Over the last week, the internet has been abuzz as, first, a teaser about the existence of a new Sacha Baron Cohen show started making the rounds, and then, as the week went on, various conservative celebrities, politicians, and celebrity-politicians started to publicly complained that Cohen had tricked them into willingly saying very stupid things on camera. This, of course, only built increased buzz for the latest from the creator of Da Ali G Show, as fans began to anticipate a work as outlandish and America-skewering as that one.
It also provoked some backlash by its very existence, most notably a Vox column that suggested Cohen’s comedy was “too provocative and dangerous” for our time. As both an American left-winger and a standup and comedy writer somewhere in between “total amateur” and “actual professional”1, I had two thoughts. One is that good comedy, something that is genuinely funny, is something that endures beyond its time, and indeed, the goal of many artists isn’t to make something that stands in its time but something that stands out of time. The second thought is that, in a country that’s increasingly sliding toward fascism, with a fast-food-and-senility-addled president and a literal Gestapo breaking up immigrant families for no reason other than pure cruelty, the idea that giving powerful people space to publicly expose themselves as idiots and assholes is “too dangerous” is on its face absurd to me. Not only does it ascribe far too much power to comedy, but it also seems to be calling for civility at precisely a time when, if we’re really committed to our politics, we need to be deeply uncivil and taking direct action to prevent these monstrosities.
1 – This basically means “I don’t have a career but I did get paid at least once.”
That said, all the buzz led me to expect a slightly different show than the one I got, but I loved the one we did get. The final segment was the one most closely aligned with what I expected (in part because its participants were among the public complainants), but I liked all four of them for their own reasons.
The opening segment has Cohen undercover as Billy Wayne Ruddick, of truthbrary.com (says the graphic; he actually calls it “truth library dot com,”) a sort of typically fringe (or what used to be fringe) racist right-wing “news” site– not quite an Infowars; more like a Breitbart or Gateway Pundit. He interviews Bernie Sanders, and after making a couple of ridiculous points (such as “I was never sick, then I went to the doctor and got three diseases”), Sanders seems to catch on that he’s dealing with a ridiculous person. (There’s a moment where the look on his face changes to that effect.) I enjoyed some of the details, like how Ruddick uses a scooter to “conserve his body’s finite energy,” a concept that, among others, Donald Trump actually believes is real, but this part also exposes a bit of the problem with this concept: Namely, that the far right has become so hyperbolic and batshit that you can’t even really exaggerate them or parody them.
(This is also why The Opposition with Jordan Klepper didn’t really work– Stephen Colbert could parody Bill O’Reilly, who still tried to put a respectable face on his aggrieved-white-male-bully persona, but you can’t really parody Alex Jones, who rips his shirt off and hollers about globalist false flag conspiracies to turn frogs gay before pivoting to sell male vitality pills. How do you exaggerate that, especially if you have to pull your punches for cable TV?)
I still enjoyed it, though, even though it wasn’t the strongest part of the show.
The second segment fared better, as Cohen went into effete-NPR-liberal territory by posing as balding-ponytailed Dr. Nira Cain N’Degeocello, traveling America to talk to Republicans “in hopes of changing their racist and childish views,” for a fake show called “Heal the Divide.” In this segment, he visits the home of a GOP county chair and Trump delegate (Jane Page Thompson) and her husband (Mark Thompson), another attempt to try to bridge the cultural gap. Again in this segment, the satire seemed to be more on Cohen’s character than on the people he was interviewing. Of course, their talk about supporting Trump because “he said he would bring jobs back” runs a bit contrary to their giant home, but for the most part, they’re hospitable and striving to be non-judgmental, even as Cohen treads into increasingly ludicrous ground, explaining that in order not to make them conform to gender roles, he and his wife force their son (“Harvey Milk”) to pee sitting down and their daughter (“Malala”) to pee standing up. Cohen also explains that Malala is now menstruating, and they decided to let her free bleed; they don’t want her to bleed on their Herman Miller chairs (which Jane acknowledges are very nice chairs; if there’s one thing NPR liberals and McMansion conservatives can agree on, it’s the quality of fine consumer goods), so they cover them with the American flag. “The blood is starting to make it look like a Chinese flag,” Dr. Nira confides to the couple, struggling to contain their horror.
Honestly, Mark is kind of the highlight here, a southern dandy whose attempts to be polite occasionally crack on the ridiculous things Cohen is saying, particularly when he explains how he was “cucked by a dolphin.” (“How do you compete with that?”) Jane has to remind him not to judge at one point, but his inability to remain polite in the face of the increasingly absurd adds a little spark to this segment.
The third segment is a fake program called “Ex-Con Second Chance,” where Cohen is Rick Sherman, out of prison after 21 years (“You make one mistake, you know, 14 times”) who discovered a talent and passion for art behind bars. He meets the fine art consultant at an art gallery, Christy (no last name given), and over the course of the segment gradually reveals that his artwork is primarily painted in his own shit (but also sometimes his blood, piss, and cum).
This is definitely a segment where I can see people not being sure if it’s funny, or perhaps thinking Christy doesn’t deserve to be satirized, but I honestly didn’t think she really was being satirized. This was almost more akin to a Nathan For You segment, in the way in which Cohen uses the power of the camera and the authority it conveys to go forward with a bizarre idea. It was funny to me for how surreal the whole endeavor was, rather than, to quote the Gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, who it was versus.
Personally, I didn’t think it was really making fun of Christy; Rick Sherman’s bodily-fluid art is barely an exaggeration of things that have happened in the art world, and Christy is at least trying to be polite and accommodating. What I enjoyed about the segment was just how strange and surreal the whole proceeding was, with moments like Cohen explaining how he fellated his cellmate for the semen to use in one of his portraits, and Cohen feeling “inspired” in the middle of the conversation and going to the bathroom to, presumably, jerk off, shit, and paint, returning with a new painting of Christy. The segment culminates with Cohen revealing his paintbrush made of pubic hair from other artists, with Christy volunteering to add her own, in a segment that’s mostly astonishing that it happened and was recorded at all.
Interestingly, I thought the fourth segment was the only one where the people Cohen was talking to were clearly the target of the satire; this segment was a more reminiscent of Da Ali G Show in the way it gave space for powerful people to say ridiculous things, but also Brass Eye, especially with the promotional videos and the absolute drivel coming out of the speakers’ mouths.
In this segment, Cohen plays Col. Erran Morad, an Israeli mercenary traveling to America to help spread their program of keeping children and schools safe by training children to use guns to protect themselves, explaining to everyone along the way that their program is for “ages 12 all the way to 4.” His first visit is with Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, occasional “guns are awesome” cable news guest, and the kind of person who says things on camera about children like “They haven’t quite developed a… what we call a conscience, where you feel guilty about doing something wrong … If they haven’t developed that yet, they can be very effective soldiers.” “Col. Morad” explains that they want to start training three-year-olds, but only gifted ones, so he enlists Van Cleave to produce a video aimed at three-year-olds. “Kinderguardians: How to Protect Your Preschool” encourages and instructs children on gun use, with an astonishing collection of toy/weapons called “Gunimals,” toy animals that are also real guns. Puppy Pistol! Gunny Rabbit! Uzicorn! (For girls, of course.) Dino Gun! (An automatic weapon.) Rocket RPG! (To send the bad guys to the moon!) and BFF! (For toddlers– it works by pulling a ring-on-the-string on the back, like a talking stuffed animal but with bullets instead of words.
It gets even wilder. “Col. Morad” decides he needs to take his program to Washington and get it sponsored by some legislators. To do so, he meets with lobbyist Larry Pratt, who is really a special type of ghoul, even among the people Cohen speaks to in this segment. Just from their initial meeting:
- Cohen opens by asking Pratt “Do you think the liberals are using these school shootings to further their anti-tragedy agenda?” which Pratt lets slide by seamlessly without considering the implications.
- Pratt: “Well, if they hear someone saying ‘Allahu Akbar,’ they’re likely to instinctively reach for their gun.” This leads Cohen to tell him about a Muslim gardener who was shot because he was overheard saying it, but he was only praying. Pratt breaks out into hearty laughter at the story of a Muslim gardener getting shot, adds “Pray in secret!”, then laughs again.
- Cohen describes being shot by his wife, but what are you going to do, because “What can I do, I get horny in the middle of the night. But it’s not rape if it’s your wife, eh?” Pratt laughs heartily at this, and they shake hands over it. “That probably won’t be on the video we send to the Hill.”
Pratt sets up a meeting with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who’s a little incredulous, explaining that it doesn’t quite work like this; “We usually don’t just hear a story and then say something on a video–” smash cut to Trent Lott reading ridiculous copy for said video, endorsing “Kinder-Guardians” as a program for “talented children or highly trained preschoolers.” This video is pure Brass Eye, reminiscent of the ludicrous celebrity endorsements for fake campaigns that show garnered (perhaps most notably in the “Paedogeddon” episode). Current representatives Dana Rohrabacher and Joe Wilson appear on the video, as does former Rep. Joe “Pay your child support” Walsh, delivering the immortal line “In less than a month, a first grader can become a first grenader.”
But the most absolutely bananas material is saved for Pratt himself, whose video segment begins with “Toddlers are pure, uncorrupted by fake news or homosexuality” and gets more ridiculous from there. “Children of 4 process images 80% faster than adults, meaning essentially, like owls, they can see in slow motion. Children under 5 also have elevated levels of the pheromone Blink-182, produced by the part of the liver known as the Rita Ora. This allows the nerve reflexes to travel along the Cardi B neural pathway, to the Wiz Khalifa, 40% faster, saving time and saving lives.”
Whew. Pratt’s segment is a comedy tour de force; I had to stop the episode because I was laughing so hard at least three times during his reading. It’s an absolute highlight, an exposé of how shamelessly so many of these people will do or say anything for a cause that feeds their fever dream or they think will impress their paymasters. Most of the episode is pretty funny, but it’s that final segment, in particular, that lives up to all the promise of this show and makes me very excited for more. Welcome back, Sacha Baron Cohen. See you in this space next week.
- Cohen played four characters this episode, already up from Ali G’s rotation of three. No idea if these characters will recur or not.
- Billy Wayne Ruddick’s economic plan is to move everyone into the 1%. Bernie Sanders does not have time for this shit.
- Dr. Nira introduces himself: “I’m Dr. Nira Cain N’Degeocello, cisgendered white heterosexual male, for which I apologize. Two weeks after the election was stolen from President Hillary Clinton, I managed to get out of bed.”
- The menstrual-flag program Dr. Nira is trying with his daughter is sponsored by the Clinton Foundation.
- The tag takes us back to the Thompsons, with Mark offering this about Dr. Nira’s home life. “Can I be crudely honest? Fucked up.”
- Col. Morad and Pratt have this exchange: “We train from 16-year-old up to 4 years old.” “This segment of the conversation would absolutely cause heads to explode here in this country.” “What, because they would be shot, or–“
- Col. Morad as to why four is the lower bounds age limit for the program: “We don’t teach two-year-olds because they call it the terrible twos for a reason.”
- “My son was in the very first program. May he rest in peace. He died doing what I loved.”
- I’ll leave you with Larry Pratt on anti-gun activists: “They have blood on their hands.”