How Saturday Night Live is Preparing America for Bernie Sanders

TV Features Saturday Night Live
How Saturday Night Live is Preparing America for Bernie Sanders

Going out to millions of American homes each weekend, Saturday Night Live has such reach that academics say the show even has an impact on presidential races. 10% of respondents to a 2008 poll said SNL actually influenced their vote that year, with any on-the-fence viewers most likely to have been convinced to stump for Obama. The so-called SNL effect has been in play since the NBC comedy’s inception: according to experts, Gerald Ford’s 1976 defeat by Jimmy Carter was in part influenced by Chevy Chase’s bungling portrayal of Ford on the show.

Executive producer Lorne Michaels has insisted SNL is politically neutral, but history suggests it’s often been more liberal than not. Just look at some of its most memorably outrageous political caricatures: Will Ferrell’s idiotic George W. Bush, Tina Fey’s cuckoo Sarah Palin, Chase’s clumsy Ford (while Michaels says there’s no bias, Chase has admitted he wanted Jimmy Carter to beat Ford in ’76.) Look at how the show has mercilessly sent up the 2015/2016 GOP stock as a bunch of amateurs and crackpots. More importantly this election season, look at what the show has done for Bernie Sanders.

Larry David has so far played Bernie Sanders on SNL on three occasions, and through a largely uncritical collection of sketches, David and the Saturday Night Live team have no doubt aided the Sanders campaign. SNL writer-star Colin Jost admitted as much in a recent interview with Seth Meyers, when he described audience reaction to David playing Sanders on the show: “I think he’s helped Bernie. Larry’s so likeable…that you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, Bernie Sanders, I’ve always liked him. I liked him in Curb.’”

Certainly David’s casting—which came about not because SNL nor NBC were looking to give Sanders a star boost, but simply because everyone involved agreed David had the perfect look for the part—hasn’t hurt Sanders’ image. Outside of SNL, Sanders had been the butt of jokes, about his age, about his appearance and manner, and about his politics. SNL has helped to normalize the senator’s image somewhat; skeptical voters told regularly by the press how obscure Sanders is have been reminded by SNL that they actually already respect one old, balding, Jewish curmudgeon from Brooklyn, New York.

Such is the uncanny similarity between David and Sanders that David’s portrayal brings the added bonus (for the Sanders campaign) of constantly insisting that what audiences love about David is what they also love about Sanders. It’s an almost symbiotic form of casting, with David having transferred some of his own popularity over to Sanders ever since the Sanders ‘character’ first showed up on SNL.
Even back in October, when Sanders was still way behind in the polls and considered unelectable by the media, David’s Sanders character was greeted by the audience like a rock star in the Dem debate skit. Meanwhile, Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton got second billing, as ‘Sanders’—the real thing trailing Clinton by 20 points in national polls—got the loudest cheers and the most air time. To anyone not in the know, SNL made it look like Sanders was the Democratic frontrunner, not Clinton. It couldn’t have been any other way: in hiring Larry David, the SNL team were always going to have to make his character the most central. It just so happens that in the process they also gave prominence to a Democratic candidate that, at the time, was tied in the polls with someone that never even ran (that would be Joe Biden).

It’s not just additional familiarity that Sanders has been lent by SNL. Sanders’ reputation is built upon his resolute hammering home of the facts, often at a high volume. And so, SNL created a parody that reflects that: David’s passionate, crotchety and frugal Sanders (“I own one pair of underwear! Some of these billionaires, they got three, four pairs!”). But there’s nothing truly damaging or critical in this portrayal. If anything, heightening these characteristics serves to increase the real Sanders’ reputation as an economical, serious-minded politician that doesn’t prioritize image over the issues.

McKinnon’s Clinton character, on the other hand, comes across much less sympathetically. SNL mocks Clinton’s super-prepared, at-times robotic politicking style. It has her down as image-obsessed and insecure over the prospect of losing another presidential bid, while showcasing her tendency to switch accents depending on whichever state she’s in. Where Sanders remains, even in parody, stubbornly substantive and authentic, the Clinton character comes across as desperate. As the SNL team exaggerate Sanders and Clinton for comedic effect, they inadvertently help to promote one, while accentuating the perceived flaws of the other.

David’s Sanders character has caught on so well that David as Sanders recently got a five-minute sketch all to himself. Bern Your Enthusiasm, in which Larry David as Sanders endures a gaffe-filled and Curb-like day at the Iowa caucus, had racked up 2.5 million YouTube views in just three days (it’s now up to 3.2 million). This has been one of the biggest moments for the Sanders campaign to date. The official Bernie Sanders Twitter account even briefly changed its profile picture to one of David in the sketch. This was the Sanders campaign latching onto a popular pop culture event and understanding Larry David was acting as an endorsement, whether he meant to or not.

The most recent SNL aided Bernie Sanders in a number of ways. “Bern Your Enthusiasm” has already been chalked up as one of the great recent SNL sketches, its popularity lending more name recognition to the Sanders brand as it simultaneously humanizes the famously grouchy politician. In the sketch, Sanders is recast as a harmless Larry David-alike bumbler, alienating the five voters he needs to win Iowa through simple social awkwardness. (Crucially, the suggestion there is that the only one capable of hobbling Sanders’ campaign is not Clinton, but Sanders himself.)

Then there was the same episode’s Steam Ship sketch, in which the real Sanders appeared alongside his comedy doppelganger in a knowing meta-cameo. This one played almost like a propaganda video for the Sanders campaign: a sinking steam ship destined for New York, with Sanders’ descendant Bernie ‘Sanderswitzky’ (“We’re gonna change it when we get to America so it doesn’t sound quite quite so Jewish”) saving the passengers from Larry David’s rich one per center, suggesting they “unite and work together” to survive the ordeal. As comedy it was strained, as a guest appearance it was overly-fawning, but as promotion of the Sanders campaign it was another absolute win. Not only does the sketch spare Sanders a ribbing, but he’s allowed to, unchallenged, lay out his key campaign message in metaphor.

Of course none of the recent presidential race material has likely been part of a deliberate effort by Saturday Night Live to promote Bernie Sanders, or give him preferential treatment (Hillary Clinton and The Donald also made personal appearances on the show recently, albeit less successfully). All the same, David’s portrayal as ‘Bernie Sanders’ and Sanders’ own disarming SNL cameo have far from hindered the Sanders surge. Besides the free positive exposure, viewers/voters have also been shown that Sanders can poke fun at himself in a warm, contemporary, relatable way, a la current sitting president Barack Obama. Secondly, SNL has, through humor, comfortingly assured viewers/voters that it’s OK for a presidential candidate to be loud, eccentric, and a little bit to the left.

Not by design, SNL has helped to banish the idea that there is anything sinister or extreme about what some have tried so hard to paint as a dangerous communist; the show will have made it that bit harder for rivals to dehumanize Sanders in an effort to discredit him personally. The notion that Sanders, a politician that would be considered centrist in Europe, is a communist is absurd, but the idea of him as some lunatic leftist thinker has been floated all the same. It feels harder to do that now after SNL and Larry David have reshaped Sanders’ image as a lovable David-esque grumpus shouting at America to help itself.

The Bernie Sanders campaign has been enormously successful in growing support at the grassroots. It’s how Sanders tied with Clinton in Iowa, how he beat her in New Hampshire, and it’s why the pair are now virtually tied in the national polls. Still, it’d be interesting to discover what, if any part, Saturday Night Live has played in Sanders’ journey, as it has presidential candidates past. Certainly, it’s Larry David’s Bernie Sanders that’s been the star of SNL’s presidential race this season; one of the great shames of still-favorite Hillary Clinton winning the 2016 Democratic nomination would be to see him off our screens.

Brogan Morris is a UK-based freelance writer, as seen on the Guardian, Little White Lies, Flavorwire, the BFI, the New Humanist and more. Opinions range from ridiculous to passable. You can follow him on Twitter.

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