Let’s get the obvious out of the way: as I understand it, although I don’t regularly watch the show, Saturday Night Live hasn’t been funny in rather a while. The last episode proved not much different, despite the promise of an actual comedian to host the show instead of, say, a racist billionaire. But leaving the cold open in the hand’s of the world’s least believable Ted Cruz impersonation might have been a shrewd decision, because it allowed the rest of the episode to move uphill from there. Maybe that’s what counts for success at the newly christened Comcast Building, but with the exception of a few bright spots (including the hilarious “Bern Your Enthusiasm” sketch) even Larry David seemed to be phoning it in.
But SNL enjoys something of a reputation as a tiebreaker in American politics. For example, did you know that Sarah Palin never actually said “I can see Russia from my house!”, not exactly the stupidest comment ever attributed to her but certainly among the most resonant, and that it was merely a paraphrase immortalized by Tina Fey? In the reverse of this phenomenon, the Bernie Sanders campaign replaced its website’s splash image with one of David at the podium as Sanders, looking suitably verklempt, and with headline “Contribute your vacuum pennies!”, one of the funniest lines from David’s previous impersonation.
I was watching for my man Bernie as much as for Larry David. (Michael Che’s great one-liner in an otherwise serviceable Weekend Update that if the President wanted to reach TV producers, he should ask around in a synagogue, seemed especially relevant in this episode.) As anyone who has watched the Democratic primary debates knows, Sanders can be naturally funny when he’s not forced to fact-check his opponent’s Rashomon-ing of her record. One never gets the sense that he is uncomfortable playing either the serious role or the irreverent one. It wasn’t so long along ago, at least across the span of Sanders’ storied career in activism and politics, that he once played a rabbi in a low-budget romcom with the Pynchonian name of Manny Shevitz.
Sanders’ greatest strength, certainly what sets him apart from Hillary Clinton and the Republicans, is that he sees the absurdity in politics, in all the false fronts and campaign promises and baby kissing. His cameo, in a largely humorless sketch aboard a sinking passenger liner bound for Ellis Island, amounted to an opportunity to rephrase his stump speech in the mouth of an early-twentieth-century emigre from Poland. That provided the setup to one of the best lines from the whole episode: “I’m Bernie Sanderswitsky, but we’re gonna change it when we get to America so it’s not so Jewish,” he says, to which Larry David replies, the sarcasm so thick you can practically hear his eyes rolling, “Yeah, that’ll trick ‘em.”
A sense of the absurd highlighted the funniest moment of the night. Weekend Update opened with “actual breaking news” and aired a clip from the Republican debate earlier that evening. In a scene straight out of Spinal Tap, Ben Carson somehow managed to become discombobulated in his short walk to the stage. Had he heard his name or not? It didn’t seem to matter as the roll call went on, and candidates continued to stream from behind backstage and past an increasingly befuddled Carson. Cruz offers him a look that seems to say “what do you want me to do about it?” Donald Trump gets bogged down in the same confusion, and, standing next to Carson he looked like nothing so much as the dementia patient I, with genuine sympathy, suspect he is. Jeb Bush, who is so bereft of self-awareness that he could unironically ask fatigued supporters to “please clap”, seemed actually reassured by the spectacle of two bumbling candidates waiting to hear their names called. Monty Python couldn’t have improved upon it.
The bit required no commentary or punchline. If the Weekend Update anchors offered one, it was not memorable. Saturday Night Live is at its best when it’s not attempting to recreate the perverse dynamics of a Republican campaign speech and instead lets the moment speak for itself. Can you imagine Ted Cruz telling a joke? Luckily, you won’t have to, because footage of the real thing exists and it’s almost too painful to look at. We’ve even seen what Cruz looks like when he’s acting, over the many hours of raw footage prepared by his campaign for the use of his SuperPACs, and it makes a far more compelling case that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer than anything Taran Killam’s creepy laugh could have done.
That’s why I was glad just to have Bernie come out and say a few words about democratic socialism. He wasn’t outrageously funny, but he wasn’t trying to be, because he was just being himself. Convincing others to believe in you takes a degree of empathy that is absent from any of his challengers, and it’s why they deserve your derision. No one more epitomized this than Marco Rubio, in that night’s debate, who seemed to have no idea he was repeating the same line—“Obama knows exactly what he’s doing”—four times in a row in response to Chris Christie’s hectoring. One would think that after the second or third time, his empathy firmware would have kicked in and fed him some new data. It was surreal; it was also a riot.