For the longest time, I’ve been a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen. ‘Ali-G’ was like a hero to all of us kids in school and his subsequent characters have been a non-stop source of entertainment. His documentaries involving ludicrous characters such as Ali-G, Borat, and Bruno that he used to prank innocent members of the public and politicians earned him several awards and countless millions at the box office worldwide. However, his antics as these characters has also been a conduit for controversy and even lawsuits. I won’t go too far into that because that’s an article for another day.
In the last few years, Mr Baron Cohen seemed to have turned away from the kind of ‘undercover’ characters that feature in his mock documentaries in favour of proper motion pictures with a storyline and scripts and proper actors, etc. ‘The Dictator (2012)’ and ‘Grimsby (2016)’ have both featured unique characters and the kind of ‘over-the-top’ and what some might call ‘strong’ comedy that I find so appealing.
Since ‘Grimsby’ and a few other appearances in 2016, Mr Baron Cohen disappeared until earlier this year when news reports started appearing with high profile politicians and celebrities claiming that whilst in disguise, Mr Baron Cohen had duped them into committing humiliating acts in aid of a new show that he was creating. The show was ‘Who Is America?’ and that’s what I’ll be reviewing in this article.
Before we start getting into the whole thing about controversies and just how many people are filing complaints and lawsuits, let’s have a look at Sacha Baron Cohen’s brand-new characters.
First off, there’s Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., PhD.
Seemingly but not definitely, his character seems to be mirrored on right-wing radio host and conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones as Billy Wayne is exactly that. He describes himself as a ‘citizen journalist’ and has his own website, ‘TRUTHBRARY.org’. He uses a mobility scooter not because he has a disability but because he wants to conserve his energy. The people appearing in his segments are typically Democrats or non-Republicans.
Next up is Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello.
This character is a Democratic Activist and cycles around America wearing a ‘pussy hat’ to ‘heal the divide’ created by the Clinton/Trump Presidential Election. So far, so far left. When I say ‘far left’, Dr Nira takes it to the extreme. Let’s just say that he lives with his family; his wife, Naomi, his daughter, Malala and his son, Harvey Milk.
Since Sacha Baron Cohen is English, it’s only fair that he have an English character and in this show, it’s Rick Sherman. Mr Sherman is an ex-convict and an artist with various expressions whether is be paintings or music or cooking. Whatever his expression, his influence and a lot of the resources that he has are ‘prison based’. Let’s leave it at that for now.
One of the strangest characters (and that’s saying something) is a Finnish YouTuber who goes by ‘OMGWhizzBoyOMG’. This character is the least frequent who invites prominent guests onto his show and unboxes unusual toys with them.
With a character like Rick Sherman who holds himself as someone who’s from the ‘less wealthy’ end of the population, naturally this show features someone for whom money is not a problem. Enter, Italian Billionaire, photographer, TV presenter and philanthropist, Gio Monaldo.
I’ve saved the best for last. Israeli anti-terrorism expert, Erran Morad is definitely my favourite character and he features the most in the show. As a member of the Israeli military, he offers his experience, knowledge and unusual self-defence techniques to a wide range of prominent figures.
Now, it’s been well known that 99% of people in show-business do not like Trump and they’ve made their feelings known before and after he was elected President. It was funny at first and everyone (especially the British) enjoy a nice little joke at the people in power. Some have been light-hearted with it and others have taken in too far. However, three years on I think it’s fair to say that the ‘Trump-bashing’ is getting boring now. Any comedian knows that if you keep repeating the same joke, it ceases to be funny and many of my heroes have succumbed to telling this joke whether it’s what they actually believe or they think it’s what the public want to hear. Personally, I’m indifferent to the Trump presidency. I don’t think he should be the Leader of the Free World but there’s not a great deal anyone can do about it at this point except keep our fingers crossed for Bernie Sanders.
I’m saying all this because I’ve tried to stay away from politics when it comes to writing these reviews but these days it’s fucking impossible because everyone (exaggeration) will sneak in a little dig at their commander in chief every chance they get whether it’s subtle or not.
The point is that I was afraid that it was going to happen here. The last time Sacha Baron Cohen performed a character with the sole intention of pranking people would have been when he made ‘Bruno’ back in 2009. Since then, he’s mostly stuck to scripted feature films and has proved himself to be a great actor. It seemed that we wouldn’t see him do anything like that again since (as mentioned above) doing films like ‘Borat’ and ‘Bruno’ got him into a decent amount of legal trouble not to mention occasionally putting himself in physical danger. So why, when America is over a year into the Trump presidency, did he come out with a show like this? I was hearing alarm bells.
My suspicion grew further when I saw that Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show heavily featured prominent Republicans from the not too distant political past and even the political present. I was worried. However, these clips were used for the trailers and the sneak peeks that were put out before the show aired. When I watched the whole season, I’m pleased to say that the politics are more even-handed. Whilst there are a lot of Republicans featured for some sound humiliation, members from the Democratic party also show up albeit in fewer numbers.
Bear in mind that Sacha Baron Cohen went missing for a year to secretly film this show and a whole year only produced 7 episodes. I think it’s fair to say that more Democrats probably did feature it’s just that their clips weren’t as funny as the Republicans.
In fact, Sacha Baron Cohen going after Republicans is not out of the ordinary. In the days of Ali-G, Baron Cohen also interviewed a lot of Republicans for ‘Da Ali-G Show’ and very intelligently showed them up. I personally remember him talking with Pat Buchanan and getting him to say that Saddam could make ‘BLT’s’ as a reference to weapons of mass destruction.
Cards on the table?
Sacha Baron Cohen is one of my favourite comedians and I truly believe that he is one of the best character actors in the world. It’s all fine playing a character on a film set where you have an infinite amount of takes to get your performance right but with Mr Baron Cohen’s characters, he has just once chance to get his performance right or his cover is blown.
Since this review would be a million words long if I went through every single segment, I’ll just talk about the ones that gained the most traction and media attention plus some of my favourite segments.
This show gained much media attention and therefore promotion before it was aired. From my perspective, it started with former Alaskan Governor and Former Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin who reported that she was a victim of one of Mr Baron Cohen’s characters. This was the first time I heard he was making a new show and the stunt that she described summed up his MO perfectly albeit one minor difference. Ms Palin and then the rest of the media claimed that Mr Baron Cohen was posing as a disabled US Veteran which the public and indeed myself found to be in poor taste… if it were true. But it wasn’t. In fact, in articles released before the show aired, Showtime confirmed that the character used was Billy Wayne Ruddick who does use a motorised scooter but doesn’t claim to be disabled or to have served in the military. Sarah Palin’s clip doesn’t feature in the show and no videos have surfaced online.
The second news story was a fairly famous one and does feature in the show. This segment features Erran Morad with the former Republican State Representative from Georgia, Jason Spencer. Various news clips featured in the program gave some insight into Mr Spencer’s career in politics which are ‘controversial’ at best.
In the clip featured in the second episode, Erran Morad showed Mr Spencer how to identify whether or not someone in a Burqa was concealing an explosive and the technique involved taking an ‘up-skirt’ picture with a selfie stick whilst pretending to be Chinese, screaming the ‘N-word’ to attract attention during a potential kidnapping but the icing on the cake had to be the method of trying to touch a terrorist with his bare buttocks in the belief that will turn a terrorist into a homosexual.
If you haven’t seen it then I would recommend that you do because it is hilarious but the fallout from this clip was dramatic. Jason Spencer’s appearance drew significant backlash from the media, the public which resulted in his resignation. The point of the show is that Sacha Baron Cohen gets people to do silly and humiliating things for entertainment and whilst the ‘Chinese accent’ was both offensive and inaccurate (‘Konnichiwa’ is Japanese) and there’s no need to get your arse out on TV, it’s not like he didn’t know it was being filmed, I do feel bad that his humiliation has had such drastic consequences. Having said that, the question does need to be asked whether someone who would do all those things because someone told him to do them should be in a position of power. You can put it down to the strength of Mr Baron Cohen’s performance or a speck of naivety on behalf of Mr Spencer but I suspect the answer would be, probably not. Moving on.
Another famous clip again featured Erran Morad and this one gained significant traction. The subject of school shootings in America is a complex issue and has divided the nation when it comes down to gun-control and the responsibility of those who bare firearms. One suggestion that’s been banded around over the years is to give the teachers guns which I think is ridiculous. School is a place for learning and teachers are there to teach. Erran Morad has taken things one step further with the proposal of arming the students, aged 16 down to 3. Erran Morad gains a number of supporters and they all feature in a promotional video in which various firearms are advertised to children. The people that he met with include Gun Rights Activist and The President of the Virginia Citizens Defence League, Philip Van Cleave; Executive Director emeritus of the lobbying group Gun Owners of America, Larry Pratt and a number of other individuals who featured in the video of which Joe Walsh, a radio talk show host and former congressman, appeared on ‘Good Morning Britain’ and was given a sound roasting by host, Piers Morgan. In Mr Walsh’s defence, he tried to defend himself.
Some of my favourites from the show include Rick Sherman trying to get a gallery owner to by one of his paintings that he created in prison which was painted with poo and semen and asking her for some of her pubic hair as a souvenir. The same character also presented a number of questionable dishes to a food critic which included 4 baked beans of 4 tiny squares of toast, ‘anally aged’ veal inside a strawberry condom and for the last course, a fillet of what he said was a ‘vegetarian fed, Chinese dissident’ with a cauliflower puree. Oddly enough, the critic gave him a glowing review.
I have mentioned twice now and am going to mention again that Sacha Baron Cohen has gotten in legal trouble in the past with some of the films that he’s done and ‘Who is America?’ is no different.
In 2018, Former Senate Candidate Roy Moore sued Sacha Baron Cohen for $95 Million after he was interviewed by Cohen’s character, Erran Morad. Morad showcased a new device which was created to detect an enzyme that is only secreted by sex-offenders. Morad waved the wand over himself and then over Mr Moore and only then did it beep. Mr Moore didn’t respond well. News clips shown before the interview took place showed that in the previous year, Mr Moore had been accused of sexual misconduct by a number of women some of whom were underage.
Despite all of this, the most jaw-dropping interview occurred in the closing minutes of the final episode. I couldn’t believe this when I saw it. It’s Gio Monaldo in a room with O.J. Simpson. O.J. Simpson was a player of American Football, and an actor but is infamous for having been arrested, charged and acquitted for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown-Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman. At the time of the interview, O.J. Simpson had only been recently released from prison having served 9 years of a 33 year prison sentence for armed robbery. I cannot explain with mere words how the interview progressed but I would recommend that you watch the clip. It is extraordinary.
Funnily enough, the critics didn’t seem to take too well to this show. A good number of the participants weren’t happy but that’s to be expected with a number of them taking to social media to voice their outrage. However, Gretchen Rossi responded positively, stating that she was ‘honoured’ to have been pranked by Sacha Baron Cohen who posed as Erran Morad and showed she and her partner how to protect their home but secretly, he was trying to impress her.
To me, it feels like a return to the old days. Cohen’s style of comedy is definitely extreme but it’s the only kind of comedy that I find funny anymore. The show feels to me as a mix of three things. One, he’s doing silly things to make people laugh like when Rick Sherman plays a track filled with horrific sounds from prison to packed night club. Two, he’s doing what he did in ‘Borat’ and ‘Bruno’ in that he’s using extreme characters to relate to extreme people with extreme points of view in order to get them to say extreme things. Finally, whilst he’s achieving the previous two, he’s speaking about specific elements of American society such as gun-control, race and how his extreme characters are a million miles away from the people who are currently in power and the possible ramifications both socially and geo-politically… with some dick-jokes thrown in for good measure.
It’s not taken to everybody but personally, I think it’s a return to form for Sacha Baron Cohen and it’s just brilliant.
Since this show has aired, Sacha Baron Cohen has disappeared again but before anyone can get too concerned, it’s because he’s filming an ‘Espionage Biopic’ series for Netflix called ‘The Spy’ which centres around the life and works of the Israeli Mossad Spy, Eli Cohen who will be portrayed by Mr Baron Cohen and I am very much looking forward to seeing it.
Have you read my new book? It’s called ‘Patient 187’ and it’s really good and written by me.