Who Is America?: Four Lessons In Civics And Gunslinging
Is it really the most dangerous show on TV? Was Sarah Palin's shrill denunciation of it a pack of lies? We cover all this and more.
Much like President Trump, who features so prominently in the title sequence, Sacha Baron Cohen’s new project Who Is America? whipped up a good deal of its own publicity through sheer outrage. One-time Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin treated us to a furious online tirade, admitting to having been taken in by Cohen, who she claimed had disguised himself as a ‘disabled US veteran’. Cohen responded in character as the Alex Jones-alike Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D, specifically refuting claims of being (or rather, portraying) either a disabled person or a US veteran – and, come the Who Is America? premiere, it turned out, quelle surprise, that Mrs Palin had in fact got it wrong.
Ruddick was the first of Cohen’s new characters we saw on Who Is America?, mumbling innumerate lunacy about moving the 99% into the 1% (thus ensuring prosperity for all) at a po-faced Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sanders, who, presumably, now wishes he never bothered running for President in the first place. Note, of course, I said ‘characters’ there – Cohen has returned to an ensemble cast as in the halcyon days of Da Ali G Show, which featured skits from Ali G, Borat, and Brüno all under one roof, rather than treating them as strictly separate entities as their respective film adaptations did.
This has resulted in a strikingly hit-and-miss approach – far more so than in Da Ali G Show. Ruddick is, at this point, the most fleshed-out of the lot, having had the advantage of responding to Palin, a missive that included a link to his website, www.truthbrary.org. Like Ruddick’s twitter account, truthbrary has been up for some time and is largely indistinguishable from the work of a legitimate conspiracy theorist, crammed with excitable little stories about how 9/11 was the work of the US government, Barack Obama is Kenyan, and the CIA have had the ability to time travel since the late ‘60s. Given the popularity of Alex Jones, it’s fairly familiar stuff – but for Ruddick, his being a familiar archetype is a strength.
Cohen’s liberal character, Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, is weaker tea. His introduction, where he apologises for being a white cisgender male, will continue to hit home so long as the identitarian left has its masochism on show, but that’s about as good as it gets. The rest of his segment seems like a reheated Borat sketch – he goes to dinner with obese Trump delegate Jane Page Thompson and her nebbish husband Mark, who are nice as pie throughout despite all his scatological attempts to shock.
N’Degeocello describes videotaping his children pissing to make sure they’re doing it right, having his daughter menstruate on an American flag, and being cuckolded by a dolphin – and all these lurid tales are met with genuine politeness and tolerance. The nearest the Thompsons come to opposing him in any way is vainly suggesting he not get too graphic over dinner. Over the credits, Mark privately admits to finding N’Degeocello’s values ‘fucked up’ – but let’s be honest with one another, that was the whole point and Mark is correct to think so.
There’s a similar disappointment with Cohen’s ex-con artist Ricky Sherman, who speaks in a lisping British accent – which makes it feel alarmingly phoned in. Sherman’s shtick is that he works in the medium of bodily fluids, primarily feces, which began when he committed a dirty protest while still inside and the unhappy guard sent to clean up his cell told him he had real talent. He successfully dupes art gallery owner Christy Cones, who gleefully adds her own pubic hair to Sherman’s special homemade paintbrush, where it will join the pubes of luminaries like Damien Hirst and Banksy – but wait a second, wasn’t this show meant to be about Cohen screwing with politicians and public figures, not largely unknown art collectors?
Cones’s sheer enthusiasm for the absurd figure of Sherman just about sells it. She describes him as a ‘genius’, and gushes a string of ten-dollar words of praise when he adjourns to the bathroom to do a quick portrait of her, but it feels like shooting fish in a barrel. Especially since this is the same joke people have been making about modern art since Jackson Pollock first sold one of his old dust sheets for a six-figure sum. The British adult comic Viz – and Cohen probably knows this – has used ‘character accidentally wrecks up an art gallery, and the results are viewed as genius by a rich avante-garde snob’ as a punchline so many times the readers have started to threaten to cancel their subscriptions. (But then, they always do.)
The final character in the roster, Israeli colonel Erran Morad, is by far the strongest of the lot – and, having seen him in action, it was almost certainly Morad who had Dick Cheney autograph a ‘waterboarding kit’ in a teaser for the show. (Having guessed the character responsible would be an American nutjob when the teaser dropped, I can only offer both Cohen and the United States a formal apology.) Due to America’s special relationship with Israel, dolling oneself up as an Israeli and getting American politicians to do what you want seems like easy mode – but of the characters on the show, Morad collects by far the most scalps.
Morad wades headlong into American gun politics, advocating that in order to prevent school shootings, the US should adopt what he claims is the Israeli program of arming schoolchildren as young as 3 – but no younger, because “it’s called the terrible twos for a reason”. Floridian Representative Matt Gaetz hears him out, but claims “Typically members of Congress don’t just hear a story about a program and then indicate whether they support it or not.” Smash cut to a montage of high-level US politicians, including, yes, members of Congress, merrily and unequivocally supporting Morad’s modest proposal.
Philip van Cleave, President of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, is among the most ghoulish of these, starring alongside Morad in an educational video ostensibly aimed at very young children, waving around guns decked out with stuffed animals. “To feed [Puppy Pistol], take this lunchbox and push it into his tummy,” declares van Cleave as he loads the magazine of a dog-headed .22, before advising the viewers to aim for the centre of mass (“If he has a big fat tummy, point at that!”). Van Cleave goes on to sing a modified version of “head, shoulders, knees and toes”, again on the subject of aiming for the centre of mass, with Morad chiming in with a refrain of “FIRE!”.
(Interestingly, Israel has actually experimented with guns hidden inside stuffed animals – but as an attempt to catch enemy combatants off-guard, particularly when combined with the simple yet devious Cornershot system, rather than to make the weapons more appealing to pre-schoolers.)
However, it is Larry Pratt, former director of Gun Owners for America, who takes the prize here, in more than one sense. Pratt guffaws along at Morad’s story of the shooting of an innocent Muslim at prayer (“Pray in secret!” chuckles the man from a country founded on religious liberty), and lets Morad’s assertion that marital rape doesn’t count as rape pass without any objection, other than more yuks and a suggestion that this section not be made public. This last is particularly damning, seeing as the former Borat star actually uses the phrase ‘my wife’ – in what is basically the Borat voice – and Pratt still doesn’t cotton on.
Pratt’s almost childlike credulousness does, however, provide some of the show’s best comic moments. In a video actually intended for public release – that is, one where Pratt doesn’t endorse marital rape – he delves into the science of why children make such good gunslingers. As it turns out, it’s because children have elevated levels of the hormone blink-182, “produced by the part of the liver known as Rita Ora”. Yes, on one level it’s an old man being helplessly clueless about any cultural references after 1979 – but at its core it’s a self-important talking head, who deigns to speak for others, blindly reading absolute twaddle off a cue card and acting as if he’s saving America by doing so.
This section is possibly the first television satire in some time to come anywhere close to the lofty heights of Chris Morris’s Brass Eye (for which Morris should have received a knighthood for services to comedy) which used essentially the same modus operandi. Well-known celebrities confidently informed the public about such hot topics as the dangers of a “made-up drug” from Czechoslovakia called Cake, which stimulated the area of the brain known as “Shatner’s bassoon”, or the plight of Sri Lankan villagers who had large amounts of “heavy electricity” flattening their cattle, or the simple scientific fact that paedophiles are genetically closer to crabs than to you or me. Again, all these supposedly sentient people needed to make utter fools of themselves was to be handed a script by anyone wielding a camera.
But there is a bitter postscript to this, which is that Morad’s section – easily the strongest part of what we’ve seen so far of Who Is America? – is nothing that hasn’t been done before. This was very much my fear when Cohen first announced the show, although he has at least picked a better role model than Stephen Colbert. This is not to say it’s not good use of a tried-and-tested formula, but you couldn’t be blamed for expecting a little more from something which was billed as “perhaps the most dangerous show in the history of television”.
Cohen’s central gimmick, of portraying an absurd character who baits people into saying cartoonishly awful things, is on full display here – with Morad at least, and there’s plenty of yet-untapped potential for it with Ruddick and N’Degeocello. When it comes down to it, this is arguably the best he’s ever done it. The worst Borat ever encouraged people to do was sing along to a folksy little number called “Throw The Jew Down The Well” – otherwise, when he crossed a line he knew about it quickly.
With any luck, the rest of the series will fulfill this potential – as we know, we have the Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin interviews yet to look forward to. And one would hope an experienced showman like Cohen wouldn’t bring out the best he has to offer right off the bat.