'SNL' audience feels the Bern

Sanders, Larry David meet on 'SNL'
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Sanders, Larry David meet on 'SNL' 01:26

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  • Bernie Sanders' appearance on "Saturday Night Live" helped add to his unlikely role as a folk hero, says Dean Obeidallah
  • Sanders' rise shows barriers that once faced presidential candidates are eroding, he says

Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM's weekly program "The Dean Obeidallah Show," a columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TheDeansreport. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)It happened at about two minutes into a sketch about the Titanic. Bernie Sanders and Larry David finally shared the stage on "Saturday Night Live." And the audience exploded!

Having worked at "SNL" for eight seasons from the late 1990s to mid-2000s, I can tell you that the cheers Sanders received were off the charts, even compared to special appearances by A-list celebrities. Bernie Sanders has morphed from a political figure into a mixture of pop culture icon and folk hero.
What was interesting/painful about Saturday's "SNL" was that the show's producers made us wait to see Bernie. Everyone knew he would be there. Most, including myself, expected to see him in the cold open, likely yelling out in his Brooklyn accent the iconic words, "Live from New York it's Saturday night!"

    Waiting for Bernie

    Instead we were treated to an opening about Ted Cruz that hilariously mocked the senator from Texas for being a "nasty little weasel" that even his own daughter didn't want to hug. (That was based on a real event last week in Iowa when his daughter squirmed away from Cruz trying to kiss her.)
    David then came out for the monologue, and no doubt the audience assumed Sanders would walk out at some moment. But again, no Bernie.
    You could truly feel the anticipation building when a short time later we saw the opening of a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" parody titled "Bern your Enthusiasm." I can't recall an audience cheering that loudly for an opening title sequence of a parody. But while David played Sanders, still there was no actual Bernie.
    Could it be that Sanders wasn't going to appear on the show because of a political development requiring him to stay in New Hampshire? Or could it somehow be, as he told Anderson Cooper last week, "Anderson, I know you've been in journalism for a long time. I am Larry David. And you didn't get it!"
    But finally, during a sketch about the Titanic, Bernie walked out playing, well, Bernie -- although he did use the name "Bernie Sanderswitzky," a socialist immigrant on his way to America. Sanders told David that he was going to change his name when he arrived in America to sound less Jewish. To which David jokingly responded, "Yeah, that'll trick 'em!"

    A barrier erodes

    It occurred to me with that joke how far we have come as a nation. No doubt there would have been a time in the not-too-distant past when Sanders' Jewish faith would have subjected to him anti-Semitic attacks and been an obstacle.
    And don't get me wrong, there are still anti-Semites in America -- just ask The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, who was recently subjected to vile anti-Semitic hate emails from Trump supporters after Milbank criticized Trump in an article.
    But still, Sanders' ascendancy without regard to his faith is truly a testament to how our nation inspiringly moves forward. (And yes, his success paves the way for a Muslim American to one day plausibly run for president.)
    In the Titanic sketch, Sanders comically gave us a little about his political manifesto. He pushed back on David's character, demanding that since he's rich, he should get special treatment. "Hold on, wait a second, I am so sick of the 1% getting this preferential treatment," Sanders bellowed. He then intensely added in true Bernie fashion, "Enough is enough. We need to unite and work together if we're all going to get through this."
    Sanders even playfully invoked Donald Trump's trademarked "yuge," as he joked that there is a "yuge" difference between the "democratic socialism" that he advocates and true socialism.

    'SNL' helps and hurts

    As we all know, "SNL" can help and hurt candidates. Just ask Sarah Palin, who, thanks to Tina Fey's amazing impression (and Palin's own actions), is now for many simply a punchline. But in Sanders' case, it's helping, because the jokes comically explain his "democratic socialist" positions to a wide audience that might not be following the presidential race yet. And Larry David's impression of Sanders has helped him.
    Yes, some on the right will argue that the writers are easier on Sanders than Palin. The reality is that comedy writers just heighten reality, they don't create it. Palin has provided comedy writers a gold rush of material.
    And we should keep in mind that jokes about Sanders being a socialist are not as helpful as some on the left may think. Thanks to "SNL," more people heard Sanders is a "democratic socialist"-- and for some that's enough reason to vote against him.
    There are many months, debates and comedy sketches to go before America picks our next president. But regardless of the election results, Bernie has already won the position of America's newest folk hero.