It is a well-known comedy axiom: Nothing is funnier than the savage beating of an elderly person. This goes a long way toward explaining the global appeal of Adam Sandler, whose growing oeuvre includes the new smash football film The Waterboy, in which a white-haired college biology professor is pummeled senseless in his classroom; 1996's hockey-golf movie Happy Gilmore, in which beloved game-show host Bob Barker is beaten to within an inch of his life in a celebrity pro-am; and the comedy album They're All Gonna Laugh at You!, which features such hit bits as "The Severe Beating of a High School Janitor" and "The Severe Beating of a High School Science Teacher." Cowardly? Perhaps. Cowardesque? But of course.
Still, there may be a more persuasive explanation for Sandler's spectacular success. Perhaps the reason The Waterboy grossed $100.3 million in the first three weeks since its release, and why Sandler's fee could rise to $20 million for his next film, is this: The world is full of sports fans, and Sandler's movies are sports distilled to their very essence. Waterboy, for instance, appeals to our basest bleacherite instincts, whether we admit to them or not. The film, which was savagely beaten in the pages of this magazine two weeks ago, is little more than a montage of monster licks applied by the world's most ferocious linebacker—not all that different from the NFL crunch-course videos that come free with your paid subscription to SI or the hockey snuff videos advertised in the back pages of The Hockey News. Except that the latter have higher production values.
Indeed, Gilmore is about a one-trick Boston Bruin whose slap shot is so wicked that he kills his own father with an errant unwinding. Ah, but that Bruin—as Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever informs us—"translates his slap shot into a 400-[yard] tee shot and joins the pro golf tour." There, in the span of two sentences, are the only reasons anyone watches hockey and golf to begin with: epic slappers, the potential for mayhem, the vicarious thrill of the gargantuan drive. If Bob Barker gets sucker-punched, so much the better.
Sandler's songs and stand-up act have long had moments of terrible poignancy for any sports fan: He has sung about the loneliness of the foreign-born placekicker, about the loneliness of the Little League rightfielder and about the famous Jewish athlete. (" O.J. Simpson [is] not a Jew/But guess who is... Rod Carew.")
Inevitably, the sports world has returned Sandler's embrace. At least two NFL quarterbacks have now been nicknamed Bobby Boucher by their teammates, after the title character in The Waterboy. The film features endless cameos: by Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, Lawrence Taylor, and ABC and ESPN broadcasters Brent Musburger and Dan Patrick, among others. Yes, the flick was made by Disney, which owns ABC and ESPN, proving that even people are now mere product-placement opportunities, but so what? Musburger and Pepsi have long been indistinguishable—syrupy, highly caffeinated, gas-based, oddly addictive.
But back to our baser instincts. The most vicariously thrilling moment in The Waterboy for any sports enthusiast has Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson getting doused with beer at a football game. If you look closely, your mouth forming a rictus of disbelief, you will see the beverage bead up on Johnson's hairdo, suggesting that JJ is not wearing a full can of Final Net on his noggin, as we have long assumed, but has actually had his hair Scotch-garded, or Turtle Waxed or in some other way weatherproofed. As with most superior entertainments, we are left to shake our heads in wonder and whisper softly, "How do they do that?"