Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show Who Is America? might struggle to mill comedy from a Republican Party that long ago moved past the point of parody, but there’s still fertile ground on the other side of the aisle. Case in point: Baron Cohen’s interview with Bernie Sanders, where the comic goes incognito as the Alex Jones-ish far-right conspiracy monger Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. In detailing his plan to combine the 99% with the 1%, Ruddick has as hard a time understanding numbers and percentages as Baron Cohen does concealing his British accent (seriously, he keeps slipping in and out of that fake Southern thing he’s trying to do). Sanders tries to stay patient at first despite his obvious annoyance, but it doesn’t take long for him to let Ruddick know that his plan makes absolutely no sense.
This might not have the same sociopolitical weight as the show’s infamous “arm toddlers to prevent school shootings” segment, but it works better as comedy for a few reasons. Sanders can be notoriously prickly, and his obvious discomfort is part of his charm and part of why he was so easily meme-able during the campaign. Baron Cohen gets Sanders into an uncomfortable place, but without bringing to mind something as bleak as school shootings. The focus isn’t entirely on Sanders, though, but on the doltish mindset of Baron Cohen’s character, which is a more recognizable and fully realized parody than the Israeli colonel he plays in the gun control clip. Anybody familiar with today’s conservatives or right-wing media will immediately know what Baron Cohen is trying to do with the Ruddick character. And finally the whole scenario is just unapologetically foolish, with the joke being Ruddick’s inability to comprehend math and not the extreme disparity between the rich and poor. Baron Cohen isn’t mocking Sanders’s beliefs, as he does those of Republicans; he’s mocking the uninformed, biased, “gotcha”-style non-journalism of Infowars and Project Veritas and the Gateway Pundit. It might not have the edge of the much longer guns segment, but it’s a lot easier to laugh with.