Speak Softly and Carry a Big Shtick

Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

In the end, I got no closer to Adam Sandler than lunch with his manager, Sandy Wernick. The lunch was meant to convince me of the futility of attempting a Sandler story in the first place. Sandler doesn’t do print interviews, hasn’t done them for two years, although there is no apparent flash point for his having gone silent. There is instead the general sense among what is known as “Team Sandler” that Sandler doesn’t need the media--and by media they mean the harder-to-control film writers who have dismissed Sandler as a fluke, or worse, a public health risk. Their criticism, for now, is irrelevant: Combined, Sandler’s last three movies, all made at relatively sane prices, have grossed about $400 million domestically. As Sandler’s publicist, Cindy Guagenti, told me, explaining why it didn’t matter where I was from: “His fans don’t read” these articles.

By virtue of the wall around him, though, Sandler automatically becomes more interesting than any number of stars who sit down with interviewers to parcel out the quotes and the charisma. Even if the answers aren’t provocative, as Sandler’s people maintain, the questions are: What is he hiding? Why boycott print interviews when critics hardly need access to him to continue to trash his movies? At a screening for “Little Nicky,” his new movie that opens Friday, I spoke to some of the foreign TV press who would be sitting down with Sandler for five minutes of promotional sound bites. Press junket veterans, they all agreed that Sandler doesn’t give print interviews because on the cold, hard page, he is out of context, a goofy-shy person whose behavior is inevitably misconstrued or not construed at all. One reporter said she wanted to use quotes from Sandler’s “Big Daddy” junket for a magazine article. They were the same quotes Sandler had given to her in front of the camera, but the star’s representatives nixed it.

Sandler himself has been quoted in the past as saying “. . . when I talk about me and comedy, I’ve never heard anything come out of my mouth that sounds too interesting.” But Sandler is no longer just a movie star, he’s a genre-unto-himself--a brand--and it is clear that he understands how best to reach his customers. For “Little Nicky,” a big-budget, special-effects-driven comedy in which he plays the son of the devil, Sandler would take his case straight to the people on demographically friendly shows like “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” MTV’s “TRL” and an infomercial program on Comedy Central called “Canned Ham.”


In other words, there is method behind his madness--the same method that made his previous movies--whether “The Wedding Singer” or “The Waterboy” or “Big Daddy”--mainstream hits. Sandler, 34, is by many accounts a hard-working, grounded, soup-to-nuts participant in his product, guiding everything from the script to the cutting of the trailer. To consort with journalists is to cede control to people with whom he does not get final cut. Nor do the various comedic images he projects--the guy with no prospects but great cable and a dime bag of pot, say--mix well with articles about his power-broker clout in Hollywood.

“How can he be singing about owning a piece of [crap] car when [people know] he’s making $20 million a movie?” says a source who has worked with Sandler on his comedy albums.

With Team Sandler on a winning streak, Sandler is attached as producer to a number of comedy scripts around town. On paper anyway, he has become a kind of AmeriCorps for other former “Saturday Night Live” cast members whose film careers are otherwise dormant. His Happy Madison Productions is developing feature scripts for Dana Carvey, Norm Macdonald, Kevin Nealon, Colin Quinn and David Spade (“Joe Dirt,” another project starring Spade and produced by Sandler, recently finished shooting). They are mostly clients of the management firm run by Brad Grey and Bernie Brillstein, where Sandler too is a client.

There is also Rob Schneider’s upcoming film “Animal,” a follow-up to Schneider’s surprise 1999 hit, “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.” “Deuce,” say insiders, is the blueprint for Sandler’s emergence as a producer, for he was able to take a comedian who couldn’t sell tickets and a concept that most dismissed as one-note and get a nice return on the investment. (“Deuce” grossed more than $65 million and did brisk home video sales). Can Carvey, Macdonald, Spade et al. be similarly Sandlerized?

“They’re so smart they broke Rob to America,” says a longtime Sandler friend, noting Schneider’s pre-”Deuce” unpopularity in the marketplace. “They’re so hooked into their crowd, they were able to figure out what they wanted.”

Sandler has also formed an online entertainment company,, to produce animated and live-action programming in alliance with the more-established, with whom Joe Roth’s Revolution Studios has an existing partnership. Roth, chairman of Walt Disney Studios when both “The Waterboy” and “Deuce” were released, is now backing some of the aforementioned Sandler-produced movie projects at his new studio.


“They’re saying, ‘You know this generation and who’s funny and who’s not, so we’re going to bet on you to tell us,’ ” says a source about Revolution’s investment in the comedian.

As a recording artist, Sandler last released his fourth comedy album, “Stan and Judy’s Kid.” It has sold about 500,000 copies, a drop-off for Sandler, though overall his CDs have still sold an impressive 4.4-million copies combined, according to figures from SoundScan, which tracks nationwide album sales. Seen as a group, their titles form a self-commentary: “They’re All Going to Laugh at You,” “What the Hell Happened to Me?” “What’s Your Name?” and “Stan and Judy’s Kid.” Like the movies, the albums are made by the all-male Team Sandler posse, the old friends to whom he has remained loyal as his career exploded.

On screen, Sandler tends to play the innocent, channeling his R-rated side through various supporting characters. In this way, he remains safe for parents but not too safe for his core audience, teenage boys. But the albums carry strict warning labels, and Sandler cuts loose. He himself is the pervert, the peeping Tom and the acerbic talking goat, tethered to a pickup truck and abused by his owner. He is also the mother who goads her kids to masturbate, and the alcoholic uncle who steals a boat and maims his water-skiing buddies. In his characters, you can hear the New England townies of Sandler’s youth, the sociopathic relatives and the drunks, their baseball caps backward, in the cheap seats at Foxboro Stadium. (Sandler was born in Brooklyn but raised in Manchester, N.H.)

The all-music “What the Hell Happened to Me?” is Sandler’s most popular CD, because on the 1996 release you will find “The Chanukah Song.” The song, which Sandler first performed as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” salutes Christmas’ weak stepsister of a holiday by identifying the legion of Jews in popular culture (“David Lee Roth lights the menorah. . . .”) In a sense, the song put Sandler on a continuum with the likes of Jewish song parodist Allan Sherman--and endeared him to countless Jewish armchair sociologists. Here, in Sandler, was something rare and even refreshing--a Jewish entertainer calling attention to his Jewishness.

“People tend to think of Sandler as a dirt-mouthed camp counselor, popular with little boys impressed by his penchant for filth and slapstick--’South Park’ kids,” wrote Ariel Levy in New York magazine last year. “But they don’t know the other Adam Sandler. For a small but passionate army of young women, he is a Jewish love god.”


In September, Sandler attended a screening in Santa Monica of a Rodney Dangerfield movie called “My Five Wives.” It was a polygamy comedy (Rodney acquires five gorgeous young wives) co-starring Andrew Dice Clay and John Byner, a movie made on the cheap in Canada with a very limited release. But Sandler is nothing if not respectful toward old-school comics (he casts Dangerfield as his grandfather in “Little Nicky”), and he stayed afterward to watch Dangerfield and his wife, Joan, a much younger and striking blond, renew their vows at an Italian restaurant as a PR stunt for the film.


Sandler’s group included Jack Giarraputo, a producing partner and a key Team Sandler member. I thought about simply approaching Sandler, but figured Giarraputo was less adept at politely ridding himself of reporters like me, a strategy that only proved to be half-right. He listened to me for a while, said little, then took my card and promised to call me. Several days later I heard from Wernick, who took me to lunch at Morton’s and said that Neil Simon told Brillstein that Sandler was this generation’s Harold Lloyd. Everything else he said I was asked not to print, which sounds more titillating than it is.

Though I believed Wernick when he told me no one who worked with Sandler would talk about Sandler, I was so impressed I had to experience the rejection firsthand. Sure enough, nearly everyone I called either didn’t return calls, dismissed me out of hand, or had to “check with Adam” first and then dismissed me out of hand. A partial list includes: Roth; CEO Doug Robinson; Todd Garner, the Revolution executive developing projects for Carvey and Macdonald; Carvey, Macdonald, Quinn, Schneider, Spade and Dennis Miller; Robert Simonds, a producer on all of Sandler’s films; and Lorne Michaels, the longtime executive producer of “Saturday Night Live,” where Sandler sowed the seeds of his mainstream prominence.

Logically, I wrote to Jerry Lewis. “Dear Mr. Lewis,” I wrote. “Any comprehensive piece about Adam Sandler without a conversation with you is, in my opinion, incomplete. . . . How can you not trace the popularity of his work back to films like ‘The Bellboy,’ ‘The Nutty Professor’ or ‘The Errand Boy’?”

Lewis did not respond. I then attempted to find the person who won the “Day With Adam Sandler” auctioned off at a 1997 Purim carnival at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles. Again, no luck there, but through another Jewish organization, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in West L.A. I did speak to a former neo-Nazi skinhead, Tom Leyden, who told me that back when he was a racist, Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” fueled his anti-Semitism. “I found it to be a funny song, and it enabled me to say, ‘The Jews control everything,’ ” Leyden said.

By then, I had sort of lost track of what I was doing, though my admiration for Sandler’s integrity in a world of PR fakery was only growing. What was so important to know, anyway? In celebrity journalism, a “write-around” is what newspapers and magazines do when they want to trade on the cachet of a star who won’t sit for an interview. Entertainment Weekly, for instance, put Sandler on its cover last year, interviewing a comedy club manager from Sandler’s stand-up days, his college acting teacher, and a studio head or two. To be sure, there is enough lore about Sandler that anyone who conducts a Lexis-Nexis search on the Internet can cobble together a Sandler-less Sandler story.

You can learn, for instance, who’s on Team Sandler--former NYU compatriots Giarraputo, Frank Coraci and Tim Herlihy, the former “SNL” writer who has co-written all of Sandler’s movies, in addition to Allen Covert, a comic.


You can learn about the “SNL” days, when he rose from writer to cast member with his inventive little songs and characters that made you laugh despite yourself (Opera Man, Cajun Man, Canteen Boy, Iraqi Pete). You can learn that he’s an awfully nice guy--basically the same sweet guy he always was, only with the accouterments of fame--a mansion in Bel-Air and more expensive glasses.


Because it is a Sandler movie, there is talk that “Little Nicky” will end his streak of hits. At a cost of $80 million, far more than any of his previous movies, “Little Nicky” is surely a commercial risk if not an artistic one--particularly for New Line Cinema, with whom Sandler has a two-picture deal. It’s estimated that Sandler’s fees account for roughly a quarter of the film’s budget.

This time, Sandler is Nicky, the offspring of the devil, played by Harvey Keitel, and an angel, played by Reese Witherspoon. When Nicky’s older brothers escape from hell and wreak havoc on New York City, Nicky is dispatched to make things right again. It’s sort of like “Alice in Wonderland,” only in reverse, with the hole leading up to the real world, and stoner metal heads and a blind preacher instead of Mad Hatters and Cheshire cats.

Sandler’s Nicky is a sweet little devil kid who clearly isn’t up to the task of being evil. In essence, he’s a lonely, misunderstood kid (a recurring theme in Sandler movies) living in a fantasy world (another recurring theme). His hair is matted down and he speaks in a raspy voice, complete with speech impediment. He wears a long parka and mittens, and has the bearing of a eunuch. As a comedic idea, Nicky is another of Sandler’s back-of-the-bus outcasts, an even more extreme social case than the Louisiana backwater mama’s boy he played in “The Waterboy.”

In test screenings, audiences had trouble understanding Nicky, so Sandler had to go back and loop a more intelligible voice in places. The movie’s director is Steven Brill, who fits the mold of directors Sandler has employed in the past--they’re more old buddy than auteur, part of Sandler’s extended rat pack (Brill, Sandler and Herlihy share screenplay credit on “Little Nicky.”)

Michael DeLuca, head of production at New Line, says “Little Nicky” can do for Sandler “what ‘Ghostbusters’ did for Bill Murray,” meaning vault him into another stratosphere of box office stardom.


At 35, DeLuca is a Sandler contemporary. “I was watching this guy on ‘Remote Control’ when I was a kid and always thought he was funny,” he said, referring to the late-’80s MTV game show on which Sandler did characters. “It was a very stylized act. It wasn’t like stand-up, it was performance art kind of, and I was happy when he got on ‘SNL.’ ”

The fact that Sandler wasn’t doing any print media for a movie that cost $80 million seemed to concern DeLuca about as much as getting a parking ticket validated. “It’s funny,” he said. “I never thought of these articles as . . . marketing tools.”

At Sony, Sandler’s making an animated musical, “Whitey and Davey,” for Christmas 2001. His next movie for New Line could be “The Five Johnsons,” which DeLuca describes as “another complicated effects movie” in which Sandler plays five identical brothers who are separated at a young age and then reunite to cause one brother misery. There have also been reports that New Line and Sony will share Sandler’s next film, a comedy from Team Sandler member Herlihy and loosely based on “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” or that Sandler will star in a comedy being written by “As Good as It Gets” screenwriter Mark Andrus. The most interesting prospect has Sandler teaming with director Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia”) in a romantic comedy that Anderson has written with Sandler and actress Emily Watson in mind. It is based, said DeLuca, on a recurring sketch Sandler did on “SNL” called “The Denise Show”--a call-in show hosted by a jilted boyfriend pining after his ex-girlfriend. Anderson, who spent three weeks last year as a guest writer on “SNL,” was inspired to write for Sandler after watching the “killer” best-of DVD Sandler put out, said DeLuca.

On its face, the teaming of Sandler and Anderson is fascinating, if improbable (already there are rumors that New Line has passed on the Anderson script, which the studio denies). The film would marry a writer-director who traffics in emotional risk, whose last movie had Tom Cruise moaning his guts out in grief, with a comedian who hides behind any number of adolescent masks. Would Sandler put down the water pail and emote?


“The question is, ‘Will Adam grow?’ ” says a manager familiar with the grooming of comics into mainstream movie stars. “If you don’t, that [young] audience is going to pass you by at some point. . . . Young people are going to change, and you’re going to be out.”

In their own ways, Murray, Jim Carrey and Steve Martin made silliness an art form in their early film careers, then stretched themselves in more serious or layered roles. But since “The Wedding Singer,” in which he played a hard-luck Romeo who sings covers at weddings and bar mitzvahs, Sandler has raced back to the juvenile--in “The Waterboy,” “Big Daddy” (in which he plays a slacker who ends up caring for a sweet-faced orphan boy) and now “Little Nicky.” The implication is that a true artist would have moved on by now, and that Sandler has never had the talent or inclination to do anything but replicate his brand, like so many Wendy’s franchises.


“I think all super-funny people are judged in a bizarre manner,” says a friend. “Adam just wants to make people happy, and people are cynical about that.”

The notion of Sandler as formulaic is the subtext of a lawsuit filed last week by the heirs of Harold Lloyd against Disney that claims “The Waterboy” is a copy of Lloyd’s 1925 silent “The Freshman.”

Then too there is the question of whether Sandler’s movies are merely dumb or dumb with an underlying wit. Are they mean-spirited dumb or good-natured dumb? Can you draw a straight line, say, from Martin in Carl Reiner’s “The Jerk” to Sandler in “The Waterboy”?

“If ‘dumb’ comes from a good place, it’s smart,” says Terry Turner, who, with wife Bonnie Turner, co-wrote the 1995 film “Tommy Boy,” starring Spade and the late Chris Farley, one of those comedies that tends to get lumped into the “dumb” genre.

The Turners worked with Sandler when they were writers on “SNL,” helping him come up with the lyrics for Opera Man, a character who sang the news like it was the final act of “La Traviata.” The bit was dumb but also topical--and thus smart-dumb, Terry Turner says.

In the meantime, the intelligentsia continue to treat Sandler not so much as Sandler, but as Sandler-as-metaphor--the symbol of a wider malaise in mainstream comedy, the victory of crude over that which has heart and intelligence.


“At this time in world history, we all inhabit a planet in which the biggest star is . . . wait for it . . . yes, I’m serious . . . Adam Sandler,” wrote the venerable screenwriter William Goldman last year in an article for Premiere magazine.

There was a similar tone struck at a Writers Guild Foundation symposium in Santa Monica last year around the time of “Big Daddy’s” release. It was one of those public forums where you throw a bunch of heavyweights onstage and have them talk about comedy, whatever that means. This one included James L. Brooks, Albert Brooks, Harry Shearer, Janeane Garofalo and Macdonald. When you hear the discussion on tape, what ensues, quite spontaneously, was a referendum on Sandler’s comedy--a conversation prompted by an otherwise innocent question: “Who makes you laugh?”

Sandler-as-metaphor hung thick in the room as Albert Brooks, a celebrated satirist, and Macdonald, a Sandler friend/defender, went back and forth, debating (a) whether the ability to make millions of people laugh is by definition a virtue, and (b) Sandler.

“Sometimes, hip comedy is not what you think it is,” Macdonald said. “Adam’s very hip and smart. Sometimes, if you’re a little bit ahead of the curve . . . people don’t understand you.”

Brooks, at the time sweating the release of his movie “The Muse,” began talking about the genius of Jack Benny. In the middle of it, Macdonald ribbed him, and Brooks fired back. “And by the way, let’s see what else America likes that’s crap,” he joked. “How about cancer, they all seem to get that! Must be good, people keep gettin’ it!”

“You don’t have the power or ability to entertain a huge amount of people,” Macdonald said to Brooks later. “So if someone comes along and can do that and make an enormous amount of people laugh, I see nothing except [that] that’s a great thing.”


Finally, James L. Brooks weighed in. He is the man behind such unimpeachable mainstream hits as “Terms of Endearment,” “Broadcast News” and “As Good as It Gets,” in addition to such TV classics as “Taxi” and “The Simpsons.” It seemed important what he would say.

“To me, he’s a very edgy comic,” Brooks said of Sandler. “I think a lot of the hope for Hollywood is which way these guys who get an audience like that choose to go in their careers, and that’s going to shape everything for everybody. . . . So when he did ‘The Wedding Singer,’ which I see as a terrific early film.” And here, he couldn’t resist a joke. “. . . I think it’s great for the Jews, in general.”


I n a parallel universe--to be specific, a classroom adjacent to the Westside Family YMCA--Adam Sandler is no metaphor. He’s just a guy who makes fun movies to see. It is a Monday afternoon, and 20 or so kids, 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds mostly, are doing what kids do in after-school programs like these. They are doing their homework and/or causing a controlled ruckus until their parents finish work and pick them up. Adam Sandler? Yeah, they know Adam Sandler. Twelve-year-old Lizzy Cantor saw “Big Daddy” at school. Thirteen-year-old Najee Thornton has seen almost all of his movies, and 12-year-old Maggie Kirk’s friend has a “Waterboy” poster in her bedroom. To Edmund Hsiao, 11, the name Adam Sandler doesn’t register, but 12-year-old Max Biren especially liked that part in “Big Daddy” when Sandler and his young co-star were tripping roller-bladers in Central Park.

“That was funny,” Biren says, and he goes back to reading his motorcycle magazine. He flips through the pages idly. Because there is, as Sandler himself would agree, nothing more to say.