The most thrilling and cathartic guitar solo you’ll hear in 2018 is uncorked by Adam Sandler—puerile comedy icon, Netflix pioneer, and invulnerable critical punching bag—deep into his new stand-up special, 100% Fresh. It’s on Netflix, of course; it took me way too long to get that the title refers to his adversarial relationship with Rotten Tomatoes, just to give you an idea of how much thought artist and viewer alike seemed to be putting into this.
Indeed, the show’s first hour or so is ramshackle and deeply stupid and seemingly made up on the spot; it is also, if we’re being honest, pretty wonderful. Stitching together performances from a dozen or so packed venues—from L.A. to New Jersey, from tiny clubs to gargantuan arenas—Sandler rumbles through half-assed jokes and quarter-assed songs with the precocious audacity of a 9-year-old who will occasionally cop to actually being, at the time, a 51-year-old. He still tells dick jokes, but now they’re old-guy-dick jokes about, say, the alarming size increase of his balls: “My dick literally looks like it’s sitting in a beanbag chair.”
I laughed at that one, even though I’d heard it before, at an April tour stop in Columbus, Ohio’s cavernous Schottenstein Center that sneaks into the mix here. Watching 100% Fresh, I also laughed at a rambling joke about Sandler’s desire to speak fluent Italian and learn to “do a flip.” I laughed at his story about taking a dick pic (for his wife) and finding a ghost holding a ruler in the background. I laughed at Sandler’s impression of his father looking vulnerable and regretful immediately after shaving his beard for the first time in 10 years. I also laughed, or at least grinned idiotically, at the songs, which tend to consist of Sandler reeling off one goofball line and then lovingly pile-driving it into the ground, from “My Uber driver smells bad” to “My kid’s only got one line in a play” to his stuff-I need-to-leave-the-house mantra “Phone, wallet, keys.”
This is all vintage Sandler, often low effort but incalculably high reward when he tries even a little bit. His shrewd 2014 partnership with Netflix has proved incredibly lucrative—even the public-stats-averse streaming service itself has boasted of blockbuster numbers—though critics have usually denounced the movies themselves as unwatchable. (Sandy Wexler is way too long but mildly charming, The Ridiculous 6 is wildly offensive but not entirely terrible, The Do-Over is entirely terrible, and the Chris Rock team-up The Week Of didn’t move the needle much in either direction.)
Whatever your opinion of those is, 100% Fresh is without question the best thing he’s done for Netflix to date, because it’s mostly just him being his operatically crass and childlike self, with no ludicrous plot to distract him and no racial-stereotype costars to flummox you. It seems important that this special’s trailer includes no actual jokes: Sandler’s presence, his coarse giggles and silly little asides, are all he, or his sizable audience, requires. All he has to do is be himself; the trouble only starts when he tries to do or be literally anything or anyone else.
So it’s easy to succumb to 100% Fresh, from its quirky ditties that abruptly end with lines like “Oh, ice cream lady, thank you for letting me eat your pussy” to his shaggy-dog stories about riding a Disney World roller coaster with another grumpy dad or trying to explain the concept of “That’s what she said” to his 9-year-old daughter. Save for a quick Rob Schneider cameo for a song about 69ing astronauts, the only other human onstage is an affable piano player named Dan Bulla, who wrote or cowrote most of the songs and gives Sandler just enough of a comic foil. The vibe is chill, the stakes are low, and your likely low expectations will quickly be met and possibly even exceeded. But then comes that guitar solo, which will knock you on your ass.
Sandler has always shown, in his own humble and crude and volcanically goofy way, enormous musical talent. Even a beloved Saturday Night Live–era jam like “The Hanukkah Song” shows enough raw charm and earworm acumen to get him a gig as a 2018 pop-factory song doctor. His songs are never parodies exactly, but it’s a little disturbing how precisely he can mimic a very specific type of rock star troubadour: Sometimes he’s weirdo Springsteen, sometimes he’s weirdo Dylan, sometimes he’s weirdo Neil Young, sometimes he’s normal Tom Waits. But late in the show, Bulla launches into a gentle piano ballad, and suddenly Sandler is singing a full-length, 100 percent sincere ode to his dear friend and fellow puerile comedy icon Chris Farley.
The verses are ragged, the meter choppy, the rhymes suspect, the gist of the lyrics just you’re the funniest guy I ever knew, and we had a lot of great times together. Like every word out of Sandler’s mouth in any context, it sound like he’s just singing off the dome, as though you, the viewer, were his smartphone and he’s uploading yet another half-formed voice memo directly into your brain. But this time he means it, and you genuinely feel it. First hearing the Farley song at that Columbus show, this SNL-era anecdote was the part that got me:
I saw him in the office, crying with his headphones on
Listenin’ to a KC and the Sunshine Band song
I said, “Buddy, how the hell is that making you so sad?”
He laughed and said, “Just thinkin’ about my dad”
And watching it now, this subsequent verse hit even harder:
But a few months later, the party came to an end
We flew out to Madison to bury our friend
Nothing was harder than saying goodbye
Except watching Chris’s father have his turn to cry
But what hits hardest of all in the 100% Fresh version is when Sandler stomps on a distortion pedal and unfurls a simple but shockingly lovely guitar solo, his face contorted in what took me a little while to recognize as concentration. This specific moment clearly means a great deal to him, and this solo is very clearly rehearsed in a way that sets it apart from literally everything else he has ever done, whether transcendent or terrible. He is trying, visibly, for what feels like the first time—and wildly succeeding for, like, the 200th time.
The crowd roars; “We love you, Sandman!” someone yells. (Sandler refers to himself as “The Sandman” around a dozen times.) He sneaks other disarmingly tender moments into 100% Fresh, including tributes to his daughters and his long-suffering wife. But the Farley song, and the quiet intensity with which Sandler delivers it, is something else entirely. It’ll make you reach for a lighter, or a tissue, or, for the first time in the Adam Sandler Netflix era, the replay button.