When Sacha Baron Cohen was first making a name for himself as faux white rapper Ali G in the late 1990s, making fools of B-list celebrities with his dumbass interviews, another British provocateur was really going for the jugular: Chris Morris’ “Brass Eye” was jaw-droppingly good television, where he got celebrities and politicians to solemnly pronounce on some completely made-up danger to society. In an episode looking at drugs in Britain, he found a disturbingly high number of familiar faces to speak out against the perils of the fictitious narcotic “Cake,” even getting one Conservative politician to ask questions about it in Parliament.
I can pay Baron Cohen’s new Showtime comedy no greater compliment than saying there is one particular sketch in “Who is America?” in which I was reminded of “Brass Eye.” But I was also disappointed that the 10-minute segment at the end of the first episode – in which Israeli “terrorist terminator” Col. Erran Morad goes to Washington, pushing his idea to arm 4-year-olds in kindergartens – was the only sketch that truly merited the enormous lengths to which the comedian and his team have gone to dupe Americans into appearing on camera.
There were two interesting things about the announcement earlier this month that Baron Cohen was returning to star in his first TV show since 2004: First, as the likes of David Bowie and Beyoncé and Jay-Z have shown in recent years, it’s surprisingly easy to keep high-profile projects under wraps if you really want; and, second, are oddball segments for the likes of batshit crazy websites like “InfoWars” so prevalent nowadays that it’s become easier than ever to dupe politicians into appearing on screen for some completely random show?
“Who is America?” nails its colors to the mast in the opening credits, as JFK and Reagan are shown delivering presidential addresses, while Donald Trump is shown mocking a reporter with a disability. Folks, it doesn’t get any subtler than this. Baron Cohen’s comedy hero was Peter Sellers, and while the Jewish comedian shares the former’s amazing ability to transform himself into a variety of characters, he also shares his love of a crude joke. Put simply, the show veers between the satirical brilliance of “Dr. Strangelove” and the scatological humor of the latter-day “Pink Panther” movies, making for an at-times frustrating watch.
Of the four sketches in the opening show, I’d rate one as a timely yet timeless comedy masterpiece; one a very funny if morally dubious piece lampooning the art world; one an overextended joke that has a certain car-crash appeal to it; and one a big disappointment.
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The latter is the interview with “Bernard Sanders,” in which Truthbrary.org founder Billy Wayne Ruddick explains to the bemused Vermont senator how the 99 percent can join the 1 percent to become the 199 percent. The moustachioed, fair-haired, corpulent “journalist” also asks Sanders about the Affordable Care Act: “ObamaCare doesn’t work,” he explains. “I mean, I know personally. I was a healthy man, then ObamaCare came in. I was forced to see a doctor and suddenly I have three diseases.” Cut to Sanders’ sudden eye movement as if searching for the nearest exit door.
The problem here is it’s never clear who the butt of the joke is. It’s definitely not Sanders, who escapes with his dignity intact and concludes with the honest admission, “Billy, I have no idea what you’re talking about, I really don’t.” And someone like Billy is almost beyond a joke because the type of character he is based on is already a parody.
The next sketch features an NPR sweatshirt-wearing, ponytail-sporting liberal (“a cis gender, white heterosexual male – for which I apologize”) cycling across America in order to “heal the divide” – which isn’t exactly the hardest target to hit. To do this he visits the opulent home of a South Carolina Trump couple “who suffer from white privilege.” As they dine, he introduces more and more outrageous ideas (including having his newly menstruating young daughter, Malala, “free bleed” on a U.S. flag as a sanitary towel). The Republican couple bear all of this with remarkable sanguinity, which ultimately begs the question of what the hell they thought they were signing up to.
Peak crudity arrives in a segment in which a British ex-con presents his unique art forms to the fine art consultant at a swanky gallery in Laguna Beach. These works, he explains, were borne from a “dirty protest” he staged while in prison, giving a whole new meaning to the term “art movement.” Much as I wanted to hate this sketch, I did find myself laughing throughout – although God only knows what Christy the consultant will be feeling as she watches herself make a rather personal offering at the end. I can only hope she sees it as some kind of video installation art.
The moment of genius finally arrives with the most compelling new character, the Israeli character of Col. Morad (the show is worth watching alone to hear Baron Cohen’s Israeli pronunciations of “NRA” and “Congress”).
“The NRA wants to arm the schoolteachers. This is crazy! You should be arming the children!” says black-clad, bulked up, black-cropped-haired Erran, who appears to be modeled on a G.I. Joe figure. He enlists gun rights activist Philip Van Cleave to his cause for a cartoon called “Kinder Guardians: How to Protect Your Preschool,” which really does need to be seen to be believed.
But the real stroke of genius comes when Baron Cohen’s character struts through the Capitol Building and meets Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, who expresses misgivings about saying on television that he supports giving firearms to 3- and 4-year-olds, noting: “Typically, members of Congress don’t just hear a story about a program and then indicate whether they support it or not.” Cut to the likes of Trent Lott, Dana Rohrabacher, Joe Wilson and Joe Walsh expressing their instant support for the “Kinder Guardians” program. (“A 3-year-old cannot defend itself from an assault rifle by throwing a Hello Kitty pencil case at it,” is Wilson’s particularly scary comment.)
Of course, this shows us that – as Morris demonstrated 20 years ago – you can pretty much get a politician to say anything on screen if you couch it in the right way for their electorate and make sure they don’t think about it for too long. Yet the most worrying aspect is not that these politicians’ careers will not be shot to pieces despite them spouting such nonsense, but that there are people out there right now probably thinking, “Kinder Guardians? Great idea!”
“Who is America?” ultimately proves there’s a very thin line between satire and White House policy these days.