Gavin Bond/Showtime
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July 15, 2018 at 12:19 PM EDT

Who Is America? stars creator Sacha Baron Cohen as four new characters. If you ever watched Cohen’s cult comedy Da Ali G Show, you recognize the format. There are in-character interviews with people who don’t get that they are the joke, and real-world comedy set pieces provoking absurd reactions from genuine humans. Cohen’s doing accents so unlikely the poor saps onscreen can only assume he’s authentic.

Before Showtime debuted Who Is America? on Sunday, conservative notables like Sarah Palin and Joe Walsh were already lining up to admit they were fooled into appearances. Nominally, they were deploring Cohen’s fake-news tactics. Actually, they were giving free advertising — and receiving some, too. Now I know who Joe Walsh is. Thanks, Sacha?

The first episode is hit or miss with big laughs and long humorless pauses. The basic structure is familiar, a bit tired. It opens with Cohen in character as Dr. Billy Wayne Roddick Jr., a grotesque of alt-right tropes. Billy Wayne doesn’t understand math, has incoherent thoughts about healthcare, is overweight. Are we laughing yet?

The big thing in this scene is the lowest form of modern comedy: Cameo humor, uuuugggghhhh. Billy Wayne is talking to Senator Bernie Sanders. From one possible, totally lame perspective, Sanders’ mere appearance here is the whole ball game: Wow, he got Bernie on the show! But every politician is overexposed now. You get the vibe that this is not the first interview Sanders had that day. You wonder if it was even the weirdest.

The second segment features Cohen as Billy Wayne’s polar opposite. This Democrat grotesque (with a name I’m too lazy to write) introduces himself as a “cisgender, white heterosexual male, for which I apologize.” He wears an NPR shirt, lives in a yurt, has a son named Harvey Milk, a daughter named Malala, prays with a tribal chant: Right, who’s got their liberal Bingo card? He hangs out with a southern conservative couple. The woman is a Trump delegate. The man is a Trump voter. Is this Sarah Silverman’s whole Hulu thing? Has every southern household booked a dinner with a curious comedian?

The least important problem in our current political situation is that a lot of political comedy seems to be fighting yesterday’s wars, bringing the most archaic weapons of humor to a battlefield gone thermonuclear. Remember the identical I-voted-for-Jill-Stein jokes in American Horror Story: Cult and Roseanne? You get the same vibe from Cohen’s first two characters, like he’s grasping for the most obvious things people tweeted about liberals and conservatives two years ago.

On Da Ali G Show, Cohen played three characters: The titular white boy rapper wannabe, cheerful Kazakh Borat, and ecstatically gay Bruno. The broadest of stereotypes, but they shared an excitable innocence. And their interviews were built on the “old southern lawyer” trick, Cohen playing dumb as he set one trap after another for his prey. Whereas the key joke in the early going of Who Is America? is, essentially, “Look how wacky Cohen’s new characters are!”

A lot of shock comedy depends on a blunt, harsh power dynamic: That gotcha! moment, like a smarmy kid declaring WE FOOLED YOU. You remember that Da Ali G Show rose to prominence alongside Jackass and Punk’d. Those shows utilized an undercover comedy tactic dating back to Candid Camera. Now, that tactic is an actual political strategy, utilized by people like James O’Keefe. Also, “undercover comedy” seems to be half the humor of young YouTubers, or at least for the asshat contingent who make big advertising dollars terrorizing whatever neighborhood in Los Angeles they’re gentrifying this week.

You wonder if this kind of comedy has hit a dead end, is what I’m saying. Cohen himself went a different direction in the Obama era, and he actually found a wild new rhythm with the fully scripted The Brothers Grimsby, a riot-comedy action assault that uncannily tapped a pre-Brexit vein of class warfare.

Grimsby wasn’t perfect and continued a downward box office trajectory for all Cohen’s star vehicles post-Borat. So for all the provocations of Who Is America?, you have the feeling of a creative mind retrenching behind familiar ground. And so there are parts of Who Is America? where I had a good long think about what the hell this thing is, anyway. (Like: Why is this rich British dude bothering people?)

But there’s a rewarding feeling of discovery here, too. The funniest bits in the second segment belong to the conservative man, a droll Leslie Jordan-a-like who’s politely horrified by Cohen’s antics. You forget how funny it is to see someone be politely horrified.

In the third segment, Cohen plays Rick Sherman, an ex-convict who just finished a 21-year sentence, seeking a new life as an artist. Sherman is the most boring of Cohen’s new characters. (“Like, Cockney” seems to be the character summary.) Sherman takes his art to a gallery in Laguna Beach, Calif., where he sits down with the woman who runs the gallery. She’s the picture of SoCal serenity, blonde, smiling. I think the initial gag in this segment was supposed to be, basically, “Look how goofy the art industry is.” Oh goodness gracious me, some art world humor! Fetch the caviar, Farnsworth!

Sherman’s art is sliced cardboard covered in feces. He’s brought samples. But the gallerist, seemingly game for anything, looks at his work with blank awe. Inspired, he goes to the toilet and “produces” another piece of art. Unflappable, she remarks that he might be a genius. He makes an extremely private request, unprintable for this family-friendly website —and she’s totally down!

This woman’s giving a wonderful performance, and it becomes impossible to figure out who’s putting on who. Does the gallerist know that she’s on a comedy show? Does she care? You wonder if the joke’s on Cohen here: If the art world is a self-aware farce, and the sharpest operators are the ones with the sense of humor, yes-anding their way through an impossible new reality where every lunatic could be Banksy.

It’s the least political piece of this first episode, and unquestionably the funniest. I spotted Nathan Fielder’s name in the end credits. Hard to figure out his precise contribution; many writers and directors are credited. But this is the one scene that recalls his work on Nathan for You, which was a brilliant evolution of the undercover-comedy style, at once wildly overcomplicated and sweetly humane.

Then there’s the super political segment. Cohen plays Erran Morad, a steroidal Israeli militarist who thinks the big problem with America is that not enough people have firearms. Morad’s the one character who arrives as a fully-conceived creation, a cartoon spoof of gun-mad jingo. (Even just the way he walks is hilarious.)

Like Cohen’s earlier characters, Morad is both over-the-top and sly. He engages with a lineup of real-world personalities, and his victims seem to regard Morad as their blunt dream come true. So he gets to speak truth to power. The power looks on, mesmerized.

Cohen convinces gun rights advocate Philip Van Cleave to film a gun instruction video for 3-year-olds, featuring kid-friendly gun characters like Puppy Pistol and Uzicorn. Gun lobbyist Larry Pratt chortles along as Morad says things that are casually racist, sexist, and outright rape-y. The segment ends with current and previous officeholders like Trent Lott, Dana Rohrabacher, and Joe Wilson, endorsing Morad’s “Kinderguardian” program, which seeks to put guns in the hands of the youngest possible schoolchildren. And sure enough, there’s Joe Walsh, just another rube who doesn’t know or care what he’s reading off a teleprompter. He promises that “a first grader can become a first grenadier.” What an idiot.

I dunno. You wonder who this comedy is for. I think that guns are death machines beloved by cowards who don’t realize they’re stooges for rich weapon manufacturers, and even I had a pretty meh reaction. You don’t imagine anyone involved will feel embarrassed. Hell, Joe Walsh might start selling “First Grenadier” T-shirts. If I were still in college, I might even wear a First Grenadier shirt — ironically, maybe, though more likely because whatever.

The first politician Cohen speaks to in the segment is Matt Gaetz, a Republican representative from Florida. On camera, Gaetz is the one person to clock what Cohen’s up to. He says that there’s no way any politician will support the Kinderguardian program on camera. It’s the final joke’s setup, and by comparison to Lott, Gaetz comes off pretty well, actually, his deadpan confusion reading as positive.

Unsurprisingly, Gaetz is the one stooge on Who Is America? to fully endorse the show. When The Daily Beast spoke to Gaetz, he cheerfully admitted to being fooled. Gaetz is a big fan of Cohen’s, actually. He’s the right age to have discovered Da Ali G show in college, like me.

He’s also a political creature of the moment, eternally willing to appear on television to defend President Trump. Or defend anything, really. Days before he appeared on Who Is America?, Gaetz went on Lou Dobbs Tonight to claim that the Jim Jordan scandal is a plot by the Deep State. Gaetz also voted against a human trafficking bill because, as he later explained, there’s too much government — though presumably one aspect of government we can all agree on is that it ought to do everything it can to prevent human trafficking. And yes, it was Gaetz who invited a Holocaust denier to this year’s State of the Union speech. This is, of course, an outrageous act, but the best part of that whole sordid affair was when Gaetz told Politico that he simply didn’t know the person who he personally invited to the State of the Union.

So, of course, Gaetz is stoked about appearing on Cohen’s show. He’s on TV, dummy! What’s wrong with that? There are some laughs in Who Is America?, but the most profound feeling you get from the show is weariness. Cohen’s haphazard comedy instincts feel topical in the worst way. Some politicians said crazy things on television? That’s not strange anymore. It’s mandatory. C+

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