The laugh wrack

Why I love Adam Sandler, everybody's whipping boy.

TELL A ROOMFUL of regular people that one of your top 10 favorite films is Billy Madison, and all of a sudden everyone becomes Professor Pipesmoker. "Harumph! Most irregular! I believe that was less a film than a form of celluloid excrement." On the cultural food chain, everyone needs someone to be above. That's why God gave us Adam Sandler.

Big Daddy

directed by Dennis Dugan

starring Adam Sandler, Joey Lauren Adams

playing at Pacific Place, Factoria, others

Sandler gets lumped in with the doughheads of comedy, the weak-brained Saturday Night Live alums, the Chris Farleys and the David Spades. But the difference between Sandler and those guys is that Sandler's just so much goddamn funnier. There's a creeping feeling you get watching most comedians: You start to suspect that if you knew them, they wouldn't be funny. They'd just be very, very driven.

The funniest guy in your high school is not the guy who went to Hollywood to chase his dream. The funniest guy in your high school is now, like, a doctor. (The funniest guy in high school is just a handy construct. My own personal funniest guy in high school is actually a woman I knew in college.) The guy who goes to Hollywood lacks two key humor ingredients: smarts and perspective. Sandler could well be this person, too. I've seen video footage of his early standup act, and he is Everycomedian, all unfunny needling and naked ambition.

But somehow he emerged from SNL looking like the funny guy from high school who happened to get famous. Like any truly funny person in real life, Sandler can be funny about just about anything. His greatest moment, for me, is at the beginning of Billy Madison. Billy is in the bathtub, shampoo in one hand, conditioner in the other. He shakes the shampoo bottle, which is clearly addressing the conditioner: "Shampoo is bettah! I go on first and clean the hair!" The conditioner responds, "Conditioner is bettah! I leave the hair silky and smooth!" "Oh, really, fool?" "Really!" The two bottles tussle.

Sandler is always, first and foremost, a guy amusing himself. How come this kind of behavior is called "inspired lunacy" when it's the Marx brothers amusing themselves and "really dumb" when it's Sandler? Three words, my friend: black and white. If Sandler's films had been made in 1935, you'd be thumbtacking his posters to the wall of your book-lined study.

The other quality Sandler developed on SNL is, surprisingly enough, his sweetness. He makes fat jokes but loves his granny. He trips Rollerbladers but is kind to children. The guy has a hit song about Hanukkah, for crying out loud. ("David Lee Roth lights the menorah . . .")

His early films did a great job balancing his bathroom humor with his sweet side: he really is a giant kid, one who'd do anything for his friends and then laugh in their faces when they fall down. His worst film, The Wedding Singer, tried to exploit this sweetness by turning him into a leading man.

His new movie, Big Daddy, mires him in another schmaltzy plot: Sandler adopts a little boy and discovers . . . you know, responsibility and adulthood and love. This time, though, the adopted child is not just an object of Sandler's love, he's an object of derision. Call Child Protective Services if you must, but this makes for funny stuff. The first night the kid stays in Sandler's apartment, he wets the bed. Sandler goes to take a look and shouts in dismay, "That's a shitload o' piss!"

Are these good movies? No, they're terrible. Do I love them? Yes, Professor, I do.

 
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