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Jim McDermottMarch 23, 2023
Adam Sandler on stage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing ArtsMark Twain Prize recipient Adam Sandler is introduced at the start of the 24th Annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

On Sunday evening, thecomedian Adam Sandler received the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The actor David Spade described it as “like giving the Nobel Prize in medicine to Dr. Pepper.” And in truth, Mr. Sandler’s work includes some of the worst-rated movies of all time; he’s been nominated for Razzies 37 times, second only to Sylvester Stallone.

But Mr. Sandler’s films have also grossed more than $3 billion worldwide. His “Chanukah Song” is also, in my opinion, one of the all-time greatest religious holiday songs. I dare you to create a better rhyme than “yarmulke” and “funikah.”

Whether he is playing a deadbeat dad or a waterboy with a speech impediment, Mr. Sandler resonates with a lot of people. And as I’ve been thinking about his body of work as a whole, I’ve realized that the kind of characters he often plays may have something to teach us about, well, Jesus. 

I’ve been thinking about his body of work as a whole, and I’ve realized that the kind of characters he often plays may have something to teach us about, well, Jesus.

I know, I know, Mr. Sandler is Jewish, but then again so was Our Lord and Savior. Just go with me here for a second. While Mr. Sandler has made a lot of different kinds of movies at this point, what he is most known for is playing outsiders. He is the guy who can’t quite express himself or doesn’t know how to fit in (“Punch-Drunk Love,” “The Waterboy”); the loser who never quite lived up to his or other people’s expectations (“Billy Madison,” “The Wedding Singer”). His characters almost always have jobs that other people belittle, ignore or look down upon—he is a pizzeria owner and greeting card writer (“Mr. Deeds”), a deli employee (“Hubie Halloween”), a themed toilet plunger salesman (“Punch-Drunk Love”), a hairstylist (“You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”), a gambling addict and jewelry store manager (“Uncut Gems”), a wedding singer.

Many of his characters have a kind of desperation about them, too. Rage seems to roil just beneath the surface of them. But oftentimes their fury is at least in part the product of the cruelty of the world in which they are living. In “Happy Gilmore,” the I.R.S. is forcing his grandmother to foreclose on her house. In the “Longest Yard,” the prison warden is abusing prisoners to further his aspirations to be state governor. Mr. Sandler’s films also frequently turn on corrupt businessmen (“Mr. Deeds,” “Billy Madison,” “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”) or communities that shame his characters and others just for being who they are (“The Waterboy,” “Hubie Halloween,” “Punch-Drunk Love”).

And even as his heroes are usually challenged to change in some way, as you might expect, frequently the bigger change in Mr. Sandler’s films is the effect his characters have upon their worlds, in particular upon those who find themselves similarly overlooked and ignored. There is the quietly competent hotel employee who is given control of the hotel business in “Billy Madison”; the faithful butler who is similarly rewarded in “Mr. Deeds”; the old man in “Eight Crazy Nights” who finally gets recognized after 35 years for all the contributions he’s made to his community; the Israeli- and Palestinian-American small businessmen who are able to build their own mall together after Mr. Sandler’s Zohan thwarts the racist businessman who tried to burn down their block; or the little boy whom Mr. Sandler’s character basically saves in “Big Daddy.”

What would our lives, our faith be like if we let Jesus be a little more messy and a little more fun?

In this season of Lent, Christians invest themselves in walking the road to Jerusalem with Jesus. The readings and the practices of Lent try to enable us to identify with him in a more personal way. But after a while the readings are all so familiar; sometimes it’s hard to even hear them anymore. Plus we can sometimes bring with us assumptions and interpretations that have hardened over time. Like an old boat, our imaginations can get covered in barnacles. How do we reach Jesus then?

Maybe Adam Sandler can help us. Rather than the airbrushed and often all-knowing messiah we might have been taught as kids, or the Buddy Jesus we might have made for ourselves, in Adam Sandler’s movies we meet heroes who are awkward, out of place, more than a little angry at times but not quite sure what to do about it; characters who see and value the “little people” of the world and fight for them, but also perhaps appreciate the point of view of children because they sometimes kind of seem like children themselves. Maybe watching his films gives us a different way into understanding our Lord.

On Sunday, Conan O’Brien praised Mr. Sandler for being “down in the muck with us.” I wonder if that’s not a useful metaphor for Jesus, too. Sure, we read about him out there challenging the Pharisees and exorcising demons; but offscreen, why couldn’t he also be exchanging fart jokes with the kids who never get chosen for kickball, writing sweet greeting cards or teaching grandmas how to rap? Why couldn’t that be part of being a Messiah, too? And if we allow Jesus to be a little more messy in his dress or in his passion for others, who knows, maybe it gives us permission to be a little more out of step ourselves, to speak out or take risks on behalf of others that may make others view us as absolutely ridiculous. 

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