When Sandler, 56, walked onstage at the end of the nearly three-hour event, he offered a few jokes — “As I look at this goofy award I’m holding, I can’t help but think that one day it might be the weapon used to bludgeon me in my sleep by a disgruntled intruder or possibly Mr. Rob Schneider” — but mostly focused on how much his friends and family made him the global star we know today.
His older brother urged him to get into acting. His father introduced him to Johnny Mathis and other cool music. His mother insisted he could be the best shortstop around. His high school friends urged him to go into comedy, even though they were funnier. His college roommate Tim Herlihy became his writing partner. His fellow cast members at “Saturday Night Live” became his best friends. His wife convinced him he’s the best. His daughters give him T-shirts on his birthday every year that say “world’s best farter.”
The key, the thing at the heart of it all, Sandler said, is family, which “gave me some insane weird confidence about myself that I guess I still carry today.”
“I wish I gave you guys joke, joke, joke, but I wrote a nice speech instead,” he said, before adding in earnest, “Everyone in this room has made my life fun.”
The award, named for author Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), is given to comedians who make a lasting impact on American society. With it, Sandler joins the ranks of Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner and Bob Newhart and, more recently, Tina Fey, Will Farrell and Dave Chappelle.
Last year’s prize went to comedian and satirist Jon Stewart, who used his speech to assure the audience that “comedy survives every moment,” adding that “comedy doesn’t change the world, but it’s a bellwether. We’re the banana peel in the coal mine. When society is under threat, comedians are the ones who get sent away first.”
Sunday’s tribute began with Idina Menzel (of Broadway and “Frozen” fame) and a small choir all dressed as Opera Man, one of Sandler’s famous characters from his SNL days, singing a, well, operatic ditty slightly roasting Sandler. Menzel sang about Twain’s keen eye for satire while “Sandman fart in David Hasselhoff face-oh.”
After the opening musical number, Conan O’Brien took the stage, where he shared his memory of first meeting Sandler — whom O’Brien said had his pants around his ankles, his eyes crossed and a pencil protruding from the place where the sun don’t shine — at SNL in 1991.
“‘There he is,’ I exclaimed, ‘Our Twain!’” O’Brien shouted.
“You’re making a terrible, terrible mistake,” O’Brien added. “This entire event is a sad, corrupt display,” suggesting that Sandler thought Mark Twain was Shania Twain’s cousin.
Jokes about how, shall we say, unexpected it was to have the Twain Prize bestowed on Sandler were a constant throughout the evening. “This is like giving the Nobel Prize in medicine to Dr Pepper,” joked David Spade.
Sandler’s work, ribbed Ben Stiller, “all seems so effortless. I don’t want to say lazy.”
The bigger through-line of the evening, though, was a nearly overwhelming display of gratitude.
“He puts a lot of people to work,” said actor Luis Guzmán. Especially, Spade said, his friends and family, comparing a call sheet on a Sandler movie to an Ancestory.com page.
“No one has taken better care of me in this business than you,” said actor Steve Buscemi, who complained that he never gets cast in the movies Sandler shoots in Hawaii.
Aniston and Drew Barrymore, both of whom have played alongside Sandler in rom-coms and whose “sole purpose is to make Adam look good in movies,” as Tim Meadows joked, turned their gratitude into a bit where they began arguing about who was Sandler’s favorite.
Sandler, Aniston said, is “someone who leads with kindness and takes care of his friends.”
One of the night’s highlights came not from a fellow celebrity, but from Sandler’s mother, Judy, who was visibly anxious as she told stories from his childhood, such as finding a not-quite-potty-trained 2½-year-old Adam peeing on a newspaper alongside the family dog.
Judy Sandler fell silent for a moment before quietly saying, “I’m so nervous, I’m shaking.” And she was. The audience collectively leaped to its feet, cheering her on. Soon after, she joked that her son dresses like a “slob.”
Sandler’s wife, Jackie, gave a heartfelt account of their courtship, which she called “love at first sight,” and traced their life together. “I would like to celebrate the real Adam,” she said. “The Pepto Bismol-chugging … air conditioning-blasting … backyard-peeing … disrupter.”
“And, yes, he’s just as funny in real life as he is in the movies,” she said, adding, though, that he screams more off-screen. “And he’s just as good in bed as you’ve all imagined for so long. Adam, whether you’re awake or not, it’s always fantastic.”
This being Washington, former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and her husband, Paul, who made his first public appearance at the Kennedy Center Honors in December, played an outsize role throughout the evening.
On the red carpet, Sandler and Stiller walked into the media pit to take a selfie with the couple. “Paul Pelosi, the only guy who knows how I felt,” joked Chris Rock. Carvey did a Paul Pelosi imitation onstage — among many others — which he had practiced on the red carpet. And when Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein announced that the Pelosis were in the house, the audience roared for Paul.
The Brooklyn-born Sandler got his start — following a few small TV roles, including a stint on “The Cosby Show” — as a writer on SNL in 1990, where he eventually became a cast member known for such quirky characters as Opera Man and Cajun Boy, along with his novelty songs, including “The Chanukah Song,” which landed on the Billboard Top 100.
He left the show in 1995 and immediately launched a prolific film career, beginning with broad comedies such as “Billy Madison” (1995), “Happy Gilmore” (1996) and “The Wedding Singer” (1998). Though Sandler’s movies have often doubled as punching bags for film critics, he has become one of Hollywood’s most successful actors, filmmakers and, with Happy Madison Productions, which he founded in 1999, producers. Collectively, his movies have grossed more than $3 billion worldwide.
They have also caught the attention of several auteur directors, leading to Sandler’s few (usually dramatic) films that have earned critical praise, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002), Apatow’s “Funny People” (2009), Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” (2017), and Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems” (2019).
Sandler has long been aware of his reputation, riffing about it on his 2018 stand-up special, “100% Fresh,” the title referring to the usually low scores his projects get on Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator. And, after winning best male lead in 2020 at the Film Independent Spirit Awards for his role in the Safdie brothers’ movie as the gambling-addicted jeweler Howard Ratner, he used his speech to joke about not receiving an Oscar nod — and quipped that he’d “like to also give a shout out to my fellow nominees, who will now and forever be known as the guys who lost to f—ing Adam Sandler.”
Sunday night’s ceremony offered some insight to why the Sandman has been so beloved for so long. Perhaps O’Brien said it best: “Adam’s comedy doesn’t preach or instruct. Like Twain, he’s down in the muck with us.”