While some may be bewildered at the decision to honor a sweatpants-wearing hooligan like Adam Sandler with an award as prestigious as the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, you would be hard-pressed to argue that he didn’t deserve it. The comedian, actor, writer, producer, and musician has more than 80 movies and seven albums under his belt. His work has grossed more than $4 billion — and he is beloved by everyone from your grandma to your nephew. And like every Sandler movie that’s ever been panned by critics and cheered by audiences, the 2023 Mark Twain Prize ceremony at the Kennedy Center in D.C. on Sunday night felt like it might have just been an excuse for a giant reunion for the popular comedian’s goofball-cum-genius friends.
The tenor of the evening felt even less formal than past years’ events and more like a comedy roast, the audience was even given a six-pack and pulled into the back of a van filled with Sandler’s gang on a spontaneous, late-night road trip. Perhaps the event’s producers loosened the reins because this is the first year since its inception in 1998 that PBS opted out of carrying the show (it will air on CNN on Sunday, March 26 at 8 pm ET) — a slight that Idina Menzel poked fun at during her opening homage to Opera Man. Dressed in a red-satin-lined black cape and waving a white handkerchief, à la Sandler’s SNL character, Menzel sang that PBS had decided “Suze Orman’s as low as we’ll go…that’s why it’s on the CNN-o!”
Conan O’Brien, who’d already begun his writing career at Saturday Night Live when Sandler was hired in 1990, kicked off the tributes by calling out the elephant in the room: How nice it was that so many people had made the trip to D.C. to honor Sandler, but “have you asked yourself why so many of Adam’s friends were available? Because if Adam isn’t working, they aren’t working.” O’Brien established his credibility, however, by pointing out that Sandler has never put him in any of his movies, and so he “doesn’t owe him a damn thing”. Rather, O’Brien said he was thrilled to help honor Sandler for the “first award he’s ever received where he hasn’t been slimed,” as a giant of American humor who doesn’t preach, doesn’t condescend—”he’s down in the muck with us, laughing at himself.”
A cavalcade of good-natured ribbing followed. Of his castmate from 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories, Ben Stiller said, “his work feels effortless. I don’t want to say ‘lazy,’ because that’s not the right word…but I don’t have a better word right now, so let’s go with it.” Then Stiller launched into a pitch for another collaboration: “Let’s call it Grown Ups 3: There’s a New Grown Up in Town,” and riffed his way through a plot line so convincing and Sandler-esque, filled with vomit jokes and awkwardly bro-tastic moments, that the Kennedy Center audience found itself applauding a movie that doesn’t exist.
Judd Apatow, Sandler’s former roommate and longtime collaborator (he directed Sandler in 2009’s Funny People), voiced a familiar sentiment, saying that the moment anyone met Adam, they knew he was going to be a big star. After graduating from NYU, Sandler moved to LA and had already begun cultivating a growing coterie of writers, collaborators, and comedians, all of whom would go on to achieve huge success. “Apparently,” said Apatow, “the best job opportunities at NYU were living in the vicinity of Adam Sandler.”
Swaggering onto the stage, drink in hand, riffing on his character from The Wedding Singer, pal Steve Buscemi said that his first impression of Sandler’s departure from slapstick comedies toward substantial indie dramas was, “Woah, woah, woah…stay in your lane, Waterboy.” (Luis Guzman, Sandler’s costar in Punch Drunk Love, would later go on to talk about what a chameleon Sandler is, how deftly he switches gears: “After five minutes of watching that movie, you forget you’re watching Adam Sandler.”) But Buscemi articulated what was echoed throughout the night by all the presenters: “It’s the greatest feeling in the world to be a part of your world. No one has taken better care of me in this business than you have.”
Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Aniston—apparently two of the very few ladies cool enough to have broken into the fraternity—shared the stage to playfully one-up each other about the depth of their friendships with Sandler. David Spade offered an oddly short tribute before disappearing from the audience for most of the second half of the show. Pete Davidson—a last-minute addition to the roster—shared that he first crossed paths with Sandler when was just a kid, auditioning for Big Daddy. “Thankfully,” he said, “I didn’t get it, because I can’t even handle fame now.” Tim Herlihy, Sandler’s freshman roommate at NYU, who has now collaborated with him on “31 motion pictures with a combined Rotten Tomatoes score of 59,” said that, despite his laid-back appearance, Sandler is one of the hardest working people in the business: “He makes hundreds of hours of work look like going on vacation with his friends.” Even Sandler’s mom Judy and wife Jackie offered intimate perspectives on the man who seems universally adored across generations.
Dana Carvey, a veteran cast member by the time Sandler joined SNL, talked about how blown away he was by Sandler’s comedic talent and instinct, even if the network wasn’t (Sandler was fired in 1995). After quickly skewering Trump and his potential upcoming arrest, fellow SNL castmate Chris Rock got one of the biggest reactions of the night when he pointed to Paul Pelosi in the audience and said, “Paul Pelosi is the only guy here who knows just how I feel—it’s just me and you, Paul!” Then he talked about how, despite Sandler’s seemingly quick and charmed success, he has always been unfailingly inclusive and deceptively hardworking—which few people of influence seem to recognize. “Nobody works as hard as the Sandman! Those folks at the Oscars, man…they’re fucking assholes.” And Rob Schneider, who shared his tenure at SNL with Sandler as well as a plethora of movie sets, expressed his admiration for Sandler’s talent as well as his perseverance, saying “If you tell enough people to fuck off, 30 years later you’ll get one of these awards.”
Accepting the award, Sandler shuffled onto the stage wearing what looked like a suit someone forced him to wear (earlier, on the red carpet, Sandler acknowledged that he “would have loved to have worn basketball shorts—man, this suit is goofy—but I think I would have got yelled at too much by so many family members”). Then he shifted into one of his trademark comedic voices and struggled to keep a straight face as he winded his way through an acknowledgment of how seemingly every person in his life— from siblings to comedy club owners, college buddies to the love of his life — scaffolded his confidence and encouraged him to chase his dreams so that he could grow from a goofball mama’s boy into the actor and comedian who’s earned more than $4 billion dollars at the box office. He then appreciatively touched the bronze bust of Mark Twain and mused, “As I look at this goofy award I’m holding, I just can’t help but think this just may be the weapon used to bludgeon me, by an angry intruder…or Mr. Rob Schneider.”
Sandler continued, “And when someone asks me: Those bad reviews you get — how does that make you feel? The reason they don’t hurt me is because [my friends and I are having so much fun making these movies]. Everything we do together makes me feel like the critics don’t know what they’re talking about.”
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