There are times in which Saturday Night Live’s reliance on audience nostalgia works against it. This often happens when it smothers the fire of the existing cast in favor of bringing back old cast members to generate cheap heat. It’s not unlike the WWE bringing out an old star to defeat a rising one: Instead of elevating the future of the business, it ends up doing long-term damage to him or her.
With Adam Sandler returning to SNL, however, the show got a unique chance to honor its past while also giving prime comedic real estate to its existing cast. While Sandler primarily works best in a solo setting (as evidenced by the clips below), this episode nevertheless featured continuity with the past rather than a negation of the present. The lasting power of his era of SNL comes from the enduring friendships it created, and it demonstrates how much we care about the Not Ready For Primetime Players as people, not just performers. We don’t know these people, but we certainly feel like we do, and that more than SNL as an institution is why so many of us have watched as long as we have.
Without diving any deeper into the schmaltz, let’s look at the sketches people will be talking about until Emma Thompson hosts next week.
Weekend Update: Opera Man Returns
Look: Opera Man is a dumb character, but like so many Sandler inventions, it’s so knowingly dumb that it somehow turns smart. Sandler’s gift is never pretending like he’s above the material he performs, which grants him a lot of good will. There are two levels happening at all times with Opera Man and his cavalcade of other “Weekend Update” appearances: there’s the content, and there’s the simultaneous meta-commentary ABOUT the content. The beats in between in verse demonstrate this, as he almost always finishes with a look that says, “I don’t know why this works either, but let’s just roll with it together.”
Weirdly enough, the short, sing-songy nature of Opera Man yielded some of SNL’s best political jokes in some time. It’s no accident that the show overtly ignored a political cold open this week in favor of a Game Of Thrones/Avengers mashup and put its ideas here. Opera Man’s constraints forces the show to deliver its punchlines in the most succinct manner, taking a six-minute concept and condensing it into six seconds. As such, they land much more effectively, and probably will have more legs because of it. A short verse about the Democratic candidates distills the entire race into eight lines, and it shows more insight than a dozen cold opens. Sandler had dozens of characters he could have pulled out of mothballs in this slot, but he and SNL chose wisely in bringing this one back.
Adam Sandler’s “I Was Fired” Monologue
The odds of Sandler not doing a musical-infused monologue were so low that Las Vegas refused to place odds on it. But even if this was inevitable, it ended up still being delightful. The sheer power of seeing Sandler back in Studio 8H could have been enough. Having a simple ditty would have been enough. Instead, this turned into a succinct way of summing up the past and paving the way for an episode to stand on its own rather than be a ninety-minute trip down memory lane.
Sandler’s contentious history with this show after his departure is well-documented, but having it laid out here gave Sandler autonomy while also allowing SNL to own up to its decision to fire him. No single person is bigger than the show (save Lorne Michaels, without whom the show should probably end next time around, but that’s another essay for another time), but it’s impossible to overstate just how popular Sandler was during his run on the program. The fact that he has had such a lucrative career allows him to brag about that during the monologue, and the fact the SNL is still around to provide a platform for that brag says a lot about it as well. This was a win-win that also managed to sneak in great cameos from Chris Rock and Pete Davidson, the latter of whom exploited his off-camera shenanigans in the most succinct, potent way all season. The Springsteen-esque way this song ended marked a triumphant return for one of the show’s most popular stars.
Chris Farley Song
Even if you’ve already seen Sandler perform this on his Netflix special 100% Fresh, there’s something undeniably powerful about seeing him sing it live in Studio 8H. The show put this in the only slot it could — the final one — since there wasn’t a dry eye in the house once Sandler had finished. It marked an elegant finish to an episode that balanced the old and the new quite well, and demonstrated the lasting power this show has.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying SNL used to be better, and how nothing currently compares to that which was. The not-so-hidden secret is the show has always more or less been what it is now, which is to say an inconsistent show that is always walking the tightrope between success and outright disaster. We remember the highlights and forget the duds, which creates the false illusion that past seasons had nothing BUT highlights. That’s not a slight on the show, which is built on a risky foundation upon which anything successful is fairly miraculous.
Both Chris Farley and Adam Sandler are part of that wonderfully complicated tapestry. Their era was one defined by the power of personality rather than character-driven sketches, with a lot of sketches residing on the overwhelming presence of one person rather than deriving its power from a collective energy. The cast SNL brought in immediately after cleaning house between Seasons 20 and 21 reflected the waning ratings power of that approach. That reality didn’t make it into Sandler’s musical monologue, but that doesn’t mean people still don’t quote Chris Farley highlights decades later. The fact that Farley didn’t hit the bullseye each time doesn’t make his overall batting average any less remarkable. Sandler’s song focuses on these successes, and the tears the song evokes remind us how lucky we are this man helped create those singular moments for us.