Jewish Comedy, Adam Sandler Style

(appeared in the Australian Jewish News, June 20, 2008)

He personifies “low-brow” entertainment and the decline of American culture for many people who can’t see beyond his early juvenile roles and his adolescent boy behaviour.  He may be the Peter Pan of contemporary American film – the one who never grew up – but slowly and surely Adam Sandler has marked out a place of surprising depth and complexity in recent films.  Like his contemporary Ben Stiller – the master of the pratfall – Sandler has gradually created a body of comedy and Jewish characters which are starting to define 21st century American secular Judaism.

Sandler is far cry from the Woody Allen film view of Jewish life.  Back in 1977 (when Sandler was only 11), Allen won the best picture and director Academy Award for his “Annie Hall”, a film in which the main character – Alvy Singer, played by Allen himself – saw antisemites everywhere (“I heard him say ‘Did Jew?’, not ‘Did you?’, but ‘Did Jew?’”).

Fast forward thirty years, and Sandler and the other Jewish actors who now define our age seem to spend almost no time worrying about antisemites.  For Sandler, his Jewish identity is taken as a given; stuff you if you don’t like it.  (Speaking of “fast forwarding”:  have a look at Sandler in the lead role in “Click”, where his search for a universal remote control leads him to find the ability to fast forward his life.)

Sandler was born in Brooklyn, New York but moved to and grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire where his father worked as an electrical engineer and his mother as a nursery school teacher.  He attended New York University and got his comedy start by performing in local clubs.  After appearing on four episodes in 1987 and 1988 on “The Cosby Show” as Theo Huxtable’s friend, his first film role was the little-seen (and reportedly awful) low-budget “Going Overboard” (1989).  There he played a Jewish comedian named Shecky Moskowitz who works on a cruise ship full of “Miss Universe” candidates and has to fight off South American thugs.  But his real break came in working on some 88 episodes of “Saturday Night Live” from 1990 to 1995. 

It was during this time that he wrote and performed the first version of his famed “Chanukah Song”, which put him squarely on the “Jewish map”.  The song is essentially a long and humorous listing of who is Jewish, starting off with the words “I wrote a song for all those nice little Jewish kids who don’t get to hear any Chanukah songs – here we go….  When you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree, here’s a list of people who are Jewish, just like you and me ….”

And then unspools a long list of notable Jews with lyrics like “Paul Newman’s half Jewish; Goldie Hawn’s half too; put them together – what a fine lookin’ Jew! You don’t need Deck the Halls or Jingle Bell Rock cause you can spin the dreidl with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock – both Jewish!”  “Saturday Night Live” had a number of notable skits on the “who is a Jew?” theme, but Sandler caught the mood in a way very few have before or since, the Jewish obsession with “us” and the daily question “but is s/he Jewish?”  J. Hoberman, film critic for the “Village Voice” who has quite a fascination with Sandler, poetically calls the song an “amulet against alienation and an anthem of Jewish pride.”

“The Chanukah Song” has gone through a number of iterations since its first release in 1994, most notably sung by Sandler at the end of his animated film “Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights” in 2002.  Sandler produced and co-wrote this bizarre (and financial flop of a) film, where he voices the lead character of Davey Stone, a dissolute “33 year-old Jewish guy” with a serious alcohol problem, all relating back to the premature tragic death of his parents.  This M-rated raunchy film never worked out what its audience was, but it continued Sandler’s refreshingly persistent and unapologetic insistence that the Jewish holidays deserve their place in American public life.

Sandler’s willingness to be explicitly Jewish on screen really commenced with “Eight Crazy Nights” – and of course comes to full fruition with his latest film “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan”.  Prior to “Eight Crazy Nights”, most of his screen characters were not Jewish: “Billy Madison” (1995), “Happy Gilmore” (1996), “The Waterboy” (1998), “Little Nicky”, “Mr. Deeds” (2002) and “Punch Drunk Love” (2002) had no Jewish content.  Instead, they are films which, in the words of Lawrence J. Epstein, “are about the anxieties of growing up, about the need to reconcile with family, and about taking responsibility.”

Sandler’s roles in “The Wedding Singer” (1998) and “Big Daddy” (1999) both fit the same themes of responsibility and growing up, but his characters became more Jewish.  As “Robbie Hart” the singer in “The Wedding Singer”, he comes across as a mixture of a young Bob Dylan and Dustin Hoffman, with shades of a klezmer musician.  Once he ruins a wedding gig, he decides to concentrate on Bar Mitzvahs, but notes that “there are only four Jewish families in this town”.  In “Big Daddy”, his character’s name is “Sonny Koufax”, which might not mean much to Australians, but does to lots of American Jewish kids (including yours truly) who grew up with the history of “Sandy Koufax”, the famous Jewish baseball pitcher for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers.  Koufax remains one of the best-known American-Jewish professional athletes; in 1965 he chose not to pitch in the first game of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins because the game was on Yom Kippur, a decision that is still legendary.

In “Anger Management” (2003), Sandler plays Dave Buznik, a meek and exploited executive assistant designer of specialised pet clothing who has self-esteem problems, in part stemming from his youth growing up a mild Jewish kid in Brooklyn, and being bullied by local neighbourhood kids – a satirical take on Woody Allen.

 In “50 First Dates” (2004), he is Henry Roth and his challenge is to get the character played by Drew Barrymore to fall in love with him again and again.  In this film along with “The Wedding Singer“, Barrymore is his best romantic pairing (something about Sandler’s offbeat occasional grossity and Barrymore’s naive sweetness simply work).  When they get married at the end of the film, Henry (Sandler) breaks the proverbial wine glass under the Chuppah.

In “Click” (2006), Sandler’s character of “Michael Newman” is Jewish, which we know because his on-screen mother (played by Julie Kavner) keeps referring to his penis as a “shmeckel” and a family cemetery has gravestones with prominent Magen Davids.

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