How Adam Sandler used his ‘SNL’ Weekend Update songs as blueprint for stardom

How Adam Sandler used his ‘SNL’ Weekend Update songs as blueprint for stardom

The Sandman’s lovably goofy appearances at the SNL news desk were a deceptively diverse array of comic moments that laid the foundation for his future success.

Saturday Night Live – Season 42

Pinpointing the precise moment that a future comedy superstar finds their footing as a cast member on Saturday Night Live has the air of a superhero’s humble origin story. There is something very pure about it, an unknown — through some combination of osmosis and charisma — capturing an audience’s attention and hurdling themselves against the larger tapestry of comedy and American pop culture. Similar to Eddie Murphy’s out-of-the-box discovery as a teen and catapult into stardom, Adam Sandler exploded at Studio 8H in an unexpected and refreshing way. Over three decades since his first appearances SNL, seeing Sandler continue to headline movies — of various genres and quality — as well as tour, it can be surprisingly daunting to fully appreciate how far he’s come.

His films, including his Happy Madison productions, have a combined gross of over $2 billion at the domestic box office. Coupled with his many accolades and lucrative business decisions — his partnership with Netflix was a savvy receipt of shifting audience tendencies — one could argue that Sandler is possibly the most successful SNL graduate of all time. His true ascent to national stardom began with a series of goofy appearances on Weekend Update. Those segments, frequently culled from his stand-up and often featuring the characters and songs that appeared on his comedy albums like They’re All Gonna Laugh at You! and What the Hell Happened to Me?, were the foundation for the persona Sandler adopted in movies and are the key to understanding his enduring appeal as an entertainer.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE — Episode 7 — Air Date 12/03/1994 — Pictured: Adam Sandler performs ‘The Chanukah Song’ during “Weekend Update” on December 3, 1994 (Photo by Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Adam Sandler performs ‘The Hanukkah Song’ on “Weekend Update” on Dec. 3, 1994.

| Credit: Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty

Sandler began cutting his teeth in the local stand-up club scene while attending New York University in 1984. Long-time SNL cast member and former Weekend Update anchor Kevin Nealon (whose book I Exaggerate: My Brushes With Fame is out now) first met Sandler around this time. Nealon tells EW of encountering his future costar: “I remember walking over to the Comic Strip Live, I think it was called, in New York and [I would] go to clubs during my free time and do a little stand-up. He was over there. He was a timid comic: ‘Hey,’ he would mutter into the mic. [doing a Sandler impression] ‘You know what I like to do sometimes, when I’m at the drive-through?'”

“There weren’t many people there. It didn’t seem like he was doing that well,” Nealon adds, laughing. “I met him after a set and we walked to another club, he got to know me. He went back to NYU later and told all his buddies in his dorm how he met me, he was really excited.”

Fellow SNL stars Dana Carvey and David Spade have noted on their Fly on the Wall podcast that Sandler eventually found his voice going on the road. Following stints on MTV’s Remote Control, SNL talent scouts brought the young comic into the fold. Nealon recalls: “He comes on SNL, and he’s feeling it out. [Adam] stuck to his own comedy, which was kind of silly and Red-Hooded Sweatshirt, all those things.”

Following a brief role as “Iraqi Pete,” Sandler’s first commentary at the Update desk came during Dennis Miller’s tenure as anchor, during the Steven Seagal episode in season 16 on April 20, 1991. It’s a textbook move for a young cast member to, as Chris Rock once famously put it, “hit ’em at the Update desk.” He appears as Update’s travel correspondent talking about a recent trip to Greece, which he spent largely in his hotel room annoying people. It was his first correspondence, and his nerves were apparent. It was also one of his most traditional appearances at the desk. They would go on to become goofier, and more musical.

While he may have begun his Update appearances under Miller, the most iconic Sandler songs and bits happened once Nealon became anchor. Nealon recalls: “People loved Sandler, I loved him too. He was brilliant, coming up with stuff that was amusing. I’m up for anyone coming on Weekend Update as long as it’s different and fun and not just Lorne sticking them on because they’re not in the rest of the show. That drags Weekend Update down.”

Sandler segments can be mostly distilled into a few categories: songs, holiday commentary, or ridiculously one-note characters with names like Crazy Spoon Head and Squishy Man that reflected their premise, a punk rock wink at the show’s emphasis on generating incessant recurring sketches. Of course, Opera Man would fit this bill as well, a classic Update character who sang the news by invoking fake Italian words by adding an extra “a” or “o” to English words, or through rhyming. Sandler revisited Opera Man during his long-awaited return to SNL as host back in 2019.

Sandler’s tenure on SNL is largely defined by his gentle soft rock-inspired novelty songs, which gradually became a staple of the show’s Bad Boys era. Even a song like “Lunch Lady Land” transcended the Update desk, becoming one of Chris Farley’s best moments on the show.

Nealon states his favorite of these is “‘The Hanukkah Song,’ where he lists all the people you didn’t know were Jewish.” Indeed, “The Hanukkah Song” — which first appeared during Update on December 3, 1994 before Sandler released it on What the Hell Happened to Me? — is a modern holiday classic, the kind of song commercial radio begins adding into their rotation every November.

Some of the best Sandler appearances on Update centered around his busy schedule, like when he could not make it to Mother’s Day dinner, so he recorded a message for his mother to play at the table in his stead. Dysfunction and his hilarious balance of rage and tenderness foreshadowed not simply classic sketches like “The Denise Show” and his early comedies like  Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison, but even his artsier films like Punch-Drunk Love.

Sandler left SNL in 1995, an unceremonious departure for one of the show’s breakout stars. Besides his recent hosting gig, he made cameos during the Tom Arnold episode in 1996, singing a song about his grandmother, as well as the Brittany Murphy episode in 2002, where he appeared alongside Rob Schneider during the cold open to perform an updated “Hanukkah Song” that was included in the 8 Crazy Nights soundtrack.

Taken as a collective, these appearances laid the blueprint for Sandler’s still-ongoing success in Hollywood, a deceptively diverse array of comic moments that hinted at his later ability to tweak his on-screen self. 

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Saturday Night Live – Season 42

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