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What Happened to Sacha Baron Cohen?

The once-sharp observer of American life returns with a new and lazy show, looking less like a comedic mastermind and more like a Twitter troll

Liel Leibovitz
July 16, 2018
Courtesy Showtime
Screenshot from 'Who Is America?'Courtesy Showtime
Courtesy Showtime
Screenshot from 'Who Is America?'Courtesy Showtime

I’ll admit it: Sometimes, in unguarded moments, I’ll stick both of my thumbs up and let out a loud “Nice! I like!” in a tribute to my beloved Borat. The Kazakh reporter, played with gusto by Sacha Baron Cohen, remains charming even now, 12 years after his last major appearance, because, like so many of us, he arrived in America understanding little and dreaming big. As he traveled these United States, much of what he stumbled upon looked ridiculous, and some things—Pamela Anderson, Wawaweewa!—seemed sublime. Like all good satirical instruments, Borat worked because he was a mirror that reflected the good, the bad, and the ugly: For every barroom full of people applauding a song about throwing Jews down the well there was a dinner party packed with decent folks who just wanted to make the grinning immigrant—who seemed to think that “retired” and “retarded” were somehow interchangeable—feel at home.

That was then.

Baron Cohen’s return to television last night with his new show, Who Is America?, lacked Borat’s warmth and wonder. Instead, the comedian looked and sounded like someone you’d find posting feverishly to Twitter at 2 in the morning, hoping to “own” the libs or “destroy” the Republicans. Like so much of the media in the age of Trump, this one sharp comedic mind had grown lazy and sniffling, all sound and fury and signaling of virtue.

You could tell just what kind of show you were about to watch from the opening segment. Mummified in laughable facial hair and Southern accent, Baron Cohen pretend to be a conservative yokel enraged by Obamacare. His interviewee? Bernie Sanders. In case you missed it, the conversation went something like this:

Sacha Baron Cohen (as conservative yokel): I hate Obamacare because suddenly I could afford a doctor and now it turns out I have all these diseases.

Bernie Sanders (as Bernie Sanders): Everyone deserves good health care.

Writing about comedy, some critics distinguish between punching up and punching down, the latter being cruel and the former being more or less the purpose of the entire comedic enterprise. With Sanders, however, Baron Cohen wasn’t punching at all. Instead, he created a convenient foil—not so much a conservative Everyman as a no-man—and wheeled him into the room only to allow the senator from Vermont to appear reasonable and smart. It was almost like watching a Yakov Smirnoff premise come to life: In progressive America, the joke tells you.

We may, because life is nasty, brutish, and short, say little about the show’s next two segments, one involving an ex-con who paints with his bodily excretions (would you believe it? A poop joke! On TV! Don’t tell Mom and Dad!) and the other a parody of a liberal—so overblown it was neither recognizable nor useful as a satirical device—trying to shock a pair of kind Republicans who’d invited him to dinner at their home. Neither of these characters were particularly developed, in large part because the show hurried towards its climax: A takedown of the National Rifle Association.

To make fun of people who support the Second Amendment—a feat never before attempted by any American comedian and therefore stunning and brave—Baron Cohen dressed up as Erran Morad, an Israeli army veteran and firearm enthusiast. You could tell just how fine tuned a character Morad was by the Hebrew slogan on his sweatshirt, which was printed backwards, and by his use of the word meshugeneh, a Yiddishism many IDF brass turn to when they enjoy their kippered herring and kvetch about the heat.

The bit’s premise was just as lazy as the character on which it hung. As Morad, Baron Cohen convinced a handful of pro-gun types to endorse a program called Kinderguardians, advocating arming not teachers but students as young as 4.

It was an intermittently amusing segment. It also placed Baron Cohen in the shallow waters waded by the likes of John Oliver, Michelle Wolf, and the other TV hacks who confuse outrage for insight and who select their targets from a very, very short list of preapproved bugbears.

Now, look: I’m a lifelong gun-rights advocate—I wasn’t much older than 4 when I squeezed my first trigger—and I will readily admit that our camp—to the extent that you can call it that—has its share of crazies. Every political persuasion does, without exception, which is what happens when a host of passionate people get together to pursue a cause. But I would expect a satirist of Baron Cohen’s caliber to transcend the preposterous and try a little bit harder. Why not, say, visit Chicago and ask the good people there how they explain why—given that Illinois is one of only seven states in the nation to require a permit to buy any firearm and one of only five states to enforce a waiting period before receiving said firearm, and given that Cook County enforces an assault weapons ban—the city’s gun violence rates keep climbing to grizzly new heights?

The answer would deliver fresh insights, but it would also open up the conversation to the possibility that there are irrational people promoting emotionally satisfying but practically useless proposals on both sides of the conversation. And that simple, basic, all-too-human realization—the sort, by the way, that had once made Borat such a keen observer of American culture—is no longer permissible here.

Who Is America? is not a question asked in a vacuum. It’s posed in a moment in time when the guardians of our cultural institutions have decreed that actors aren’t free to act as they please lest their choice of roles offend someone’s sensibilities. It’s posed when editors at large publications propose that committees for public safety gather to ascertain what’s fit to print and what’s just ideologically transgressive. It’s posed when free speech is considered by many a menace rather than a foundational right. A benighted moment like this calls for a great comic to parse the folly and show us the sad state of our union. Instead, we got another feckless clown telling the same tired talking points to the ever-shrinking audience that’s willing to listen. Come back, Borat Sagdiyev; our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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