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So This is 'Who is America?’ But Is It Funny?
July 19, 2018  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment
 

Golly! I’ve asked the odd stupid question in my time.

Many times, in fact.

There was the moment, during a press conference at the semi-annual meeting of the Television Critics Association, several years ago, when I asked an ill-considered question of the lead performer in a not-very-good sitcom on the Fox network — in part because the press conference had died, and I suddenly realized that if I didn’t ask a question, any question, no one would. An uncomfortable silence doesn’t do anyone any good if it last longer than, say, the amount of time it takes to watch a 30-second TV commercial.

In retrospect — and given that I was flamed on Twitter by my colleagues in the room, even as the actor was answering my question — I would’ve been better off to just sit there in awkward silence, along with everyone else in the room.

That memory jumped out at me, suddenly and unexpectedly, as I watched last weekend’s opening episode of Who Is America?, Sacha Baron Cohen’s entertaining, if slightly gimmicky, bid to remake Da Ali G Show’s wandering traveler Borat Sagdiyev, mock deejay Ali G and fashionista Brüno Gerhard in his own, more contemporary, image. Who Is America? features new Cohen, in heavy prosthetic makeup this time, so that the world-famous comedian wouldn’t be recognized.

As with Da Ali G Show, the gag is designed to dupe unsuspecting celebrities, politicians, and other luminaries into saying frightfully stupid things and expose them for being the self-righteous, unthinking, bumpkins so many of them are, though they wouldn’t be caught dead admitting as much on-camera. At least, not in front of a proper interviewer with a legit, news-savvy TV audience watching at home.

And so, Who Is America? viewers that first night were treated to the sight of Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. (Cohen, actually, top), founder of an Alex Jones-style alt-right conspiracy website, buttonholing Bernie Sanders (top) on how best to make 99 percent of Americans part of the one-percent elite by simply moving the numbers around, so that the nines are easily confused with the one.

Anyone who knows how alt-right websites really work would’ve wondered why one of their own wouldn’t go after Sanders harder — by pointing out, for example, that Sanders was no help to Hillary Clinton at all, and so inadvertently played a part in electing the current president, form which the alt-right by rights should be eternally grateful.

At a cursory glance, Who Is America? seems tailor-made for these uncertain times; when real news is hard to tell from fake news much of the time, because the real news has become so wacky and unpredictable. Parody can be hard to spot in a time of absurdity.

And that, for me, is the real problem with Who Is America?, as comedy. It’s not that funny. It’s too true to be funny, in a way, say, Borat never was.

Would it be possible to laugh the same way today, for example, at the scene toward the end of Borat when Borat, smitten with Pamela Anderson at a fan convention, throws Anderson over his shoulder like a sack of old potatoes and makes off with her? Would that work in the age of #MeToo?

Similarly, would today’s culturally sensitive moviegoing, TV-watching audience laugh the same way at the annual “Running of the Jews” festival in Borat’s native country, complete with village peasants chasing the town’s Jews down the main street, alongside bobbing parade floats?

One of Cohen’s Who Is America? characters is the Israeli ex-army colonel Erran Morad, who closed the inaugural show by buttonholing gun lobbyists like Larry Pratt (right), director emeritus of the self-defining Gun Owners of America, with questions like, “Are liberals using school shootings to further their anti-tragedy agenda?” — only to get entirely predictable answers.

Who Is America? made the headlines recently — the news headlines, not the entertainment pages — when America interviewee Sarah Palin lashed out at Cohen for posing as a disabled veteran in securing an on-camera interview with her.

Who Is America? parent network Showtime countered with a statement of its own earlier this week, refuting Palin’s claim.

“There has been widespread misinformation over the past week about the character of Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., performed by Sacha Baron Cohen on the Showtime comedy series Who Is America?” the statement read in part. “Baron Cohen did not present himself as a disabled veteran, and viewers nationwide who watched the premiere on Sunday can now attest to that.”

In addition, the statement continued, “Baron Cohen never presented himself as a veteran of the U.S. military to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin during the booking process or during the filming of her interview, and contrary to her claims he did not appear in a wheelchair.”

The episode featuring Palin has not aired yet. As of press time, Showtime has not said when it will air. Another future episode features a segment with former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has also said he was duped into appearing.

The debut episode featured former congressman Joe Walsh, former Mississippi senator Trent Lott, Rep. Joe Wilson, GOP congressman Matt Gaetz and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.

Who Is America? is intended to be a comedy — Showtime said as much that in its statement Monday — but is it funny?

Showtime is also home to the audacious, dazzling — at least, to my eyes — documentary series The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth, which is not a comedy but plays like one, and can be quite funny. The Circus is miraculous television, too, because, originally designed as a one-off series about the 2016 presidential race, it reinvented itself in even more topical form with a second and third season. Showtime has commissioned a fourth season, which will cover the November midterm elections.

It may seem unfair to compare Who Is America? with The Circus, but The Circus hits so many high notes — all of them accurate, news-based, with no exaggeration, sleight of hand or prosthetic camera tricks and funny accents — that there are times when it almost literally takes the breath away.

Watching Who Is America?, I kept wondering: who is the real target here? Who comes off looking worse — the person answering the questions, or the person doing the asking? Sometimes, asking a deliberately dumb question reflects more on the interviewer than the interviewee.

Cohen is mining old territory here, and not just his own Da Ali G Show (left). Martin Short, fat-suit and all, covered similar ground with his 2001-’03 parody interview program Primetime Glick, for Comedy Central.

In that case, interview subjects were in on the joke, but that didn’t make it any less funny, or disarming, in a sweet, mild-mannered way.

The present stressful times we find ourselves living in don’t need anything sweet or mild-mannered, of course. Tough times call for tough measures, and tough TV shows.

It’s just that I wish Who Is America? were less . . . obvious. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel — which, for all I know, is a popular pastime in back-country Alaska.

 
 
 
 
 
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1 Comments
 
 
Mac
There are no stupid questions. I was encouraged in high school to overcome shyness to ask a question, even if I knew the answer, just for the experience.
Opinions galore for Cohen's series,especially the "we've seen this schtick before" cop out. Meanwhile,a recent story of Stuttering John getting through to Trump on the phone,after Jared green-lit the call. Like Howard Stern,SJ's mentor,there are five minutes of comedy gold buried in an hour of sediment. Bottom line-did the prank work? It seems like both Cohen & SJ succeeded.
Jesse Watters,not so much. Just ask Ms. Watters. Just ask Fox,as Jesse didn't fess up to an adulterous affair with an associate producer until divorce papers were filed. Watters went to Fox voluntarily,but no penalty and the ap was transferred to Laura Ingraham. I'm a libtard,so Watters talking climate change to common folk after a snowstorm(climate vs. weather-get it?) pales to Dick Cheney signing a waterboard kit. Was the bottle from Nestle Waters?
Jul 20, 2018   |  Reply
 
 
 
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