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‘Who Is America?’ Is Everything That’s Great and Frustrating About Sacha Baron Cohen

Plus some other random thoughts about the comic’s new Showtime series

Probably like a lot of people who once considered themselves Sacha Baron Cohen fans, I reacted with a mixture of about 5 percent curiosity and 95 percent dread at the news that he’d been working in secret on a new Showtime series, Who Is America? After establishing himself as one of his generation’s most daring comics thanks to the Da Ali G Show and Borat, Baron Cohen discovered how hard it is to keep catching lightning in a bottle. His Borat follow-up films ranged from pale knockoffs (Bruno) to outright catastrophes (The Brothers Grimsby), and his affected cutesiness in other people’s films (Sweeney Todd, Hugo) became insufferable. Not surprisingly then, when Baron Cohen showed up at the 2016 Oscars, trotting out his old Ali G persona, the world looked about as amused as Olivia Wilde did:

The fact that Baron Cohen had orchestrated the stunt at the last minute — Wilde found out as they were about to go on stage — seemed entirely keeping with his “provocative” style, which hadn’t been funny for a decade. And so to hear that Baron Cohen was going to dive back into the world of undercover pranks in Who Is America?, playing a collection of new personae to get unsuspecting interview subjects to say or do outrageous things, it seemed like a continuation of the comic’s desperate attempt to rewind the world back to the mid-2000s.

What’s great but also sobering about the first episode of Who Is America?, which premiered last night, is that Baron Cohen actually does a decent job with his comedic time warp. As in his best work, the series (or at least its first episode) has a blasé bizarreness that’s arresting: You cannot believe what you’re seeing, or that he was able to achieve it. But in trying to return to the guerrilla-comedy approach that made his name, Baron Cohen discovers that the world isn’t remotely like it was in the early aughts. As a result, Who Is America? doesn’t make you laugh the way Baron Cohen’s previous programs did: We’re less surprised by him, and we’ve become accustomed to accepting the bizarre as our ordinary lives.

The first episode consists of four segments, each of them done in the style of a specific kind of reality program. So, for instance, an NPR-loving, self-hating snowflake named Nira Cain-N’Degeocello (played by Baron Cohen, of course) produces a touchy-feely series called Healing the Divide, in which he tries to reach out to red-state voters — in this case, a South Carolina married couple who voted for Trump. Or there’s Rick Sherman (Baron Cohen again), who’s part of a reality show following ex-cons trying to change their lives after prison. (He’s an artist who works in feces, meeting with a pretentious Southern California dealer.) Or, in the first episode’s most exceptional segment, Baron Cohen plays a muscle-bound ex-Israeli officer, Erran Morad, who wants to educate Americans about the importance of guns, recruiting Republican congressmen and NRA executives to appear in his outlandish promos.

Around the time of Bruno, Baron Cohen became so famous that he realized that he could no longer go undercover as his most popular characters, so it’s astonishing that so many people in the public eye were duped by this new collection of weirdos. (Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Roy Moore and Ted Koppel aren’t featured in the premiere, but they’ll all be appearing in subsequent episodes.) Who Is America?’s two segments involving those in the public eye — Bernie Sanders and Morad’s gun-nut targets — are remarkable simply because it seemed impossible that Baron Cohen could pull off his old Ali G trick on people armed with savvy, protective PR teams. (If anything, you’d assume that they’d be wary of suspicious interview requests specifically because of Baron Cohen.) And yet, there’s Sanders, sitting befuddled next to the comic, who’s decked out as a right-wing, antigovernment kook.

Anyone with a fondness for Da Ali G Show and Borat — specifically, their manic glee at fooling so many powerful, gullible people — will feel a nostalgic pull while watching Who Is America? None of the show’s four characters are particularly inspired, at least so far, but their buffoonish goofiness has its charms. Still, the show mostly reminds you that it’s Baron Cohen trying to go back to that particular comedic well, playing dress-up in order to make others look stupid. The whole exercise can’t help but give off a faint whiff of career desperation.

What also works against Who Is America? is that, frankly, Baron Cohen’s parody/reality style has been co-opted by so many other comics. Whether it’s The Colbert Report, which lampooned right-wing theatrics on a nightly basis, or Documentary Now!, which takes aim at all different types of nonfiction news programs and films, we’ve been trained to spot the clichés and lies inherent in presenting us with “reality.” (Plus, as Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff points out, recent shows like Nathan for You have brought new edge to the kind of reality parody that Da Ali G Show introduced long ago.)

Maybe that’s why my favorite segments of Who Is America? aren’t necessarily the ones that are getting the most attention. The Sanders one is mostly novel because, hey, look, it’s Bernie Sanders. And, sure, it’s outrageous and brilliant that Baron Cohen managed to trick actual politicians into doing his very fake (and utterly ludicrous) commercials about the need to arm four-year-olds. But the segments involving the South Carolina couple and that dopey art dealer, although they’re indulgent and uneven, feature Baron Cohen’s ability to create off-kilter characters who bring out an unexpected compassion in his on-camera subjects.

The South Carolina sequence feels like shooting fish in a barrel — we get it, they’re racist, antebellum rednecks — but no matter how much Cain-N’Degeocello tries to scandalize these Republicans with his tale of his wife’s affair with a dolphin — ha ha, bestiality! — they’re actually pretty respectful, even sympathetic to his plight. In a weird way, the segment sorta achieves what the fake reality show within the segment sets out to do, which is have people from different political stripes find common ground. And while the segment concerning the feces-flinging convict is meant to puncture the art world’s highfalutin airs, the art dealer (despite being chronically self-satisfied) comes across as supportive of this hopeless fool.

In both segments, which no doubt aim to mock the participants, kindness is the strongest emotion — probably not the prevailing sentiment that Baron Cohen fans appreciate from his earlier work. But it’s always been an element of his comedy. Even amidst the snotty, scathing depictions of racism in Borat, Baron Cohen’s idiotic Kazakh character also discovered some really sweet, likeable Americans — people who weren’t thrown off by his weirdness, but rather, responded to his genuineness and vulnerability.

Baron Cohen doesn’t get enough credit for his kinder, softer side — how his unabashed absurdity sometimes provoke the best in his unsuspecting subjects. Unfortunately, Who Is America? tends toward the satiric, which isn’t nearly as effectively executed as it once was. (From reports I’ve heard about an upcoming episode, this problem only gets worse later.)

Da Ali G Show and Borat existed in a time where it still seemed possible to be shocked by how terrible people could be, but anybody who follows the news now won’t be horrified by Who Is America?’s first episode. Everything’s crazy these days — why would it surprise anyone that a few Republicans would be on board for kindergartens populated by gun-toting toddlers? Much to my surprise, I didn’t laugh that much at Who Is America?, but I was grateful for the rare signs of humanity amongst Baron Cohen’s compendium of American grotesques. I know the country can be filled with horrible folks — it’s nice to be reminded there’s also some good guys left.

Here are a few other takeaways from Who Is America?

#1. In another reality, Sacha Baron Cohen got to make his Queen movie.

Amidst Baron Cohen’s creative missteps over the last decade, fans could content themselves with the fact that the comic had an ace up his sleeve: He was set to play Freddie Mercury in a Queen biopic. The project, announced in 2010, would give Baron Cohen a chance to show off his acting chops in a dramatic, awards-courting film. (Plus, he just looks like the fabled, flamboyant front man, who died at age 45 in 1991 from complications of AIDS.)

But as often happens with such projects, it appears egos got in the way. Baron Cohen left the film in 2013, later telling Howard Stern that he didn’t see eye-to-eye with the surviving band members about how the story should be told. “A member of the band — I won’t say who — said, ‘You know, this is such a great movie because it’s got such an amazing thing that happens in the middle,’” Baron Cohen said. “And I go, ‘What happens in the middle of the movie?’ He goes, ‘You know, Freddie dies.’ … I go, ‘What happens in the second half of the movie?’ He goes, ‘We see how the band carries on from strength to strength.’”

Baron Cohen had wanted the Queen film to focus more on Mercury, adopting what he called a “warts-and-all” perspective on the singer. (Queen guitarist Brian May disputed Baron Cohen’s account, saying, “Sacha became an arse. We had some nice times with Sacha kicking around ideas, but he went off and told untruths about what happened.”)

No matter exactly how things shook out, the film (now called Bohemian Rhapsody) feels like a missed opportunity for Baron Cohen, especially considering we had to suffer through The Dictator and The Brothers Grimsby instead. But the Queen film hardly stopped having problems once Baron Cohen exited. Different screenwriters, stars and directors came and went before, finally in 2016, Bryan Singer and Rami Malek were confirmed as the film’s director and Mercury, respectively. About a year later, though, Singer was fired midway through production. (Eddie the Eagle director Dexter Fletcher took over, although Singer will end up getting sole directing credit on the movie.)

We’ll finally see Bohemian Rhapsody on November 2 — it comes out in the U.K. about a week earlier — to find out if Baron Cohen was wise to abandon ship. Malek, the Emmy-winning star of Mr. Robot, is a fine actor, and he’s an intriguing Mercury. But I’ll always wonder what could have been.

#2. Remember how great Baron Cohen was in ‘Talladega Nights’?

Three months before Borat hit theaters, becoming an unlikely blockbuster, Baron Cohen had already been in another great 2006 comedy. He played Jean Girard, a snotty French racecar driver, in Talladega Nights, serving as the chief nemesis of Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby.

In other people’s movies, Baron Cohen can be so mannered that he’s annoying. But he’s perfect in Talladega Nights: If anything, he underplays as Girard who is, essentially, a cartoonish nightmare of what a NASCAR bro like Ricky Bobby imagines an effete, pretentious, gay Frenchman to be. (He sips macchiatos while racing, quotes William Blake at weird moments and is sponsored by Perrier.)

Baron Cohen was cast, in part, because Ferrell (who co-wrote the movie) was a big Da Ali G Show fan, which isn’t hard to understand: Both actors like big, ridiculous characters. No wonder the two comedians are so funny in Talladega Nights together — at their best, they’re both inspired goofballs talking in funny voices. It’s a shame they haven’t hooked up since.

#3. People still love saying “my wife.”

It’s been 12 years since Borat — and 18 years since Baron Cohen started playing the character on Da Ali G Show — but it’s possible that the character’s most enduring legacy is a two-word phrase: “My wife.”

It’s a line Borat did on the old Da Ali G Show that returned for the film, and what’s funny about watching those line-readings now is that they’re not nearly as exaggerated as we might remember. It’s because the culture quickly embraced the phrase, emphasizing its foreignness and irony, stretching the words until they became about 12 syllables long. Soon, anybody who said “muh wiiife” was doing it as a knowingly dated reference — or as a way to mock people who thought Borat was still a fresh, cutting-edge comedy.

Perhaps the most devastating example of the ironic “my wife” was a 2012 episode of Bob’s Burgers where Bob imagines what his life would be like if he worked in an office. His vision is horrifyingly corporate and dull, as Bob becomes a soulless pencil-pusher stuck with the most boring people in the world. This is how lame their humor is:

In recent years, “my wife” has kept popping back up. There’s a YouTube video where Jerry Seinfeld’s use of the phrase in a Seinfeld episode is replaced by Borat’s. (In another, Bon Jovi’s song “It’s My Life” gets turned into “It’s My Wife.”) Then, in 2017, Twitter users started sending out tweets that inserted “my wife” into song lyrics. It’s a remarkably durable punch line. Like “Wazzup!!” the two-word catchphrase is both deeply lame and incredibly funny at the same time — it’s great because it’s so stupid.

Will Who Is America? revise “my wife”? Vulture sure hopes so: The site has started a page chronicling how many times Baron Cohen says the phrase. Thus far, only once — although not in his Borat voice. But stay tuned.