Unless you've been living under a rock – in fairness, not actually a bad place to be at this time of year – you will be aware of Sacha Baron Cohen's latest series, Who Is America?. The British comedian, who brought us Da Ali G Show and Borat, is back, heavily disguised with prosthetics, and once again eliciting some extraordinarily thick-headed opinions from people who really ought to know better. It has caused quite a stir.
In the opening episode, Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League and a well-known gun rights activist, agreed to take part in a campaign to allow children as young as three to carry firearms. “Just remember to point Puppy Pistol’s mouth right at the middle of the bad man,” he said, cheerily.
Things got even more bizarre in episode two when Jason Spencer, a member of the Georgia House of Representatives, shouted racist obscenities and dropped his trousers during what he thought was a counter-terrorism training exercise with Cohen's character, an ex-Mossad agent. Spencer resigned soon after the episode was aired and apologised for the "ridiculously ugly" scene.
“What exactly is the point of this show?”
Taken in isolation, these brief clips are both funny and disturbing. But watching a half-hour episode of Who is America? turns out to be a strangely unsatisfying experience. After each of the first three instalments of this seven-episode series, I kept asking myself, "What exactly is the point of this show?"
Cohen would no doubt claim that he is attempting to expose the stupidity that has infected the very highest echelons of American politics, and which has since cascaded down through society. But we knew about that, anyway – President Trump makes sure of it almost every morning on Twitter.
Who Is America? seems to be less about satire and more about laughing at people Cohen – and the viewers at home – consider to be stupid. That's fine if they hold a position of power, as Spencer did. But too often, Cohen targets the vulnerable.
In one particularly troubling scene, the actor’s character, Dr Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a liberal lecturer on gender studies who is cycling through “our fractured nation to try to heal the divide”, tells a group of people in Kingman, Arizona, about plans to build a giant mosque in the town centre. In a cruel twist, he assures them that it is all part of a plan to “trigger huge economic growth here”. Arizona has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
The furious responses to this (fake) news are shocking in their hostility and illustrate that something is sick at the heart of American society. “When I hear the word mosque, I think of terrorism,” says one man. “We’ll all be moving out of this state,” another woman adds.
Bussed in to be used as fools
But at no stage is the viewer asked to consider why these people might feel the way they do. Instead, Cohen has simply bussed them in to be used as fools. Mockery only further alienates a group in society that already feels marginalised. No one is expecting much nuance from Cohen (the man who once pretended to drop the ashes of Kim Jong-il on the Oscars’ red carpet), but he can do better than this.
Similarly, it just felt so obvious – so easy – when Cohen persuaded a vapid reality television star to take part in a bogus charity campaign, which would arm child soldiers. Or when he convinced a navel-gazing art gallerist that a series of dreadful paintings, apparently made with human waste, were works of genius. He may as well have taken a sledgehammer to an insect.
Needless to say, Who Is America? is most interesting when the comedian stretches past the low-hanging fruit (and that includes people like Van Cleave, who have a long history of saying idiotic things about guns) and is forced to work a bit harder by the people he is trying to catch out.
When, in episode one, former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders refused to be drawn into Cohen’s web, the comedian had to think on his feet to get the material he wanted. This scene was one of the sparkiest bits of the series so far. “If you believe in equality, why not have 100 per cent of people in the one per cent?” asked Cohen’s character. Sanders’s bemusement was absolute, while the line also neatly put the Democrat’s socialist policies under the microscope.
The golden rule of comedy is always to punch up, rather than down. Make no mistake, there are plenty of people in America who deserve to be laughed at – I’m just not sure Cohen has thought quite hard enough about who those people might be.
[ The real message of Who is America? is how high the bar of outrage needs to be before it even registers ]
[ One joke at a time: how the Arab world is (slowly) tickling its funny bone ]
Georgia politician to resign after shouting racist slurs on Sacha Baron Cohen show