Within moments of Larry David’s impersonation of Bernie Sanders on this week’s “Saturday Night Live” the bit was being heralded as one of the best political impersonations of this election cycle. According to Slate, the impersonation showed that “the Internet’s prayers have been answered.” David shares Sanders’ Brooklyn accent and bellowing tone, but he also channeled Sanders’ mannerisms, hyperbole, and gruff matter-of-fact style. The result is being called “perfect.”
But what exactly is a “perfect” impersonation of a political candidate? Is it just the ability to offer an exaggerated version of the original? Or does a “perfect” impersonation change public perceptions of the candidate? The key question is: will the David impersonation influence how voters view Sanders? And if it does, what sort of impact will it have?
Before we answer these questions it’s worth noting that the David impersonation was not the first to begin to nail some of Sanders’ key mannerisms. Stephen Colbert did a spot-on impersonation shortly after the debate where he focused on Sanders’ constant referencing of percentages. He joked that no one would want to be splitting a check with Sanders. Colbert’s impersonation was funny, but it also served to point out the fact that Sanders actually uses facts as a key part of his political rhetoric. If anything, it reminded his audience how rare it is to have candidates actually refer to data. So, while Colbert made good fun of Sanders, in the end, the impersonation was likely to help build Sanders as a candidate who is not just passionate, but is also building a platform linked to real numbers.
Colbert did the opposite when he impersonated Donald Trump in a promo for his new show. In “Announcing and Announcement,” Colbert made fun of Trump in a way that portrayed the candidate as nothing more than hubris, megalomania, and faulty logic. Arguably the impersonation didn’t get more play for the simple reason that Trump already seems like a character. It is hard to impersonate a candidate when they already seem like a joke. Thus far we have yet to have the Trump impersonation that will define his candidacy.
The best example we have of an impersonation that mocked a candidate that already had a ridiculous public image is the case of Tina Fey impersonating Sarah Palin. Palin was announced as the running mate for John McCain in August of 2008 and her selection goes down as one of the worst campaign blunders in recent elections.
Palin was not just woefully unprepared to serve as second-in-command, she was also a constant stream of bloopers. At times it literally seemed like she could barely speak English since she had so much trouble speaking in complete sentences. But it would be her interview with Katie Couric on CBS that would begin the demise of Palin’s public image. In that interview Palin answered a question on her bailout plan this way:
That's why I say, I, like every American I'm speaking with, we're ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out, but ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping tho— it's got to be all about job creation too, shoring up our economy, and putting it back on the right track, so healthcare reform and reducing taxes and reigning in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans.
Similar to Trump, Palin didn’t really need any help making herself look stupid. She was already a mockery. But that didn’t stop Fey from creating one of the most politically devastating impersonations in history.
Before the Couric interview, Fey, who looks a lot like Palin, had already done some good impersonations of Palin, but her mimicry of the Couric interview signaled a new moment for entertainment television, since it quickly became an essential component of Palin’s public image. As Jeffrey Jones explains, “while the McCain-Palin campaign and the news media were simultaneously attempting to ‘define’ Sarah Palin for the voting public, SNL took this nationally unknown politician and through its satirical commentary on news footage, cemented a largely negative and damning public perception of the candidate.”
Fey’s impersonation became the defining image of Palin. And that image of her destroyed her political career. Palin would not be able to live down her image as an over-confident idiot after Fey was done with her. Despite appearing herself on SNL later, there was no way to reverse the damage.
More importantly, the impersonation proved the power of satire TV to influence politics. Over the last two decades the role of entertainment TV has grown over that of straight news media as an increasingly powerful source of political coverage. Recall that Jon Stewart was considered one of the most trusted “journalists” and that viewers of his show and “The Colbert Report” had greater knowledge of political issues than those that watch cable news. We have seen an increasing trend where comedy has more power over public perception than straight news. This is so because straight news increasingly seems like a joke, but it is also a consequence of the major role that satire and humor are playing in contemporary politics. Satire’s goal is to reveal the truth through humor, to employ irony in the face of lies, and to use humor to expose deception.
And that is why impersonations of candidates can be so powerful. If the candidate is nothing but a farce, the impersonation can reveal it. Some impersonations, though, just highlight idiosyncrasies in the way a candidate communicates. Rather than define the candidate in a way that contrasts the candidate’s persona, they give an exaggerated version. The result will be funny, but it won’t necessarily be politically damaging.
So, is the David impersonation just a funny exaggeration or is it the sort of impersonation that could negatively define Sanders? I think the short answer is both. Clearly David nailed Sanders and gave us a funny exaggeration. Similar to Colbert, David merely brought out characteristics that already appeal to Sanders’ fans. Sanders’ frustration with political rhetoric, his distrust of the oligarchy, and his down-to earth-nature all appeal to voters. David’s jokes about having one pair of underwear and not even having a backpack fit those ideals. They just make him even more likeable.
But the other side is less positive. When David channeled Sanders so brilliantly by barely changing the way in which he himself often performs, he linked that image to David’s celebrity from “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—shows that tend to focus on characters woefully out of touch with reality. The Seinfeld-style humor might be funny, but it is not the populism Sanders needs to win. In fact, David’s humor centers on grouchy, self-centered personalities who are always worried about imminent catastrophes that are usually a figment of their imagination.
When David makes fun of Sanders’ view on banks, for example, that impersonation could serve to just make Sanders seem out of touch and loony, in the same way David often is on his show. That version of David doing Sanders could take the down-to-earth rhetoric of the candidate and turn it into the ravings of a self-centered, dishonest grouch who yells and swears to make a point. Think, for example, of the multiple times David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” character has played a man who basically hates everyone. The gruff annoyed face he makes in those situations may be too close to Sanders’ frustrated with politics-as-usual facial expressions. Rather than a candidate who has good reasons to be angry at a system that disfavors the middle class, we could end up with an image of a candidate who is angry for no good reason.
Like Fey doing Palin, part of the strength of this impersonation is the already existing similarities between the comedian and the politician. Except, in this case, it is not a physical likeness but a verbal one: David and Sanders speak in similar ways. The difference is that Sanders is speaking about much-needed political change and his frustrations with the U.S. power elite. David’s character may use the same tone, but his speaks about his own selfish obsessions. If viewers of David’s impersonation link the two personas, the consequence could be devastating for the Sanders campaign.
One key factor that will determine the impact of the impersonation is the strong way that Sanders is building his own public persona as a candidate of the people. Certainly Palin was not able to do that. If anything, she let Fey define her.
We have heard that Sanders loves the impersonation and that he would like David to do some of his rallies. If that happens, we could have a case where Sanders influences David and redefines him as a comedian who cares about the public and not just himself. It would be life imitating art imitating life. Now that could be the sort of impersonation that we might call “perfect.”