‘There’s nothing funny about the middle.’ How Bernie Sanders locked down the comedian vote

Comedians at November's Bernie Sanders benefit at the Bell House included (from left) Ted Alexandro, Ramon Rivas II, The Lucas Bros, Kenny DeForest, Will Miles, Clark Jones and Sasheer Zamata. Photo by Mindy Tucker.
Comedians at November’s Bernie Sanders benefit at the Bell House included (from left) Ted Alexandro, Ramon Rivas II, The Lucas Bros, Kenny DeForest, Will Miles, Clark Jones and Sasheer Zamata. The event raised $2,000 Photo by Mindy Tucker.

The New York primary won’t matter much by the time it comes around on April 19. The candidates will likely be decided, the thinkpieces on what happened in Iowa and Nevada will all be thunk out. New York still gets to vote, but we’re the ninth inning relief pitcher in a blowout game. There is one local primary that already has a clear winner, however: The comedians of New York City have spoken, and they’re siding with Bernie.

“I was feeling super high on life and really inspired. I want do do something else other than phone banking and my $10 donations here and there,” said Cathryn Mudon, who’s co-hosting a Feel the BERNefit Comedy Fundraiser at Union Hall on Monday, featuring SNL’s Sasheer Zamata, The View‘s Michelle Collins and others. “We have so many talented friends who seem to be supporting him.”

At least seven comedy-based fundraisers and parties have been held for Bernie Sanders in the past few months, featuring big names, up-and-coming comedians and one show that even attempted the world record for number of tequila shots done in honor of a presidential candidate. At the same time, there have been zero comedy shows, concerts or the like supporting Hillary, even though it’s safe to say a wide swath of Brooklyn and New York City is still on Team Hill and eager for a woman president (not to mention that her campaign office is based here). We asked several comedians about why Bernie has captured the comedy momentum, and spoke to some who worry the disparity between candidate support just means that local comedy is still a boys’ club.

Posters from the Bernie comedy movement in Brooklyn.
Posters from the Bernie comedy movement in Brooklyn.

The list of Bernie fundraiser shows is as varied as any nightlife in Brooklyn: Bushwick’s oddball alternative circus venue House of Yes (2 Wyckoff Ave.), for instance,  held the one with the tequila shots that also featured a sword swallower, burlesque, aerialists, sludge rock and rap troupe/frequent comedy show guests Hand Job Academy. The Bell House hosted a more mainstream stand-up show in November featuring Seaton Smith, Late Night writer Michelle Wolf and Zamata again. The show raised about $2,000 for the Sanders campaign.


@BabesforBernie rocking the House of Yes benefit in early February. Via House of Yes Instagram
@BabesforBernie rocking the House of Yes benefit in early February. Via House of Yes Instagram

“I think comedy is sort of inherently anti-establishment,” said Kenny DeForest, who hosted the Bell House show with Will Miles and Clark Jones, and calls the show his brainchild. “When he started to run, and it seemed sort of legitimate, I just wanted to do something. I think a relatable feeling for a lot of people my age — I turn 30 in April — is this feeling of helplessness with the political process.”

He put out a call for acts and had an easy time getting responses from the “ton of Bernie comedians” out there. The humor at these shows has a political edge to it, but they’re mostly regular comedy shows.

“He’s the kind of candidate who brings passion out in people,” he said. Plus, “comedians love stage time, especially at an awesome venue like the Bell House.”

Sanders, a 74-year-old self-proclaimed socialist, has made huge statements about getting the influence of big money out of politics. So it’s understandable why his grassroots fundraising attracts the kinds of people who are more likely to Kickstart their web series and stick to shows in DIY venues with no heat. Sanders is the underdog too, which is always appealing to emerging entertainers who hustle to book three shows a night.

Clinton, on the other hand, just doesn’t seem like she needs the help that a show at Union Hall, Over the Eight or Cameo Gallery (RIP) could drum up, Mudon said. (Tickets for Mudon’s show are still available for $12 here, btw.)


Via Cameo Gallery's Instagram.
Via Cameo Gallery’s Instagram.

“There’s probably going to be less enthusiasm to raise $2,000 for a multi-millionaire, especially among a group of artists,” Mudon, who’s 34 and lives in Harlem, told us. “They already identify with the struggle of trying to make art and struggling to get by.”

That show at the House of Yes was “mostly white and artsy,” said Clara Bizna$$, one of the members of Hand Job Academy. “The average age was 20s-30s but there were a few older folks. We play all sorts of shows with the most random audiences, so it wasn’t too unusual for us. They seemed to dig it; we got a lot of positive feedback afterwards.”

She describes the group as all liberal and feminist, with the issues of LGBTQ rights, education reform, #BlackLivesMatter and body positivity at the forefront of their minds. This marks their first political show, not counting Chris Gethard’s 12-hour election night marathon in 2012.


Mudon (whom you might recognize from Broad City last season as the woman who got hit with the jar Abbi threw in Whole Foods)— was active in politics in her hometown in western Colorado, which she says was a solidly red state at the time. She knocked on doors for Al Gore’s 2000 campaign but after John Kerry’s loss broke her heart in 2004, she needed a break from politics. The two Obama campaigns seemed in the bag (“Who did he even run against? I don’t recall a sense of panic or urgency”), but now there’s a creeping dread of a “fictional nightmare” where one of the Republicans wins.

"It did end up being this really diverse anti bro lineup" - Cathryn Mudon.
“It did end up being this really diverse anti bro lineup” – Cathryn Mudon.

She attached herself to Sanders after seeing videos of him talking about income inequality.

“He’s actually bringing legitimate support to these same issues that everyone down in Zuccotti Park has been raising for years,” she said.

DeForest, who lives in Bushwick, graduated college in 2008 with a degree in business administration and finance but couldn’t get a job in the recession. Sanders’ message of income equality speaks to him too. He would be a “wild shakeup” of the political system, DeForest said.

So why the lack of performers stepping up to show Hillary that NYC has her back? Most comedians we talked to (and it’s safe to say, almost all Sanders supporters) in the city aren’t exactly going to cast a vote for Trump, Cruz, or whatever walking hump of hair and 1950s values the Republicans nominate for November. But so far the only Hillary based “cool” event in town has been a Bill Clinton appearance at Brooklyn Bowl — for $250 a head. She’s clearly got some comedy backing: Lena Dunham is a supporter and Clinton is slated to appear on Broad City this season; the season premiere showed both Abbi and Ilana reading her book.


Team Clinton includes Broad City and Leslie Knope.
Team Clinton includes Broad City and Leslie Knope.

Part of it is that Hillary Clinton’s name has been in all of our heads — for better or worse — since we were taking the Presidential Fitness test in elementary school.

“You throw concerts for things you want to raise awareness for,” Mudon said. “Nobody hosts a show for the establishment.”

“Brooklyn men are about as comfortable with women in power as they are with female comedians—not at all” – Sue Smith

Is Hillary maybe just not … funny? She’s a centrist who presents herself as the longtime company employee who would make a great manager; Sanders is the outside new hire who wants to shake up the office. He lends himself to hip memes (though Hillary’s campaign handed out “Chillary Clinton” coozies that at the Atlantic Antic in September).

“There’s nothing funny about the middle,” DeForest said. “In comedy, if you want to write, it’s kinda: pick a side and write from there.”

Or it could be because “comedy is a boy’s sport,” said Sue Smith, a Brooklyn-based comedian and Hillary supporter who’s appeared on VH1, MTV and Lifetime (and was a contributor to this site).

“Misogyny is alive and well within the community,” she said. “Brooklyn men are about as comfortable with women in power as they are with female comedians — not at all. They’re liberal, yet deep down they can’t stand the idea of a female president, yet don’t want to admit they have trouble with women in power. Thus, they’re voting for Bernie. Seems like a win/win, right? Nah, it’s all bullshit. We need a female president.”

Halle Kiefer, a stand-up and writer for Vulture who lives in Queens, called herself a moderate whose vote will “probably go to Hillary.” She adopted a more moderate view of the disparity in comedy fundraisers.

“I think the answer is the perception, which I believe is correct, that Hillary Clinton does not need grass-roots level fundraising in the way Bernie might,” she said. “Hillary has been considered the front runner for a long time and one that still has a lot of support of the party, so I would guess that’s why benefit/fundraising events haven’t really been part of her campaign.”


Via @kell_yes Instagram.
Via @kell_yes Instagram.

So the young comedians of NYC are feeling the Bern for the candidate they admit may still be a long shot to make it to the presidency. Things might change if everyone has to rally behind a candidate to defeat Trump in the general election. But what would a Hillary fundraiser show in Brooklyn even look like?

“It would probably be the same, but probably more women and people with money,” Bizna$$ said. “::Waves to Lena Dunham::”

For more laughing so we don’t cry about this election, follow Tim: @timdonnelly.

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