Sandler’s better comedic works, the ones that let you sit back and simply enjoy with your friends. Because as much as what differentiates Sandler might be in his ability to portray innocence, the true genius of Adam Sandler might be in creating a work that genuinely wants you to have a good time. [both laughing]