The Unexpected Humanity Of Adam Sandler’s New Netflix Special

Is Adam Sandler good now?

Adam Sandler 100% Fresh Netflix

Since the turn of the century, Adam Sandler has never had a performance described as “good” without the word “surprisingly” added to the front of it. It’s with this in mind that 100% Fresh, Sandler’s first comedy special in over 20 years, might be the biggest surprise of his career.

For context: There are few actors still working today with a filmography as wildly inconsistent as Sandler’s.

It seems that for every Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, there’s a Jack & Jill and That’s My Boy — he’ll have you just as quickly as he’ll lose you.

Imagine the hesitation, then, when it was announced that Sandler — who’s had a long-standing deal with Netflix – would be producing a stand-up special for the streaming service.

Look at the market he’s entering: this year alone, Netflix has delivered consistently-hilarious joke-a-thons like John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous, form-breaking and revealing honesty like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette and even shows that are able to bridge between those two worlds such as Daniel Sloss’ Dark. What chance would goofy old Happy Gilmore have in competing with the likes of these specials?

As it turns out, a much bigger one than you’d think.

100% Fresh

It’s even in something as small as the title: 100% Fresh. A none-too-subtle dig at his critical reputation, titling his special as a nod to Rotten Tomatoes is a portrait of the artist as an entirely self-aware being.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Sandler would have been too much of an A-lister to ever pay attention to his public perception, especially considering he’s remained entirely financially secure this entire time and has more or less been too big to fail commercially since the turn of the century. With this, however, as well as a sly name-drop towards the end of the special we’re seeing Sandler present himself as acutely across his shift in reputation.

It’s not quite Taylor Swift filling her music videos with snakes, but it’s just enough.

Throughout the special, as has been the case with most of Sandler’s foray into long-form stand-up, he mixes a series of anecdotes and observations with plenty of short, sharp songs. Often, he’ll save the punchline right for the final line as the music drops out — and even after the formula repeats several times across the special, it still lands just as effectively.

Accompanied by pianist Dan Bulla — who has worked with Sandler on recent Netflix efforts like Sandy Wexler and The Do-Over — Sandler implements a blend of jaunty showtune jingles with homages to trap, post-punk, mumble-rap, punk rock and even krautrock.

There’s a solid laugh to be had more or less everywhere the songs turn, especially if Sandler puts in the energy to really drive the joke home: see the faux-inspirational ‘Hero’ trilogy for perhaps the best example of this.

Punching Up

One of the most interesting elements of 100% Fresh, however, is that it generally doesn’t punch down in its comedic subject matter. It seems time-honoured tradition at this point that comedians of a certain age need to resort to lazy barbs or shock value in order for anyone to pay attention to them — here’s looking at you Chappelle, Gervais and Rogan.

With Sandler, however, it’s just a focus on making people laugh — not at anyone, but with each other. There’s plenty of great swerves in that regard: ‘Uber Driver,’ for instance, could have easily gone with a racial stereotype, while ‘Wrong’ could have turned into a condescending “women, ey?” blokey ribbing. In both cases, Sandler turns the punchline in on himself,  and, truthfully, makes the songs a lot funnier than they would have been if he’d gone down the obvious path.

Rather than centre the special on a specific location, director Stephen Brill — another Sandler collaborator, with credits including Little Nicky and Mr. Deeds  — cuts between various dates on an extensive tour, ranging from intimate dinner-and-show theatres to huge arenas. Much like Maria Bamford’s excellent 2017 Netflix special Old Baby, it’s fascinating to see what is ostensibly a start-to-finish show presented as a mosaic of sorts.

Seeing Sandler in the same sort of rooms he used to perform in when he first took to stand-up in the late 80s gives one a sense of perspective as to how far he has come in his career, while the arena setting shows the clout he is still able to hold as a beloved comedic everyman in the US.

The Humanity of Adam Sandler

There’s one key unifying theme that holds 100% Fresh together, and surprisingly it’s not its sense of humour — effective and on point as it is. Rather, it’s the humanity of Adam Sandler.

Yep, the term “humanity” is being applied to the man at the helm of some of the broadest, goofiest comedies of all time. It’s with good reason, too — net worth aside, Sandler has a Springsteen-esque appeal to the blue-collar, working-class background, his accessibility as an average Joe ever-apparent on 100% Fresh.

He’s a devoted family man, for instance,  a loving husband and attentive father. His family factors into his stand-up and his songs, but it’s never in a mocking or isolating way. The love he has for them shines through, even when he’s singing a song as absurd as the Casio-lead ‘Grandma Died’ in the subway, which attempts to resolve the titular issue by getting “a new one” from the nursing home in the hopes his daughters don’t notice.

Yes, Sandler is an instantly-recognisable celebrity, but he doesn’t touch that side of things at all in his stand-up.

The closest it gets is ‘Oh No,’ a 30-second minor-chord melodrama that exclaims in strife: “Oh no!/God, no!/My mother’s friend has a son who just moved to Hollywood/And she’s asked me to help him!” Beyond that, he’s telling stories about amusement parks, babies, the differences in schooling between his era and his kids’… and, sure, there’s some genital and bodily-function jokes in there. It’s Sandler, after all.

Still, it says a lot that his material doesn’t revolve around his own cult of personality.

The greatest insight into Sandler’s own humanity plays out across three parts. The first is ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy,’ a spiritual successor of sorts to ‘The Chanukkah Song’ which again reflects on Sandler’s Jewish background. Accompanied by drawings of the lyrics projected onto the screen behind him, Sandler recalls this fateful day in his youth with cheers and hollers of recognition from the similarly-oriented in the crowd. It’s also a genuinely pure moment to hear the song’s call-and-response echo right back in Sandler’s face during the chorus — it feels almost hymnal, in a way.

Next is ‘Farley,’ which may be the single most emotionally-affecting thing Sandler has ever performed. A heart-on-sleeve tribute to his SNL castmate, Sandler doesn’t weave complex metaphor or lean on analogies to express his feelings. Instead, it’s about as explicitly biographical and truthful as a song like this can be.

After playing a guitar solo while a slideshow of Farley plays, Sandler looks up and gives the audience a thumbs-up to a huge applause. He’s barely keeping it together, clearly holding back tears as he motions to complete the song. This shot stays with you, as it’s beyond a famous comedian paying tribute to another famous comedian — it’s a friend remembering a dearly-departed friend.

Closing the show is an updated version of ‘Grow Old with You,’ a Sandler original first made famous during a pivotal scene in 1998’s The Wedding Singer. The new lyrics detail Sandler’s relationship with his wife, Jaqueline Titone, with whom he recently celebrated 15 years of marriage.

It’s got a couple of laughs, but its key goal is presenting Sandler as a loveable goof that isn’t afraid to express sentimentality. If nothing else endears him, it’s this very moment — Adam Sandler just wants to entertain and provide for his family, and you can’t really blame him.

Is Adam Sandler perfect? Absolutely not. Is 100% Fresh perfect? Still, no. Then again, that might be the point — thanks to this special, we’re viewing the man in an entirely different light to the way we have in the last decade and change. The landscape has once again shifted in favour of the Sandman.

There’s every chance he’ll self-sabotage this good will with Chuck & Larry 2 or whatever may come next, but such is the nature of the beast. At least, now, we have some sort of understanding behind it — and, better yet, we have a 21st century piece of Sandler comedy truly worth rewatching and revisiting.

David James Young is a writer and podcaster, who has probably screamed “YOU CAN DO IT!” more times in his life than he’s said “I love you.” He tweets at @DJYwrites.