Is Sacha Baron Cohen still funny?

Sacha Baron Cohen's act hasn't changed, from "Da Ali G Show" to "Borat" to his new Showtime series, "Who is America?"...

Posted: Jul 19, 2018 11:18 AM
Updated: Jul 19, 2018 11:18 AM

Sacha Baron Cohen's act hasn't changed, from "Da Ali G Show" to "Borat" to his new Showtime series, "Who is America?" But the world has, which, in light of the media uproar he's triggered, raises the question whether the timing was very right -- or wrong -- for this comeback.

At a moment when commentary tends to gravitate toward the black and white, the not-entirely-satisfying answer appears to be a little of both, though not necessarily for the reasons his fans -- or critics -- would suggest.

For starters, it's not like what Cohen's doing is new, or even faded from the landscape during his TV absence. "The Daily Show's" field pieces have regularly captured political figures (usually conservatives) saying ridiculous, outlandish things, and Stephen Colbert made a pretty good living playing a right-wing blowhard before he landed on CBS, although at least there, everyone was in on the gag.

The buzziest aspect of "Who is America?" -- in which the comic/provocateur masquerades as a variety of characters to dupe unsuspecting marks, from well-known political figures to ordinary folk, usually with an agenda of their own -- exposes a steadfast commitment to talking points, no matter how absurd. In the premiere, that included Republicans and gun-rights advocates endorsing a proposal to arm toddlers ("Kinder Guardians," Cohen called them), even reading gibberish-filled copy directly into the camera.

Those segments expose two threads -- the first related to politics, including a willingness to espouse positions that sound increasingly extreme. The past and present officials reeled in by Cohen's bait don't elicit much sympathy, and their complaints about how the video was procured have only helped do Showtime's promotional work for it.

The second, and arguably more interesting part of Cohen's act, involves media. It's equally illuminating, if a little more problematic.

Cohen's routine is, in many ways, the opposite of "Candid Camera," which sought to reveal what people would do when they thought no one was looking. By contrast, "Who is America?" and its predecessors ask what people will say to be on TV, in an age where it seems like half the punditocracy is auditioning to be the next Ann Coulter.

The whole point of Cohen's act, really, is to test just how far people will go once the cameras are rolling -- to see how long they'll sit still as the "interview" becomes increasingly absurd. It creates a tension between wanting to be on TV and get one's points across (as well as sheer politeness) and the dawning realization that the person to whom they are talking might be a lunatic, fraud or both.

In a sense, Cohen is probing the comfort level of both his subjects and the audience. That's one reason why the segments can be so cringe-worthy, perhaps especially when they involve people who don't have armies of publicists and chiefs of staff to arrange and negotiate media appearances.

Where "Who is America?" feels poorly timed is in its reliance on deception to secure those moments. Granted, nobody forced those GOP congressmen to agree that arming four-year-olds would be a great idea. But when people are already having difficulty distinguishing between fact and fiction, between real headlines and "fake news," anything that contributes to blurring the lines probably isn't helpful.

Weighing all those factors, there's still plenty to recommend "Who is America?" -- either to marvel at Cohen's improvisational skills, or as a reminder of the excesses that have infected our media and politics, even if that's not necessarily a major revelation at this stage.

Like so much else, Cohen's show won't change any hearts and minds, and more than most, it can appear mean-spirited. That might not make "Who is America?" the answer to what we need right now, but it does, in a way, serve as another sign of where we are.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 65436

Reported Deaths: 1848
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds5487116
DeSoto352328
Madison238763
Harrison237835
Rankin222032
Jackson220142
Jones184258
Forrest172155
Washington158237
Lauderdale139090
Lee133232
Neshoba127891
Lamar118414
Bolivar116333
Oktibbeha109037
Lowndes103935
Warren100731
Scott98720
Panola98012
Sunflower96723
Copiah94128
Lafayette93714
Leflore89362
Pike87734
Holmes86348
Grenada83021
Yazoo80712
Pontotoc7918
Lincoln79041
Leake77925
Simpson77930
Wayne74921
Monroe74751
Coahoma69711
Tate69227
Marion63819
Marshall6389
Covington60713
Winston60415
Adams60225
Union56215
George5484
Newton53511
Pearl River52037
Attala51324
Walthall48919
Noxubee44411
Chickasaw44119
Tallahatchie40710
Calhoun4009
Claiborne39913
Smith39413
Prentiss3869
Alcorn3825
Clay38214
Jasper3819
Hancock36314
Tishomingo3505
Itawamba33710
Tippah32513
Clarke32425
Tunica3176
Montgomery3073
Yalobusha30710
Lawrence3067
Humphreys28211
Carroll25411
Quitman2401
Greene23111
Kemper22815
Jefferson Davis2266
Amite2206
Perry2207
Webster21612
Jefferson1946
Wilkinson19413
Sharkey1903
Stone1633
Benton1330
Choctaw1304
Franklin1162
Issaquena251
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 94827

Reported Deaths: 1674
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson12486232
Mobile9420204
Montgomery6449148
Madison516130
Tuscaloosa405769
Baldwin338023
Unassigned319060
Shelby316432
Marshall306034
Lee258844
Morgan229517
Etowah204128
DeKalb174513
Calhoun167213
Elmore167238
Walker149864
Houston134812
Dallas130523
St. Clair128915
Russell12772
Limestone126113
Franklin123820
Cullman118912
Colbert114113
Lauderdale112315
Autauga105021
Escambia104416
Talladega96713
Jackson9244
Tallapoosa84179
Chambers83538
Dale80223
Blount7593
Butler75635
Chilton7456
Coffee7365
Covington71620
Pike6877
Lowndes56724
Barbour5655
Marion56224
Marengo53614
Clarke4949
Hale46426
Bullock45011
Winston44011
Perry4364
Wilcox41410
Bibb4134
Monroe4084
Randolph39410
Conecuh37810
Pickens3779
Sumter36018
Lawrence3321
Macon32013
Washington32012
Crenshaw3123
Choctaw27712
Cherokee2587
Greene24911
Henry2493
Geneva2480
Clay2375
Lamar2122
Fayette1835
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