Thoughts about Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who is America?

Who is America? It’s a question Sacha Baron Cohen asks in his most recent show? Is America Bernie Sanders or Dick Cheney, is it reality TV stars who pretend to help poor African children, is it mosque hating rednecks or rapping black men, is it all this or none of the above?

Before trying to answer that question, lets start with another question: Who is Sacha Baron Cohen? Cohen shot to fame as talk show host Ali G at the turn of the century – a character who’s lack of tact was less about himself and more about expose his guests – some kept their cool while other embarrassed themselves. His influence reached all the way to my native Iceland, where rapper Erpur Eyvindarson remade the formula as Johnny National and I’m sure there are other versions around the world.

RappararLater a supporting character on the show, Borat, eclipsed Ali G and became Cohen’s signature character when his fame peaked twelve years ago with the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. After that his star waned, the formula got weary and this sort of comedy simply fell out of fashion.

Self-hating white men and poo artists

But in retrospect the world was not half as mad back then. Politicians like Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump were still fringe figures in world politics. Ali G and Borat were exaggerated comic characters back then – now they’d probably be distinguished politicians. The situation in Trump’s America simply screamed for a good Sacha Baron Cohen comeback – and Who is America? is that comeback.

Kúkalistamaður.jpgAt the time of writing four episodes out of seven have been screened and Cohen has so far morphed into sex different characters. Four of them could probably be placed on the right of the political spectrum and two on the left. The quality of the characters varies – for example Finnish YouTube star OMGWhizzBoyOMG! debuted near the end of the last show and I’m not hoping for his return.

Rick Sherman, who uses bodily fluid in his art and has just escaped prison, has also only appeared once but that one time showed that sometimes the answer to the show’s question is simply that America is certainly weird but also friendly and compassionate, because while his scene with art dealer Christy is hilarious nobody is humiliated, instead Christy strikes you as a helpful and understanding person.

Byggsugleði.jpgThe character of Erran Morad, the Israeli anti-terrorist expert, is the trump card of the show – since it seems you can convince people to do absolutely everything if you convince them of impending danger. That includes encouraging three-year-old toddlers to carry firearms, use selfie-sticks to peak under the burqas of Arab women, whom Morad’s guest is certain is probably a terrorist. Morad is also convincing enough to get three supporters of Trump and haters of Mexican immigrants to dress up in pussy panties to capture questionable Mexican illegals.

The highlight of the show so far remains Morad’s interview with former Secretary of Defence, Dick Cheney, a scene likely to go down in TV history.  Cheney answers questions about his favourite of the wars he started, mentions they use the word advanced interrogations for torture – and signs the waterboard kit Morad brings along.

PíkubrókA less solid but no less interesting character appears in Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, who by his own admission is a self-hating white male, who two weeks after the “election was stolen from President Hillary Clinton I managed to get out of bed,” and has been cycling through America to heal his divided nation. This radical leftist has a lower success rate than Morad, but when they click they are brilliant. Like when he presents the inhabitants of a dying town to a unique investment, worthy of 385 million dollars. Everybody cheers – until they find out the planned investment is a mosque, the biggest of its kind outside of the Middle East.

To heal America

But perhaps Cohen is not just acting when he’s playing Dr. Nira. Of course, they are completely different characters – but is their goal perhaps the same, to heal America?

To do that Cohen simply uses the methods artists as well as journalists (and he’s a bit of both) have used through the centuries, to ask questions. The question “who is America?” is an odd one – who but not what, like a nation can be an individual. Yet the answer is of course it’s a lot of people – and Cohen tries to give us varied answers. Perhaps not varied enough though, the real question is probably “Who is grotesque America?” – with a few examples though, not everybody falls into Cohen’s traps and some actually come out their interviews gracefully, and that goes for politicians of both the left and the right, regardless of your opinion of them otherwise.

RealityStar.jpgIt’s a quality show but also a hit-and-miss show – the format means they always will be and there is certain honesty involved in keeping it like that and not only show the interviews where those interviews do fall into Cohen’s traps. It would still have been interesting to see more variety – both see more leftist and centrists, most of those interviewed are Trump loving Republicans, but it would also have been interesting to see big city hipsters, crooners and university professors being interviewed and so, to broaden the picture and get closer to answering the question the show asks.

It would be a very different show to be sure – possibly not as funny, it’s hard to say, but certainly more interesting. But based on the show we’re presented with – what is the answer? Well, probably this: America is somebody who can be duped into doing pretty much anything.

Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson

The Icelandic version of this article originally appeard in Reykjavík Vikublað.