Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Showtime show Who Is America?, which premiered last night, was mostly a mixed bag of scat jokes and one-step-too-far lines, interspersing cringe awkwardness with the occasional big laugh line. But one stand-out bit can elevate an entire show, and Who Is America? was more than worth it for its one transcendent moment, in which Cohen brilliantly impersonated Israeli weapons expert “Erran Morad.” Cohen (whose older brother is named Erran), as Morad, got the head of Gun Owners Of America and multiple prominent current and former lawmakers — including shark-toothed Twitter goblin Joe Walsh and former GOP Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott — to publicly endorse his “Kinderguardians” program that would arm toddlers.
As in Borat and Bruno, Cohen’s shtick is to show up in character and get real people to say ridiculous things. Only unlike before, where Cohen was basically just wearing a goofy outfit, this time around, his make-up and facial prosthetics are so thick that it’s hard to believe that anyone could mistake him for a real person. He simply does not pass the uncanny valley test. This makes for mild laughs in some of the opening bits, like his Alex Jones-esque redneck host in a Rascal scooter telling Bernie Sanders about his “chalky secretions;” or his British ex-con who claims to paint with his own semen and feces — it was strange and fascinating watching a bourgie-looking Laguna Beach art gallery owner take everything this character said in stride and even donate her own pubic hair to his latest work. She was an interesting lady, and I would subscribe to her newsletter. What did she think they were filming? Still, it was hard not to wonder what it all added up to.
However, everything came to a head in the Erran Morad segment, where the purpose was more than just a few shock laughs and the lurid fascination of finding out what seemingly normal people will play along with. The Morad segment clearly exposed elected leaders and former leaders, like Dana Rohrabacher and Lott, as cynical salesman who will do earnest teleprompter reads directly into a camera for anyone who seems like an ally in this bogus culture war. Of course, I’m long past the point where I assume “exposing” obvious hypocrisy and amorality will make any material difference in our politics. There was a time I too thought Jon Stewart would eventually save us all, and a brief moment around 2008 where I thought he had. But winning aside, the sheer depth and breadth of basic stupidity on display here, let alone the moral depravity of it, was riveting. Even if we’re past the point where we assumed satire could change the world, at least it can make us feel like we’re not insane.