Sandler performs in Los Angeles in 2018
Photo: Jerritt Clark (Getty Images)

In an episode of Norm Macdonald’s recent (and probably doomed) Netflix talk show, Norm Macdonald Has A Show, the comic asks fellow Saturday Night Live alumnus David Spade whether he ever wishes for a career that had been spent focusing near-exclusively on stand-up, rather than parlaying his success in that field into sketch comedy, acting, and so on. Spade seems ambivalent, but Macdonald has clearly pledged a kind of allegiance to the art of simply appearing before a crowd and telling jokes; most of his other endeavors circle back to that platonic ideal.

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Compare this to Macdonald and Spade’s friend and frequent collaborator Adam Sandler, whose own ongoing deal with Netflix has now yielded 100% Fresh, his first sustained work of stand-up comedy in decades. Sandler is less of a stand-up purist than someone like Macdonald, but for him to return to it during this phase of his career, when the streaming service is giving him what seems like cinematic carte blanche—leading to a comedic Western, a sweet inside-showbiz picture, and a wedding comedy opposite Chris Rock—he must take some satisfaction from it. Or maybe he just needs a break from taking paid vacations with Spade.

Sandler returns to stand-up as an unusual success story. Sandler, Rock, Macdonald, Spade, and Dennis Miller all come from an era of Saturday Night Live that drew from the comedy-club circuit (probably more so than any era before or since), which has resulted in some stars ill-suited for movie vehicles (or sometimes SNL itself). But the usual limitations of solo performance haven’t stopped Adam Sandler from becoming one of the biggest film comedy stars of the past two decades—it’s been exactly 20 years since the combo of The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy propelled him from teen-bro favorite to genuine mass-appeal crowdpleaser.

Before those back-to-back hits, Sandler had done some memorable SNL characters and starred in a couple of cult-hit comedies, but was most noticeably successful in the now-antiquated field of comedy albums; his first three have moved a total of 4.5 million copies in the United States. But these aren’t traditional recordings of stand-up performances; they’re more like R-rated versions of his SNL bits, with goofy voices, novelty songs that sometimes came straight from the Weekend Update desk, and sketches featuring his various friends and colleagues. Even when he’s receiving star billing, Sandler has always seemed more comfortable as part of a group.

Despite assistance from his buddies, They’re All Gonna Laugh At You!, What The Hell Happened To Me?, and What’s Your Name? still feel like undiluted Sandler, more so than his actual stand-up material. There’s plenty of evidence of the latter floating around the internet, but they’re mostly in five- to 10-minute bursts, in part because he didn’t record a full stand-up special before getting hired, at age 23, to write for Saturday Night Live. Clips from his early stand-up career offer glimpses of the Sandler persona in rough-draft form, as he performs with a nervous, tremulous affectation on par with early Woody Allen (in believability if not always joke-craft), and some of his bits are inspired. There’s a clear path from the just-past-teenage goofiness of these routines to the types of parts he played after being promoted to an SNL featured player in 1991, and less relation to the family men and quasi-romantic leads he would go on to play in the likes of Click or I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry.

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Once he became a clockwork box office star, Sandler did fewer albums, and largely limited his stand-up performances to his practice for Judd Apatow’s 2009 dramedy Funny People. The closest thing to a Sandler stand-up special before 100% Fresh was an hour on HBO back in 1996. It’s not a traditional comedy set but rather a concert from his tour supporting What The Hell Happened To Me?, complete with a full band and pre-taped continuations of his album sketches. Sandler betrays no nerves in the show, but his regular-guy character, while probably true to his increased confidence levels, still feels a little distanced. As he performs a self-conscious imitation of rock-star patter and drops casual F-bombs, it feels like he’s doing a parody of the college kids seen extolling his virtues before the show starts—but one so mild that it barely registers as such with his audience or even himself. There’s almost something Zelig-like about seeing the nervous malcontent of his earliest work transform into a semi-swaggering frat-rocker, later mirrored by the way the goofball underdog of earlier Sandler pictures led to the moneyed crank with a put-upon affect at the center of later, lazier movies.

Of course, these are all probably just elements of the “real” Sandler, not full pictures. The same must be true of 100% Fresh, but a persona is less visible than ever. This is a more relaxed and far less elaborate production than the HBO concert—or at least it looks that way from this footage, which is heavily mixed and matched in a way that suggests that the actual Sandler live experience may have been more ambling and unstructured than the final Netflix product. There’s enough cutting and pasting that longtime Sandler buddy Steve Brill is credited as director for the special, but one-time Sandler collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson receives a “special thanks,” supposedly for filming at least one of the stand-up engagements spliced into this compendium.

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In terms of form, Sandler’s bits haven’t changed radically since the early ’90s. He still takes observational premises and pushes them into absurdist extremes that almost parody their own setups, like a story about him saying hi to a baby he passes on the street that ends with the mother in tearful frustration over her baby’s refusal to say hi back, or a joke about taking his first dick pic only to accidentally also capture the image of a ghost. He also tells a disarmingly sweet story about sharing a rollercoaster ride with a stranger, and while earlier in the special he claims to be making up material that describes his wife and kids, the rollercoaster bit sounds too unguarded to not have some basis in reality.

The biggest change to Sandler’s live approach, apart from a voice that splits the difference between his early faux-hesitation and his late-’90s confidence, is how his signature silly songs have been subsumed into the quick-hit joke format. Most of the new tunes—and there are a lot, probably too many—last less than a minute, are sometimes agreeably silly and sometimes genuinely inane, and rarely fuse those two qualities as well as his Weekend Update classics. The full-on style parodies, like a surprisingly credible Joy Division/New Order riff, are pretty much just setup, punchline, and out, though he does put forth a song that more resembles his old ones with “Bar Mitzvah Boy” (no relation to the Vanessa Bayer character—not directly, anyway), a Billy Joel-ish number calling back to his Jewish roots.

Some of this material is very funny, some of it is mildly amusing, and some of it is negligible. What’s most gratifying about 100% Fresh is how engaged the Sandman (who repeatedly refers to himself as such) seems with the process of doing a mostly-solo show (a keyboardist accompanies him to provide music and backing vocals, and there are a couple of “additional material” credits). The title may be a winking joke about his projects’ typically low Rotten Tomatoes scores, but it also refers to the special’s content, culled from a recent tour, and featuring zero encores of “Red Hooded Sweatshirt,” “Lunchlady Land,” or “Piece Of Shit Car.” Sandler seems unconcerned about whether every bit lands, leaving in some crowd reaction shots more quizzical than elated, and including a couple of minutes of him performing silly songs in semi-disguise at a New York City subway station. More noticeable is what these subway sequences leave out: a “Holy shit, that’s Adam Sandler!” moment from the groups of commuters who stop and watch. It’s genuinely difficult to tell if they recognize him, a break from that HBO special, which opens with dude upon dude raving about their comic hero’s genius.

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This lack of direct pandering isn’t always a trademark of Sandler’s later work, but in movies like The Week Of and Sandy Wexler (to say nothing of the excellent Noah Baumbach picture The Meyerowitz Stories), it’s been encouraging to see Sandler trying out some different routines with the same commitment he once gave to simulating beatings of high school janitors and singing about Peeping Toms. 100% Fresh also parallels Sandler’s later-period material by running long—Rob Schneider shows up for a brief bit at the hour mark, as if to provide an exact moment that the material outstays its welcome—and turning sentimental in the final stretch. The closing numbers are an utterly sincere song about how much Sandler loves and misses Chris Farley, followed by an updated version of “Grow Old With You” from The Wedding Singer—100% Fresh’s only real revival of old material. This rendition is addressed to Sandler’s wife, but he adds on some crowd appreciation at the end: “Thanks for growing old with me,” he says, after a quick series of clips that take him from his earliest performances through his big movies into the present day.

A brief self-curated clip reel looks, like plenty of Sandler’s films, a little self-aggrandizing. But like his better recent work, it’s pretty sweet, too, in its acknowledgment of the aging process as a performer known for playing boy-men enters his 50s. Given the material about marriage, kids, and other relatively quotidian details of his life—he avoids the presumption of wealth that accompanies some of his worst movies—this plays as a more graceful recognition of how his life has changed than the cutesy-kid (and cutesy-man-child) bullshit of his Grown Ups movies.

Sandler obviously isn’t going to buckle down and build a tight 55-minute set of impeccably written stand-up anytime soon, any more than he’s likely to stop making movies with Kevin James or Nick Swardson. But Sandler’s strength as a performer has never been his ability to shape-shift—unless turning on a dime from meek goofiness to boiling rage counts as shape-shifting. Although he’s logged far more hours in film and TV than stand-up at this point, he’s stayed true to the way stand-up performers present themselves as “real” people, even if they’re actually working with a calculated persona. Whether he’s giving a nuanced performance, standing back at a lazy de facto family reunion, or telling silly jokes on a relatively unadorned stage, Sandler feels like himself—and 100% Fresh is a particularly likable, unfussy iteration.

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