Contemporary American comedy is, with very few exceptions, a jittery mess. If you want to understand why, pick any five comics who worked between, say, 1930 and 1990, and listen to their acts. Styles, themes, and temperaments will vary, but one thing does not: They are telling you the truth.
The golden age of American comedy was golden because it reflected actual lived experience. The personas of the greatest American comedians, down to their signature tics, were rooted in their own, often gut-wrenching, personal lives. The way Rodney Dangerfield shifts uneasily on Carson’s chair, crossing and uncrossing his legs and fixing his tie twice a minute? It’s not shtick, or, at least, not entirely; it’s the vestigial anxiety of a poor Jewish kid who saw his father twice a year, sold ice cream on the beach to make ends meet, and didn’t find success until he was 46.
Richard Pryor leaning into a joke, emotionally and physically, more intimately than anyone before or since? You would, too, if you grew up in your grandmother’s brothel where your mother was a prostitute and you had nothing but your instincts to protect you.
Lenny Bruce’s torrent of insights, profound and profane? It comes from the same fountainhead of pain that drove him to leave home and join the Navy at 16, because WWII was more soothing than the chaotic life in a broken home with an absentee immigrant father.
For these cats, comedy was literally a matter of life and death. They weren’t crafting their personas based on ethnic stereotypes or someone’s list of funny things that other people did. They were channeling the emotional valences that made it possible for them to survive.
What could the next generation do for an encore? They could rip off their elders, of course. They could craft meta-riffs and meta-personas that explored the “form” of jokes that other people made up. They could perform characters that had already been deemed by other people to be funny.
Some of these approaches succeeded. Seinfeld has made enough money to qualify as its own economic sector. Technologies like Twitter, YouTube, and podcasting paved new ways to discover attentive audiences. And comics like Marc Maron and Louis C.K. turned comedy into haute culture, the sort of stuff graduate students could emit, like pheromones, on first dates.
And once comedy moved from the clubs and stages to TV and became a big business, troubling the waters with too much edgy experimentation of any kind seemed ill-advised. It was still important to be authentic–but not too authentic, you see. Louis C.K., for example, made it big by serving up self-deprecating observational humor with a side of righteous indignation at society’s little hypocrisies. But unlike the forefathers who forged this style—Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, George Carlin—C.K. didn’t develop his style out of necessity. The son of a software engineer and an economist who met at Harvard, he did what prudent members of his class do–he glommed on to greatness by playing a societally approved role with exaggerated conviction. He was not so much a comedian as a comedy expert, the way someone with a think tank gig is an expert: Half the magic derives from us trusting Louis C.K. because he’s smart, and half the reason to believe he’s smart has to do with the way he advertises his own credentials, by constantly reminding us of the undisputed masters that came before him, who did what he is doing now.
There’s only one problem with this attitude: It’s not very funny. Retailing pre-approved characters and tropes leaves little room for the one thing comedy absolutely needs to survive, which is individual idiosyncrasy. This move away from anything truly personal and painful and interesting was already a problem 20 years ago, which is why Jerry Seinfeld always leaves you mildly amused but never touched or transformed. That’s the point of his persona. He’s a comedy professional–and his willingness to acknowledge that fact gives his act a kind of authenticity that other technocrats can dig. So far, so good–if you’re a professional, or aspire to be one.
Then, the era of identity politics barged in and demanded that comics rework their sensibilities once again, this time not only from the I to the It but from the It to the We. The men and women who succeed in entertainment these days aren’t individuals revered for some impossible-to-replicate mix of insights and talents; They’re shorthands for something the culture at large deems inherently valuable. They stand for demographic groups with approved political valences.
Lena Dunham deserves a show on HBO because she’s the Voice of Young Women Everywhere. That status in turn explains why she was recently tasked by Steven Spielberg with writing a film about a young female Syrian refugee: If you believe that group affiliations matter more than personal experience, then it makes perfect sense to hire a young woman who graduated from Oberlin to write about a young woman who watched her fiancée drown while trying to escape a genocide on a fishing boat. They are both, after all, young women.
If you want to know what this way of thinking does to comedy, watch the most talked about comedy special du jour, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, which quickly devolves into a lecture about toxic masculinity before denouncing comedy altogether as just another tool of the oppressive patriarchy. Funny, right? No, but if comedy is secondary to The Message, why bother with telling jokes at all?
It is against this dark backdrop that you should watch Adam Sandler’s new Netflix standup special, 100% Fresh. It’s masterful work, and also a much-needed reminder that Sandler is truly one of the most infuriatingly underrated comics working today.
Now Sandler is and has always been a well-paid box office smasher, so the idea that he can connect with an audience is hardly news. Take a hint from the new show’s title and check out his scores on the reviews aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, which frequently hover at the 20 percent mark or lower. It’s fantastic. And no, I’m not going to spoil his act by telling you any of the jokes.
But the reviews are a good prism through which to view Sandler’s career. As his contemporaries were feted as auteurs, he was derided as a buffoon. To hear the critics tell it, he was the gauche goofball you liked only if you weren’t smart enough or cool enough to dig more demanding and daring works of comedy, like Hari Kondabolu pontificating about health-care reform.
But Sandler didn’t care. He cut modern American comedy’s Gordian knot by taking the audacious step of just being himself. He was—to cite another Sandler album title—Stan and Judy’s kid, the Jewish boy who grew up in the suburbs and enjoyed all the bounties that American Jews have enjoyed these last few decades. If you’re a hack, you parlay this background into some socially acceptable mannerism, like the writers for The Onion or Saturday Night Live who repent weekly for their privileged upbringing by producing mind-numbing, thinly veiled progressive pieties in a time-slot where previous generations of comedians did actually funny work, thus inducing subsequent generations to keep tuning in. Did today’s SNL cast members earn their audience by creating truly funny, innovative sketches? No one in their right mind would argue that is what they are doing. Their job is to convince their audience that making fun of Donald Trump is a rare talent–and if not rare, then something you have a responsibility to approve of, being a concerned citizen. Snooze.
If you’re emotionally honest—and no great comedian isn’t—you take pride in the traditions and the institutions that have given you your nurturing childhood and you celebrate them. You don’t try to emulate Lenny Bruce; you try to be the funniest version of yourself. That’s why Sandler has always given his characters names like Roth or Levine or Koufax or Dr. Danny Maccabee, why he continues to praise his fellow famous Jews in iteration after iteration of “The Hanukkah Song.” It’s why one of the most poignant moments in the new comedy special is a hilarious and candid song about becoming bar mitzvah.
Are these themes inherently funny? No. Are they original to Adam Sandler? No. What makes them magical is that they’re true to his experience and his sensibility, and he sees what’s funny about them, from inside himself.
Sandler isn’t trying to pass as anything he’s not; he’s just there to have fun. These days, that’s a radical statement.
Not, mind you, that fun equals frivolous: Unlike, say, Andy Samberg’s comedic songs, which are all all hipster affect and no heart, Sandler’s tunes—the new special is thick with them—are often silly but always trembling with some spark of ecstatic truth. A little nursery rhyme turns into a cutting insight about anti-Semitism. A trap song about the things we carry with us every day becomes a critique of a society that forces us into isolation.
Unlike the young, the woke, the glib, and the praised, Sandler is never blunt, preachy, or obvious; his punch lines are time-delayed, making you laugh and then, minutes and even days later, making you weep.
I mean it: He ends the show with two songs that still make me tear up, one an emotional tribute to the late, great Chris Farley and the other a filthy and sweet song about the pleasures of growing old with his wife, his daughters, and his fans. You’d have to look pretty far back, perhaps as far back as Pryor, to find something so raw and beautiful performed on a comedy stage.
Amen to that. We need every drop of truth and beauty we can find these days, and nothing is more comforting than the warm smile of a funny man comfortable in his skin, grateful for his faith and his family and his friends, telling jokes with no other purpose than to remind us that we’re all in it together. Oh, yeah: And also to make us laugh.
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