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I'm feeling the Bern

Now that Bernie Sanders has left the 2020 Presidential race I have to admit I am distraught, far more than I had imagined I would be.

It’s not because I share any (literally: any) political views with the Senator. It’s not our mutual Jewish roots. It’s something far more important and relevant: I was looking forward to seeing more of Larry David’s ruthless, dead-on impression of Sanders on Saturday Night Live. Enough to have backed Bernie for President myself? Well, let’s leave that topic for another time.

SNL was born in 1975 and instantly became a carnival mirror held up to US politics. From Chevy Chase’s accident-prone Gerald Ford to Dan Aykroyd’s affable Jimmy Carter, the show started off spoofing the Beltway landscape and eventually grew to help shape it. In a culture as tremendously lazy as ours, it figures that we would devolve to a point where we get our news from Weekend Update and make important decisions based on caricature portrayals of actual (elected!) leaders.

In 2016, how many people actually pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton AS PLAYED BY Kate McKinnon versus Donald Trump AS PLAYED BY Alec Baldwin? (And having written that, I must admit it could not have been a majority of voters because most people I know would vote for Kate McKinnon in any election, hands down, regardless of the office or the opponent. Kate McKinnon is a national treasure. There, I said it.)

But like it or not, SNL wrote its own political job description and then applied, got the job, and has successfully held onto it for 45 years. It’s more than a legacy of talented individuals, although casting the right people most definitely makes it easier to do good political material. It’s also based on really fine writing, a lot of research, and a point of view that isn’t too deeply entrenched to get in the way of good satire: as Left as SNL leans, it never leans so far that they are blind to liberal gaffes and inconsistencies. They are equal-opportunity in that regard, which is one reason they have endured.

Think about these moments in history and ask yourself if you remember the actual politician or his SNL avatar:

  • George Bush The First, saying “wouldn’t be prudent” and “a thousand points of light.” (Was it him, or was it Dana Carvey?)
  • A post-Lewinsky Bill Clinton as the quintessential party animal. (Or was it Darrel Hammond?)
  • W” mispronouncing every third word, courtesy of Will Ferrell.

The current election season, which started in earnest last year, has been a treasure trove of material and opportunity for SNL. As usual, the strongest players have been Baldwin as Trump and McKinnon as Elizabeth Warren. But kudos, as well, to alums Maya Rudolph (meme-worthy Kamala Harris), Rachel Dratch (Amy Klobuchar) and Fred Armisen (Michael Bloomberg). And to be fair, the biggest problem I have with Joe Biden assuming the nomination is the absence of a sure-fire designated hitter to “do” him: Woody Harrelson was good, but not always available; Jason Sudeikis is less good.

Lorne, hear our prayer: We need a better Joe!

And then there’s Larry David, the absolute penultimate Bernie Sanders. The fact that he found himself playing a command performance at his old show is itself kind of fascinating and could have easily not happened. What’s that you say? You don’t know the story of Larry David and his one season at SNL? Well pull up a seat, children, and let me enlighten you.

Larry David was a staff writer on the show in the 80s. He was generally respected, even revered, by his colleagues and cast but his sketches never made it to airtime. In a weekly show, performed live, what’s brainstormed on Tuesday and pitched on Wednesday is typically far more and very different than what airs on Saturday. After most of the season with not one sketch making it to air, one of David’s bits was finally on the table for airtime. It actually made it through the final rehearsal. Then the live show ran long and, at the last possible second, it was cut for time.

David memorably flipped his lid, told founder/producer Lorne Michaels where to stick his show, stormed out of the place and walked home, fuming in the cold. Along the way it occurred to him he just threw away his only visible means of support. Over a long weekend he considered his options and, on Tuesday – SNL’s Monday – he showed up for work as if nothing happened, hoping he wouldn’t be called on it.

He was allowed to finish out the season.

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because, years later, Larry David wrote it into a Seinfeld episode in which George quits his job and then comes back as if nothing happened. And so art imitates life.

Flash forward to 2019. Larry David has made a gazillion dollars with Seinfeld. He cemented his personal brand with Curb Your Enthusiasm. And he shows up on the Democratic Debate stage as Bernie Sanders, after which hilarity, indeed, ensued.

Laughter heals. A few weeks ago I was at my mom’s place and one of the debates was on. And so we started a somewhat spirited evaluation of our political situation. A lively compare-contrast, one might say. Point-counterpoint.

Bullshit. We were less than five minutes from an actual fistfight. I could feel it coming. I felt sure I could beat her in an all-out brawl, but not without collateral damage and some very awkward holiday dinners in my future. So I threw a Hail Mary. I threw Larry David at her.

She hadn’t seen SNL recently and hadn’t seen his Bernie impression. I pulled up You Tube and voila! Situation diffused. Face saved. Common ground located and occupied.

Now Bernie’s thrown in the towel, and Larry’s probably back in LA. What am I going to do ‘til November and beyond?


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