‘Stop looking at me, swan!’ Why Adam Sandler deserves the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Adam Sandler's Mark Twain Prize (Part 1)

Adam Sandler will receive the 24th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor this Sunday at the Kennedy Center, bringing some “high-quality H2O” to the Potomac River as Bobby Boucher sacks the nation’s capital.

Allow me to speak for a wide swath of Generation X and Millennials when I say this — it’s about damn time.

Sandler deserves it alone for his run on “Saturday Night Live” (1990-1995) with characters from Opera Man to Cajun Man, as well as Chris Farley collabs on The Herlihy Boy and Hank & Beverly Gelfand. His most lasting legacy is strumming a guitar to  “Lunch Lady Land” (“Slop, Sloppy Joe”) and the instant holiday standard “The Hanukkah Song” (“Paul Newman’s half Jewish, Goldie Hawn’s half too, put them together, what a fine lookin’ Jew!”).

After bit parts in “Coneheads” (1993) and “Airheads” (1994), Sandler made his big-screen breakthrough in “Billy Madison” (1995), playing a grown man going back to elementary school. The premise created arguably the most quoted comedy of my generation: “Back to school, back to school, to prove to Dad that I’m not a fool,” “If peeing your pants is cool, consider me Miles Davis,” “O’Doyle rules” and most ridiculous “Stop looking at me, swan!”

My favorite remains “Happy Gilmore” (1996), the best golf comedy since “Caddyshack” (1980) with Christopher McDonald’s Shooter McGavin, Julie Bowen’s love interest, Carl Weathers’ wooden-handed mentor Chubbs Peterson (“It’s all in the hips”), Ben Stiller’s nursing home warden (“look at the name tag, you’re in my world now, grandma”), Kevin Nealon’s golfer (“feel the flow, do the bull dance”) and an iconic fight scene with Bob Barker.

He returned to sports comedies for the critically-panned but publicly-adored football flick “The Waterboy” (1998), playing the dorky waterboy-turned-menacing linebacker Bobby Boucher, squealing with each tackle. The film revived Henry Winkler’s career long before his Emmy-winning role in HBO’s “Barry,” while giving Kathy Bates motherly zingers like “foosball is the devil” and Rob Schneider his career line from the bleachers, “You can do it!”

Many of Sandler’s pals kept returning for zany sidekick roles, but it wasn’t all lowbrow comedy. Sandler showed a surprising knack for romance across Drew Barrymore in both “The Wedding Singer” (1998) and “50 First Dates” (2004), two of the better romantic comedies of the past 25 years. Who can forget him singing “Grow Old With You” on the airplane or making a video to remind his amnesic girlfriend about their daily rediscovery of love?

By the turn of the millennium, some critics argued that Sandler had lost his fastball, but the public was too busy laughing along with his blockbuster comedy “Big Daddy” (1999), the remake of Frank Capra’s “Mr. Deeds” (2002) and the remake of “The Longest Yard” (2005), not to mention “Funny People” (2008) and “Grown Ups” (2010).

While the funnyman never earned an Oscar like Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting” (1997), Sandler has earned plenty of acclaim for his serious side, earning a Golden Globe nomination for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love” (2002), winning an Independent Spirit Award for the Safdie Brothers’ “Uncut Gems” (2019) and earning a SAG Award nomination for Jeremiah Zagar’s inspiring basketball scouting flick “Hustle” (2022).

His career came full circle with a 2019 “SNL” return for a tearjerking tribute to his late pal Farley. To this day, the logo of his company “Happy Madison Productions” flashes on screens everywhere. It’s a body of work that snobs dismissed as sophomoric in real time, but which has had a cumulative cultural effect that is impossible to ignore.

Now, it’s time for the nation’s capital to roll out the red carpet to honor an underrated treasure. In our best Cajun Man accent, let’s call it a D.C. “RECEPTION,” which should end by someone taking the Kennedy Center stage to say, “Everyone in this room is now dumber. I award you no points — and may God have mercy on your soul.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Adam Sandler's Mark Twain Prize (Part 2)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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