There was an incredible cognitive dissonance to watching one of Saturday Night Live’s most famous cast members from the ’90s drop by to host (for the first time!) in 2019 and regale us with jokes about Game of Thrones and President Trump and Kevin Durant (maybe!) going to the Knicks. There was also an undeniable, blissfully uncomplicated joy.
There he was: Adam Sandler, the Sandman, with yet another imminent Netflix movie to promote (costarring Jennifer Aniston!) and his pick of several dozen indelible Clinton-era SNL characters to reprise. With apologies to Canteen Boy, Opera Man was absolutely the right choice as a callback during what is hopefully not Sandler’s last hosting gig, in that the bit’s premise—Sandler dresses up like an opera singer and riffs on the news in a buffoonish Olive Garden accent—is just stupid enough to be timeless.
Let’s just say that he can still make a punch line like “Kentucky Derby very fast-o / One in first and one in last-o / Winning horse is magnifioso / Losing horse is delicioso” sing. Let’s just say that “Grope-a grope-a / Sniff-a sniff-a” is a transcendently puerile opening line to the theme song Joe Biden deserves. Let’s just say that if someone was gonna rhyme They afraid to impeach with Putin makes me his beetch, I’m glad it was him. The whole thing was absurd, and a little disturbing, and extremely great. “So very long since I’ve been around-ah,” Opera Man climatically wailed. “Twenty-four years and 24 pounds-ah.”
Sandler was fired from SNL (along with Chris Farley!) in 1995 and went on to become a critic-proof blockbuster movie star; Opera Man also included a quick bit about the new Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen rom-com Long Shot, and how its “Pretty lady / Goofy man-ah” premise seemed awfully familiar. (Rogen was thrilled.) Indeed, Sandler’s monologue consisted of a song called, presumably, “I Was Fired,” with guest appearances from Chris Rock (also fired!) and Pete Davidson (keep trying!), and a final verse that ran as follows:
I was fired, I was fired
NBC said that I was done
Then I made over $4 billion at the box office
So I guess you could say I won
For those millennials (and younger!) not steeped in ’90s pop-culture lore who thus might solely know Sandler as the guy who makes colossally polarizing Netflix movies, Saturday night must’ve been a little confounding. The dude is 52 years old, for one thing. (“I should have come back to the show before it was HD,” he conceded last week on Late Night With Seth Meyers.) And stripped of any context, he has the chill-but-volatile vibe of that distinct phylum of SNL host where there’s a 3 percent chance he or she will forget the name of the musical guest while introducing the musical guest. (Shawn Mendes did a reworked version of “In My Blood” with four cellos; Sandler nailed the intro both times.)
The episode was thus split between the show’s usual, cheerfully hacky approach to current events (the cold open was an Avengers vs. Game of Thrones edition of Family Feud that featured Leslie Jones delivering the line “Bitch, I’m Groot”) and total nostalgia. (One skit was a “Sandler family reunion” that consisted of various cast members—and Kristen Wiig, and Jimmy Fallon—doing impressions of his various blockbuster movie characters.) Basically, to get the most out of this episode, you had to be old enough that this was all transpiring way, way, way, past your bedtime. Your reward was that you got to watch a 52-year-old guy crack jokes about CNN war-zone reporters using Snapchat filters, and still come across like a majestically dopey 14-year-old.
The episode as a whole was far from perfect—it included an early and spectacularly unfunny music video for a song about how “clothes are holes” in which Sandler somehow impersonated both Slash and Axl Rose simultaneously—but it was nonetheless a reminder of how perfect he always was for this show. He can underplay if you really need him to: The best skit that didn’t trade on past glories featured Sandler as a tour operator in Italy going to great lengths to remind depressed people that they’ll still be depressed while on vacation in Italy. (“The pictures you’re in are gonna have you in them.”) But as always, Sandler makes the most sense the louder and the bawdier and the dumber everything around him gets, which is to say that at one point Kate McKinnon was squirting Windex in his mouth in a bar while making out with Kristen Wiig. (Wiig’s tenure at SNL did not, of course, overlap with Sandler’s at all, but who’s complaining?) Impressively, given the quarter-century’s worth of history involved, he returned a conquering hero, but with the chops of an old-timer—and all-timer—who’d never left at all.
And for his final act Saturday night, he did something even more surprising.
Hello police snl made me cry??— Bethy Squires (@BethyBSQU) May 5, 2019
Specifically, Sandler sang a shaggy and phenomenally tender song about Chris Farley, his old castmate and dearly departed friend. (His quite good 2018 Netflix comedy special 100% Fresh peaks with the same tune.) It was a disarmingly beautiful moment, sounding both improvised and deeply heartfelt, a teary-eyed tribute that captured both the comedy and the tragedy of one of the show’s other most famous cast members from the ’90s. “After a show he’d drink a quart of Jack Daniel’s and stick the bottle right up his ass,” Sandler sang, a line that always gets a laugh, and always hurts, too.
It was moving on a level SNL almost never even approaches; the whole episode was, really, given Sandler’s inimitable mix of veteran savvy and forever-childlike defiance. He was happy to be there in a way that made you even happier to watch him be there. “To my wife and kids, I’m glad you guys got to witness that,” he announced during his goodbyes. “‘Cause I loved it here, man.”