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SNL’s Funniest Jew

Where Adam Sandler’s comedy is nuanced and proudly Jewish, Andy Samberg offers one-note assimilation

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Andy Samberg (left) and Adam Sandler in Columbia Pictures’ That’s My Boy. (Tracy Bennett, © 2011 CTMG)

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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Ron_Kaplan says:

Sorry to disagree, but I found Samberg one of the worst performers in SNL history, although to be fair most of the current crew qualifies for that (dis)honor. I can’t remember  a time when it was so evident that EVERYONE IS READING OFF THE DAMN CUE CARDS. It just looks unprofessional. I get that the script is updated until the last minute, but still, it just looks  unprofessional.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

Nice contrarian piece. Warmth and “made-for-iPhone comedy” are like water and oil. My observation is watching commedy or any video longer than 30 seconds on Android, iPhone is like going down the “gehenom”. Every second more is a century

Miha Ahronovitz says:

@Ron_Kaplan, the problem is they make the money, we don’t. Average taste is what they cater for.

Sara_Ivry says:

 Well, the history of SNL is long (too long, truly) but in its breadth, I think there is no contest that the funniest Jewish comedian ever on that show was the late Gilda Radner.

liel, you give you sandler waaaaay too much credit. and you’re totally misrepresenting what samberg was getting at in his schmooze interview. 99% of jewish parodies are corny shlock that isn’t genuinely funny. case in point, this sucks and samberg’s right to say so: http://heebmagazine.com/irrefutable-fact-jews-contribute-to-anti-semitism/31570.

A3am says:

I disagree with much of the characterizations above, but it did give me pause to consider: perhaps the differences between the two men and their (Jewish) comedic dispositions are reflective of the (Jewish) cultural differences between the northeast and the SF Bay Area.

liel says:

Absolutely right!

Daniel Fogel says:

You give Adam Sandler way too much credit.  While he has no doubt made people laugh while keeping his Jewishness at the fore, how does that elevate him about the back and forth between Crystal and Paymar (a truly underrated star) in “Mr. Saturday Night”?  “Funny People” is funny because of Seth Rogan and Jonah Hill, not because of Adam Sandler’s “wish I was Pryor” performance.  Andy Samberg is funny because he’s funny and he also happens to be Jewish.

“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.” Is there a SLJ on SNL?

You left out one important factor.  Neither Sandler nor Samberg are funny.  

GordLindsay says:

Adam Sandler explores his Jewish identity, alright.  In “You Don’t Mess with The Zohan,” Mr. Sandler graphically supports the Koran, which states “Jews are mostly the sons of pigs and apes.”  Sandler’s Jewish hero, The Zohan, perfectly, and singelhandedly, embodies both of the Koran’s concepts.  The Zohan has the super strength of an ape, and, by exploitively providing extras by way of sexual services to all the geriatric clients of his hair salon, and by dallying — dare I say “shtupping?” –with his zaftig landlady, played by Lainie Kazan, he shows himself to be a blue-ribbon, champion, male chauvinist sexual pig.  Of course, that all straightens out at the end, when he falls in love with a beautiful, young Palestinian woman/princess, and presumably lives happily intermarried, ever after.

MikhaelMeir says:

Gilda radner as the funniest Jewish SNL star?

Are you trying to say that Chevy Chase was not Jewish?!

(A friend of mine somehow had the bizarre notion that Chevy Chase was Jewish, apparently because Chase attended the same mostly Jewish Detroit Metro summer camp as Gilda Radner did, at some point.)

That’s a shoutout to my friend, in case he’s reading this.

(I think Gilda aleha ha shalom was probably SNL’s funniest Jewess.)

This is a really peculiar argument.  Although Sandler may play characters with Jewish names, he hardly reveals anything interesting about Jewish identity and his humor is mostly slapstick/toilet/idiot humor.  The dramatic roles that he’s played are not really part of his comedic oeuvre and should be irrelevant for the purposes of evaluating him as a comedian.  

Samberg’s no comedic giant himself, but he and the other Lonely Island guys have found a clever way to parody hip-hop music.   Samberg and his crew have also recorded parodies that are not necessarily hip-hop and that focus on a broad variety of contemporary themes.  If Samberg’s humor isn’t particularly deep, it’s certainly deeper than Sandler’s awkward clowning and buffoonery.

So since neither is really a Jewish icon, I would go with Samberg.  

AngelaJo says:

I love Adam Sandler. I glad most of you are criticizing this him and this article and now that all that is out of the way, I want to say again I love Adam Sandler. I love the Zohan, in some ways stereotypical, but the movie is  trying to make peace in what is being said. Adam Sandler makes me laugh and love, which is a far better thing than what some of these comments make me feel. 

EvenSteven11 says:

Samberg sucks.  I never found him funny.

tk_in_TO says:

Sandler makes you laugh?  Sucks to be you, sorry for that.

trex99 says:

As a long-time follower and admirer of Adam Sandler, as well as other comedians who enthusiastically embrace their jewishness, such as Jon Stewart and Larry David, I can say unequivocally that Andy Samberg is still hilarious. He may not be very religious, but would you call Jon Stewart deeply religious? Stewart has publicly stated or implied numerous times that he doesn’t believe in a jewish God, or the God of any other religion (though he has a strong jewish “identity”).  He believes in a God, but he’s not a “true believer”. Possibly the only thing that separates him from Andy Samberg is that Samberg doesn’t have a strong jewish identity. So what? He’s still funny. Should all jews find only other jews funny? No. And this magazine doesn’t espouse that, but this article comes close to that in a backdoor kinda way. Where’s the line between being jewish and not jewish enough? Richard Pryor and Chris Rock are funny because they embraced their blackness, Bill Hicks was funny because he embraced his southern-ness, but there are others like Will Ferrell and Bill Maher whose identity isn’t as clear. I say we should recognize a great and talented comedian for what he/she is, because god knows we’re only given so many in this world, jewish or not jewish.

trex99 says:

And I’ll bet you’re so much funnier? Just because you never found him funny doesn’t mean he isn’t.

Alf Onzo says:

This is so trite it blows ones mind. Adam Sandler and “proud” are two words that should never go into the same sentence accept I’m “proud to have not ever watched an Adam Sandler movie in it’s entirety.” Seriously, Adam Sandlers just glorified white trash who happens to where a Yamulke three times a year. Who cares?

Felix Tung says:

Jews hire other jews. So deal with it. Show Jewbizz…….

He is the funniest Jew . Andy Samberg is not that funny anyways.

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SNL’s Funniest Jew

Where Adam Sandler’s comedy is nuanced and proudly Jewish, Andy Samberg offers one-note assimilation

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