From SNL To Netflix: A Deep Dive Into Adam Sandler’s Intriguing 30-Year Career

Adam Sandler
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Murder Mystery is now streaming on Netflix.

At the Video Ezy near where I grew up, you could rent seven “weeklies” for $7. If you ever rented movies from this store, I’d like to apologise for regularly hogging Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. Thankfully, you no longer need to call the parents of a teenager to request they return the tapes or face a fine because the works of Adam Sandler are available in abundance in the streaming age.

And, this month, Sandler returns to Netflix and re-teams with Jennifer Aniston for Murder Mystery, a modern-day whodunit set on a luxury yacht where a guest is murdered, and everyone is a suspect.

From video stores to Netflix, Sandler’s career spans three decades, so here’s a dive into his back catalogue.

From Stand-Up Comedy To Saturday Night Live

Legend has it that Sandler started doing stand-up comedy when he was 17. The teen comic developed a following in the 1980s and, shortly after, got the attention of legendary Saturday Night Live (SNL) producer, Lorne Michaels.

Sandler joined the iconic sketch comedy series in 1990 as a writer and graduated to a cast member within a year. SNL goes through phases where popular cast members plan to exit the show while Michaels future-proofs the series. When Sandler joined SNL, the show’s biggest stars were Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, and Phil Hartman. Sandler was part of Michael’s succession plan for SNL and he was joined by Chris Farley, David Spade, Chris Rock, and Rob Schneider.

Farley and Sandler became the breakout stars of their tenure on SNL. Sandler did impressions and created memorable characters like Opera Man and Cajun Man, but it was his original songs that set him apart; ‘The Chanukah Song’ is still one of the great moments in the show’s history.

The songs became so popular that Sandler put out two albums: They’re Gonna Laugh At You! And What the Hell Happened to You? A guy at my high school had a copy of each and became a king thanks to the power than came with the ability to burn CDs.

Sandler left SNL suddenly in ‘95 and later revealed on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien that he got fired.

Stop Looking At Me, Swan!

SNL is famous for launching careers but a lot of successful cast members in the ‘90s had help with transitioning from TV to film. Michaels began to produce films based on characters from the show and scored a major hit with Wayne’s World. Sandler made small appearances in the films Coneheads and Airheads, but was never the lead.

Sandler may have got the boot from SNL, but he didn’t leave empty handed: while at SNL, he co-wrote a script for a film called Billy Madison with one of the show’s writers, Tim Herlihy. The comedy about an adult who goes back to school was a hit at the US box office, beating The Quick and the Dead, a western starring Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman Russell Crowe, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Adam Sandler in Billy Madison

Image: Happy Madison Productions

The success of Billy Madison led Sandler and Herlihy to write Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, Big Daddy and Little Nicky. Sandler became a major box-office draw, but the true currency of these films was when they were discovered by an entire generation via VHS and re-runs on television. You couldn’t go anywhere in the late ‘90s without hearing a quote from Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore; dialogue from these films became its own language, like quotes from The Simpsons. But this era of Sandler’s career was not defined by yelling at golf balls or dancing to Culture Club on a staircase, it peaked with a romantic comedy, The Wedding Singer.

Blockbuster rom-coms are rare nowadays, but The Wedding Singer was huge in ‘98 and grossed over $120 million at the box office worldwide. The timing of the Wedding Singer was perfect because Sandler was coming off the success of the Maddison/Gilmore combo and Drew Barrymore had made a comeback thanks to a clever cameo in the horror film, Scream. The pairing was perfect, and the film took advantage of the ‘80s setting to make plenty of jokes at the decade’s expense, as well as a totally rad soundtrack.

All the attention was on Sandler as one of the biggest names in comedy so he did what all comedians eventually do: prove they can do a serious drama.

Career Best

Punch-Drunk Love showed a new side to Sandler and proved he had the ability to switch between comedy and drama, not unlike Robin Williams. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood), the film stars Sandler as a businessman who is prone to fits of rage and social anxiety and falls in love with his sister’s co-worker (Emily Watson). Punch-Drunk Love oozes modern style and romance and Sandler’s performance is sublime.

Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love

After Punch-Drunk Love (seriously, watch it), Sandler went back to comedy with a little variety. He goes toe-to-toe with Jack Nicholson in Anger Management and there’s an okay reunion with Barrymore in First 50 Dates. Sandler then appears in films about magical remote controls, a semi-autobiographical drama directed by Judd Apatow (40-Year-Old Virgin), and not one, but two Grown Ups movies!

(If you’re looking for a new(ish) podcast I highly recommend The Worst Idea of All Time, a show where two comedians watch Grown Ups 2 once a week for a year.)

Aniston enters the picture as Sandler’s co-star in 2011’s Just Go With It, a comedy where they play co-workers who pretend to be a married couple. Sandler continues to make comedies, with highlights like Sandy Wexler, where he plays a quirky manager working in Los Angeles in the ‘90s, and the comedy special, Adam Sandler 100% Fresh, a return to stand-up and musical performances.

Adam Sandler and Jennifer Anniston in Murder Mystery on Netflix

There’s also signs of the Punch-Drunk Love Sandler re-emerging in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), a film about dysfunctional adult siblings (Sandler, Ben Stiller and Elizabeth Marvel) living in the shadow of their father (Dustin Hoffman).

Despite the mix of comedy and drama, Sandler’s dominance is undisputed with an estimated lifetime box office gross of $2.8 billion.

Currently, Sandler is shooting Uncut Gems, a crime drama from Josh and Benny Safdie, the folks behind Good Time starring Robert Pattison. Again, Sandler is playing around with drama so it’s one to look out for in the future.

For now, if you’re in the mood to solve a crime on a yacht, look no further than Murder Mystery, a homage to classic literary mysteries with a dash of Sandler’s hilarity. Plus, the puzzler was shot on location in Italy, including Rome and Milan, atop Lake Como, and in the Liguria region, overlooking Monaco. You’ve come a long way Mr. Sandler.

(Lead images: New Line Cinema, Columbia Pictures, Netflix)

Murder Mystery is now streaming on Netflix.