Adam Sandler left Saturday Night Live in 1995 after a five-season run, having served as a core part of the show’s early ’90s cast, alongside big names such as David Spade, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, and Mike Myers. All of them went on to great success in movies and television, but their tenure at the show, which leaned on recurring characters and a loud, obnoxious strain of humor, was critically rocky. The show was eventually dubbed “Saturday Night Dead” in a notorious New York magazine article, and Sandler (along with most of the cast) was fired in a dramatic overhaul that helped save SNL from cancellation.
That history might explain why it took 24 years for Sandler to finally return to SNL to host the show, an honor that’s pretty typical for any departed cast member who goes on to stardom. Sandler has made two brief, uncredited appearances since 1995, and showed up for the big 40th-anniversary special, but in the time between his departure and last night’s hosting spot, he was essentially absent. He acknowledged that awkwardness early on in his monologue: He sang a song about how the executive producer Lorne Michaels fired him, inviting Rock onstage to share the same story and quipping, “Then I made over $4 billion at the box office, so I guess you could say I won,” in the strangely gruff, deadpan, yet somehow infantile voice that made him a comedy star.
Like other recent returning alums—including Seth Meyers and John Mulaney—Sandler was a refreshing jolt for a show that has otherwise felt a little lifeless. Saturday Night Live has not had the strongest season; these past few years have not been nearly as catastrophic as the 1993–95 run that saw NBC actually contemplate ending the show, but they’ve carried the familiar whiff of creative stagnation that often comes at the end of any era for the show, good or bad. Kate McKinnon, the one indisputable star currently aboard, is nearing the end of her contract; Kenan Thompson, arguably the greatest veteran in SNL history, could finally be ready to move on; and the head writers Colin Jost and Michael Che have been hosting “Weekend Update” together for five years now, to mostly poor critical notices. The show’s political material, which should be thriving in such a news-heavy era, is mostly forgettable and heavily reliant on surprise guest stars.
Sandler’s material this week was mostly warmhearted and pleasant, very reliant on nostalgia, and unsurprisingly geared toward longtime fans. It made for a diverting episode, one heavy on the chuckles and light on big laughs, and also largely lacking in hot-button material. Opera Man, Sandler’s strongest recurring character from his original run on the show, returned to sing through the news on “Weekend Update,” getting in stronger jabs at Joe Biden and the presidential election than Jost or Che could muster. A “Sandler family reunion” sketch gave most of the ensemble their chance to do an impression of their favorite Sandler character (or verbal tic).
Nicest of all was the final sketch of the night, a sung tribute to Sandler’s good friend Chris Farley, who died in 1997, two years after leaving SNL. The comedian debuted the song in his recent Netflix comedy special, Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh, which earned him some of his best reviews in years because of the unusual amount of introspection he mixed in with his usual blend of silly voices and juvenile musings. As he noted in his monologue last night, Sandler was just 23 when he started on SNL. At 52 now, with dozens of mediocre, big-budget comedies under his belt, he’s finally developing an elegiac side, and it’s provided some helpful depth to his long-standing persona, highlighting the genuine sweetness underpinning even his most immature material.
Saturday Night Live is not quite as old as Sandler himself, but it’s close—it’s about to wrap up its 44th season, and Lorne Michaels is probably getting ready to search for a new generation of cast members. So the show can be forgiven for taking on a similarly retrospective mood when an old favorite drops by. Still, such visits give it the vibe of a dusty old museum, the feel of a series defined by its history rather than its ability to capture the cultural mood of the moment. Decades of reinvention suggest that SNL will once again become the thriving topical powerhouse it’s been so many times before, but as Sandler recalled, that transformation often comes hand in hand with a big shake-up. Perhaps the next one is on the horizon.