Picture a standup comic of the old school onstage yelling “America is so screwed” to his audience.
Picture the audience dutifully responding, in loud, happy unison, “HOW SCREWED IS IT?”
Picture the comic then, instead of speaking, turning down the lights and airing an episode of “Who Is America?” as the big payoff — letting the Showtime series from super duper Sacha Baron Cohen put the punch in punch line.
The audience would laugh hysterically because “Who Is America?” is funny — but the laughs would also be painful, outraged, and, ultimately, necessary. The show, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m., puts the ire in satire and the wink in hoodwink, too.
Cohen, whose audacious bluffs on “Da Ali G Show” made him a star in the early oughts, appears to have nothing less in mind with his new show than ridiculing the extremism, ignorance, polarization, and fame-a-holism at the heart of this country right now. In heavily costumed character as four outrageous interviewers, he gets politicians, officials, and regular people to reveal incendiary things about themselves. He has titled the show “Who Is America?” but he might as easily have named it “This Is America” if Childish Gambino hadn’t already taken it.
In the two explosive episodes of “Who Is America?” that have aired so far, Cohen — who developed the new characters for the show — has gotten current and former legislators, including former senator Trent Lott, Representative Joe Wilson, and former representative Joe Walsh, to promote arming 4-year-old children. He has gotten Dick Cheney to sign a plastic bottle he calls a “waterboard kit,” after getting Cheney to say which of his wars was his favorite (answer: Desert Storm). And, most famously, he has gotten Georgia state Representative Jason Spencer to pull down his pants, yell the N-word, and practice shooting covert upskirt photos of people in burqas using a selfie stick. Ultimately, Spencer had to resign.
It’s funny, outrageous, broad — and scary. Some of the material is gratuitous and crude, for sure — getting Cheney, unaware, to make jokes about his own first name and the last name of the president he served as vice president, for example. Or getting an art gallery owner to prove the excesses of liberal arts by embracing the work of an ex-con who uses body fluids as paint.
But most of the show is remarkably on point, from getting Larry Pratt, former executive director of Gun Owners of America, to enthuse giddily about arming toddlers to getting Pratt to laugh conspiratorially when Cohen says as an aside, “It’s not rape if it’s your wife.” Marital rape isn’t a joke, of course, but in this case, it isn’t being deployed as such. It’s a signal of the man’s apparent true character.
My favorite segment has Cohen in the guise of Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a parody of a politically correct liberal who talks about his children, named Harvey Milk and Malala, and his wife’s affair with a dolphin. In the segment, Nira stands before the community of Kingman, Ariz., and announces that their town is going to be the home of the largest mosque outside of the Middle East, to be funded by the Saudi government and the Clinton Foundation. He is greeted with hot anger and anti-Muslim hatred, with one man noting, “This town’s lucky to have black people in it.” Somehow, hearing ordinary folks openly yell out their racism is more disturbing than hearing politicians offend, such as Walsh’s “Happy shooting, kids.” Yes, Cohen is baiting them — but what they say without shame is nonetheless horrifying.
It has been said, truthfully, that “Who Is America?” is redundant. Our reality right now is as shameless as what we see on the series, and some feel that that renders the comedy impotent, that Cohen is showing us what we already see, that his shtick, while relevant back when he was Ali G or Borat, has lost its revelatory power. Recently a clip went viral featuring Attorney General Jeff Sessions laughing along with an audience of conservative high school students chanting “Lock her up” — and he didn’t need Cohen to trick him into it. Our president didn’t need to be duped into arguing that “there is blame on both sides” after the violence in Charlottesville last year. What’s the purpose of having Cohen trigger racist outbursts in Kingman when open racism is already plaguing us?
The point is that what we see on “Who Is America?” is still unsettling, even if it has been coaxed out by a master performer and his crew (none of whom break during the more absurd moments, amazingly), and even if it is telling us what we already know. What we see Cohen’s targets say and do shouldn’t bother us less — and make us chuckle less — because they are too common for comfort. I’d hate to think that we’re becoming numb to the hatred and ignorance that this great poser exposes. I was glad to hear that Spencer was pressured into stepping down; at least he was condemned, at least action was taken. At least our culture isn’t too dazed and callous to let everything slide, shoulders shrugged.
The punch in Cohen’s punch lines? It should still hurt.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.