Baron Cohen returns to ambush US establishment

Duped: “Eran Morad” poses with American gun rights activist Philip Van Cleave. © Showtime

Is Sacha Baron Cohen insightful or cheap entertainment? His new show, Who is America?, debuted last night. It has drawn criticism for duping politicians and exposing rifts in US society.

First there was Ali G, the suburban British man who imitates rap culture. Then Borat, the good-natured but deeply prejudiced Kazakhstani fascinated by a “very nice” world full of “great success!”

Then there was Brüno, the flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion presenter, who was followed by Admiral General Aladeen, a tinpot dictator modelled on Colonel Gaddafi.

And last night, Sacha Baron Cohen returned to humiliate public figures with his new show Who is America?

As ever, Baron Cohen uses the absurdity of his creations to extract outlandish opinions from his interviewees.

The most memorable segment of the pilot is saved for the end. Playing Israeli “anti-terrorist expert” Errad Morad, Baron Cohen manages to get current and former Republican Party lawmakers to endorse Morad’s initiative to train children aged four to 12 how to use military-grade weaponry.

Another new character is Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr, PhD, a media-suspicious Trump supporter who talks to Senator Bernie Sanders about his conspiracy theories using the opposite of the “lie-brary” — the “truthbrary”.

Baron Cohen also manages to get Dick Cheney, George W. Bush’s former vice president, to sign what he calls his “waterboard kit”.

The big difference with the new show is America’s new, fractious political climate. As Charles Bramesco writes in The Guardian, “confrontation is baked into the very premise of this new quartet” — a contrast to “the comparatively low-stakes idyll of the Bush administration’s tail end” that coincided with the Borat era.

Baron Cohen essentially invented real-life trolling. And he has ensnared some incredibly powerful people, such as David Beckham and Noam Chomsky. And as a famous tweet from President Donald Trump reads: “I never fall for scams. I am the only person who immediately walked out of my ‘Ali G’ interview.”

His shows often tread a fine line between narcissism and genuine insight. But Who is America? has been criticised for being overly exploitative. In a time of political chaos, are cheap gags and toilet humour really any use?

Easy targets

Baron Cohen is a genius, say many. He is ruthlessly brilliant at exploiting people’s desire to be on camera to make them reveal what they truly believe. In fact, his characters are the most effective interviewers imaginable because they take their incredulous subjects out of their comfort zone.

It is cruel rubbish that exploits people’s open nature, reply others. As Sonia Saraiya writes in Vanity Fair, the interviewees, thanks to careful editing, are left “with one real option: to be the butt of the show’s slippery humour.” And we would all be liable to say silly things when put in such an absurd situation.

You Decide

  1. Is Sacha Baron Cohen cruel? And does it matter?
  2. Would you be duped into saying something you would later regret if interviewed by a Baron Cohen character?

Activities

  1. Split into groups: come up with a Sacha Baron Cohen-style character. What is their name? Where do they come from? And how would they get the best (and the worst) out of their interviewees?
  2. Pick a famous person for your character to interview, and write down the transcript of how you think it might go.

Some People Say...

“I don’t know if I’m brave.”

Sacha Baron Cohen

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show, Who is America?, aired last night for the first time. Instead of concentrating on just one character, the new show includes four of his creations. Baron Cohen had previously drifted away from his “trolling” style, moving instead into feature acting. But his film Grimsby was unsuccessful.
What do we not know?
How successful this new venture will be. It could be that the extreme divisions in America help its success. People have never been more keen to see political opponents humiliated. On the other hand, it could strike entirely the wrong note by making light of a situation many consider to be unstable.

Word Watch

Colonel Gaddafi
Gaddafi was deposed as Libya’s leader during the 2011 Arab Spring. He was killed by opposition forces while hiding in the city of Sirte. Many condemned Gaddafi as a dictator whose administration was well known for financing global terrorism and violating human rights.
Creations
Other than Ruddick and Morad, Baron Cohen’s creations for this new series are Ricky Sherman, a recently paroled murderer who has become an artist, and the ultra-liberal Dr Nira Cain-N’Degeocello.
Bernie Sanders
Sanders challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for the 2016 US presidential election.
Waterboard
A form of torture. It was used as an interrogation technique by the CIA on terror suspects.
Noam Chomsky
An American linguist and philosopher, and an outspoken socialist.