Graham: Sandler funny again in '100% Fresh'

The comic star's new Netflix special is a return of the Sandler of yore

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

It's been a long time since Adam Sandler has been this funny. 

Adam Sandler in "100% Fresh."

The Sandman's new Netflix special, "100% Fresh," is full of laugh out loud moments, the kind we were unsure if he could still deliver. With Sandler, we've always taken the good with the bad, and there's been a lot more of the bad over the course of his career. Think about it: When's the last time you laughed out loud at Adam Sandler? 

Sandler has always occupied his own comic island. Since he broke out on "Saturday Night Live" — he was part of the early '90s bro pack that also included David Spade, Chris Rock, Tim Meadows, Rob Schneider and Chris Farley — Sandler created his own kind of comedic anarchy. On "SNL" he didn't do impressions or political humor. But he'd divebomb into "Weekend Update," sing a goofy song about his red hooded sweatshirt, and he'd be the only thing you'd want to talk about after the show. 

The New Yorker's low-brow idiot shtick owes a lot to Jerry Lewis and was honed during appearances in the early days of MTV. He transitioned into albums (1993's "They're All Gonna Laugh At You" is a triumph of sophomoric humor and perhaps the most pure distillation of Sandler's brand of comedy) and movies, and his wild comic spirit is presented in uncut form in 1995's "Billy Madison."

The back-to-school comedy is full of ridiculous asides (there's a big musical performance in the middle of the movie featuring a clown who nearly died in an earlier scene and a nonsensical chorus about chewing gum) that would seemingly be edited out of any other movie. But it's those moments that make the movie, and it's the reason it's still quoted ("stop looking at me, swan!") by fans today.

"Happy Gilmore," released a year later, was more popular but less weird, and Sandler slowly started presenting a more sanitized version of himself and his comedy on screen. 

His popularity nonetheless skyrocketed and he became one of the biggest box office stars in the land, racking up $100 million-grossing successes with "The Waterboy," "Big Daddy," "Mr. Deeds," "Click" and a smattering of other comedies. He stretched himself with dramatic roles, in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch Drunk Love" and Mike Binder's "Reign Over Me," but always seemed uneasy with the spotlight.   

He developed a toxic relationship with critics, and he largely retreated from doing press. And his work became more about throwing vacations for him and his friends (Hawaii in "50 First Dates" and "Just Go With It," South Africa in "Blended") than it was about humor. 

On a professional level, Sandler seemed checked out, and the fact that he'd show up on television talk shows dressed like a teenager hanging around his bedroom all weekend long didn't help matters.

His last on-screen comic role was 2015's lowly regarded "Pixels" (sitting pretty with a 17 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes). He's since been appearing in increasingly forgettable Netflix films that don't push or challenge him or his audience. 

Sandler seemed prepared to slowly ride off into the sunset, coasting on his former glory. But now comes "100% Fresh," serving as a reminder of how funny Sandler can be when he wants to. 

"100% Fresh" is cobbled together from performances from his recent tour, and cuts, joke to joke, from theaters to amphitheaters to arenas. 

Sandler presents a loose structure where he does jokes, songs and songs that are really just jokes in rapid-fire fashion. It's a shambly, casual exercise, and at first, it seems randomly tossed together. But it gets better as it goes along, and near the end, he delivers an unexpectedly poignant moment by paying tribute to his late pal Chris Farley. 

Sandler straps on a guitar and sings a song about Farley, the laughs they shared on "SNL" and the way he wishes they were getting ready to film "Grown Ups 3" together. It's sung with Sandler's signature sing-song sweetness — he has a way with a simple, sincere melody, like "Grow Old With You," from "The Wedding Singer" — and it works because of Sandler's earnestness and his affection for Farley. 

There are other strong bits — a truly weird song delivered in the style of Devo about UFC fighters' ears, an extended riff on an unexpected bonding experience with another father at a theme park, a reoccurring joke about a ruler-carrying ghost in his house — that add up to Sandler's best work in years. 

"100% Fresh" isn't a reinvention of Sandler's comedy, it's just the first good example of it in a long time. But what makes it great is the long relationship we've had with Sandler, the downs we've experienced as fans, and the pleasant surprise of an unexpected return to glory. Welcome back, Sandman.