Classic Comedies for Adam Sandler Fans

We recommend alternatives to everything from ‘Billy Madison’ to ‘Murder Mystery.’
The Thin Man Publicity Photo
By  · Published on June 18th, 2019

For the latest Adam Sandler comedy on Netflix, screenwriter James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) drew from many influences. The movie, which reunites Sandler with Jennifer Aniston and is titled Murder Mystery, has been widely noted as being a humor-fueled hodgepodge of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes detective stories, but Vanderbilt cites an additional inspiration in an interview with Creative Screenwriting: “Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Poirot on the BBC, and The Thin Man were key influencers to shape the story…I also loved the idea of a married couple sipping cocktails and solving crimes.”

The Thin Man, from which Sandler’s character Nick gets his name, is an adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett about a retired detective (William Powell) and his wealthy wife (Myrna Loy), who continue to solve mysteries through six feature films (as well as an unsuccessful TV series) all the while wittily and often drunkenly bantering. If Sandler fans go back and watch at least the first two The Thin Man movies (After the Thin Man is the best one), Vanderbilt will have done a great service to cinema, though this isn’t the first time Sandler’s movies have been potential gateways to comedy classics, the premises of which are reworked by the Saturday Night Live vet as dumbed down for a different demographic. Hopefully, though, there are some of his fans who will consider the following list to be a collection to at least be aware of and familiar with.

Back to School (1986) and Caddyshack (1980)

Caddyshack Photo

One of Sandler’s biggest comedic influences was Rodney Dangerfield. The two eventually became friends, after Dangerfield was cast as Sandler’s grandfather, Lucifer, in Little Nicky (2000). Sandler was even a pallbearer at Dangerfield’s funeral service and called the late stand-up icon a “hero who had lived up to the hype.” Long before all that, Sandler showed Dangerfield respect by showing his inspiration in his two breakout movie vehicles. In the biography Adam Sandler: America’s Comedian, its subject is said to have liked the Dangerfield comedy Back to School when addressing the non-SNL-based origin of his first big movie, Billy Madison (1995). While Back to School is more plausibly about a middle-aged man finally going to college, Sandler’s goes more exaggerated in being about a young man who has to start all of his education over again, beginning with the first grade.

For his next vehicle, Sandler seemed to stick with Dangerfield as a muse. This time, he looked to more of an ensemble comedy classic featuring his hero in a significant role while conceiving of his Happy Gilmore (1996). In Adam Sandler: America’s Comedian, he’s said to have been hugely influenced by Caddyshack and claimed to have seen the movie, which arrived when Sandler was an impressionable 14 years old, more than 300 times. Other books and profiles acknowledge Caddyshack as Sandler’s favorite movie. In Caddyshack, Dangerfield plays an unsophisticated member of the nouveau riche who joins a country club to the dismay of its snooty regulars. Similarly, the title character of Happy Gilmore is an unclassy guy entering the traditionally post sport of golf and like Dangerfield’s Al Czervik, he’s looked at as an outsider who doesn’t belong.

The Kid (1921)

Chaplin The Kid

Many critics, including Roger Ebert, mentioned this first Charlie Chaplin feature in reviews of Sandler’s Big Daddy (1999). Some went so far as to call it a ripoff, while others labeled it a loose remake. There aren’t really that many connections other than the fairly common foundation of there being a man unfit to parent winding up the guardian of a young child. And both movies do involve the protagonist being discovered to not be the biological father, the kid being taken away, and the surrogate father fighting to get the child back. But it’s all superficial similarities. Still, The Kid is a perfect introductory film for Chaplin (one that nearly made our list of the best comedies of all time) and his iconic Tramp character because of the mix of hilarious silent comedy and the deep emotional bond and terrific chemistry between the main characters.

The Freshman (1925)

Harold Lloyd The Freshman

Safety Last, with its clock tower stunt, may be the most famous of Harold Lloyd‘s silent comedies, but The Freshman is arguably his funniest. The similarities between it and Sandler’s The Waterboy (1998) are so apparent that Lloyd’s granddaughter sued Disney over the latter being basically a remake, but the case was dismissed. The Waterboy owes a lot to The Freshman, for sure, along with other early comedies, including the Marx BrothersHorse Feathers (1932) and Harry Langdon‘s Feet of Mud (1924), and other university-set classics such as Buster Keaton‘s College (1927). The Freshman is a perfect sendup of the trend and the promise of higher education at the time, and there’s a lot more to it than the football team stuff. I especially love the sequence when Lloyd is at a dance wearing an unfinished tuxedo.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Mr Deeds Goes To Town

Rather than ripping off another classic comedy, even if unintentionally, Sandler went on to official remakes with Mr. Deeds (2002). Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town would seem to be an ideal source for a Sandler movie since it’s about an unsophisticated rube entering high society and the cultural clash that ensues — here’s more of that Caddyshack parallel, as well. But why recycle this specific Depression-era classic in the 21st century? Everyman actor Gary Cooper plays the titular character in the original, which is so much a movie of its time and such a perfect blending of the political ideals of the New Deal-hating Capra and his regular collaborator, the moderately left-wing screenwriter Robert Riskin. At the time of Mr. Deeds‘ release, director Steven Brill told the BBC the modern fit for the story was simple: “Some of the values in the older movie are the exact same as we have today, and stuff about the corporate corruption that is happening in America now is very relevant.”

The Longest Yard (1974)

Mean Machine

Sandler led another remake with The Longest Yard (2005), taking on a role originally played by Burt Reynolds, who also appears in the newer version in a supporting part. Like Happy Gilmore, The Longest Yard is a sports comedy in which the hero is a professional athlete but an underdog who is out of his element in an unfamiliar arena. This time, he’s a former football star sent to prison, where he leads a team of misfit inmates against a squad made up of the guards. Despite the redo being Sandler’s second football movie, he still isn’t as believable as an NFL quarterback, unlike the well-suited Reynolds, who famously played ball for Florida State. But the rather grounded (albeit more brutally fantastical) original doesn’t lean into ridiculous humor anyway. As with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the first version of The Longest Yard has some political themes for its time that are lost with the newer take.

The Birdcage (1996)

The Birdcage

This remake of the 1978 French and Italian comedy La Cage aux Folles, which itself is based on a popular play of the same name, is another movie that’s very much of its time despite arriving more than 20 years after the source material. One of the last collaborations between the legendary team of Elaine May, who wrote the screenplay and Mike Nichols, who directed the movie, The Birdcage stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple who have to pretend to be a straight pair — with Lane’s drag queen character posing as a woman — when they meet their son’s conservative future in-laws (Gene Hackman and Diane Wiest). It sits historically in a decade focused on ideas about family values while homosexuality was finally becoming normalized.

While there’s good and bad with the hit comedy when it comes to queer cinema and mainstream LGBTQ+ representation, it’s quite respectable for its time, especially for a Hollywood release, and it’s recommended as an alternative to Sandler’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2007), inversely about two straight men pretending to be a gay couple in order to marry as part of a life insurance scheme. The later comedy isn’t necessarily offensive but is, on par with other Sandler vehicles, a cruder take on the subject matter and it does suffer in the representation area for maintaining homosexuals as others who need to be empathized with by heroes exemplifying and serving the more accepted and dominant cultural identity.

Shampoo (1975)


No, this pick doesn’t have anything to do with Sandler’s line in Billy Madison about the merits of shampoo in a battle against conditioner. Hal Ashby has been cited as one of Sandler’s favorite filmmakers, so his hit comedy Shampoo, starring Warren Beatty, has been seen as an obvious influence on Sandler’s You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008). Both movies are about hairdressers, but Zohan goes overboard with plot in having the titular character be an Israeli commando who fakes his death to move to New York City and work at a salon. There’s definitely some timely stuff there regarding Israel and Palestine but again it’s nothing compared to the Watergate-focused political backdrop and the sexual-political themes of Shampoo.

Cactus Flower (1969)

Cactus Flower

Before doing their own take on The Thin Man for Murder Mystery, Sandler and Aniston first paired up for an actual remake with the rom-com Just Go with It (2011). The sitcom-level premise of the movie sees Sandler as a plastic surgeon who gets his assistant (Aniston) to pose as his soon-to-be-ex-wife while he woos a young schoolteacher (Brooklyn Decker). Despite just sounding like a familiar lie-driven comedy plot of the time, it’s based on Cactus Flower, which itself is adapted from a Broadway play of the same name. Here, Goldie Hawn, who is also great in Shampoo, plays the new girlfriend, and she won an Oscar for the breakout performance, while Walter Matthau stars as the man pretending to have a wife and Ingrid Bergman is the nurse who poses as said wife.

Mad Monster Party? (1967)

Mad Monster Party Dracula

The Universal Classic Monsters have been crossing over into each other’s movies for more than 75 years, forming a kind of non-continuous cinematic universe with varying degrees of logic for how the characters fit together. Because most of the monsters are in the public domain on their own, Universal hardly has exclusive rights over them or their mashups. Hence, Sony’s hit animated film franchise Hotel Transylvania (2012-2021), which stars Sandler as the voice of Dracula. And, decades earlier, this stop-motion animated monster mash was made by Rankin/Bass Productions for Embassy Pictures. Most of the characters in Mad Monster Party? are voiced by Allen Swift, save for Boris Karloff himself playing Dr. Frankenstein and Phyllis Diller — who would have fit well with Sandler’s crew for the HT films — as Frankenstein’s Monster’s Bride. This wacky effort didn’t prove as successful as Sony’s ongoing franchise but it did spawn a 2D-animated TV movie, The Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters, five years later.

The In-Laws (1979)

In Laws

Usually, we see a seemingly simple old comedy redone as or serve as inspiration for a modern comedy with too much extra plot thrown in. But with Sandler’s previous Netflix Original, The Week Of (2018), which reunited Sandler with friend Chris Rock in a rather light story of two very different men trying to work together on a wedding between their respective son and daughter, reminded me of the much more plot-heavy comedy classic The In-Laws (which turns 40 this week). Alan Arkin and Peter Falk play father of the bride and father of the groom, respectively, also very different types of men who bond not just in the union of their families but in a wild adventure to Central America as Falk’s CIA agent character takes on an international inflation-based government conspiracy with Arkin’s dentist in tow.

Derek and Clive Get the Horn (1979)

Derek And Clive Get The Horn

Finally, for my documentary pick of the week, rather than recommending the certainly essential The King of Kong as a companion (or alternative) to Pixels (2015), which isn’t really relevant to Sandler’s part in that movie anyway, here’s a nonfiction feature that he very likely has seen and enjoys. Derek and Clive Get the Horn features Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as they get together to improvise the recording of a new comedy album as their characters “Derk and Clive.” The fictional duo were a huge influence on Sandler, as he’s often mentioned, and their albums were particularly an inspiration for his own debut comedy record, They’re All Going to Laugh at You (1993). Additionally, the 1967 Cook and Moore comedy Bedazzled probably gave Sandler the idea to go for devilish comedy with Little Nicky (2000), so that’s worth a watch, as well.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.