Every few months, RollingStone.com shines a spotlight on a forgotten, neglected, overshadowed, under-appreciated and/or critically maligned film that we love in a series we’re calling “Be Kind, Rewind.” Our latest movie: the Adam Sandler comedy Billy Madison.
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”—Corinthians 13:11, King James Bible
“Stop looking at me, Swan!!!” — Billy Madison, to bath fixture
It’s the giant taunting penguin that does it. For the first few minutes, you could be watching any raunchcom that carbon-dates back to the late Eighties or early-to-mid-Nineties (in this case, 1995), the kind featuring a shirtless dude floating in a pool with a baseball cap on his head and a drink in his hand. The fact that he’s also singing to a bottle of sunscreen (“Suntan lotion/is good for me/you protect me/tee-hee-hee”) seems a little odd, but we’re still firmly in a rich fratboy fantasyland. The guy soon goes tearing across a mansion’s lawn on a golf cart past his wasted buddies and some stuffed-shirt servants, eager to thumb through the latest copy of Drunks Chicks by his mailbox.
And then it appears: a 10-foot tall penguin, standing in the driveway. As our inebriated hero begins to chase after the running flightless bird, it starts to dawn on you that this is not your typical gross-out, use-party-as-a-verb movie. You are watching something that’s truly, madly, deeply WTF warped.
When Billy Madison hit theaters 20 years ago, Adam Sandler was already a breakout star on Saturday Night Live; movies were the next logical step, so the comedian and his ex-roommate — SNL writer Tim Herlihy — came up with the story designed to jumpstart a big-screen career move. The gist: A spoiled, silver-spoon party animal is set to inherit the family’s lucrative hotel business, despite having zero interest in anything not involving daiquiris, Nintendo or nudie mags. In order to prove he’s a better candidate than the company’s sneering yuppie vice president, however, Billy has to repeat kindergarten through high school again. For our dimwitted hero, this is damned near a Herculean feat.
Anyone now familiar with the cinema du Sandler might hazard a guess about what lays in store: aggressively coming on to/charming the romantic interest (Bridgette Wilson, pre-Sampras), knocking kids out with dodge balls, line-readings that go from toddler-ish falsetto sing-song to SUDDEN! AGGRAVATED! YELLING! But for every hint of the lowest-common-denominator assault that Sandler would later unleash on moviegoers, there are glimpses of a once-in-a-generation comic weirdness in its pure, uncut form. It’s not just the least curdled and thus, by default, the best “Adam Sandler” movie, though it is undoubtedly that. It’s also a preview of “The Price is wrong, bitch!” beatdowns and in-drag-wooing-of-Al-Pacino lowlights to come, and a what-if peek at the glorious road not traveled.
It helps to remember what an oddball Sandler was when he first abbie-doobied his way into the public consciousness. His early stand-up act featured a tangent involving an Elvis Presley who was eight inches tall, living in Adam’s refrigerator and prone to stealing heads of lettuce. (Payback comes in the form of putting a miniature horse’s head in the King of Rock & Roll’s bed.) His guest appearances on MTV’s trivia gameshow Remote Control included alter egos like Bossy Boy, an early version of the high-voiced infantile idiot he’d trot out over the years, and Stud Boy, a vaguely European-sounding gigolo who dreams of celebrity hook-ups. (Think a younger, sleazier Zohan.) And once he joined SNL, many of Sandler’s recurring characters were remarkably strange even by Coneheads standards: the walking Bayou stereotype Cajun Man; the snake-calling, perennial assistant scoutmaster Canteen Boy; and the housesitting Herlihy Boy, who wants nothing more out of life than to take care of your grandmother and sleep in your bed.
Billy comes from the same stock as these other Sandler staples; he’s a stunted male who loves “pickle races,” pranks and eating paste as much as he digs porn. He might be an atypical lead character for a big-screen comedy circa 1995, but it was one that was totally in the comic’s comfort zone, from the vaguely preadolescent sense of fun to the sudden rage spirals. The director — Basquiat cohort, Beastie wife and boho royalty Tamra Davis — recently told the Washington Post that she didn’t “get” the film’s comedy at first, but quickly understood that silliness, rather than salaciousness, was the key. “I overloaded the sets and costumes with color,” she admits, “to show how a kid sees things.” Davis also switched out Wilson’s miniskirt ensembles for summer dresses so as not to “oversexualize” her, but thanks to the filmmaker’s shiny, happy set-up, our boy Madison never feels neutered — he simply comes off as a slightly pervier version of Pee-wee Herman.
None of this screamed slam dunk: In Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s SNL oral history Live From New York, Sandler remembers showing Lorne Michaels the script and having the producer tell him, “There’s some funny stuff, but that maybe this shouldn’t be [your] first vehicle.” (The comedian’s response suggested he was tempted to cut bait: “If I write a skit and it doesn’t get on the show, I don’t sit and cry about it, I just say I’ll write another one next week. So that’s how I felt about Billy Madison. I said, ‘OK, Herlihy, he doesn’t like this one. Let’s write another one.'”) You can picture Michaels flipping through the pages and thinking, So you play with shampoo bottles in the bath, and the maid keeps talking about your sweet ass, and then there’s a clown with blood trickling out of his mouth? And this is your bid for stardom?
But it’s those way-left-of-center elements that signify the film’s actual sense of humor — the surreal jokes were not the spice here but the real meat. The story is merely an excuse to get Sandler dancing down a staircase to Culture Club’s “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” for no reason. Or to allow for Theresa Merritt’s matronly hired help to get lecherous over her employer’s son (it’s still impossible to tell whether this character is a skewed variation of the mammy stereotype or a crazy subversion of it). Or an elaborate set-up for a punch line in which a family of redheaded bullies — “O’Doyle rules!” — drives off a cliff. Or as an opportunity for Jim Downey, the undisputed deadpan MVP of the movie, to declare, post-Billy’s “winning” academic decathalon answer, that “everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”
These are the moments and lines that Madison fans trade back and forth, the weird shit that we conspiratorially cherish. What you don’t usually hear is someone waxing poetic about the homophobic jokes involving Josh Mostel’s principal sending Billy a valentine saying “I’m horny” (watch the deleted scenes on the DVD and you’ll discover that this was a part of an aborted running gag, but still). And when you bring up Sandler pelting kids on the playground or watching Wilson strip as she quizzes him about the Magna Carta, people will nod impatiently before breaking in to the film’s musical number, the one that ends with an operatic request for gum. The film’s douchiest pro-bro exchanges here are the runts of the comic litter. Which didn’t stop the star from gravitating in that direction starting with his next movie.
From Happy Gilmore on, the alpha-mook aspects in Sandler’s movies would get more and more toxic, and even the accented beta-male eccentrics would take on a meaner, hyper-testosterone–ish edge. If you watch The Waterboy or Little Nicky, you can detect faint echoes of the old Billy underneath all the dick-swinging and the occasional desperate stabs at sentimentality; everything else was an everydude sitcom pumped up for multiplex screens. The star had chosen his path, and he was sticking to it. His comedies would lose the rough edges and up the lockeroom towel-snapping roughness. As for the “serious” roles – Punch Drunk Love is the major exception that proves the rule – it was simply the same anger and self-loathing minus the laughs. Sandler would turn the whole aggro-American idiot persona into a type. Cue decades of box-office success and diminishing returns.
But for one glorious moment, that early, semi-innocent Sandler, the guy who made Halloween costumes out of rolled-up newspapers and demanded candy, got to let his freak flag fly. And 20 years later, that’s the Sandler you want to remember: an immature knucklehead who showed signs of being a real comic genius, not the guy who makes Grown-Ups 2. Still, we’ll always have Billy, the self-proclaimed smartest man alive who keeps chasing that penguin across the lawn, forever dreaming of touching the heinie.