Adam Sandler’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ Sketches Were Way Smarter Than They Looked

There’s more to Canteen Boy than meets the eye
Adam Sandler’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ Sketches Were Way Smarter Than They Looked

Even inside the Saturday Night Live writers’ room, not everyone thought that Adam Sandler had it going on. When Sandler, this weekend’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor recipient, would read through one of his latest Weekend Update pieces, there would be “a dark cloud” hanging over most of the room, according to writer Robert Smigel. But that disdain didn’t apply to all of the writers, he recently told the Washington Post. “I just remember me and Conan (O’Brien) and the nerds — Greg Daniels and (Bob) Odenkirk — giggling uncontrollably in one corner of this room.” 

SNL Sandler wasn’t for everyone, says longtime head writer Jim Downey, and that included audiences and critics. “Ordinary people had no problem with him, and really smart people had no problem,” he also told WaPo. “But there was this group in the middle who would just take great offense at this kind of thing. They thought it was self-indulgent and infantile.”

But Hall of Fame SNL writers like Smigel and Downey disagree. “I think he was ahead of his time,” Smigel told Marc Maron on the WTF podcast. “I think he was one of the most innovative writers that I came across on SNL. … Sandler was one of the few people who was reinventing sketch structure back then. I swear to God. A lot of us were just writing simple ‘premise escalates’ shit, and they were smart and funny, but they weren’t as inventive or as fresh (as Sandler’s sketches).”

Most performers, Downey explains, want to be respected and praised for their intelligence. “Adam was a guy who did not care if you thought he was smart and, in fact, went out of the way to obscure the fact that he is, I’d daresay, a lot more intelligent than 90 percent of the performers I’ve worked with.”

If anything, the Sandman worked in the opposite direction, says Smigel, taking sophisticated ideas and “cloak(ing) them in a silly voice.” And sometimes, it wasn’t about “smart” at all and more about syncopation and dynamics, like a piece of music. Take the fake commercials for the Herlihy Boy.

“To me, that was a rhythm piece,” Sandler explains to the Washington Post. “I’m going to calmly talk, Farley’s going to go fucking bananas. Camera will zoom back in — calm energy — then widen to a sick man screaming. I knew that had a comedy rhythm to it. I learned that from SNL. I learned what made me laugh. Like Dan Aykroyd on ‘Fred Garvin, Male Prostitute.’ That rhythm influenced me.”

As for those polarizing Canteen Boy sketches, perhaps the epitome of the type of comedy that Sandler’s critics found childish? Smigel argues they’re surprisingly complex: It wasn’t like a single joke that escalates. It was a conversation between a somewhat strange guy and a couple of other people who were perceived as normal. And the other guys are just kind of smirking and making comments that they think are going over his head, but they’re not. And the weird guy doesn’t want to let them know that they’re hurting him. So he’s acting like they’re going over his head, for his own dignity’s sake. So that’s a lot going on in a Saturday Night Live sketch.”

Mark Twain probably would have dug it. 

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