Adam Sandler Sixteen years ago, surprisingly subdued and uncertain of his staying power

Jne 2009 By Philip Berk

How do you explain Adam Sandler?

In the long history of movie comics he stands alone.

Although his biggest hits have been geared to young audiences (kids under twelve) he obviously has a huge young adult following. 

In the past ten years since he first brandished his trademark humor (stupid, insulting, yelling) he has had no less than ten movies that have earned over $100 million in the U.S. alone.

Including my favorite (The Water Boy) The Wedding Singer, Anger Management, 50 First Dates. The Longest Yard, Click, I Now pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and You Don’t Mess with Zohan, and Bedtime Stories.

Along the way, however, he has struck out with films in which he challenged himself as an actor, playing serious roles in Reign Over Me, Spanglish, and Punch Drunk Love even though he was working with Academy Award calibre directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and James L. Brooks.

Again in his latest, Funny People, he’s forsaken his primary audience, and despite working with comedy genius Judd Apatow he’s made a film the public deems more of a drama than a comedy

Which it is, telling the story of a famous comic who finds out from his doctor that he has terminal cancer.

The movie opened well but fell off quickly and looks to earn less than $60 million in the U.S., a disappointment considering it cost a bundle and it has Seth Rogan and Eric Bana in the cast.

The film is semi autobiographical, not that Judd Apatow was ever diagnosed with terminal cancer, but the linchpin of the movie is the relationship between Adam and Seth (Rogan) which is based on the actual friendship Sandler had with Apatow when they were both struggling comics working the stand-up circuit.

At his press conference I express my surprise that he and Judd were once roommates.

Q: Granted you are both enormously successful, but you work in completely different comedy genres.  How did you two come together professionally, and can you talk about the differences in your comedy?

A:  We’ve always had our own styles of comedy.  Judd’s very good at adapting to anybody’s type of comedy.  He wrote for a lot of different comedians.   When he would write for me, he would try to think like me.  We’ve always talked about making a movie together.  We worked on the Zohan, and we talked about Judd directing one of mine.  His career was going on one path and mine another, but we would always say, “All right, we gotta make one together.”  I remember, when I was shooting I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry he came over with a Knocked Up DVD and said, “Take a look at this.”  I was watching it, and I really loved it.  I knew how personal it was and how funny and emotional it was, and I said, “Apatow, that was incredible, man, we’ve gotta get one going, we gotta figure out when we’re doing ours.”  And he said, “I think I have something.”  So I think it was like that.  That’s how Funny People happened.”

Q:  How much did the film remind you of the old days?

A:  Just doing standup again brought me back to the old days.  I’m 42 and I’ve been doing this since I was 17.  I have a lot of memories, and it brought me back to the times when I was struggling and all I could think about was getting my shot.  I wish I wasn’t as crazy as I was, but I was so driven that most of my thoughts were about that.  I guess you could say I was incredibly selfish back then and all I thought about was my own shit.  When I do standup now, I don’t feel like I felt back then—when I had a good set.  Back then it was a good rush.  Now when I am doing standup, it feels good to get laughs, but I’m not dying for acceptance as much as I was back then.  Making movies is my passion.  Standup isn’t as much my passion or obsession as it used to be.

Q:  The movie opens with an actual videotape of a crank call you made to a well known Hollywood deli. What was behind that?

A:  That was boredom.  I always liked being funny back then.  All I thought about was comedy, and that was part of my way of trying to make somebody laugh, even if it was just myself.

Q:  What was your first reaction when you first read the script?

A:  I knew it was a very interesting journey to see a guy having a second chance and not really doing the right thing. He should have learned lessons.  Instead he chose to  continue being selfish.  I thought that was very interesting.

Q:  Talk a little bit about this phenomenon of people being so attracted to fame, like a magnet, all they want is to be a part of it.

A:  When I watched Eddie Murphy in high school, I saw him and I’d be like, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind getting to be that guy.”  Why are people attracted to it?  I don’t know.  I think maybe the illusion is that life is pretty easy, there’s a lot of money.  The best thing about the job and why people might want to do it is because people see somebody who’s doing exactly what they want to do.  A lot of people have to work jobs that they’re not that excited about doing.  This seems like a fun way to spend a work day.

Q:  How much has standup comedy changed over the years?

A:  The subject matter has changed, but the energy of the comedy rooms feel very similar from when I used to do it.  Seeing somebody go up on stage and do very well and then seeing somebody go up and not do as well, and the next guy picking up his pieces—that’s how standup comedy goes.  But I guess some topics are different now.

Q:  in the movie there are so many penis jokes.  Is it because penis jokes are almost a guarantee for laughter when everything else fails?

A:  They’re fun to write.  I see my penis every day.  It’s on my mind a lot.

Q:  But it’s not funny?

A:  It’s funny at times.  I saw it last night and he’s doing well, thank you.  These are jokes we’ve made our whole life.  A lot of the comedians hang out talking about their penis or other people’s and their problems with their penises.  Judd puts some of these jokes in just to make it seem like a real conversation.  It’s how these guys really talk.

Q:  And it works when everything else fails?

A:  Well, you can go to the testicles.

Q:  Does being wealthy and famous take away from your creativity?

A:  No, I’m still pretty driven creatively, and I feel very happy.  I don’t live the same life my character lived.  I do have a lot of close friends, and I have a lot of family members.  I’m not a lonely guy, although it is lonely at the top for some people.

Q:  When you are in New York, do you ever find yourself stopping off to see the old SNL gang?

A:  Yes.  I’m actually shooting a movie right now with eight other guys that were on the show.  Yeah, I’ve been hanging out with them all summer long.

Q:  How much do you depend on a comedy writer?  Have you ever been a comedy writer for somebody else?

A:  When I first started I’d never even heard of a comedy writer.  You just wrote your own jokes, and if someone else wrote a good joke he was keeping it.  Everybody wants their gems.  Apatow was actually the first guy I saw do that.  When we lived together I would see him typing up stuff for Roseanne or Shandling and I’d read it and go, “That’s a great joke, what are you giving it away for?” or “Why aren’t you keeping that?”  And he was saying, “I’m thinking I want to be a writer.”  And I was like “All right, well then give me that.” (he laughs).  Saturday night live is where I started getting together with a lot of writers.

Q: How do you work?

A: I sit at the computer, write down maybe 20 jokes.  Then I call my friends up, say it to them, see if they have anything else to say about them.

Q:  How long do you think you can continue to do comedy?

A:  I met my wife 11 years ago.  I said to her—and she brings this up a lot—“I don’t know how long I’m going to get to do this.  I’d say another couple of years.  And then I’ll  have a lot more time to do other stuff.  But you know, I’ve got to take advantage of this.  Maybe I’ve got 2 or 3 years left of this.”  Every year my wife says to me, “I thought 2, 3 years and…”  Well, you know, it’s still rolling along.  Maybe it’s going to come to an end sometime.  I’ve been very lucky.  I’ve been around a good amount of time.  Chris Rock, one of my best friends, had a moment, and when he left SNL they were counting him out.  Then he just went off on his own and wrote one of the best standup HBO specials anyone’s ever done and became a superstar from it.  I don’t know if that’s the way it will happen with me.

Q:  Much of your most successful work is really geared for young kids, the same audience that used to adore Jerry Lewis. Among comedians you admire you never mention Jerry Lewis.  How do you see yourself in light of what Jerry Lewis was doing in the prime of his career?

A:  I loved Jerry Lewis when I was a kid.  He was very special to me, but I don’t compare myself to him.  He was much lighter on his feet and smooth.  He played a great goofball, but he did it with a little more ease and style than I have.  I don’t know if I’m like him, I don’t know who I’m like, but I love making movies.  I’m shooting a movie right now near my hometown, a bunch of little kids keep running up to me and talking to me about my movies.  And that’s a great feeling.

Q:  How would you live your life it you had a chance to start over?  What things would you do differently?

A:  I still wake up every day going, “I got to do this better.”  Most important thing is trying to make sure my family feels loved and that I’m doing the right thing by them.  That doesn’t mean I’m good at it.  I can be pretty bad at it sometimes.

Q:  Do you think you were born funny?

A:  I don’t know if I was born funny, but I was born trying to be funny.  I was definitely excited to make other people laugh, and when it worked I was giddy like a moron (laughs).  If I made my dad laugh I was happy.  If I made his buddies laugh it was the greatest thing ever.  I made my classroom laugh, and that got me happy.  That was the thing that clicked in my head.  

Q:  There’s a great scene where Seth’s character makes a playlist of songs to cheer you up, and there’s one song that moves you.  In real life, what songs really affect you?

A:  That song in particular has always effected me.  Unfortunately, when (Warren) Zevon—the guy who wrote and sings that song—was sick, it was the same time when my father was sick.  I actually think they passed away like a month apart, and I heard that song for the first time maybe a year after that.  And it’s a heartbreaking song for me.