NEW YORK — About 250 people packed into a dingy bar here last weekend to hear jokes about sex, pedophilia, social anxiety and pubic hair. Admission was eight bucks a pop, and all proceeds went to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
“Before Bernie was a Vermont senator, he was the mayor of my home town,” said Will Betts, a comedian from Burlington who bears a striking resemblance to the slick-haired pop star Sam Smith. “When I was a kid, I didn’t know who Bernie was, but I would see him walking down the street talking to himself. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that is a really well-dressed homeless man. There must be someone donating suits to the homeless.’ ”
For his next joke, Betts delivered a riff on gender-neutral bathrooms, including a bit on his discomfort when a little girl held the door for him that elicited groans throughout the club.
“I felt like I couldn’t go in,” he said. “I was afraid people would say, ‘Why is Sam Smith going into the bathroom with a little girl?’ ”
“I can’t imagine Hillary allowing this,” a member of the audience whispered to a friend.
This was Bernie Fest at the Cameo Gallery in Williamsburg, one of the handful of events put on by comics around the country and promoted on Sanders’s presidential Web site. Sanders rarely has an inclination for humor himself, sticking with bromides about the state of the economy and rants against the billionaire class. He doesn’t bother schmoozing with constituents: He’s got a world to save. (He similarly declined an interview request for this article.) And when he does try his hand at a joke, he’ll bark the punch line and quickly declare he was only kidding.
“I’m told I don’t have a sense of humor,” he announced recently to an audience in Iowa that had surely already figured that out.
And yet many comedians love him. There have been “Stand Up for Bernie” events put on in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. His Web site lists Will Ferrell and Margaret Cho as supportive artists.
“Not only was Bernie fighting for civil rights in the ’60s, he was also fighting for gay marriage in the ’80s, he was against the Iraq war, against deregulation of Wall Street that led to the 2008 collapse — and, most importantly, against the breakup of Destiny’s Child,” Sarah Silverman said, introducing him at a rally in California in August.
“I want @BernieSanders to quietly walk out onto this stage and five-point-palm-exploding-heart all these hollow beasts,” Patton Oswalt tweeted while watching a Republican debate.
So why exactly are some of the funniest people in the country supporting the most humorless candidate?
“I think it’s that comedians are hyper-attracted to truth without spin and being able to communicate it well on stage,” said James Adomian, who deploys a near-perfect Sanders impression at TV gigs and fundraisers.
“I think it’s because a lot of us are broke,” said Mike Drucker, a writer for “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.”
“I like him because he reminds me of my dad,” said Aaron Glaser, a New York-based stand-up comic.
Paul F. Tompkins, host of the political comedy show “No, You Shut Up!”, thinks comics can relate to Sanders as a guy with a strong point of view who paid his dues for years on the small stage.
“There’s really no big backers supporting most comedians until you get big,” Tompkins said in a phone interview. “So much of it is going out on your own, learning how to deal with small crowds, learning how to bomb, before you are able to get big. You have to know that you have a message that deserves to be heard, and even if people aren’t hearing it at first, just keeping at it.”
Not to mention the fact that a lot of comedians are liberal, a lot are handsomely educated but hardly well-employed enough to pay off their student loans, and a lot of them appreciate seeing a fellow angry person take the stage to tell it like he sees it.
And obviously, comedians are going to appreciate anyone who is such a character: Sanders talks with a funny Brooklyn accent, acts like a crabby grandfather, and for crying out loud, his name is Bernie. Playing Bernie Sanders on “Saturday Night Live” was probably the easiest gig Larry David ever had — all he had to do was raise his voice, gesticulate wildly, and say, “What’s the deal with e-mails anyway?!?” — and it was one of the funniest bits of the year. (Stipulated: Naturally, not all comedians love Sanders; please don’t bother e-mailing us with your list of conservative comics or Stand Ups for Hillary.)
Adomian, who does a markedly better impression than David, says the shtick has been good for his career — earning him multiple appearances on the popular podcast “Comedy Bang! Bang!” — and makes him feel like he’s doing something good.
“I feel like I’m introducing him to a lot of people who don’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about politics,” he said. “I’m shining a light on him, saying look, he’s great, he’s crazy, he’s awesome.”
But don’t expect these comics to demand equal time for their guy after Donald Trump’s hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live” this weekend. “Bernie Sanders should be covered in the news as much as Hillary Clinton,” said Bill Stiteler, organizer of a Bernie comedy fundraiser in New York that featured a woman in a “Too Big to Fail” shirt who did a burlesque number to a notoriously bad recording of Sanders singing “This Land is Your Land.”
“But I’m all in favor of a lifetime ban of Bernie Sanders doing any comedy shows or SNL,” he said. “If people saw how tremendously unfunny he was, it would be embarrassing.”
“Bernie Sanders,” Stiteler added, “is more punk rock.”
In Williamsburg, people started showing up for Bernie Fest an hour before the comedy began, some of them buying the shirts for sale in the back that said: “F--- it, I guess I’m a Democratic Socialist,” “Bernie is Bae” and “Do you even vote, bro?” Organizers were dazzled by the size of the crowd.
“I can’t even tell what’s going on in there. It’s packed to the gills,” said Alon Elian, who was both excited to perform in front of a larger-than-normal crowd and raise money for a candidate he believed in.
“I never really supported a campaign in my life,” said Josh Bates, who came up with the idea for Bernie Fest. “I got AP credit for making calls for Obama, but I didn’t really care.”
Sanders’s campaign relies on this kind of thing: expanding the electorate to include more young voters and grass-roots excitement. It’s why he has been able to raise $26 million in the last quarter, almost entirely from small donations, and fill stadiums around the country. But inside the bar, it wasn’t entirely clear that all the excitement was for the self-proclaimed democratic socialist.
“He’s way too liberal for me,” said Trent Bielen, who said he felt weird donating money to the campaign but wanted to see the comedy.
“I actually like Trump and Christie,” said a young woman, who was there to support her friend’s brother who was performing at the show.
It seemed that more people were there to see Janeane Garofalo do her manic brand of comedy than to talk about the social safety net. But Garofalo made sure to sprinkle in at least a little political messaging.
“There’s a scent in the air of activism, idealism, student loan debt,” she said to cheers before going into a bit about how fat Chris Christie is. “If he was on ‘Say Yes to the Dress,’ they would say, ‘Embrace your curves, Chris!’ ” She added: “I would never take ad hominem shots on people’s looks if they had a moral compass.”
Asked later if she thought Sanders had such a moral compass, or if she was one of the folks to just show up for the comedy, she bristled — and perhaps unwittingly channeled her candidate’s sense of humor-free indignation.
“Of course I support Bernie,” she said, leaving quickly for another show. “How dare you?”