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The real reason Adam Sandler got fired from SNL

Adam Sandler has never been the kind of actor who gets showered with awards, but in May 2019, he broke a record that he's likely to hold for some time. Despite having scoffed at the idea in the past, the Saturday Night Live alum returned to host the show for the first time since he was fired in 1995, almost 24 years earlier. This is now the longest gap between a cast member getting the sack and then coming back to host in the history of SNL (he beat Dan Aykroyd by a single week), yet in all those years, Sandler's surprise firing has never been fully explained.

He's made millions from his multi-picture deal with Netflix, though his work with the streaming giant has seen Sandler hit rock bottom in the estimation of film critics. Sandler was at the height of his powers in the '90s, making his SNL dismissal all the stranger. There was an appetite for his brand of comedy at the time, as box office receipts proved beyond doubt. So why did NBC let him go?

It's a question that's already been debated at length by internet sleuths, but now it's time to separate the fact from the fiction. This is the real reason Adam Sandler got fired from SNL.

The ratings were dangerously low

With films like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore around the corner, Adam Sandler's career in Hollywood was just about to take off when he was fired from Saturday Night Live in 1995, yet the show's numbers were at a dangerously low ebb at the time. Ratings had dropped by a whopping 19 percent in the span of just two seasons, putting SNL overseer Lorne Michaels in a tricky position. "The show is in a transitional period," Michaels told New York Magazine. "I think it's better than last year, and not where it will be by next year." The boss was putting on a brave face for the press, but he was apparently under a great deal of pressure from his higher-ups at NBC. 

Reviews were dire and the show's weekly budget had ballooned to an all-time high of $1.5 million. NBC reportedly threatened to fire Michaels if he didn't somehow manage to turn the fortunes of SNL around, and quickly. The result was a mass culling that saw several prominent cast members cut loose, Sandler included. "The end of the 1995 season saw a huge shake-up in the cast due to overall low ratings [...] and ushered in a new class of comedians including mainstays Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, Cheri Oteri, and Chris Kattan," Vanity Fair reported.

His colleagues grew tired of his antics

In March 1995, a reporter from New York Magazine was given unfettered access to SNL for a full month. What Chris Smith witnessed behind the scenes of the show gave a pretty good indication of why Adam Sandler would soon be let go. Smith walked into a tense workplace rife with frustration, and by his account, Sandler wasn't helping the situation. In fact, he was apparently part of the problem. Sandler's shtick would soon make him a genuine movie star, but the SNL writers just weren't buying it. In his piece, Smith described an uncomfortable moment in which Sandler attempted to "cut through the boredom" with a song. He got a few laughs at first, but the writers quickly grew wary. "When Sandler continues into the third verse of the Carpenters song, and then the fourth, people start inspecting their shoelaces." 

Belting out silly songs in his "trademark idiot-boy voice" wasn't the only way Sandler annoyed his colleagues during Smith's eventful visit. After receiving a phone call from Steven Spielberg to thank him for mentioning him on the show the previous week, Sandler decided that he wanted to record a special birthday ditty for the director — and he wanted to use the SNL studio to do it. "Rehearsal is delayed as Sandler uses the studio to videotape a birthday song to Steven Spielberg," Smith noted. "Now several cast members are stewing as they wait for Sandler to clear the stage."

His characters were all the same

A new addition for season 20 of the show, Janeane Garofalo got off to a pretty awkward start with her SNL career. Prior to joining up with the rest of the cast, she made some comments about the decline of the show in the media. On top of calling the previous season "unwatchable," Garofalo told a Canadian news outlet that Adam Sandler's characters were all "childish." According to New York Magazine's Chris Smith, Sandler saw what Garofalo said about him and flat-out refused to speak to her for several weeks. When he finally did speak to her, it was to "berate her," Smith said.

It seems as though Garofalo touched a nerve with her comment about Sandler's characters, which (just like they do in his movies today) tended to come across in very similar ways. This was apparently a problem that Sandler was already well aware of — he admitted that he sometimes mixed up his characters on stage when the Los Angeles Times visited him at his office the previous year. "When you're in a lot of stuff in one show, it's hard to all of a sudden get into the next guy," Sandler said. "One time, I did Shaky Lipped Guy on that Halloween show, and then I did Canteen Boy, and in the middle of Canteen Boy I started shaking my lip. Everyone was looking at me like 'What are you doing? Canteen Boy doesn't shake his lip!'"

The cast just didn't care anymore

One SNL writer who spoke to New York Magazine about the decline of the show anonymously alleged that there was a group of problematic cast members who just didn't care anymore. SNL was already a well-established American institution at that point, but being part of that legacy apparently wasn't that much of a motivation. "They can't even fake forcing themselves to care," the longtime contributor said. "When you watch the show on TV, that comes through — it really seems taken with itself. And when it's as bad as it can be, and people still act like there's nothing wrong, then it's sort of like a f*** you to the audience. 'We don't have to be good, because we're Saturday Night Live!' It's like the post office. 'What are you gonna do, deliver the mail yourself?'"

According to Chris Smith, Sandler often appeared more interested in messing around with his pals. The reporter witnessed Sandler and good buddy David Spade "drinking beer and acting cute for a couple of models" backstage during a show, and he also saw Sandler and Chris Farley walk out on a brainstorming session. "C'mon, let's all take a break and go down to the Village," Farley said when the conversation started getting a little tense (the subject of his alleged groping of an extra had come up). "Me and Adsy are gonna go cattin' around." Nobody got up to join them, but they strutted from the room anyway.

Was he fired for making prank calls?

There are plenty of rumors about the actual catalyst that led to Adam Sandler's axing from SNL, but there's one that seems to pop up time and again when people start asking questions. The story goes that Sandler and his partner in crime Chris Farley were shown the door after it was discovered that they'd been making late-night prank calls from the SNL phones and, according to The Richest, there has also been talk of "an incident in which Farley (or both of them) mooned people from a limo." None of this has been confirmed as fact, though the origin of these rumors can be traced back to Chris Smith's time shadowing the cast for New York Magazine.

In his explosive piece on the crumbling state of SNL, Smith recalled seeing some of these rumored prank calls taking place. "Tonight, sprawled on a couch a couple of feet from the table, Chris Farley and Adam Sandler alternately listen to the writers debate and cackle at some private joke," he wrote. "Sandler picks up a phone and makes prank calls, talking in a silly elderly woman's voice." The part about mooning people from a limo is also in there, though the witness only incriminated Farley when recounting what they'd seen. We'll probably never know exactly what pushed Lorne Michaels over the edge, but if this alleged childish behavior was indeed happening, you can't really blame the boss for wanting to cut ties.

You can't fire me, I quit!

The true circumstances of Adam Sandler's exit from SNL are so murky that even the man himself isn't really sure what happened. In Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, a chronicle written by James Andrew Miller and Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, it's revealed that Sandler had two years left on his contact when Lorne Michaels cut him from the team. So that means he was either fired or he quit, but which one is it? "See, I don't even know if I was fired," Sandler said (via Chicago Tribune). "I don't know how it was handled. I just remember feeling like, 'Did I quit, or did I get fired? I have no idea.' But all of a sudden I wasn't on the show anymore."

The actor also attempted to clear this up during his 2014 interview with The Daily Beast, explaining how he "kind of quit at the same time as being fired." Sandler clearly still has some unanswered questions, but he's satisfied that both he and Chris Farley achieved what they set out to achieve in the time they were given. "We were on it for a few years, had our run, and everything happens for a reason," he said. "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."

Chris Farley broke the news

When season 20 of the show was dubbed a disaster, NBC decided to make wholesale changes. The majority of cast members either quit or were fired, with only Norm MacDonald and David Spade kept on the payroll for the following season. Head writer Jim Downey was dropped, as were Adam Sandler and close friend Chris Farley. According to Sandler, Farley (who passed away in December 1997 following a four-day binge) was the one who broke the news to him, though he later realized that his manager had been subtly hinting at what was coming — he told his client that he should "look for something else to do" outside of SNL. "I like it here," was Sandler's response (via New York Daily News). "Then Farley ran into my office, saying 'We're getting fired.'"

Farely's death from accidental overdose at the age of 33 hurt Sandler badly. When he spoke to The Daily Beast in 2014, the actor revealed that he still missed him dearly. "He was a tour-de-force on the show and dominated," Sandler said. "He could dominate anybody. There's nobody that can walk into a room and take over better than Farley, I haven't seen anyone since he's gone that's taken that spot. He's the strongest presence I've ever seen." When Sandler returned to host SNL in 2019, he closed the show with an emotional tribute to his fallen comrade. The song, which referenced some of Farley's most iconic SNL sketches, moved people to tears.

Taking revenge on NBC

Getting fired from SNL with two years remaining on his contract was a painful experience for Sandler, so when NBC came calling with a proposition not long after his sacking, he decided to play hardball. After being told that the network wanted him to appear as a guest on Late Night with Conan O'Brien during sweeps week, Sandler made a very extravagant demand — at least, it was considered extravagant at the time. "I got fired by Saturday Night Live and then that summer [...] my manager called me and said, 'NBC want you to do Conan,'" Sandler recalled when he sat down with O'Brien again in 2015. "He said, 'They want you on there,' and I thought, 'They don't like me, they just fired me,' and he was like, 'No, no it's for Conan though, it's not Saturday Night Live."

Sandler's manager eventually talked him around, but what did the actor ask for in exchange for his services? "To make a big stand — I was young and I was angry — I said, 'Well, you tell them I will do Conan's show but they have to buy me a fax machine." Sandler had previously discussed wanting a fax machine with his brother, who told him they cost around $400, putting him off the idea. When NBC reached out about Conan, he knew just what to do. "Swear to God, they bought me one," Sandler said. Unsurprisingly, he didn't use it much, adding: "I wasn't great at it."