Saturday Night Live presented their first—and hopefully not last—satire of the Democratic primary debate last weekend in the show’s opening sketch. It let us know several pieces of important information, such as the fact that Lincoln Chafee is running for President, and that SNL also didnt know what Martin O’Malley sounds like or looks like. It also introduced us to what may be the greatest stroke of casting genius since a bunch of people on the Internet looked at the unblinking apparition of perky cruelty that was Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska and realized, “Hey, that lady looks weirdly like Tina Fey”: Larry David as Bernie Sanders.
It was a brilliant move, and David was utterly genius. The writing was the kind of comedic writing that is so good it sounds like you’re making it up on the spot. That line from Sanders about having only one pair of clean underwear, compared to the princely three or four owned by the “billionaires” on stage, made me laugh so hard my husband came running into the room alarmed, concerned I was choking to death. As for the accuracy of the performance, well, pretty, pretty, pretty good is a pretty, pretty, pretty big understatement.
What was remarkable about David’s portayal of Sanders, and the fact that I cracked up so hard, is that I honestly can’t remember the last funny I saw on SNL. It’s not a stretch, of course, for a 68-year-old Jewish man from Brooklyn (David) to play a 74-year-old Jewish man from Brooklyn (Sanders). Larry certainly had, shall we say, a home team advantage on that one, not to mention the glasses and baldness to carry off the whole look. In fact, SNL has always done pretty well coming up with impressive mimicry (think the glory days of Daryl Hammond as Bill Clinton or Dana Carvey as an eerily uncanny George Bush the First). No, what was remarkable about David’s impersonation wasn’t merely the virtuosity of his performance, but that it dug a little deeper—deep enough to uncover some immutable neurotic truth about the Sanders that SNL magnified for hilarious and revealing effect.
There’s a track record for this. For instance, Will Ferrell finding the depths of insecurity behind the arrogance and willful ignorance of George W. Bush, or the Tracy Flick-like pathos of Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton as she grins maniacally, wondering why it should be such a struggle to convince America to give her the job for which she is so obviously overqualified. (The exception to this rule is SNL’s failure to ever get a satisfying bead on President Obama, the most self-actualized and genuinely confident of politicians.)
David’s understanding of Sanders, however, cut to the bone. In playing Sanders, he’s basically playing himself—and not just because of the Brooklynese. Larry David’s comedy, particularly his work on Curb Your Enthusiasm, has often been characterized as the misadventures of a terrible person being a jerk to all those around him, but this is a woeful misunderstanding of David’s oeuvre. The key motivation of the “Larry David” character, for lack of a better phrase, is not a desire to be a demanding jerk but instead a quest to seek absolute justice, which is a journey that sometimes necessitates being a demanding jerk.
In this art, everything Larry David does, and everyone he battles, is a result of a desire to clarify an unyielding sense of right and wrong, to sate his inflexible insistence that the world be completely fair. It’s not fair for a limo driver, for example, to be left hungry while his passengers are inside eating. It’s not fair for a person to jump lines at a perfume store and get the last bottle of the coveted Jolie Fille cologne (the only thing that will get him out of the doghouse with his wife, Cheryl). Bernie Sanders’s politics—and I mean this in the best possible way—come from the same sense of immutable justice. It doesn’t matter whether the issue at hand is a billionaire 1% paying no significant taxes while 18-year-old kids are forced to take on more debt than they can ever repay in their lifetimes, or that somebody is taking too many free samples at the ice cream parlor. The point is, they are ruining things for the rest of us and have to be stopped.
Nothing would make me happier than voting for a Sanders–David ticket in 2016. Why not have a pair of grumpy old Jews in charge for a change? If nothing else, we can get banks to stop chaining their pens to the counter. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some underwear drying on the radiator to collect.