Gustav Jönsson | 5 September 2018
Sending up modern America may be a winning formula, but the misses outnumber the hits in Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest show.
To call Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest mockumentary “hit-and-miss”, as some critics did, would be much too kind. There certainly are hits – some home runs even – but the proportion of hits to misses is not as balanced as the term “hit-and-miss” would suggest. Who Is America? could more accurately be described as miss-miss-miss-and-hit. But when the hits land they are real belters.
Starting with the hits. The best is the preposterous anti-terrorist ex-Mossad agent Erran Morad, host of the pro-gun programme Kill or Be Killed. (“The NRA want to arm the teachers, this is crazy! We should be arming the children.”) As there is no shortage of American patriots ready to defend the right of kids to bear computerized machines of murder, Baron Cohen lands several interviews with Congressmen (no Democrats) endorsing his “kinder guardian” scheme. This plan consists of supplying children as young as three years old with firearms.
Rep. Joe Wilson: “Our Founding Fathers did not put an age limit on the Second Amendment.”
Former Congressman Joe Walsh: “In less than a month, less than a month, a first grader can become a first grenader [sic].”
The former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott goes the whole way, saying that law-abiding citizens such as “highly-trained pre-schoolers” should be equipped with guns.
Unfortunately, none of Baron Cohen’s other new characters are as entertaining as Morad the “terrorist terminator”. The self-loathing gender studies lecturer Dr. Nira Cain-N'Degeocello (author of Masculinity and Other Hate Crimes) is good for a few laughs but quickly grows stale. The recurring gag is flaunting exaggerated progressivism (often sexual) in the face of conservatives. This can be fun – the segment where he proposes the construction of a mega-mosque in Kingman, Arizona to boost Islamic tourism is particularly good. But the Cain-N'Degeocello repertoire is otherwise limited and predictable.
The Dr Billy Wayne Ruddick character is equally limited. Conspiracy theories are simply not very funny, even when it is Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders who has to debunk them. He is not exaggerated, however. Nothing right-wing arch conspiracist Billy Wayne says is much battier than what InfoWars regularly publishes. It is entirely plausible that InfoWars would claim, as Billy Wayne does, that PBS is being run by “the biggest force in politics … the Rastafarian lobby”. If his most outlandish claims were said by Alex Jones, then we would surmise that Jones was being uncommonly sensible. The conspiratorial reality has outpaced comedy, and that reality was never amusing anyway.
One of the show’s failings is that we remain unsurprised throughout most of it. Politicians saying daft and divisive things is not shocking, it is a good election strategy. And getting television celebrities to embarrass themselves is hardly a great achievement; it is in the job-description of every soap-opera “personality” to be both stupid and embarrassing. But there are moments when Baron Cohen is surprising (and therefore humorous). Erran Morad’s sketch with former Georgia state Rep. Jason Spencer is now justly famous for delivering the unforeseeable. In swift succession Morad convinces Spencer to (1) repeatedly bellow “nigger”, (2) impersonate a Chinese tourist in order to insert a selfie-stick under the garments of a burka wearing woman, (3) pull down his pants, rushing butt first towards a supposed Islamic terrorist, shouting “USA”, and threatening to “homosexualise” the terrorist. It is madness, but it is also entertainment (of a sort).
At its best Who Is America? manages what good comedy always does – it makes light of society’s known vices. It is widely realised that the promise of money makes people part with their principles. Baron Cohen capitalises on this vice by showing how cheaply some people value their moral decency. Disguised as Italian billionaire playboy Gio Monaldo, Baron Cohen approaches a luxury yacht seller, looking to buy Bashar al-Assad a new yacht. The seller sees no objection in listing Assad as a client. He even guarantees Monaldo that the yacht can be equipped with anti aircraft weaponry and a safe room. Can electricity be put into the water to keep drowning Mediterranean refugees from climbing onboard? “Yeah, you could”. Flammable liquid? “Yeah”, again. Shooting refugees with mounted guns? “People don’t know about it, then, fine, yes”. Trafficking Eastern European women? “Put twenty in a room if you want”. Could more than twenty be managed? “Thirty per room … If they want it, and they want to write the check for it, it can be done”.
Who Is America? is not flattered by comparison with Baron Cohen’s earlier work. Ali G and Borat were marvels of comedy, consequently any juxtaposition with them will highlight shortcomings. Most noticeable is perhaps the overlaboured setups that Baron Cohen uses to prank his interviewees. Most interviews appear to have been arranged with the assistance of a great many people. Strings have been pulled, favours called in, and a minor army of makeup artists recruited. It may be necessary to go to some lengths to ensnare Roy Moore, OJ Simpson and Dick Cheney – and if it yields Cheney autographing waterboarding equipment it may be worth it – but the spontaneity is lost. The efforts exhaust the patience of the viewer; the jokes become predictable (asking Cheney for a “Dick pic”). Of course if it were not for the comparison to Ali G and Borat the criticism would have been more forgiving.
The season finale aired without showing the anticipated Sarah Palin tape. Palin, perhaps America’s most stupid politician (a field with stiff competition), has published a lengthy semi-coherent social media post complaining about being duped by Baron Cohen. It does, admittedly, not take much to fool Palin, but it was disappointing that the interview was not aired. The appearance of Palin on television is almost synonymous with comedy, for although it is not assured to be fun, there is at least always a clown. It is to be hoped that the Palin tape will be released in the near future, pro bono publico as it were. And I suspect that it will. Baron Cohen is clearly not finished with his mischief. Some sharp-eyed viewers spotted the show crediting Palin for her services as (Inadvertent) Special Publicity Consultant – a nice touch with promise of more.
Gustav Jönsson is a writer and editor of The Medusa Review. You can find him on Twitter @GustavNJonsson