NEW YORK — A funny thing happened when I picked up my remote and hit play on Netflix. A familiar face appeared, though one I hadn’t seen doing stand-up in a long time.
“C’mon, let’s watch Adam Sandler,” I said to my wife, at which point she grabbed her iPad and started poking on Pinterest. (Note: as a male feminist I believe in total parity between the sexes, though I can’t for the life of me figure out how she can spend hours on Pinterest. I guess there are some things that are biological after all.)
Anyway, in a night filled with punchlines — and Sandler’s new special “100% Fresh” is very old school and punchline-heavy — there was this: An hour later my wife and I were holding hands and passing a box of Kleenex between us. “100% Fresh” takes a surprising and emotional turn, cementing the fact that Adam Sandler, whether you find him to be one of the comic greats or an immature idiot, is a mensch of the highest order.
“100% Fresh,” directed by Steve Brill, who brought us the recent Sandler-as-Hollywood-manager film “Sandy Wexler” and the criminally underrated Elizabeth Banks comedy “Walk of Shame,” isn’t a typical cable/streaming standup show. It’s more of a concert film from the 1980s.
Brill cuts between 20 different performances, creating something of a collage. He mixes up the best moments, sometimes shifting within the same bit (a technique Frank Zappa created on his live albums that he called “xenochrony.”) Some nights are in small clubs, others are at capacity crowd sports arenas. Also, some stashed-camera footage from the Times Square subway station, where it appears that no one recognized him. The editing is more like Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” than anything else the Netflix algorithm will suggest once it’s over.
Okay, so enough about how it’s put together. Is it any good? Listen, comedy is subjective, but one thing that’s remarkable is despite the salty language and subject matter that gets a tad risqué, it’s refreshingly nice. When Sandler does a whole routine about (oh, how does one put this delicately?) his wife’s unexpected air pockets during moments of intimacy, you can tell — you just know — that there is no shame, and certainly no revulsion. There is only honesty, humor and love.
I didn’t crack out the stopwatch, but it feels as if half of the show consists of musical numbers. With his chum Dan Bulla on keyboards and accompanying himself on guitar, Sandler runs through 28 alarmingly catchy short tunes. There’s a bit about urinating in the shower, there’s another about a smelly Uber driver and an entire medley about trying to rescue people in emergency situations even when you don’t know what you are doing. But there’s one that is destined to become an instant classic in the Jewish community.
“Bar Mitzvah Boy” is one of those songs that seems so perfect it’s almost as if you’ve known it your whole life. (I admit I had to Google to make sure that this wasn’t a reprise of an old Saturday Night Live bit.)
With story board drawings displayed behind him on enormous screens, Sandler sings about memorizing his Torah portion, about his grandmother’s pride and about gentile friends asking “what’s a knish?” It’s sweet and honest (“Dad’s mad at the cost/Too bad, Mom’s the boss”) and, importantly, a total earworm. By the time it ends the entire New Jersey Performing Arts Center is singing along to the chorus.
After another number where Sandler’s pal Rob Schneider floats in on wires as a gay Russian cosmonaut (not in a mocking way; in a way that is inclusive to gay space voyagers of all backgrounds), the show climaxes with a tribute to the late Chris Farley. Sandler does his Springsteen-style voice and actually plays some decent guitar, remembering the SNL alum that he calls the funniest man he ever met. One line in particular evoked what the 51-year-old version of Sandler is all about:
“Hey, buddy, life’s moved on, but you still bring us so much joy / Make my kids laugh with your YouTube clips or ‘Tommy Boy'”
There’s something so earthy and real about the image of Sandler with his kids, poking at YouTube, telling them about his old friend who died young. Then there’s the final number, a tribute to his wife, called “Grow Old With You” which is pretty self-explanatory.
Critics hate Adam Sandler. Sure, the voice can get annoying. Sure, there isn’t sophisticated wordplay. But I think the reason for the man’s success (and look at the numbers, he has been successful) is that he is the eternal class clown that wants to be our friend. In a landscape of dark and edgy comedians, this is 100% fresh.
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