What Question is Sacha Baron Cohen Trying to Answer?
Note: 'Who Is America' is only available to Showtime subscribers, but the 11-minute clip on guns from the first episode can be seen here. Additional free clips include the segments with Senator Bernie Sanders and state Senator Jason Spencer. This piece was published after the airing of the series' first two episodes.
Sacha Baron Cohen, your favorite method actor's favorite method actor, has returned to television for the first time in a decade and a half with a weekly series on Showtime. Entitled 'Who Is America', the description states that Cohen "explores the individuals who populate our unique nation," which is relatively noncommittal with a hint of sarcasm, and comes off even more layered when you remember that Cohen is actually British. The first two episodes show Cohen in his comfort zone, flexing his array of available characters at the expense of unwary public figures, a Cohen staple dating back to his last television show (the Ali G Show perhaps best remembered for a two-minute sit-down with then-not-president Donald Trump). It's not entirely unexpected that the man with an ability for mockery would eventually turn his eye toward politics, especially at a time when politics is incredibly mock-able. While the fan response has been overwhelming (Showtime got more subscribers on the premiere day than it had any day this year) and the critical response divided, there is a far more important aspect of the show that should be at the forefront. What question is the show – and by extension, Cohen – trying to answer?
You'd think that the clue would be in the title of the show, but Cohen doesn't seem particularly interested in figuring out Who America Is. Rather, he goes into the show with a notion of what exactly America is like, choosing to focus on the absurdity rather than the substance. While there is (correctly) no expectation of substantive dialogue from a comedy (or in this case, a mockumentary), the absurdity does feel somewhat unearned. Typically, absurdity must be unearthed to be valuable or truly enjoyable. Nowadays, absurdity sits out in broad daylight, where everyone was already laughing at it before Cohen came along to point and giggle. Stephen Colbert has made it a regular habit to read Trump tweets in a half-good Trump impression – a bit which is always accompanied with a joke, but the reading of the tweet (which many audience members will have undoubtedly read by the time they hear it from Colbert) always garners the most laughs.
That's not to say that Cohen's work isn't funny – his gun rights character Erran Morad (named after his Cohen's brother Erran, who is the composer of the show) is genuinely entertaining, but that is more of a testament to Cohen than the premise of the show. In the first episode, Morrad speaks with Philip Van Cleave (Virginia Citizens Defense League), Larry Pratt (Gun Owners of America), and a hodgepodge of Republican lawmakers (Matt Gaetz, Trent Lott, Dana Rohrabacher, Joe Wilson, and Joe Walsh). Morad returns for the second episode to interview Georgia State Representative Jason Spencer, the highlight (?) of which was Spencer repeatedly n****r and sand-nigger (I don't have to censor that second one because I'm allowed to say that as a brown man), and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Cohen dipped deep into his bag of tricks in creating Morad – a goofy walking stance, overenunciation, creepy smiles, matter-of-fact ironies ("my son… may he rest in peace"), and risqué stereotypes ("it's not rape if it's your wife"). But the thing is, Morad could do anything and talk to anyone and it would still be funny. Even the fact that Cohen was able to get so many interviews (and teleprompter readings) is a mark of how absurdity is not in short supply. At this point, Cheney might even be better known for once having shot a guy in the face (after which his approval rating dropped to 18%!!!) than for actually being the veep.
This technique isn't a new one by any means. The Daily Show has been doing this for well over a decade, sending out their correspondents on field pieces to try and get a valuable sound byte. Samantha Bee tried to get a number of RNC attendees to just say the word 'choice' when discussing the teen pregnancy of Bristol Palin (daughter of then-Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin), Roy Wood Jr and Jordan Klepper refused to serve North Carolinians barbecue on the assumption that they were gay, a commentary on the state's discriminatory HB2 bill. Jordan Klepper did field pieces in character as Jordan Klepper, most notably 'Jordan Klepper Solves Guns' where the character was a self-righteous left-winger (as opposed to the far-right blowhard Klepper usually plays). The well of content is far from dry – a piece aired just a month ago features Trump supporters trying to explain and justify the idea of a Space Force. While the bit continued to be funny due to the sheer strangeness of the interviewees' responses, it's built within the construct of the show. We know what it is, what it's trying to do, and perhaps more importantly what it's not trying to do. Daily understood that satire was not meant to be a driving force for change, rather just an exposure of a societal institution. Satire shines the light, and others are left to go investigate.
Inherently, the premise of America is flawed. The prevalence of idiocy among the types that Cohen targets robs the shock value that should exist, and in any other time would have existed. Case in point – there are no comedy shows hosted by standups who lean right, whereas the left boasts the aforementioned Noah and Colbert, in addition to Klepper (who has a new show coming soon), Seth Meyers, Sam Bee (who now has her own show), John Oliver, Jimmy Kimmel, Bill Maher, and even (as of late) Jimmy Fallon. For all the talk of how comedy is supposedly easier in the age of Trump, all the low-hanging fruit is already plucked by some subset of these, most of whom have shows multiple times a week. Jokes about the left, however, would be novel, and it's not like there's a dearth of material to satirize. The bit with Bernie Sanders – the only non-right-winger in the first episode – largely centered around Sanders' confusion with Cohen's (in disguise as Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., PhD) inability to understand math, hardly a critique of anything except for an old man's directness ("do you have a disability?"). The second episode's token leftie was journalist Ted Koppel, who successfully resisted Cohen's attempts (again as Ruddick Jr., PhD) to be infuriating about inauguration crowd sizes, coming off as overly rational before eventually caving ("this is a waste of time"). Through two episodes, there was only one line that had an appropriately mocking overtone – "I'm a cisgender white heterosexual male, for which I apologize" – a line which skillfully pokes fun at serial labeling and apparent burden of privilege.
Even the Rick Sherman character was a breath of fresh air – an ex-con turned artist, Sherman's two decades on the inside inspired him to use bodily fluids (including fecal matter) in his art. The bit involves Sherman sitting down with an unsuspecting art gallery owner and describing the nature of his work. While using pubes to make paintbrushes might be dismissed at juvenile humor, the underlying commentary (that an artist with genuine intent can imbue value and meaning into his art, despite the actual technical quality of it) is an important statement. It's presented in stark contrast to the bit with former Bachelor contestant/villain Corrine Olympios, because 'look at how dumb this former reality TV star is' for some reason hasn't been funny for the last couple of years. At least Olympios thought she was doing something for charity, even if she lied about saving people in Africa in order to do it. And then there's the Arizona town hall – expectedly racist, unsurprisingly anti-Clinton, and overall unpleasant – which makes Cohen look like a New York Times reporter. His characters are designed to be foils of those he's interviewing, but he's at his best when ridicule isn't his first priority.
Cohen's show, while nascent, can so far be boiled down to the following: 'how crazy of a thing can we get someone to say?' It's a trajectory destined to be stale – soon, the characters like Morad will grow tiresome, and the laughs will become more obligatory (think: Big Bang Theory season 11). With five episodes left this season (and upcoming guests like Roy Moore and crown jewel Sarah Palin), Cohen still has a chance to mold that directive. What point is he trying to prove? Who is he directing his commentary at? Cohen is best served figuring this out soon, lest his work be lost in irrelevance.