In the most famous, comically potent moment of Da Ali G Show, Sacha Baron Cohen‘s Kazakhstan alter ego Borat takes the stage at a country and western bar in Tucson, Arizona to perform a song called, “In My Country There Is Problem,” whose lyrics include this refrain:
Throw the Jew down the well
So my country can be free
So my country can be free
You must grab him by his horns
Then we have a big party
At first, the audience isn’t sure what to make of this tall man with the funny accent, or how they’re supposed to respond to the virulently anti-Semitic lyrics. But soon he has most of them enthusiastically singing along as the chorus repeats. All it took Cohen was a few minutes and a catchy song to get a crowd of people to publicly expose, at minimum, how easily they’ll overlook bigoted behavior – and at maximum, how much they agree with the sentiments being expressed.
This was in 2003. It was shocking at the time, because for all that split us as a nation back then, there was still some sense of standards and decorum: the idea that certain sentiments shouldn’t be said aloud, and that those who do say them should be shamed and shunned.
Cohen returns to his prankster ways with Who Is America?, a new series that Showtime debuted over the weekend. It is, in many ways, a return to familiar territory for the British comedian, who plays four characters: InfoWars-esque right wing conspiracy theorist Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr.; exhaustively PC liberal Nira Cain-N’Degocello; ex-con turned artist Rick Sherman; and Israeli terrorism expert Erran Morad. This quartet travels the country, ostensibly to find a way to bridge our political divide. Really, they want to expose everyone as fools, hypocrites or both.
But if Cohen’s routine is the same, the America he returns to very much is not. And that’s a big stumbling block – for both America and Who Is America?
Back in the day, Cohen’s goal was to trick people into vocalizing The Things We Think But Do Not Say. Only nothing really qualifies for that list anymore. Nothing is taboo, nothing is shameful and everything is defiantly tribal. In our country, there is problem, and it’s that too many people would not only proudly sing about throwing a Jew down a well. They would then insist that anyone objecting to the song is the true bigot.
Three of the premiere’s four sketches are largely forgettable: Bernie Sanders being mostly puzzled by Billy Wayne; a Republican couple from South Carolina being quietly aghast as Nira told them about his wife’s frequent infidelity with a dolphin; and Rick trying to impress a California art gallery owner with paintings allegedly made of feces and semen. This is the sort of deliberately uncomfortable business that ate up an awful lot of time on Da Ali G Show and its movie spinoffs, where the only real joke is how much absurd behavior Cohen’s hosts will indulge. It’s exhausting, whether you believe the subjects of his “interviews” are utterly bamboozled or not. There’s a small spark in the gallery bit, where Cohen’s amused foil winds up committing to the bit beyond even his own expectations, donating her pubic hair, on camera, to a brush Rick claims to be making with celebrity pubes. But on the whole all three skits seem less like fully fleshed-out comic ideas and more like excuses to establish each character’s archetypal traits (Nira: “I’m a cisgender white heterosexual male, for which I apologize”) for use in bits down the road.
The episode’s big set piece involved Erran sitting down with a group of gun rights advocates and NRA-friendly politicians. He asks for their help promoting a program called “Kinderguardians,” which posits that the solution to school shootings isn’t arming teachers – a popular GOP talking point of late – but giving guns to 3 and 4-year-olds. He gets a bunch of them, including some sitting congressmen, to record their endorsements of the idea; he also recruits Virginia Citizens Defense League president Philip Van Cleave to tape an appearance in a fake educational video, where the advocate demonstrates how to shoot a gun hidden inside a teddy bear and sings, “Aim at the head, shoulders, not the toes, not the toes.”
The writing of that bit, and some of the other things Cohen fools his marks into saying on camera, is clever. But the whole thing feels toothless – a small difference of degree, and not of kind, from what his marks say, do and publicly stump for already. We’re in an era of politics that has proven largely satire-proof (look at how badly SNL has struggled to come up with a take on Donald Trump beyond “he’s an idiot”) and there’s little Cohen and his writers can get his targets to say that’s notably more ridiculous or offensive than what they would utter aloud without his help. In promos for upcoming episodes, a smiling Dick Cheney signs a “waterboard kit.” The former Vice President’s pro-torture stance isn’t exactly something a master con man has to bamboozle him into admitting; the man is on record about it. Cohen’s playing Gotcha! with people who have already confessed to far worse, over and over again.
There’s a moment featuring Gun Owners of America director Larry Pratt where Erran jokes, “It’s not rape if it’s your wife.” Pratt cackles, shakes Erran’s hand, and says, “That probably won’t be in the video we send to the Hill.” At another time, this might be startling. Now it’s just one more sick punchline in an era when so many recent allegations of sexual assault are met with indifference at best, victim-blaming at worst. Pratt won’t feel any repercussions for that, any more than any of Cohen’s other targets will, because everyone has already chosen sides and the people on their side won’t care. Who Is America? is Sacha Baron Cohen still playing by the rules of a world that made much more sense – and was much more conducive to this particular style of comedy – than the one of 2018.
But back to the gallery sketch for a moment. Is the woman from the gallery playing along because Rick amuses her? Is she genuinely impressed with his work? Or does she encounter so many weirdos in the art world that a guy who claims to have just gone to the bathroom to make a portrait of her out of his own waste is just another day at the office? As with all of these sketches – including the ones where public figures like Sarah Palin and Joe Walsh have already decried being so terribly hoodwinked by Cohen – you have to fill in a lot of psychological blanks about who believes in what the comedian is doing, and who goes along for reasons that exist outside the boundaries of the joke he is trying to tell. In the world we occupy today, the idea that someone would be handed a picture allegedly drawn from shit and shrug it off as something normal isn’t a joke. It’s a survival mechanism.