Stephen Fry once opined that the difference between American humour and British humour was rooted in the former’s irrepressible bullishness at odds with the latter’s ardent self-deprecation and celebration of failure. Condensing it down, American comics have “the biggest knob in the room” compared to their British peers, who haplessly appear to have lost or forgotten their knobs. American comic-characters always won the girl and could “wisecrack their way out of any situation”. However, Fry lamented American smart-alec protagonists, concluding that “they’re not characters at all, they’re just brilliant repositories of fantastic, killer one-liners.”
No one would dare say that Adam Sandler gushes forth a torrent of fantastic, killer one-liners, but something of Fry’s observation certainly rings true. Sandler’s stock-in-trade is the down-on-his-luck loser. Always within touching distance of complete failure, he nevertheless falls short of the pathetic yet endearing British comic archetype. That’s because the obnoxiousness of these characters makes them all very unlikeable: the aggressive, wannabe hockey player who opts for golf with a short temper in Happy Gilmore (1996); the loud, passive-aggressive secretary with a short temper in Anger Management (2003); the stuttering victim of chronic bullying with a hitherto unnoticed short fuse in The Waterboy (1998). You can’t imagine him taking Rhys Ifans’ place as the lovably grubby Spike in Notting Hill (1999), nor can you see him and partner-in-comedy-crime Kevin James playing the leads in cult classic Withnail & I (1987). The answer why is very simple: Sander’s characters, and US comedy movies for that matter, aren’t in the business of taking themselves down a peg or two.
Now seems like a better time than any to dissect Sandler’s legacy. His latest film, the widely-panned Pixels (2015), stormed into the UK box office at pole position but stalled behind Ant-Man (2015) in the US, managing only second-place. Nevertheless, that suggests Sandler is still a pretty bankable movie star. But why? And how? What exactly is his appeal? Especially given that the films he stars in are usually crass, puerile or divisively unfunny. Admittedly, it is easy to assume the role of disdainful snob and sneer at Sandler’s sizable fan-base, but maybe mainstream comedy has always been broad and gleefully unsubtle – the similarly unsubtle Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie was the third highest-grossing British film of 2014.
For every cynic, like me, who sees Sandler as a yelling idiot somehow convinced that he is side-splittingly funny, there is someone who sees, not an actor ripe for ridicule, but something of themselves. He speaks for the average regressive adult, saying and doing the things they clearly wouldn’t – he is relatable. He is the immature yet seemingly well-intentioned father (Grown Ups, 2010); he has the audacity to tell his girlfriend she’s a lousy teacher after she, not unreasonably, leaves him (Happy Gilmore); he is even, quite bizarrely, a Jethro Tull fan (Big Daddy, 1999). Moreover, like Charlie Sheen’s smug central role in Two and a Half Men, there is a wish fulfilment at play in Sandler’s films. He isn’t above putting parenting and adult responsibility on the backburner to spend time with his childish high school chums; no doubt, someone, somewhere has coveted the omnipotent remote that controls time he receives in Click (2006); he is always the recipient of a gorgeous love interest, from Marisa Tomei in Anger Management and Winona Ryder in Mr. Deeds (2002) to Jennifer Aniston in Just Go With It (2011) and Salma Hayek in Grown Ups. He is a tier below middlebrow but emphatically Middle America: incapable of laughing at himself or adopting an amused raised eyebrow like Bill Murray, too much of a gurning caricature to be Larry David.
It is the endurance of the American “funnyman”, its origins in National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise – the first entry of which has been remade as this year’s Vacation – introducing the world to the luckless, ostensibly sympathetic figure of Chevy Chase. Eddie Murphy followed suit, capitalising on his notoriety as an edgy comedian in the 80s for a string of comedies of variable quality he still doesn’t appear to have jettisoned, what with atrocities like Daddy Day Care (2003), Norbit (2007) and Meet Dave (2008). In turn, Sandler’s bad-taste comedies have provided a springboard for similarly grating comic actors: for an example see the success of Kevin Hart, taking on the implausible task of being even more annoying that Martin Lawrence and Chris Tucker combined.
The American funnyman is the underdog. He is juvenile, even antisocial, but wins over the doubters by way of maddeningly unfunny films that are mawkishly sentimental and unrealistic at the best of times. The irksome, obligatory happy ending that closes Sandler’s Big Daddy is at least less patronising than asking the audience to believe Al Pacino – playing himself and, admittedly, in self-parodic mode – has fallen head over heels for Sandler’s twin sister in Jack & Jill (2011), played by, well, Sandler himself.
There doesn’t seem to be a British counterpart. The nearest that British cinema has come to the kind of goofy comedic frontmen the US is remarkably adept at is possibly Hugh Grant – though he embodied the oh-so-terribly charming, posh Brit, a million miles away from the oafish Sandler model. Perhaps Sasha Baron-Cohen? Maybe not: his outrageous, lacerating comic alter-egos relied more on Situationist prankster laughs than woefully reliable gross-out hilarity. Perhaps Charlie Chaplin – although even he defected to the US in search of greater success.
There doesn’t appear to be a female counterpart either, though for good reason. Most galling is the treatment of women in the comedies of Sandler et al. If there are any women on screen, they are depressingly less characters than punchlines, a state of affairs compounded by the wave of US female comics writing their own movies and beating the men at their own game. Since Tina Fey’s dark, clever Mean Girls (2004), there’s been Kristen Wiig’s spirited and refreshing Bridesmaids (2011) and Amy Schumer’s generally well-received Trainwreck (2015).
Sadly, at the time of writing, the latter is still some way below Pixels in the UK box office charts. You would be forgiven for thinking that the persistence of Adam Sandler‘s movies suggests a cultural nadir, a sign that cinema is truly declining. Though, as Fry will admit, American funnymen like Sandler are the very bedrock of US comedy cinema. As irritating as Sandler is, you may well have to concede that there’s just as much room for Woody Allen and the Coen brothers as his brand of boorish, frat-boy humour.
Jacob Bernard-Banton is a journalist. He writes regularly for Dazed.