SNL’s Funniest Jew
Where Adam Sandler’s comedy is nuanced and proudly Jewish, Andy Samberg offers one-note assimilation
The last episode of the 37th season of Saturday Night Live was, most likely, Andy Samberg’s final as a member of the cast. Samberg’s probable farewell was a sequel to “Lazy Sunday,” the viral hit that made him famous. “That’s how it began,” Samberg rapped just before the screen turned black, “and that’s how Imma finish it.” It was the 101st digital short he’d created for the show, a feature that helped endear the aging grande dame of TV comedy to a generation of viewers who barely bother with the tube but who avidly consume Samberg’s bite-sized skits on their smart phones and laptops.
Because long-running shows like SNL are always graded on a curve, Samberg’s departure invites comparisons to his SNL elders. Or elder: It’s impossible to think of Samberg without measuring him against Adam Sandler. Both men practice the kind of humor that ranges from the silly to the charmingly lewd, and both have an ear for song parodies. Other similarities are more incidental and involve both men coming off as nice, Jewish, and boyish. Imagine them as father and son and you have the plot of their upcoming raunchy comedy, That’s My Boy, opening June 15, in which Samberg portrays the sweet square and Sandler the wild raver who sired him when he was 13.
It’s a tempting premise. But if it works—Sandler has long refused to screen his films for critics prior to their release—it would be not because Sandler and Samberg have so much in common, but because they couldn’t be more different.
First, consider the son. In 101 digital shorts, Samberg told roughly one joke. It goes like this: Choose a musical genre (preferably one that’s traditionally associated with black Americans and that celebrates virility), compose a song that sounds just like every other entry in that genre, then match it with lyrics that subvert that genre’s conventions. Instead of smooth R&B seduction, croon about gift-wrapping your genitalia. Instead of mean streets and violent crime, rap about cupcakes and movie matinees. Bring Akon along as a guest, but tweak his usual sweaty, hyper-sexed club anthems to reflect the experiences of two nerdy white guys just happy to have lucked into any intercourse at all. If anything, Andy Samberg is Andy Warhol revisited: He understands the power of the immediate and obvious gag, his method consists largely of taking existing pop products and giving them a slight and slightly absurdist twist, and he believes that fame is best obtained in short bursts. Warhol quipped that one day everyone will be famous for 15 minutes; Samberg proved that, in the age of the digital short, 150 seconds is more than enough to become famous, and stay famous, season after season.
Adam Sandler, on the other hand, works best on a much larger canvas. If Samberg’s a latter-day Warhol, Sandler’s a comedic Jackson Pollock. The meaning of his work is the rage embodied in his method, a fury rare in a profession that thrives by sublimating anger and converting it into algorithmically purified jokes. Sandler’s volcanic temperament is best observed in his dramatic roles in films such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love or Judd Apatow’s Funny People, but it is never entirely hidden from view. In Little Nicky, for example, Sandler plays the devil’s simple son on a visit to New York City. The entire performance calls to mind a kettle about to boil, a steaming vessel rattled by some great force trapped inside it and seeking a way out. When Nicky finally abandons his soft-spoken drawl and erupts, he’s like something out of Tennessee Williams, fragile and resentful and out of control. Moments like these make every Sandler film an exercise in patience and its rewards.
They also provide Sandler with the opportunity to explore his own Jewish identity. Every Sandler movie is about an underprivileged or challenged man persevering and prevailing, and these men are always named Roth or Levine or Koufax or Sadelstein or, in one unimprovable instance, Dr. Danny Maccabee. Then there’s the “Hanukkah Song,” which celebrates famous members of the tribe; Eight Crazy Nights, which stands out as the sole Jewish contribution to the genre of holiday-themed animated films; and You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, which delivers a surprisingly attentive and nuanced portrayal of an Israeli living in America.
To understand just how extraordinary Sandler’s choices are, recall that in 1989, the year before Sandler joined the cast of SNL, Brandon Tartikoff, then president of NBC Entertainment, fought bitterly to keep another young Jewish comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, off the air, because, as Tartikoff put it to an associate, no one would want to see four Jews wandering around New York acting neurotic. Sandler wasn’t neurotic, but he was Jewish, and he was adamant that it be known. He had no interest in assimilating, or in casting himself as the jittery foil to some serene blonde, the two noble paths for Jews in film and on TV. He wanted to be the guy named Maccabee who spends an entire movie hanging out in Hawaii and choosing between Jennifer Aniston and Brooklyn Decker. He wanted to be a normal dude from New Hampshire who was proud of his Jewish heritage the same way an Irish-American might celebrate his own on St. Patrick’s Day—that is, loudly and with a never-ending supply of good cheer and high spirits. The fact that he had to push and shove to create that space helped fuel his anger and his comedy.
One might imagine that if Sandler and Samberg truly were father and son, one would find potent release and take pride in explicitly Jewish humor, while the other would cringe and look for funny elsewhere. So, it makes sense that Sandler’s overt uses of his Jewishness seems to hold little appeal for Samberg. In an interview with a Jewish online magazine several years go, Samberg defined himself as “not particularly religious” and said he tried not to let being Jewish inform his comedy. “I was saturated with Jewish comedy growing up,” he said, “so it feels like family comedy. … Basically, when my mom sends me online videos with pop songs redone talking about Passover, I don’t laugh. I don’t like the kind of Jewish humor my mom likes is really what I’m saying.” One is free to wonder why a pop song redone to talk about Passover is verboten, while a pop song redone to talk about premature ejaculation is comedy gold.
It’s quite possible that Samberg will attempt to follow in Sandler’s footsteps and become a movie star. There’s no doubt that he’s cool, and his made-for-iPhone comedy is endlessly downloadable. But Sandler is something far greater: Sandler is warm. As such, he cares deeply about who he is and about what is true. It’s the stuff that’s always motivated great comedy, from Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor. Take it away, and all that’s left is some junk in a box.
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