His pants lowered to bare his buttocks, Georgia state Rep. Jason Spencer scuttled backward at his opponent, who was portraying an Islamic terrorist. “America!” Spencer bellowed. “I will turn you into a homosexual!” he tells the terrorist.
Welcome to the second episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Showtime comedy “Who Is America?” The premiere arrived last week on a wave of critical buzz, thanks to a torrent of outraged statements from conservative politicos who’d been fooled by the actor into advocating for the arming of small children.
But despite the anticipation, the debut ratings were dismal. Though the numbers edged up with encore and On Demand viewings, viewership was weak compared with the debuts of cable TV’s recent successful political comedies, like TBS’s “Full Frontal with Sam Bee” and HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” Even Comedy Central’s “The Opposition with Jordan Klepper,” canceled thanks to abysmal ratings after one season, started stronger than Baron Cohen’s new vehicle.
Why is “Who Is America?” opening with more of a whimper than a bang? Perhaps we’re tired of political humor, or it’s been too long since Baron Cohen’s last hit. Or perhaps this particular brand of comedic exposé has lost its appeal. After all, it’s not like we really need it anymore to grasp how bad things are.
Not that Sunday night’s segment with Spencer wasn’t jaw-dropping. The Republican lawmaker believed he was taking part in anti-terrorism training with an Israeli former military officer, Erran Morad (Baron Cohen in heavy, rather obvious makeup). Morad put Spencer through his paces, having him participate in exercises in which he yelled racial slurs as a diversionary tactic, performed an offensive parody of a Chinese tourist, and took an upskirt photo of a person in a burka to check for weaponry.
It was an astonishing display, even for a politician previously best known for threatening a former Democratic state rep — a black woman — that she might “go missing” in the swamp due to her public support for removing Confederate statues. Spencer, who in May’s GOP primary lost his bid for a fifth term, put out a statement before this embarrassing footage aired, saying, “It is clear the makers of this film intended to deceive me in an attempt to undermine the American conservative political movement.”
But meanwhile, the party’s leader, President Donald Trump, was in the midst of a rather typical evening of tweeting: referring to his long-ago opponent in the presidential election as “Crooked Hillary,” then sending an all-caps threat of military engagement to President Hassan Rouhani of Iran.
Of course, no statement needed to be issued to explain how the president was tricked into this unhinged behavior. With Trump leading the way, conservatives have become more and more comfortable showing their own asses unprompted.
Sure, it’s still quite alarming to see lobbyists and congressional representatives eagerly advocate arming kindergartners with stuffed animal guns. In the most successful sketch from the premiere, Morad peddles a program, “Kinder-Guardians,” intended to solve America’s school shooting epidemic by arming schoolchildren as young as four. As a work of entertainment, the segment is masterful ― and it takes the gun debate in a daring direction by pulling in the right-wing fascination with Israel and its military culture.
The Republicans caught by the Kinder-Guardians trick are defensive and embarrassed, at least for now. Being fooled by a liberal comedian makes them look gullible. But then again, they really weren’t fooled into revealing much that didn’t already exist out in the open.
There was a moment, when “Da Ali G Show” and “The Daily Show” were in their prime, that comedy like this could be genuinely revealing. In the old-fashioned days of the aughts, seeing Baron Cohen or a “Daily Show” correspondent coax a shocking statement out of a public figure, or even a random person on the street, had the power to truly jolt us. Comedy interviews stood to expose the depths of our fellow humans’ carefully hidden cravenness, bigotry, ignorance, extremism.
“Da Ali G Show” character Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakh reporter also played by Baron Cohen, made a specialty of baiting subjects with his own professed anti-Semitism, racism and sexism. During a wine-tasting segment, he asked Norman Harris, the head of a Mississippi wine organization, whether the black waiter was “his slave.” Harris responded that slavery had been outlawed, which was a good thing. “For them,” he added. “For you, not so much!” Borat replied jovially. Harris agreed.
“That guy normally would never say that he thought it’s a shame that slavery doesn’t exist anymore,” Baron Cohen told The New York Times. “But because he’s in the room with somebody who’s totally naïve and seems to not mind that slavery existed, he was fully honest.”
By comfortably displaying racist views, a character like Borat made interviewees feel safe in revealing their own. In another interview, the comedian described the technique as “a dramatic demonstration of how racism feeds on dumb conformity as much as rabid bigotry.”
Now, 14 years later, that seems hard to dispute. We don’t even need to turn to edgy comedy for overt demonstrations of the phenomenon. Trump himself functions as an always-in-character version of what Baron Cohen pretends to be for a comedy show: a public figure who offers tacit encouragement for others to voice and enact bigotry by doing so himself.
Baron Cohen’s variety of comedic exposé was perfectly engineered for a time when the kind of middle-class white liberals who watched “Ali G” and “The Daily Show” weren’t confronted with the extremity of others’ views all the time. Back then, it was relatively easy to avoid people who think things were better before the Civil War or that, I don’t know, you should give high-powered weaponry to children on the cusp of learning to use a fork.
But we’re bathed in it now, in the ambient Pizzagate conspiracy theories and “build the wall” rants we face on every platform. We don’t need Borat to bust GOP officials and candidates when they’re recklessly posting racist memes to their own Facebook pages.
As for random citizens, they easily can, and do, broadcast their own anti-Semitic, misogynistic, anti-gun control and racist views to Twitter ― no comedic sting required. During the second episode, NPR host Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, another Baron Cohen character, announces the construction of an enormous new community mosque to a meeting of Kingman, Arizona, residents. They respond with trembling outrage; one shouts that he identifies as “racist against Muslims,” and several more argue that they already tolerate black people, although they don’t like it. The scene felt gratuitously painful, an unfunny rehash of a racist debate we already know too well.
Then again, much of Baron Cohen’s shtick has always been a straightforward troll. In “Who Is America?,” he subjects Bernie Sanders to a mathematically incomprehensible presentation on how to move all of the 99 percent into the 1 percent while the senator, with a single-mindedness familiar to those who followed the 2016 Democratic primary, steered the conversation back to his stump speech. This showed nothing new about Sanders, but Baron Cohen didn’t seem to be aiming to.
Aside from Morad’s interviews with conservative officials and activists, Baron Cohen’s antics seemed tame, even pointless, compared with the charged conversations we deal with daily in real life. Take the segment in which one-time “Bachelor” star Corinne Olympios, while endorsing a fake charity supposedly providing relief for an Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, blankly reads a script for an ad urging people to support child soldiers by providing them with training and equipment. Yes, yes, reality stars will do anything for attention; it’s hard to recall a time when such a revelation would have rocked anyone to their core.
In “Who Is America?,” Baron Cohen repeatedly whiffs on opportunities to illuminate what bizarre things people really would support. Why send an absurd parody of a lefty NPR host to the home of GOP local bigwigs? Without exactly giving a flattering read to the Trump-supporting couple, it does offer them an opportunity to politely condemn behavior that most on the left would also decry, like forcing a young girl to stand while urinating. The takeaway is muddled at best. Getting liberals to cosign those choices on camera ― that might be a coup.
Resurrecting his particular brand of stunt comedy journalism ― honed in a very different cultural and political context ― for a Trump era already awash in gleeful incompetence, extremism and trolling, might seem like a perfect fit for the times. Instead, it’s outdated. (Perhaps that’s partly due to the outdated writers’ room, which consists entirely of men, including one who lost his job on “Inside Amy Schumer” after publicly bragging about choking his ex and sending hordes of sexist trolls after female writers.)
We also must ask whether his approach could be as harmful as it is informative and entertaining. Baron Cohen’s provocations have always raised the question of whether the end of exposing prejudice justifies the means of recreating it, and the evidence is piling up that comic bigotry may only make people more comfortable with the real thing. Take the spillage of Reddit Nazism-for-lolz into genuine radicalization and violence. Take Trump himself.
GOP politicians certainly haven’t become less openly racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Islam and sexist than they were when Baron Cohen first started scamming them in the early aughts. And given how far-right shit-posting has likely helped accommodate the country to outright white nationalism, I found myself wondering uncomfortably whether the guns-for-kids stunt on “Who Is America?” might not also be absorbed into the political debate. Maybe irony can move the Overton Window, too.