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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.

Cases: 263023

Reported Deaths: 5752
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17675191
Hinds16813331
Harrison14224204
Rankin11167219
Jackson10839190
Lee9050144
Madison8568168
Jones6668114
Forrest6177124
Lauderdale6097192
Lowndes5518120
Lafayette516298
Lamar503965
Washington4923125
Bolivar4104109
Oktibbeha405982
Panola384881
Pontotoc376258
Warren3674103
Monroe3671108
Union355663
Marshall355270
Neshoba3485154
Pearl River3468105
Leflore3111109
Lincoln305688
Hancock291862
Sunflower291475
Tate279662
Alcorn272354
Pike268981
Itawamba268063
Scott259648
Yazoo255256
Prentiss252553
Tippah249250
Copiah249049
Coahoma248054
Simpson242171
Leake237367
Grenada223272
Marion222073
Covington219973
Adams213671
Wayne212634
Winston207371
George204339
Newton199046
Attala196963
Tishomingo194161
Chickasaw189044
Jasper179538
Holmes171768
Clay165837
Tallahatchie156235
Stone151425
Clarke147262
Calhoun140822
Smith129226
Yalobusha122034
Walthall114337
Greene113529
Noxubee112926
Montgomery111636
Carroll106622
Lawrence106517
Perry104531
Amite101426
Webster96124
Tunica88821
Claiborne88325
Jefferson Davis88329
Benton85623
Humphreys84624
Kemper80520
Quitman7089
Franklin69917
Choctaw63213
Wilkinson59825
Jefferson56821
Sharkey45117
Issaquena1606
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 439442

Reported Deaths: 6657
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson644371007
Mobile31435569
Madison28158217
Tuscaloosa21492275
Montgomery19873332
Shelby19248132
Baldwin17128189
Lee13137107
Morgan12594142
Etowah12070181
Calhoun11496206
Marshall10420123
Houston8988164
Limestone832081
Cullman8257124
Elmore8183110
DeKalb7871107
Lauderdale7847107
St. Clair7808130
Talladega6445112
Walker6028183
Jackson599145
Colbert548694
Blount546286
Autauga535862
Coffee460764
Dale409685
Franklin374150
Russell354215
Chilton344373
Covington338580
Escambia334544
Tallapoosa3143109
Dallas312996
Chambers303470
Clarke298036
Pike262431
Lawrence253355
Marion253161
Winston233342
Bibb222348
Geneva210247
Marengo208231
Pickens199531
Hale184944
Barbour180538
Fayette177829
Butler173160
Cherokee165131
Henry159525
Monroe152021
Randolph145536
Washington141727
Clay129746
Crenshaw123745
Macon121937
Cleburne121525
Lamar119922
Lowndes114836
Wilcox107922
Bullock103328
Perry99918
Conecuh97822
Sumter90527
Greene77923
Coosa63418
Choctaw51924
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