On Feb. 9, 1991, Saturday Night Live welcomed a new cast member who would go on to become one of the show’s biggest stars and a massive Hollywood celebrity. But viewers watching at home likely missed Adam Sandler’s debut.
The comedian’s career had begun just a few years earlier. Appearing in a handful of episodes of The Cosby Show eventually led to a gig working on the MTV game show Remote Control. He wrote for the program, while also making the occasional guest appearances as characters like “Stud Boy” or “Trivia Delinquent.” From there, Sandler filmed his first motion picture, 1989’s Going Overboard, a low-budget comedy that was roundly panned upon release.
Sandler continued working the comedy club circuit when Dennis Miller, already an SNL cast member, caught his set. Impressed with what he saw, Miller recommended Sandler to producer Lorne Michaels.
“Me and Chris Rock auditioned for the cast,” Sandler recalled in a 2015 conversation with Howard Stern. “Rock got on immediately, Lorne loved him, but Lorne — I had some interesting jokes, so he wanted me to be a writer on the show.”
At just 23, Sandler found himself as a writer on SNL. Though that achievement was impressive in its own right, he knew he wanted to be onscreen.
“I did all right, my first few weeks I got skits on,” Sandler explained. “But I wasn’t in them.”
The comedian dreamed of following in the footsteps of a fellow breakthrough SNL star. “I wanted the Eddie Murphy,” Sandler later admitted to 60 Minutes. “I wanted that.”
With the exception of two cameos – in a sketch for the “Sabra Shopping Network” on Dec. 8, 1990, and then on Jan. 12, 1991, impersonating professional boxer Hector “Macho” Camacho – the future star remained behind the scenes for his first year on the show.
On Feb. 9, 1991, he was introduced as a member of the cast for the first time, but he was barely seen in the episode. Sandler’s first flash of screen time came during a sketch centered on Rob Schneider’s “Richmeister” character. When the office copier breaks down, Rich no longer knows how to survive in the workplace. Sandler, in a non-speaking part, helped the episode’s host, Kevin Bacon, wheel the broken copier offscreen.
Sandler’s only other appearance of the night came in a sketch called “Dance Party U.S.A.,” a parody of the popular cable TV show of the era. The premise was that teens were supporting the recently launched Gulf War by partying all night. These random “teens” were interviewed about the war, only to deliver strange answers. In the sketch, Sandler appeared wearing an American flag shirt, briefly singing a song about the war. His role, like the entire sketch, earned barely any laughs.
In fact, “Dance Party U.S.A.” aired only during the initial live broadcasts of Saturday Night Live. Response to the sketch was so poor that years later when the show was rerun on Comedy Central, it was replaced with a different skit – based on the American military trying to come up with witty sayings to write on its bombs – which had been shot during dress rehearsal but never aired. Even now, with Saturday Night Live episodes available to stream on Peacock, the military sketch appears at the point in the show when “Dance Party U.S.A.” originally aired.
And so it was not with a bang but a whimper that Sandler became an SNL cast member. A non-speaking role and a cut sketch hardly foreshadowed the comedian’s future fame. Still, it didn’t take long for the actor to make his presence on the show felt. A week later, he’d receive much more screen time, thanks to his “Iraqi Pete” character. The following season would see the debut of “Opera Man,” with Sandler’s climb to fame rocketing forward from there.