Sacha Baron Cohen does not break in his new series, “Who Is America?” While getting politicians and civilians to do idiotic things — most famously, perhaps, getting Georgia state Representative Jason Spencer to pull down his pants and yell the N-word, an embarrassment that prompted him to resign — Cohen doesn’t ever appear to be suppressing laughter. Buried under tons of prosthetic rubber and makeup as he conducts his “Candid Camera”-like interviews, he pushes forward with the humorlessness of a man doing a serious job.
It amazes me, particularly since I break out in laughter a number of times during each episode of the series, which airs Sundays on Showtime. I laugh at what people will do on camera, and I laugh at Cohen, who has come up with some twisted new characters. That time when he chanted before a meal with the conservative couple from South Carolina, then told them about how his children, named Harvey Milk and Malala, go to the bathroom politically correctly, then told them about how his wife has affairs with dolphins — I was blind with tears of laughter.
I’m a big fan of those moments when actors do giggle — on “Saturday Night Live,” of course, particularly when Bill Hader tried not to break while playing Stefon, but also on the countless blooper reels you can find on YouTube. I’ve spent far too many minutes — OK, hours — watching “Seinfeld” bloopers, particularly those featuring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose giggles are infectious. The harder the performer tries to stifle laughter, the more they need to let it out. But it ruins the take — and in Cohen’s business, there is only one take.
So kudos to him for resisting, and not sabotaging his own work. He’s an actor, and so, even in improvisational segments, he is trained to stay in character — and extra kudos for the camera crew members, who also manage to keep it together.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.