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.
In this segment as well, Cohen’s ridiculous facial prosthetics suddenly became an added value. Because forget what Sacha Cohen got these pebble-eyed, failed vacuum cleaner salesmen to say, it speaks volumes that they saw his Duracell man covered in 17 pounds of facial prosthetics and astroturf wigs and thought “yes, this is a normal Israeli.” A normal person could spot Morad as a costume from 50 paces. But for a public conservative, merely invoking “Israel” is like a magic spell, Bugs Bunny duping Elmer Fudd by dressing as a sexy lady. It shouldn’t work. It can’t work. Only it totally works!
That’s why it’s so funny to read mouth breathers like David Frum (who helped get us into the Iraq war) call it a dirty trick, as if painting a tunnel on the side of a mountain is a diabolical political strategy. Put a lady’s wig on an upturned mop? That is beyond the pale, sir!
“I’m really really not loving this game where Sacha Baron Cohen repeatedly takes advantage of people’s affection and respect for the State of Israel to deceive and humiliate them.”
Ah yes, the people’s great respect for the State of Israel. It must’ve been that that led them to assume a balloon-jawed man with a cat turd unibrow strutting around like the Bushwhackers, bragging about raping his wife and helping toddlers kill Muslims, was a real-life Israeli. I look forward to this week’s inevitable round of thinkpieces about how the Hebrew-speaking kosher Zionist is the real Anti-Semite, and the mental gymnastics that will require.
Cohen’s brilliant trick here was to reverse engineer every conservative’s self-serving, Viagra-brained delusion of Israelis into a real-world avatar. Israel, where men are still men, guns are rightfully respected, and everyone stands their ground. Cohen created an avatar for the Israel of the right-wing imagination, and his bold stroke was realizing that they’d be too stupid not to mistake it for the real thing, or too self-deluded not to recognize it as an obvious joke. It’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to non-fictional Three Stooges slapstick.
What a wonderful bit. We’re still fucked, but at least we can laugh about it.