Adam Sandler hosted Saturday Night Live this week for what was somehow the first time in his career, in an episode filled with nods to his time on the show in the early 1990s, his film career in the decades since, and the almost unbelievable fact that he’s never hosted the show before now. Although Sandler is a Saturday Night Live legend today, when he left the show in the summer of 1995—following a critically reviled season that spawned headlines like “After Two Decades, How Much Longer?” and “Comedy Isn’t Funny,” many of which specifically called him out as an emblem of the show’s decline—there wasn’t much sense that he was on his way to a great career. (The Associated Press story announcing his departure from Saturday Night Live summed up his non-SNL work in two sentences, one of which was, “He appeared last year in the flop Billy Madison.”) Box office success came later, critical acclaim later still, and Sandler’s return to host Saturday Night Live? That only happened this week. Sandler opened the show with a monologue that helped explain why he has only returned for a few cameos, with an assist from Chris Rock, who has a Saturday Night Live story of his own:
It’s not the first time Sandler has addressed his complicated feelings about the way he and Chris Farley left the show, but it’s the first time he did it in song. Here’s what he told the Daily Beast in 2014:
Yes, we were [fired]. We kind of quit at the same time as being fired. It was the end of the run for us. The fact that me and him got fired? Who knows. We were on it for a few years, had our run, and everything happens for a reason. We kind of understood because we did our thing. It hurt a lot at the time because we were young and didn’t know where we were going, but it all worked out.
In the decades since leaving SNL, Sandler has become part of the comedy landscape, so much so that Saturday Night Live was able to build an entire sketch around the current cast members imitating Adam Sandler characters. The appeal of getting to play one of Sandler’s dunces was so great that it attracted former cast members Jimmy Fallon and Kristen Wiig, neither of whose time on the show overlapped with Sandler’s:
It’s a nice structure for a sketch that basically exists to let the cast geek out about getting to work with Adam Sandler. Sandler then revisited one of his own classic bits, returning to the Weekend Update desk as Opera Man, last seen in the days when Colin Ferguson was a household name.
But Sandler saved his deepest dive into early 1990s nostalgia for his final appearance, performing a country song about Chris Farley from his Netflix special 100% Fresh.
If you told a random television critic in the spring of 1995 that 24 years later, Adam Sandler would return to Saturday Night Live to perform a sincere country song about mourning Chris Farley, that critic would probably be furious that you mastered time travel, then used it to pass on news about SNL instead of bringing back a sports almanac or at least killing baby Hitler. But he or she would also be surprised that the passage of time had turned Sandler and Farley from “the guys ruining Saturday Night Live” into beloved objects of nostalgia from the show’s glory days. Maybe there’s hope for Alec Baldwin yet.