Who Was America?: Who Is America Summed Up
Who was America, and why? We take a look back at Sacha Baron Cohen's latest work of hidden-camera gotcha action.
While it hasn’t reached the very-nice heights of the Summer of Borat, Who Is America? proved, if nothing else, there’s still a huge appetite for Sacha Baron Cohen wandering around America doing a silly voice and making an ass out of himself and others. It benefited, too, from hasty denunciations from those he’d taken in, giving it yet more press – most prominently former Vice-Presidential candidate and Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, who ultimately only appeared in the credits as a ‘Special Publicity Consultant (Inadvertent)’.
(The fact that Palin’s segment evidently wasn’t entertaining enough to make the final cut is particularly damning, as, like Cohen, her shtick was always being intentionally dunderheaded and inflammatory to attract attention.)
But from the off, Cohen’s new offering wasn’t just straight comedy, it was intended to serve as political and social commentary. It was intended to literally pose the question ‘Who Is America?’ – and the most obvious answer here, to quote Cohen’s satirical forebear Chris Morris, is ‘a people confused’. The American people are polarised, that much is clear, and Cohen does himself no favours by having his own polarisation quite so prominently on show. (Whether you agree with him or not, it cuts off half the avenues for jokes.) The opening credits prominently display President Donald Trump mocking a disabled reporter, but do not, for instance, leaven that with his electoral opponent Hillary Clinton dismissing half the nation she presumed to rule as a ‘basket of deplorables’.
This approach isn’t limited to the credits. The left-wing politicians featured invariably get an easy ride, where their role is limited to looking bemused as Cohen says and does silly things, like Bernie Sanders here, reacting to the idea of putting the 99% into the 1%:
To be fair, there were a couple of right-wingers who ended up going down that road as well – but there was no left-wing equivalent for the sheer venom Cohen displayed in having a supposed ‘paedophile detector’ go off in the presence of Alabama judge Roy Moore.
(Moore, for the record, is now suing Cohen, just as the nation of Kazakhstan did once upon a time.)
What makes it all genuinely questionable is that, throughout, when Cohen draws in members of the public (rather than celebrities or politicians) for political sketches, they are invariably right-wingers – which gives more than a little credence to their oft-stated claim that the media is biased against them. Certainly they don’t come off brilliantly – particularly the fellow in the final episode who thinks he’s killing a man via remote explosive – but all this actually demonstrates is the fact that America is polarised to the point of violence, which was more-or-less the thesis we started off with. And if they need Cohen holding them by the hand to get to that point, it raises the question of who’s really the villain of the piece.
A number Who Is America?’s guest stars claimed afterwards that they were intimidated into going along with Cohen’s lunacy. It sounds like fairly weak tea as an excuse, but in the face of Erran Morad, the Israeli expert in genital-based combat, or the convicted murderer Rick Sherman, or even Dr Nira Cain-N’Degeocello’s weird sexual pecadilloes – well, I wouldn’t much want to be alone in a room with them. In the case of our would-be Unabomber mentioned above, for instance, Morad literally flew him over to San Francisco, proceeded to heavily imply they got their plane tickets so quickly because the seats’ previous holders met with nasty accidents, and later started coming on to him.
In a similar vein, one cannot completely escape the idea that some of the guests are simply playing along with the delusions of these clearly quite singular men.
As a serious work of social criticism, then, Who Is America? is found wanting. As Jackass-style hidden-camera screwing-with-people, though, it’s a fine entry – hit-and-miss it may be, but when it hits it hits properly. Cohen has extensive form with this genre, and this is surely his most ambitious project of this style so far. So, arguably, it would be fairer to judge it on this basis. What follows are the prizes for Cohen’s highest achievements in this field:
Biggest scalp claimed
Of the actual politicians featured in Who Is America?, most didn’t actually say anything too bad, content to come off as po-faced straight men to Cohen’s wacky characters. And of the genuinely big names, the likes of Dick Cheney and Bernie Sanders seem seasoned enough not to give the guy any rope. So this category unambiguously goes to former Georgia State Representative Jason Spencer, for what must be the most conclusively career-ending TV broadcast since Budd Dwyer.
I wrote on this at the time, as an entry in the annals of satire, since it’s a rare work of comedy that actually loses a man his public position. And, if you were to wake up in the morning and decide you wanted to be forced out of public office, doing as Spencer did, by getting your arse out and screaming racial slurs, seems like a pretty safe bet.
(Spencer, of course, also takes the prize for ‘most skin shown’.)
Most people duped
In my article about the first episode of Who Is America?, I scanted the ex-con character Rick Sherman on the basis that it was just the same old joke about the modern art scene, that cultural critics will eat up anything so long it’s presented with the right buzzwords and with sufficient confidence. He paints with his poo-poo, ho ho ho – come on, the art scene did almost literally that many years ago with Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.
Sherman’s other two outings both covered different forms of art, and both were much fresher dishes – quite literally, when he gets a food critic to consume (and then rave about) what is presented as human flesh. But what takes the crown is his stint as a DJ, when he plays his club mix of the sounds of prison at a popular Fort Lauderdale nightspot, and the entirety of the dancefloor cheers it.
While this could have been done in the edit, there’s a moment when the club’s denizens seem suddenly askance at one particularly visceral musical sequence, which Sherman clarifies is ‘genuine sodomy!’ – then, when the beat drops back in, they all snap straight back to raving away. Even the promoter’s hired concubines, who you’d imagine have heard all sorts of rubbish in their time, seem genuinely enthusiastic about Sherman’s tracks – although not enough to suck him off. Nonetheless, the point remains that taking in some pompous tastemaker is one thing, but taking in the general public is quite another.
Nearest To Genuine Awareness
It is perhaps worth elaborating upon the significance of Erran Morad being Israeli – a great number of American conservatives will support anything Israel does, come hell or high water. For many, this is due to Israel’s status as the only thing even vaguely resembling a democracy in the Middle East and as such an important ally in that volatile region – but for a significant minority of Biblical literalists, this is because a state of Israel must exist as a prerequisite to bringing about the end of days and God’s final judgement upon humanity.
As such, even the mildest criticism of Israel is, in many jurisdictions in America, electoral suicide – the flipside of this being that many politicians will hear the word ‘Israel’ and nod along anything attached to it. Illegal West Bank settlements? The murder of Ahmed Bouchikhi? Working with apartheid-era South Africa to develop nuclear weapons? Hey, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, right?
It is for this reason that Matt Gaetz, Representative for Florida’s 1st congressional district, must be commended for not immediately going along with Col. Morad’s program of issuing guns to four-year-olds. It’s a low bar to vault but he did so admirably – wary, perhaps, that it might be some kind of setup designed to take the piss out of him. Admittedly, thanks to the editors’ knife, we don’t know if anyone else came close to thinking this all seemed fishy – apart, of course, from the Riverside gun store owner who successfully pegged their heavily made-up customer as Borat.
Shot To The Foot Award
A lot of the weaker material seems as if it’s more awkward for Cohen than anyone else. Here I refer again to the many interviews with mainstream politicians where Cohen gives voice to some slice of absolute moonbattery, like Hillary Clinton secretly being a man, or that AIDS is a myth. But the prize here must go to Dr Nira Cain-N’Degeocello where, in order to make a point about feminism or equality or something, he ‘gives birth’ – that is to say, delivers a baby doll, apparently from his backside.
It’s hard to say from the footage whether Cohen actually inserted the doll, or just stuffed it in his underwear. Either way it’s profoundly undignified. The joke is supposedly on ‘spiritual healer’ and enlightenmenteer Ataana Badilli, who nods the process along in the same way he presumably would homeopathy or the awesome power of crystals. Nevertheless, of the people present, Cohen clearly looks the most foolish – and while the disgruntled-looking midwife who must ease the doll from his rear-loader is presumably in on it, you can’t help but feel for the woman.
That section, incidentally, is the closest that Who Is America? ever gets to seriously taking the piss out of the modern left – and that’s more guilt by association. Badilli may be a peddler of baseless drippy-hippy claptrap, but no end of the political spectrum has particularly clean hands in that regard.