Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made his Saturday Night Live debut last night, accompanying host Larry David.
The star of HBO’s ‘Curb your Enthusiasm’ and former SNL writer Larry David has come on the show to play Sanders twice already: in an October sketch of the first Democratic debate and then again in November after the MSNBC Forum. But Saturday’s episode was the first time Sanders joined his impersonator on screen.
Sanders had only brief cameo in one sketch, playing ‘Bernie Sanderswitzky’ a Jewish immigrant on a sinking ship who tries to ensure Larry David doesn’t receive preferential treatment for a spot on a lifeboat because he is rich.
But the real highlight of the show was a five minute clip titled ‘Bern your Enthusiasm,’ where a David/Sanders hybrid loses the Iowa caucus to rival Hillary Clinton because of having personally annoyed five potential voters.
“The appearance, squeezed in among campaign events in New Hampshire before the primary on Tuesday, enshrines Mr. Sanders as a cultural personality in a league with Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump, who have also appeared on the show this election season,” wrote the New York Times Sunday.
David definitely plays up the more comical aspects of Sanders’ persona, such as his unkempt hair, Brooklyn accent, and populist slogans. But despite some elements of David’s skit that poke fun at the Vermont senator, Sanders and his supporters are laughing with the comedian and using the exposure to their advantage.
Sanders embraced the fame, in November tweeting a photo of Larry David as himself Saturday night with the phrase “We need your vaccum pennies!”, referencing a line from David’s second SNL skit as Sanders.
It’s clear the presidential candidate doesn’t seem to shy away from the Larry David spotlight. And he has no reason to, wrote The Monitor’s Peter Grier after David's first Bernie skit on October.
“For one, SNL treated Larry David as the star of the skit. Did you notice that David comes on stage last, after the Hillary Clinton character?” asks Grier after David’s first SNL sketch as Sanders in October. “Throughout ‘Clinton’ is portrayed as somebody reacting to and working off of ‘Sanders.’”
And David’s impersonation is so popular that it brings in ratings comparable to SNL’s last great political spoof: Tiny Fey as Sarah Palin.
SNL co-head writer Rob Klein agrees.
“It was like with Tina and Palin in 2008,” he tells Slate. “It was just undeniable.”
Fey’s impersonation was appreciated by many for its uncanny similarities, leading to some of the show’s best ratings in a decade. But Fey’s sketches drew critical backlash from Palin supporters.
“There was an assumption that I was personally attacking Sarah Palin by impersonating her on TV,” Fey wrote in her 2011 book ‘Bossypants.’ “I am not mean and Mrs. Palin is not fragile. To imply otherwise is a disservice to us both.”
But David has not had to defend himself in such a way to either Sanders supporters or the Vermont Senator himself.
Sanders joked in October, “In terms of Larry David, I think we’re going to put him up on the stage at our next rally – let him do it rather than me. He does it better than I do.”
Mr. Klein tells Slate that instead of winging it, David studied debates and speeches to understand Sanders’ mannerisms. The skits would probably have still been successful if David was lazy about the impersonation, says Klein, but he really wanted to get it right.
“Sometimes there’s that extra element, when the sketch is about a person that everyone’s talking about and there’s a perfect actor to play them, and that actor happens to be one of the funniest people in the world,” Klein tells Slate. “It’s not the kind of thing that happens every year… Even just during rehearsal, you could tell it was gonna be very special.”