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Is Sacha Baron Cohen still funny?

Sacha Baron Cohen's act hasn't changed, from "Da Ali G Show" to "Borat" to his new Showtime series, "Who is America?"...

Posted: Jul 19, 2018 12:18 PM
Updated: Jul 19, 2018 12:18 PM

Sacha Baron Cohen's act hasn't changed, from "Da Ali G Show" to "Borat" to his new Showtime series, "Who is America?" But the world has, which, in light of the media uproar he's triggered, raises the question whether the timing was very right -- or wrong -- for this comeback.

At a moment when commentary tends to gravitate toward the black and white, the not-entirely-satisfying answer appears to be a little of both, though not necessarily for the reasons his fans -- or critics -- would suggest.

For starters, it's not like what Cohen's doing is new, or even faded from the landscape during his TV absence. "The Daily Show's" field pieces have regularly captured political figures (usually conservatives) saying ridiculous, outlandish things, and Stephen Colbert made a pretty good living playing a right-wing blowhard before he landed on CBS, although at least there, everyone was in on the gag.

The buzziest aspect of "Who is America?" -- in which the comic/provocateur masquerades as a variety of characters to dupe unsuspecting marks, from well-known political figures to ordinary folk, usually with an agenda of their own -- exposes a steadfast commitment to talking points, no matter how absurd. In the premiere, that included Republicans and gun-rights advocates endorsing a proposal to arm toddlers ("Kinder Guardians," Cohen called them), even reading gibberish-filled copy directly into the camera.

Those segments expose two threads -- the first related to politics, including a willingness to espouse positions that sound increasingly extreme. The past and present officials reeled in by Cohen's bait don't elicit much sympathy, and their complaints about how the video was procured have only helped do Showtime's promotional work for it.

The second, and arguably more interesting part of Cohen's act, involves media. It's equally illuminating, if a little more problematic.

Cohen's routine is, in many ways, the opposite of "Candid Camera," which sought to reveal what people would do when they thought no one was looking. By contrast, "Who is America?" and its predecessors ask what people will say to be on TV, in an age where it seems like half the punditocracy is auditioning to be the next Ann Coulter.

The whole point of Cohen's act, really, is to test just how far people will go once the cameras are rolling -- to see how long they'll sit still as the "interview" becomes increasingly absurd. It creates a tension between wanting to be on TV and get one's points across (as well as sheer politeness) and the dawning realization that the person to whom they are talking might be a lunatic, fraud or both.

In a sense, Cohen is probing the comfort level of both his subjects and the audience. That's one reason why the segments can be so cringe-worthy, perhaps especially when they involve people who don't have armies of publicists and chiefs of staff to arrange and negotiate media appearances.

Where "Who is America?" feels poorly timed is in its reliance on deception to secure those moments. Granted, nobody forced those GOP congressmen to agree that arming four-year-olds would be a great idea. But when people are already having difficulty distinguishing between fact and fiction, between real headlines and "fake news," anything that contributes to blurring the lines probably isn't helpful.

Weighing all those factors, there's still plenty to recommend "Who is America?" -- either to marvel at Cohen's improvisational skills, or as a reminder of the excesses that have infected our media and politics, even if that's not necessarily a major revelation at this stage.

Like so much else, Cohen's show won't change any hearts and minds, and more than most, it can appear mean-spirited. That might not make "Who is America?" the answer to what we need right now, but it does, in a way, serve as another sign of where we are.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 767409

Reported Deaths: 13980
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1054251805
Lake569191030
Allen42938698
St. Joseph37313568
Hamilton37298426
Elkhart29749470
Tippecanoe23479230
Vanderburgh23201405
Porter19573327
Johnson18822392
Hendricks18072321
Madison13548346
Clark13533198
Vigo12834256
LaPorte12566225
Monroe12546178
Delaware11143198
Howard10672237
Kosciusko9777124
Hancock8740150
Bartholomew8262157
Warrick8069157
Floyd8027182
Grant7366181
Wayne7233201
Boone7184105
Morgan6910143
Marshall6332116
Dubois6274118
Cass6090111
Dearborn601278
Noble599290
Henry5947111
Jackson516377
Shelby510898
Lawrence4922127
Gibson462696
Montgomery458192
Clinton455255
DeKalb455285
Harrison453577
Whitley415745
Huntington415582
Steuben410660
Miami405573
Jasper401155
Knox388391
Putnam385062
Wabash369083
Adams352956
Ripley351271
Jefferson341886
White339654
Daviess3090100
Wells303581
Greene293485
Decatur292593
Fayette286364
Posey281735
Scott280058
LaGrange277572
Clay273348
Washington254037
Randolph247783
Jennings239449
Spencer238731
Fountain235250
Starke229859
Owen222659
Sullivan221343
Fulton208345
Jay202932
Carroll197322
Orange191156
Perry189739
Vermillion180844
Rush177527
Tipton172747
Franklin171935
Parke155216
Pike141734
Blackford138032
Pulaski123648
Newton123036
Benton109715
Brown106043
Crawford105616
Martin92515
Warren87715
Switzerland8348
Union73610
Ohio58111
Unassigned0428

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1123964

Reported Deaths: 20490
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1304331493
Cuyahoga1172542263
Hamilton824421261
Montgomery535421062
Summit489021014
Lucas43747834
Butler40000614
Stark33837939
Lorain26029510
Warren24919312
Mahoning22710613
Lake21472396
Clermont20391261
Delaware19143138
Licking16863227
Trumbull16801492
Fairfield16793207
Medina15861276
Greene15528254
Clark14352308
Portage13432218
Wood13343201
Allen12049245
Richland11740213
Miami11019228
Wayne9258228
Columbiana9204236
Muskingum9133137
Pickaway8750123
Tuscarawas8718255
Marion8710140
Erie8135166
Ashtabula7281179
Hancock7048135
Ross7024165
Geauga6962153
Scioto6701108
Belmont6222179
Lawrence5947104
Union590949
Jefferson5725162
Huron5638122
Sandusky5488130
Darke5444131
Seneca5377128
Washington5371111
Athens526960
Auglaize507487
Mercer491185
Shelby482797
Knox4614113
Madison447566
Ashland444898
Defiance438799
Fulton436375
Putnam4354104
Crawford4114111
Brown409662
Preble3949107
Logan392179
Clinton390766
Ottawa375881
Highland366068
Williams356678
Champaign349660
Guernsey330554
Jackson321354
Perry298850
Morrow294743
Fayette289150
Hardin279365
Henry277167
Coshocton272961
Holmes2725102
Van Wert252265
Adams249858
Gallia249850
Pike244737
Wyandot235257
Hocking222963
Carroll201249
Paulding179942
Meigs151240
Monroe137945
Noble137739
Harrison115238
Morgan111624
Vinton87317
Unassigned04
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