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Adam Sandler’s Mark Twain Prize ceremony highlights: Opera Man, prank calls, and love

Sabadoo! While many of the presenters who honored Adam Sandler with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the recent John F. Kennedy Center ceremony mimicked the comedian and actor’s penchant for gibberish and mumbling, one thing was clear: outside the laughs, Sandler is recognized for his decency, loyalty, and strong work ethic.

The program, which took place March 19 in Washington, D.C. and airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET on CNN, featured tributes from many of Sandler’s famous friends and collaborators, including Ben Stiller, Conan O’Brien, David Spade, and many more. Read on for highlights from the ceremony.

US actress and singer Idina Menzel performs onstage during the 24th Annual Mark Twain Prize For American Humor at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, on March 19, 2023. – This year’s award is honoring US actor and comedian Adam Sandler. (Photo by Oliver Contreras / AFP) (Photo by OLIVER CONTRERAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Idina Menzel performs as Opera Man to honor Adam Sandler

| Credit: OLIVER CONTRERAS/AFP/Getty

Idina Menzel, who appeared with Sandler in the modern classic Uncut Gems and will reteam with him in the upcoming You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, opened the show as Opera Man, one of Sandler’s signature Saturday Night Live characters. Her jokes included elbowing PBS for passing on airing the program, as well as Kanye West turning the channel to watch Fox News, given the focus on a prominent Jewish entertainer.

O’Brien jokingly chided the Kennedy Center on their mistake in awarding Sandler, calling it the biggest screw-up since Vin Diesel received a MacArthur Grant. He recalled that he first met Sandler sitting in his SNL office back in 1991 when Sandler appeared in the doorway with a pencil sticking out of his butt. Ending on an earnest note, O’Brien likened Sandler to Mark Twain in that both men’s sense of humor had the common touch. Sandler, like Twain, never lectures, O’Brien noted, he is in the muck with his fans.

Stiller recalled meeting Sandler during their NYC days in the late ’80s. Stiller was a hard-working burgeoning filmmaker, obsessively assembling his comedy shorts and making sure every frame was in place. Whereas Sandler was mugging as “Studboy” on MTV. Stiller begrudgingly suggested that the audience check YouTube to see which clips have more views. He, somewhat in jest, claimed Sandler is effortless in his comedy, “not lazy!” His toast ended with a funny pitch for Grown Ups 3 — and an attempt at doing a Cajun Man impression!

US actor Adam Sandler (R) and his wife Jackie Sandler pose with actor Ben Stiller (L) as they arrive for the 24th Annual Mark Twain Prize For American Humor at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, on March 19, 2023. – This year’s award is honoring US actor and comedian Adam Sandler. (Photo by Oliver Contreras / AFP) (Photo by OLIVER CONTRERAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Ben Stiller with Jackie and Adam Sandler

| Credit: OLIVER CONTRERAS/AFP/Getty

Sandlers’ former roommate Judd Apatow took a page from the opening of Funny People and showed a home video clip of Sandler prank phone calling a local deli, hassling them over their pickle sandwich selection. The entire speech provided a great picture of the young, pre-fame Sandler, from impersonating Mikhail Baryshnikov on stage, to trying to impress Budd Friedman and Taylor Negron at the Improv, to hanging out with the likes of Jim Carrey before superstardom called. Apatow still has Sandler’s old school and drivers licenses from their apartment, which Sandler abandoned once SNL summoned him.

Meanwhile, Sandler’s own mother Judy painted a wholesome picture of what it was like raising the comedian as he grew up in New Hampshire. She honored her son for his “kind and thoughtful,” not mean, sense of humor. She finished with a plea to always keep laughing. It’s “good for your health and all of mankind,” she stated.

Steve Buscemi recreated his hilarious drunken scene from The Wedding Singer, roasting Sandler. After a joke linking the premise for Airheads to the Jan. 6 insurrection, Buscemi concluded with a touching story about hanging out with Sandler on the set of Hubie Halloween.

Jennifer Aniston and Drew Barrymore, Sandler’s two onscreen leading ladies, vied for his real-life affection in a hilariously passive aggressive and barbed bit. This (almost certainly put-on) competition is aided by the fact both Aniston and Barrymore have such excellent comedic timing.

Dana Carvey absolutely killed in his set. Instead of relying on scripted remarks, it was seemingly Carvey riffing in pure stand-up mode. Topics included meeting former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at an event in Napa, as well as his Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump impressions. He ended his set with a charming song referencing Pepper Boy, among other things.

Speaking of a fantastic stand-up set, Chris Rock chastised the pending arrest of Donald Trump, comparing it to Tupac selling more records, saying it will only make him more popular. And in another comparison, Rock likened his encounter with Will Smith at the 2022 Academy Awards to last year’s attack on Pelosi’s husband, who was in attendance: “Paul Pelosi, the only guy who knew how I felt.” Shifting gears, Rock discussed Sandler’s early embrace of him, one of the few Black comics in their social scene. He closed out by calling the Oscars a group of “f—ing a–holes” for never nominating Sandler.

US comedians Chris Rock (L), Dana Carvey (C) and Pete Davidson (R) attend the 24th Annual Mark Twain Prize For American Humor at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, on March 19, 2023. – This year’s award is honoring US actor and comedian Adam Sandler. (Photo by Oliver Contreras / AFP) (Photo by OLIVER CONTRERAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Chris Rock, Dana Carvey, and Pete Davidson at the ceremony for Adam Sandler’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

| Credit: OLIVER CONTRERAS/AFP/Getty

Pete Davidson discussed auditioning for Big Daddy back in the late ’90s, and described Sandler as an encouraging presence in his life as he navigates fame. He also said his tenure on SNL often gets compared to Sandler’s, if only as a reminder the show is not as good as it was then! His speech also included a great deep cut reference to Sandler pal Peter Dante.

Sandler’s wife Jackie also paid tribute to her husband, describing their first date and romance. And how he’s as great in bed as everyone can imagine. Wink wink. “Family comes first, that’s definitely our way,” she concluded.

Rob Schneider closed out the festivities by cracking that he appeared in so many Sandler movies because he has kidnapped a relative of Sandler’s in Mexico. He also told a fun story about the real-life origins of his character in 50 First Dates. And, in what is perhaps one of the most poignant and endearing moments of his career, Schneider sang a lovely updated version of “Grow Old With You” from The Wedding Singer, dedicated to Sandler.

The Sandman himself held court after preemptively apologizing for the length of his speech. After initially speaking in his well-established sing-song speech voice, he settled into a thoughtful look back on his career and all the people who instilled “insane, weird confidence” in him throughout his life, beginning with his family. Other touchpoints included working Greenwich Village comedy clubs while at NYU, getting mentored by Colin Quinn, and the influence of his deceased father, Stan, who used to encourage and support Sandler on the phone immediately following SNL sketches. “Terrific,” his father would say.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Kevin Wolf/AP/Shutterstock (13834504c) Mark Twain Prize recipient Adam Sandler is introduced at the start of the 24th Annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington Mark Twain Prize Sandler, Washington, United States – 19 Mar 2023

Mark Twain Prize recipient Adam Sandler

| Credit: Kevin Wolf/AP/Shutterstock

Sandler recalled that when he got his shot to make Billy Madison, a script he fine-tuned then sold while making Airheads, he committed himself to making the sorts of comedies that he loved growing up: Caddyshack, Airplane!, and Animal House. As he himself put it, it was less “joke, joke, joke” and more “nice speech” about working hard while staying humble. In one funny impromptu moment, Sandler gently laughed and called out one of his daughters for clearly zoning out in the audience during his speech just as he was addressing his love for her.

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor honoring Adam Sandler airs Sunday, March 26 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CNN.

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