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How Adam Sandler carved out a niche in musical comedy: 'The guitar helped relax me'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Adam Sandler is famous for his comedy films and his performances on "Saturday Night Live" in the '90s. For that work, he'll be awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor this weekend at the Kennedy Center, joining an impressive list of recipients that includes Jonathan Winters, Carl Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Tina Fey, Jon Stewart and Richard Pryor, who was the first recipient in 1998. But Adam Sandler has also given some terrific performances in dramas.

In the 2019 thriller "Uncut Gems," he played Howard Ratner, a jeweler in Manhattan's Diamond District who always has a deal or con going and never stops talking. He's also a gambler deep in debt to a loan shark whose goons are after him. The film was directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, whose father worked in the Diamond District when they were kids. Terry interviewed Adam Sandler and the Safdie brothers in 2019 when "Uncut Gems" was released. We'll hear about Adam Sandler's work in comedy later in this interview. But let's start with a scene from "Uncut Gems," with Howard, Sandler's character, placing bets with his bookie on the Boston Celtics and Kevin Garnett.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNCUT GEMS")

MIKE FRANCESA: (As Gary) What do you want? I already made your bet.

ADAM SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) I know. I know. I got to change the bet. I got $21,000 here. So you add it onto the 19 grand, that's $40,000 in all.

FRANCESA: (As Gary) Scrap the whole bet?

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) Scrap the whole bet. I want to make a six-way parlay, Celtics-Sixers game. What's the line-up?

FRANCESA: (As Gary) Still plus one.

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) Plus one. OK. So I want the Celtics to cover. I want the Celtics halftime. I want Garnett points and rebounds, Garnett blocked shots, Celtics opening tip. Do you take lightning bets?

FRANCESA: (As Gary) Yeah, but you don't want any part of lightning bets. Come on.

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) Fine, $1,000 a point, OK? Take this. And this is a gift from me.

FRANCESA: (As Gary) What's this? What is this?

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) I just - for just tolerating me for all this time, OK?

FRANCESA: (As Gary) No, no, no. I already have a Rolex. I don't need your watch. Listen; this probably fell off a truck anyway. Listen; but what do you know? Garnett this, Garnett that - what do you know?

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) I don't know. I just know.

FRANCESA: (As Gary) Well, I'll tell you what I know. That's the dumbest [expletive] bet I ever heard of.

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) I disagree.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Adam Sandler and Josh and Benny Safdie, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film and the awards and nominations.

JOSH SAFDIE: Oh, thank you so much.

BENNY SAFDIE: Thank you.

SANDLER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Adam Sandler, you found the voice for this character. This character is a fast talker. He's always trying to convince people or sell people on something. He's just always taking chances. He always says things he can't really back up. And he doesn't stop talking.

SANDLER: Yes.

GROSS: You found the rhythm and you found the music in that character's voice.

SANDLER: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: Can you describe finding the voice and what that voice is?

SANDLER: Well, that voice is - in my head, Howard talks a lot not only to - he just wants control. And he likes hitting. And he's a very sensitive guy. He's sensitive to what everyone's thinking in the room. So he takes care - he's talking to one person dead on. And then he hears something going on on the right. He makes sure and take care of that situation, includes everybody. He's a guy who likes to run the room. And so that's why, he's just hypersensitive. It's, to me, very stand-up-comedian-like. When you're onstage and you're performing at a little club and you're telling your jokes the 10 people in front of you laugh but the guy on the left doesn't laugh, you'll see most comedians will go over to the guy who's not laughing and try to include him in a certain way. And I feel Howard's sort of like that.

B SAFDIE: Totally.

GROSS: The main character, Howard, is a big basketball fan. It's like, he not only bets on it.

SANDLER: Yeah.

GROSS: But he loves the sport.

SANDLER: Right.

GROSS: And there's a scene that's almost, like, funny - I don't know whether that's intentional or not - in which he's - it's a very high-pressure situation that he's in. But he's basically watching the game on TV. He's got a lot of money on it.

SANDLER: Right.

GROSS: And he's kind of, like, narrating the game. It's like he's a sportscaster on TV.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And he's, like, you know, like, doing the game.

SANDLER: Right.

GROSS: And, Adam Sandler, it's - you're so manic when you're doing it.

SANDLER: Yeah.

B SAFDIE: (Laughter).

GROSS: And I'm wondering if you did any of that as a kid, like, if you'd watch a game and get so caught up in it, like, you'd be the sportscaster.

SANDLER: Oh, man, that's good. That's good. I mean, I am, in real life, since I'm a kid, I've been very vocal watching games. And I'm a true insane person in my house with sports. And the wife and family are like, oh, no. Oh, no. The Yankees have a big game today. And, like, they think about leaving the house.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: Just I have big mood swings and really scream at the screen sometimes. And, yes, it was fun to be Howard. But also, I did connect with Howard a lot. It's so funny. And, Terry, when you bet on a game, which I do bet sometimes. And I - you watch so close when you have money on a game and it means something to you. It's not only the money. It's, you made this decision in your head. You told everyone on the planet this is going to happen.

J SAFDIE: Totally.

SANDLER: So you're watching the game with such - it's just a different energy. And honest to God, when you make a bet on something and the game starts at 7:05, it - you start - your body is shaking at 2 in the afternoon going, it's coming, it's coming.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: And so you're - when you get to that actual game, there is so much excitement. You can't contain it. You're screaming at each thing. The funniest thing these guys said is at the beginning of the movie when I make my first bet and you see my first bet. I'm carrying on like a crazy man. And you see the score is 2 to nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: It's like, nothing has happened yet. I'm still like, oh, my God. We're in trouble now.

(LAUGHTER)

J SAFDIE: It's manifest destiny, kind of.

GROSS: Do you make, like, big bets on the games?

SANDLER: Well, you know, luckily, we have money in the bank, so I don't put the family in jeopardy.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I heard, I heard (laughter).

SANDLER: No one's nervous except me, for some reason.

GROSS: You, yeah (laughter).

SANDLER: Yeah.

GROSS: So the character of Howard is Jewish. And a lot of the people in who - in the Diamond District in New York are Jewish. And there's a scene at Howard's family Seder. And his extended family is there. And I think it's perfect that the part of the Seder that you show is the recitation of the plagues - the lice, the pestilence, the hail, blood, frogs, boils, slaying all the firstborn. This is God's punishment of the Egyptians who were enslaving the Jews and refusing to acknowledge God. So...

SANDLER: That's always the biggest hit at the table, isn't it?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yes. And - but I figured...

B SAFDIE: Yeah. Well, dying is a big hit.

SANDLER: Oh, yeah, dying.

GROSS: Since everything is going wrong for the character, the plague seems to be, like, the perfect part of the Seder, to...

J SAFDIE: Exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: ...To emphasize. But I'd like you to all share with us what Seders were like in your family when you were growing up.

J SAFDIE: I remember one - in one Seder, post-recline, we had this relative named Shaul (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

B SAFDIE: Oh, yeah.

J SAFDIE: You know, these names. And he would entertain everybody with these stories. And they were - there's no way they were realistic. One of them was about him wrestling a whale (laughter).

B SAFDIE: He was swimming in the ocean. And this eye showed up next to him. And he beat up the whale. I was like, what?

SANDLER: Ah, this did happen. Don't take it away from Shaul.

J SAFDIE: But the recline after the meal is also a very important part of the holiday.

GROSS: This is when everybody passes out from having eaten too much.

(LAUGHTER)

J SAFDIE: Yeah.

SANDLER: Good one, Terry.

J SAFDIE: But - and that's when you kind of - you start to see people section off, the people who you're close with. And you really are taking in the night.

B SAFDIE: And there is that moment after the kind of - it was - yeah, there was - one side was more Reformed than the other, so you'd have different levels of, like, how deep it goes and how long that Seder is.

SANDLER: Yeah. Yeah. yeah.

J SAFDIE: But that moment after the Seder, where you spent all this time, and it's just - you can just be with your family.

SANDLER: That was the best.

J SAFDIE: Yeah. Yeah.

SANDLER: Yes. Yes. I'll tell you, my father, Terry, wasn't afraid to skip a page or two.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: It was like, I would see my father eyeing some food, and I'd be like, oh, good, he's about to skip three pages. He's hungry.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: We're listening to an interview with Adam Sandler and Josh and Benny Safdie about their movie "Uncut Gems" - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET SONG, "ROLL (BURBANK FUNK)")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. This weekend, Adam Sandler will receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. Let's get back to Terry's 2019 interview with Sandler, who starred in the film "Uncut Gems," written and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie. Sandler played Howard Ratner, a Diamond District jeweler and inveterate gambler.

GROSS: So, Adam Sandler, you've done a lot of comedy about being Jewish. What did being Jewish mean in your family when you were growing up?

SANDLER: It was definitely a big part of us. And, you know, we went to temple, you know, not every Friday. It happened once or twice a month. My mother was very heavily involved in the temple and helping out and doing charities and B'nai B'rith and all these organizations. My mother was very - when she was a kid, was kosher and from an orthodox family. And then when she married my dad, they - I think it was Conservative for a bit, and then they became Reformed. We - I grew up Reformed.

And it was just - we weren't a very religious family. We were just very - my parents were proud to be Jewish and made sure we were proud and just, you know, celebrate fun holidays and know our history and, also, just defend our history when people were saying things that weren't - I remember when - that was kind of big in our house, that something negative's being said or an anti-Semitic remark or that - don't let it go unheard. Make sure that you acknowledge it and correct it or, you know, stand up for the - your family.

GROSS: When you were young, you moved to New Hampshire...

SANDLER: Yes.

GROSS: ...And went to a school where there were very few Jews. I think there were, like, two Jews in your class or something.

SANDLER: Right. Sure.

GROSS: So did that make you more conscious of being Jewish? And were you seen...

SANDLER: Probably.

GROSS: ...As being different as a result of it?

SANDLER: I'm sure when I lived in Brooklyn and, you know, we were next to the Epsteins, it was a lot easier...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: ...Than - it was always me and one other Jewish kid in class, and when we had to say, like, we're not coming to school for Yom Kippur, that was like - we'd look at each other like, here it goes. Let's see how this goes over.

(LAUGHTER)

J SAFDIE: But if it wasn't for that, we wouldn't have had "The Hanukkah Song."

SANDLER: I guess.

(CROSSTALK)

GROSS: "The Hanukkah Song" - I love "The Hanukkah Song." And we're going to play it now, if that's OK with you, because...

SANDLER: Oh, my goodness.

J SAFDIE: Amazing.

GROSS: ...This is so wonderful. I love this song. We'll play the first version of it that you did...

SANDLER: Got you.

GROSS: ...On "Saturday Night Live." And here's how it came out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

SANDLER: (Singing) Put on your yarmulke. Here comes Hanukkah - so much funukkah (ph) to celebrate Hanukkah. Hanukkah is the festival of lights. Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights. But when you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree, here's a list of people who are Jewish just like you and me.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: David Lee Roth lights the menorah. So do Kirk Douglas, James Caan and the late Dinah Shore. Guess who eats together at the Carnegie Deli? Bowzer from Sha Na Na and Arthur Fonzarelli.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: (Singing) Paul Newman's half-Jewish, and Goldie Hawn's half, too. Put them together - what a fine-looking Jew.

(LAUGHTER)

B SAFDIE: Yeah, man.

J SAFDIE: Wow.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SANDLER: That was some good Jewish people right there. That was exciting. I knew Arthur Fonzarelli would get an applause break, man.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Adam Sandler, how did you start doing music in your comedy? Did you want to be in a band when you were growing up?

SANDLER: Yes. Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Were you ever in a band?

SANDLER: Yes, I was in a bunch of bands, Terry. I was in a band in sixth grade. Me and Lex Lianos - he was the drummer. I was the guitar player. We were in a band called Still Young...

J SAFDIE: I love that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SANDLER: ...In sixth grade.

J SAFDIE: That's unbelievable.

SANDLER: And we played at the school talent show. We played "House Of The Rising Sun." We brought the house down, man. We did all right, me and old Lexi. And then I got to NYU. So the band broke up in New Hampshire because everyone went to different colleges. And I thought maybe I'd start a band at NYU. And then I saw these guys playing. And everybody was literally 20 times better than me. I was like, what the hell is going on at this school? Everybody was Eddie Van Halen.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: And so I said, yeah, yeah - and I did stand-up in high school. I did it one time at the end of high school. My brother talked me into it. And I said, let me get back into that stand-up thing, man. I can't compete with these suckers.

B SAFDIE: The thing is, when you do stand-up - oh, my God. That's so hard, you know? It's like - I imagine them looking at you being like, oh, my God. How the hell do you do that, you know?

SANDLER: I was dumb enough to not even know it was hard. I was just like, I can't handle the guitar.

B SAFDIE: But the guitar - but the music - I mean, the Farley track from the last special is...

SANDLER: Yes. Yes.

B SAFDIE: ...Unbelievable. That solo - I feel Farley in the room, you know.

SANDLER: That's cool.

B SAFDIE: It's very cool.

SANDLER: That's cool. Thank you.

GROSS: No, that is so moving. That song that you did, like, part of it's really funny. This was when you hosted "Saturday Night Live"...

SANDLER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In 2019. And it was your first time back since you were...

SANDLER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Fired...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...And which you also sang about.

SANDLER: Yeah. Right.

GROSS: But, no, this song is so moving and funny. In fact, can we hear a little bit of it? Is that all right? We have it cued up ready to play.

SANDLER: Sure. Thank you.

GROSS: Yeah, OK. So this is the tribute to the late Chris Farley, who died of a drug overdose. I guess it was...

SANDLER: Man, that's...

GROSS: Is that 2002 or something?

SANDLER: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think you're right.

GROSS: It was couple of years after he left the show, which is the same year...

SANDLER: Maybe - yeah.

GROSS: ...You left the show. Anyway, so here's Adam Sandler hosting "Saturday Night Live," singing about Chris Farley in a very Springsteen-ish...

SANDLER: Yes. Yes, for sure.

GROSS: ...Kind of mode.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDLER: (Playing guitar, singing) First time I saw him, he was sweeter than honey. Plaid jacket and belt too tight, and he wasn't even being funny. Then, he cartwheeled around the room and slow-danced with the cleaning lady. He was a one-man party. You know I'm talking about - I'm talking about my friend Chris Farley.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDLER: (Singing) On Saturday night, my man would always deliver whether he was the bumblebee girl or living (imitating Matt Foley) in a van down by the river.

Oh, that sounded cool, man. Thank you.

GROSS: It was great. How did you start combining music and comedy? - because you wanted to be a musician and realized, though, there were people much better than you. Then, you got into comedy and probably realized, like, oh, my God, there are brilliant comics.

SANDLER: Yeah.

GROSS: But you carved out, like, this really unique place for yourself, both in the kind of comedy you ended up doing, but, you know, in combining music and comedy together.

SANDLER: Right. Yeah. I think it was - I don't know the exact thing. My roommate Tim Herlihy, who I write most of my comedies with, I think he might have brought it up. And, you know, I wrote a song parody or something. And I knew once I had a guitar in my hand and I was on stage - I used to get so scared on stage and so nervous when I didn't have a guitar. And I'd forget my lines. I'd forget my jokes, that kind of thing. And then, when I started playing guitar on stage and singing funny tunes, I had more confidence than usual. At least I could - I knew I could play guitar a little bit, and I knew the lines already from the song. I was like, OK, I memorized that, so let me just try that.

When you're just doing stand-up and you got to go from joke to joke to joke and you forget the order or you forget what the heck the punchline is or what the subject was, oh, man, you're - that is a rough one. Especially, I was so young, and I'd stare at people going, we paid for this idiot and he's forgetting his lines? So the guitar helped relax me.

GROSS: What was your self-image when you were young?

SANDLER: Man, I was cocky as - I can't believe how cocky. When I look at pictures of me, I'm like, that idiot was cocky? I really thought I was so good at so many things. Even in college, I was cocky. I don't know what the hell my problem was. And then, the smarter I got, the less cocky I got. I was like, oof.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: The more people I met - that's what happened. The more people I met, I was like, this guy knows everything. I know nothing. Why am I so confident?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: All right. Adam Sandler, Josh and Benny Safdie, thank you so much for coming to our show.

SANDLER: We had a great time. Thank you.

J SAFDIE: Thank you.

B SAFDIE: Thank you. Thank you for having us, Terry.

DAVIES: Terry's interview with Adam Sandler and the Safdie brothers was recorded in 2019. This weekend, Adam Sandler will receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. The event will be broadcast nationally on March 26. Coming up, television critic David Bianculli reviews "Lucky Hank," the new miniseries starring Bob Odenkirk based on Richard Russo's novel "Straight Man." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET'S "UNSQUARE DANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.