Monday, December 3, 2018

Puddles of What I'm Enjoying: Adam Sandler's Netflix Special "100% Fresh"

In a new sporadic series, Matt Domino shares a brief look at a bit of pop culture, entertainment, or literature he is enjoying.

When I think of Adam Sandler, I think of the beginning of the 2009 Judd Apatow movie Funny People. The movie starts with home video footage that Apatow took when he and Sandler were roommates in the early 1990s. The film quality resembles any movie that my friends or family took in the ’90s or early 2000s. The color gradient ranges from greyish whites to greyish blacks with only a stray shot of a pink or peach-colored carpet breaking through. There are glimpses of a square, bulky, landline telephone and answering machine.

In the clip, Sandler is about 24 or 25 years old and is making prank phone calls. He’s still on his way to stardom, but basically still a kid. In the prank phone calls, he first pretends to be an old woman who loses her credit card. Sandler shrieks in what has now become one of his trademark voices and tells the woman on the other end of the line that “her” name is “Helen Easaphone...E-A-S-A-phone” before cracking up. Later, still pretending to be an old woman, he calls a restaurant complaining that their roast beef makes her sick, but she can’t help but eat it because she loves roast beef so much. The camera pans over to the audience in the room, which consists of Janeane Garofalo and Ben Stiller, who participates in the call with some of his classic unhinged yelling as the old woman’s frustrated son. The footage ends with Sandler, Stiller, and Garofolo erupting in laughter and the camera dropping to the floor, its view holding steady on the landline phone and answering machine.

When I first saw this footage in the theater at the start of Funny People it made my heart hurt, just as it does now. Seeing impossibly famous people like Sandler, Stiller, and Garafolo as young adults getting a kick out of prank phone calls is reassuring in some way and also moving. When I first watched the footage, it showed me that anyone can start off in a barely-decorated apartment bedroom with a mattress and phone on the floor and ascend to stardom or fame. It showed me that even though prank phone calls are eternally dumb and juvenile, they are funny as hell and always will be. When we’re young and with our friends (even friends who will become famous comedians) the jokes are at their dumbest and at their funniest. Now that I am no longer truly young or on my way to any kind of stardom or fame, I view the footage as a stand-in for all the stupid jokes, long nights, and idle afternoons I spent with my friends in my early twenties.

In October, Adam Sandler released his 100% Fresh special on Netflix. It came after the release of four original films that ranged from somewhat decent to offensive. Since 100% Fresh came out, I have watched it seven and a half times. I’m currently watching it, so that count will soon be at seven and a half. There is something soothing and endlessly appealing about the special, which is stitched together from various performances Sandler did at small and large venues to practice both his jokes and the vast number of songs that comprise the bulk of this latest act.

Like any good American male of the ’90s, I grew up on Sandler sketches, movies, and songs. I was too young to actively watch him for most of his time on SNL, but nearly every guy in my middle school and high school became fluent in Sandler’s SNL sketches thanks to reruns that played on Comedy Central in the afternoons, late at night, or on the weekends. Like many men who are now in their thirties, in my adolescence, Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, The Wedding Singer, and even Big Dady were more than movies, they were how you communicated with your friends and classmates. If you picked the right line to reference from a Sandler movie at a party, you suddenly could become a kid’s best friend.

I never memorized Sandler’s albums though. For a lot of my friends from college, songs like “At a Medium Pace” or sketches like “Toll Booth Willie” and “Do It For Your Mama” didn’t mean the same thing to me the way they did for other people. I just really knew “The Hanukkah Song” and “The Thanksgiving Song” like everyone else who listened to Z100.

But 100% Fresh is full of songs, and a lot of them are really good! The songs were written by Sandler and L.A. comedian Dan Bulla and they vary from capital-C classic Sandler (“Bar Mitzvah Boy”) to pure juvenile Sandler (“Uber Driver”) to baffling (“Cotton Candy”) to homages to the Bee Gees/early Harry Nilsson (“Mr. Slo-Mo” and “We All Know a Guy”) and Paul Simon (“Electric Car”). There’s a song that I particularly love that’s based around the simple concept of a guy jumping up on a runaway plane, train, and then performing the heimlich, and acting as a hero but who then messes everything up because he doesn’t know what he is doing. Every song is a miniature study in genre and pastiche that is at times kind of staggering in a way—or at least reminiscent of Ween.

Much has been made of the tribute song to Chris Farley that comes close to the very end of the special (in which Sandler plays an impressive guitar solo) as well as the fact that there is a sentimentality to the special that hasn’t been present in Sandler’s film career—outside of Wedding Singer and his part in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. To me, the Farley song is certainly touching and as a song it is directly in Sandler’s wheelhouse. But it is the theme of broader, unabashed sentimentality that strikes me as closer to what makes me so fascinated with this special.

As I have thought more about it, the Sandler in 100% Fresh reminds me of (as so many things do) solo Paul McCartney. Sandler had no group, no Beatles to leave or move on from. But he did have a “peak” run of movies in the mid-1990s that it seems he can no longer reach. Every so often, he may make a movie that has parts that might remind you of the movies from his peak, but really he’s just doing what he wants to, what he thinks is funny, and very often that’s something easy and juvenile. 100% Fresh is no different in that regard. “Uber Driver” is just a song making fun of an Uber Driver who smells bad until the narrator of the song realizes that the smell is actually coming from him because he shit his pants. Just typing that description makes me laugh, but also makes me kind of amazed (not with awe) that a 52 year old man like Sandler would be making a joke like that in a song. But that kind of joke sits next an almost Syd Barrett like nursery rhyme where Sandler sings about attempting to read a book, but getting distracted by TV because “TV good. Reading bad.” It also sits next to a bit about dick pics that builds to a surreal, recurring joke about a ghost.

In 100% Fresh, Sandler isn’t trying to be anything than what he is—and what he is, is a successful comedian with a pretty immature sensibility, a 52-year-old man with reverence for the types of music genres he heard on the FM and AM dials when he was growing up, a man who is comfortable being a rich celebrity dad in corduroys, and a guy who kind of misses being in his 20s and partying and making prank phone calls with his friends.

I’ve been watching those Sandler prank phone call videos because I’ve been watching 100% Fresh so much. And watching those prank phone call videos makes me wistful for a time that I knew: a time of landlines and answering machines, bulky mac monitors that were grey and slow, stacks of VHS tapes, and thick suburban carpets. I don’t necessarily miss those things, but I know they are disappearing and are far away from me and from when my life or the life I lived was more immediate and made more sense.

The Adam Sandler in 100% Fresh shows that he hasn’t really changed from the Sandler of the early 1990s. That is, Sandler the comedian seems to be exactly the same. The man singing these songs—at one point making a joke about eating an ice cream woman’s pussy—seems as if he would be just as comfortable making prank phone calls about eating too much roast beef at a restaurant and then making a mess in the bathroom. I don’t know if Adam Sandler the man has changed; I imagine he has, but what the hell do I know?

But as a comedian, as an artist, Sandler has more or less remained the same. And in a way, that kind of makes him the modern day Rodney Dangerfield. There are slight tweaks, but the general joke, the general feel of what you get from “The Sandman” is the same as it ever was and the same as it ever will be. That fact is what makes 100% Fresh so appealing for me: it is Adam Sandler the performer just as you remembered him, just as you’d expect. Without the trappings or even poorly constructed framework of a movie, it’s just a stage and Sandler and his bits and his songs and his unassuming charisma.

That’s the Sandler that I and so many other people of my generation grew up with. Watching 100% Fresh makes me realize, perhaps more than anything else, just how much time has passed. It’s been nearly 10 years since I first saw that prank phone call footage for the first time at the beginning of Funny People. That cell phone footage is nearly 30 years old. I’m 33 years old. Adam Sandler is 52 years old. I wonder sometimes if he thinks about those prank phone calls and misses them at all. He probably doesn’t; he probably likes having a wife and kids and being rich a lot better than living in a bare room with a mattress on the floor. But, again, what the hell do I know?

In many ways, the world seems like it has passed Adam Sandler by. But yet, so many of us grew up with him and he really doesn’t mean much harm so we should probably just cut him some slack. He just wants to make us laugh. Maybe that’s OK, right? Because it gets tiring trying to be a better and smarter person each day. So then watching two grown men, two old friends like Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider, sing a song about giving each other blow jobs in space makes you laugh and almost comes as a relief—even if it is sophomoric. And you shake your head and say, “I can’t believe they are still doing this shit.” And you are impressed and you can’t quite understand why and so you watch again.


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