Who Is Sacha Baron Cohen Satirizing?

In his new Showtime series Who Is America?, the British comedian shows the best and worst of his comedy.

Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as Israeli pro-gun advocate Colonel Erran Morad, with Philip Van Cleave
Sacha Baron Cohen (right), in character as the Israeli pro-gun advocate Colonel Erran Morad, with Philip Van Cleave (left) (Showtime)

There’s a reason why Sacha Baron Cohen left the “Kinderguardians” segment to the end of the first episode of Who Is America?, his new satirical Showtime series. The 10-minute sequence is Cohen at his best, playing a swollen, testosteronic Israeli pro-gun advocate called Colonel Erran Morad who’s able—by sheer force of character—to get politicians and lobbyists to argue that children as young as 3 should be armed. The more people Morad talks to, the more preposterous the sketch feels, until you’re cupping your jaw trying to fathom how actual lobbyists and politicians are saying these things.

“A 3-year-old cannot defend itself from an assault rifle by throwing a Hello Kitty pencil case at it,” says Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina. “Our Founding Fathers did not put an age limit on the Second Amendment.”

“The intensive three-week Kinderguardian course introduces specially selected children from 12 to 4 years old to pistols, rifles, semiautomatics, and a rudimentary knowledge of mortars,” says the former congressman and talk-radio host Joe Walsh. (Yes, he said mortars.) “In less than a month, less than a month, a first grader can become a first grenader.”

“Toddlers are pure, uncorrupted by fake news or homosexuality,” says Larry Pratt, the executive director emeritus of Gun Owners of America, before dutifully continuing with the talking points “Morad” has given to him. “Children under 5 also have elevated levels of the pheromone Blink-182, produced by the part of the liver known as the Rita Ora. This produces nerve reflexes to travel along the Cardi B neural pathway to the Wiz Khalifa 40 percent faster, saving time and saving lives.”

Has it been so long since Cohen’s Ali G got the Bishop of Horsham to explain that God’s appearance was “sort of Jesus-shaped”? Or since Brass Eye’s Chris Morris got the Labour MP Syd Rapson to tell viewers that internet predators were using “an area of the internet the size of Ireland”? How could so many Americans be so credibly duped by someone saying such palpably ridiculous things? (This is, you might note, a question that stands beyond the boundaries of a comedy series on Showtime.)

Before the first episode of Who Is America? aired, some of Cohen’s targets came forward to confess that they’d been duped, including Sarah Palin, Roy Moore, and Ted Koppel. The gun-rights activist Philip Van Cleave, it emerged, had posted a 1,400-word Facebook post back in February warning others against falling for what he suspected to be the work of Michael Moore, or “ even worse, a Sacha Baron Cohen-esq ‘Borat’-type of shock comedy.” Walsh took things on the chin. “@SachaBaronCohen got me,” he tweeted. “Do I believe kindergarteners should be armed? Hell no. But, it’s on me. Sacha fooled me good. Flew me out to DC for some made up friend of Israel award. I gotta live with it.”

The joke, if you can call it one, isn’t that Cohen got people, on camera, to say things that lie outside the boundaries of rational discourse but that they secretly believe. It’s that he presented them with something manifestly ridiculous, something possibly dangerous, and he got them to simply go along. It’s the same trick Cohen pulled with his character Borat, when, playing an anti-Semitic journalist from Kazakhstan, he persuaded a group of Americans in a country bar in Tucson, Arizona, to join him in a song titled “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” His schtick isn’t revealing what people actually think. It’s showing how much they’ll put up with before they protest. It’s the Stanford prison experiment, only with more wigs, accents, and general grotesquerie.

This is, for Cohen, a longtime project. In one of the only out-of-character interviews the reclusive comedian’s ever given—a meandering 111-minute episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast—he explained that while studying for his undergraduate degree in history at the University of Cambridge, he focused on Nazi Germany. Cohen also paraphrases a quote by the historian Ian Kershaw that he sees as fundamental to his work: “The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.”

When Who Is America? works, which in the first episode is only in the final 10 minutes, it works because of whom Cohen is targeting. He’s punching up, not down. He’s finding powerful people in America—lobbyists, congressmen, talk-show hosts—and showing how easily they’re swayed by charismatic buffoons with hyper-virile energy. When Who Is America? doesn’t work, it’s because it contains a strain of cruelty that runs through all of Cohen’s comedy. He’s satisfied with playing tricks that make individuals look ridiculous, when he should be focusing his substantial abilities on much bigger targets.

Cohen, like Emma Thompson, Simon McBurney, Kathryn Hunter, and plenty of other acting luminaries, credits his comedic success to clown school. For six months in his 20s he studied under the French master clown Philippe Gaulier, a one-time protégé of the legendary mime instructor Jacques Lecoq. Under Gaulier, Cohen explains to Maron, he learned two kinds of clowning, pure clown and bouffon. Pure clown involves playing simple, sweet characters with the naïveté of children (as Cohen puts it, the rule is, “If this character was one degree more stupid he’d probably be dead”).

Bouffon is different. As Cohen tells Maron, it was an art form that emerged among groups of outcasts between the 11th and 15th centuries—“gays, heretic priests, Jews, people with deformities.” Although they were shunned by society, once a year these groups were welcomed back into villages to stage plays in which they lampooned people in power. “It’s a really nasty form of satire,” Cohen tells Maron. “It’s really kind of horrid. It’s the kind of humor of the dispossessed.”

Borat, Cohen says, is bouffon. He shows people what they are, even as they’re protesting that they’re not at all like that, really. But what is he showing his marks in Who Is America? The first skit, in which Cohen, in character as the conspiracy theorist Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., confronts Senator Bernie Sanders with the notion that inequality in America can be solved by moving everyone into the 1 percent, doesn’t land because Sanders appears not to take Ruddick seriously for a second. His face a picture of skepticism throughout, Sanders repeatedly and politely listens to Ruddick without interjecting, even when Ruddick says he’d rather be anally raped than pay one more dollar to the government (male rape is a subject that somehow comes up three times in the 27-minute episode) “Billy, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I really don’t,” Sanders says. The camera zooms in on his face like it’s some kind of gotcha moment. But all Cohen has apparently proved is that some senators will listen to, and push back against, deluded Americans.

The humor gets more absurd in the next sketch, in which an Infowars fantasy of a liberal parody named Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello visits a Donald Trump delegate and her husband in South Carolina. If Cohen’s goal is to reveal how much people will endure without protest, this sketch is a master class in conservative tolerance. Nira leads the couple through his preferred premeal ritual, a “first-people chant.” They respectfully hold hands and bow their heads. He tells them about encouraging his daughter Malala to “free bleed” on the American flag. “Mm, not appropriate,” Mark Thompson says. “Honey, don’t pass judgment,” June Page Thompson interjects. Nira confesses his shame at the fact that his wife is having an affair with a dolphin. “I empathize with those feelings that you have, because I am a little amazed that she would even want to,” Mark says.

At no point do the Thompsons seem entirely convinced by Nira. At no point are they compelled by his luminous insanity to object to the things he’s saying, or to evict him from their home. So what’s the point? If the mission of Who Is America? is to satirize a nation divided, the Thompsons are proof that some Trump voters are kind and polite (at least in person and on camera) to their ideological opposites. Cohen might have had more luck targeting like with like—sending Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. to visit the Thompsons and Nira to interview Bernie Sanders. If his intention is to goad people into going along with extremists, why send them characters who are antithetical to their worldview?

Cohen’s desire seems to be inciting conflict, as he did in the movie Bruno. In one scene, the main character (played by Cohen), a gay Austrian TV host, ends up kissing his ex-boyfriend in a cage in front of 2,000 hyped-up Arkansans who were there to witness a mixed-martial-arts fight. Filming scenes like that, Cohen told Maron, gives him an adrenaline rush that’s addictive, and once you get hooked “you start making silly mistakes.” If the best comedians inhabit tension, as Hannah Gadsby states in her Netflix special, Nanette, Cohen aims for the space after the tension has erupted. Creating chaos seems to gratify him personally. But it rarely does the same for his audience.

It’s worth noting, too, that there are elements of Cohen’s comedy that feel stuck in the early 2000s. He’s obsessed with juvenile, scatological gross-out gags that feel trollish at best. Before the surprise release of Who Is America?, his most recent project was the movie The Brothers Grimsby, a satirical spy comedy in which (spoiler) Daniel Radcliffe (played by an actor) gets infected with AIDS (he later gives the virus to Donald Trump, also played by an actor), the main character is forced to suck poison out of his brother’s penis, and two spies are forced to hide inside an elephant’s vagina, during which time they’re covered in semen.

The movie was a bomb, and its reviews were largely dismal. So why attempt more of the same? The most perplexing skit in Who Is America? is a reality show–style parody in which Cohen plays an ex-con named Ricky who makes art with his own feces and ejaculate. His target in this scene is a dealer named Christy, a woman who does nothing other than encourage Ricky and his rehabilitation through art. While clearly phased by his “paintings,” she refuses to judge him and his behavior, and raves about the kind of “genius” she discerns in his ability to transcend boundaries. She later donates some of her own pubic hairs to his paintbrush, after he tells her that Damien Hirst and Banksy are among the other artists who’ve contributed.

What’s the sketch for, other than to humiliate and degrade a woman? If lampooning the pretentiousness of the art world is Cohen’s goal, there are much more bloated targets. And artists using their own bodily fluids to create work is hardly extraordinary: Consider Pete Doherty, who made portraits in his own blood, or Andy Warhol’s Oxidations series, or Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or the work of the late Dash Snow. There’s a sexualized aspect to Cohen’s skewering of Christy that feels disturbing (Ricky at one point is so aroused by her praise that he goes to the bathroom to “create” and returns to hand her a picture covered with his own semen). Particularly given that Who Is America? is written and directed entirely by men, and that one of the writers is Kurt Metzger, who has a history of harassing women online.

As comedy, the scene is so reductive, so regressive, so infantile, that it undermines the Kinderguardians segment, which is brilliant. It’s satire aimed not at the powerful, but at the gullible. If bouffon is supposed to show the elites what monsters they are, Who Is America? only reveals the ugliness within Cohen and his co-creators. Which is a waste, because as the final sketch of the show proved, there’s no one more adept at revealing not just what fools people can be, but how dangerous their foolishness can easily become.