Who Is America? Showtime. Sundays, 10 p.m.
As a little kid, my friends and I all loved Candid Camera. Watching people react to the absurdly impossible—like, say, a traffic cop dumbfounded when a car splits in two and zooms around him—was hilarious. And when we laughed, it wasn't really at the cop; we all knew we would have been just as stupefied and speechless if reality rent itself senseless in front of our eyes.
But every once in a while, one of the stunts would give me a faint sense of unease. Like when a statue of a Roman soldier comes to life and kicks an unaware maintenance worker in the butt. Kicks in the butt were very funny when you saw the Three Stooges do them; but kind of humiliating if it happens to you out in the schoolyard where all your friends can see, as I knew from personal experience.
How would it feel if it happened to you if everybody in the country was watching close-up on television? And if you weren't Mo, Curly, or Shemp, but just a regular guy who had been minding your own business when Allen Funt decided to make you the—well, butt—of a joke for the whole country?
I had one other unsettling thought, which didn't crystalize until I was in high school and Funt made his first film, What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?, in which unwitting people were exposed to public nudity and sexual situations while a hidden camera recorded everything. What I wondered was, what does it say that us that we watch this stuff? Aren't we voyeurs?
(Or, in a few cases, exhibitionists. A college friend of mine swore to me that he was walking down a Manhattan street when he saw a sleek blonde woman loafing around topless on a sidewalk. Instantly certain it was a hidden-camera set-up and wanting to be part, he deliberately walked past her, leering and swiveling his head. I was never certain I believed him until, several years later, I came across the Naked Lady soundtrack LP and saw his photo on the back cover.)
Since Naked Lady, hidden-camera comedy has grown increasingly hardball, to the point that the word "comedy" should probably be omitted. MTV aired a show called Harassment in which a typical segment featured an unwitting couple checking into a hotel only to find a corpse in their bathroom. One of the supposed gags on Scare Tactics on the old Sci-Fi Channel (the ancient ancestor to today's Syfy) entailed telling a woman she'd won an invitation to a remote resort—but the car carrying her there breaks down in the desert and her chauffer begins screaming that they were under space-alien attack.
The most egregious of all was a TV show I saw while living in Nicaragua. Unaware there are cameras trained on him, a man gets out of a car in a grocery-store parking lot. Suddenly there's a teenage girl, her clothing rumpled and torn, standing in front of him screaming, "He raped me!" A crowd forms. "Let's take of the son of a bitch!" Is the lynch mob real or part of the stunt? Who cares, this is fun!
Which brings us to Sacha Baron Cohen. His prank mockumentaries aren't exactly hidden-camera—he's usually playing some buffoonish commentator or filmmaker, so the video crew is right out in the open, capturing the reaction as his marks listen to him spout frothing idiocy or jingoist dementia.
I'll admit I laughed out loud during much of Borat, the 2006 film in which he pretends to be a Kazak reporter touring America, pledging to an amiable but mildly perplexed rodeo crowd that he supports the U.S. effort to "drink the blood of every single man, woman and child of Iraq." Or explaining to a meeting of speechless feminists that Kazak scientists have proven that women have smaller brains than men.
But I was less certain about the humor value of exposing the soft-core racism of a bunch of drunken frat boys who could barely open their beer cans, much less influence American social mores. And a scene in which Borat attempts a clumsy gay seduction of Ron Paul—moving an interview into a hotel bedroom, then dropping his pants—was simply boorish and annoying. (Had a smirky progressive like Rachel Maddow been the mark in this scenario, I suspect Cohen would have gone to jail.)
Cohen's new Showtime comedy Who Is America? is little more than a Borat clone. (The show actually debuted a couple of weekends ago, but the first two episodes are still being regularly screened, and in any event, there's no plot or story continuity that requires them to be seen in order.) And just like Borat, it's a devil's brew of belly laughs and misgivings.
On the plus, it is undeniably hilarious to see Cohen, in his guise as an Israeli counterterrorism expert, coax Dick Cheney into signing a "waterboard kit." (Though it appeared to me that Cheney, stuggling to hide a smile, had figured out a couple of minutes earlier and decided to go along with it. He finally laughed aloud when Cohen says he waterboarded his own wife to find out who she was cheating on him with.)
Priceless, too, is the look of stark incomprehension on the face of Bernie Sanders when Cohen, posing as a wheelchair-bound vet who blogs, interjects into a question-and-answer session on income redistribution with the observation that "I prefer to be anally raped than to give one more dollar to the [U.S.] Treasury."
It's also fair to note that Who Is America? is not quite as relentlessy lefty as you might think from the publicity surrounding the show. The progressive personas that Cohen adopts for some of his interviews are cut-like-a-knife satirical, particularly that of NPR stringer Nira Cain-N.Degeocello, a lecturer on gender studies at Reed College ("I'm a white hetereosexual cis-gender male, for which I apologize") who is on a bike tour of America, "listening respectfully, without prejudice, to Republicans, with a hope to changing their racist and childish views."
It's interesting and amusing to see the Cain-N.Degeocello at dinner with a couple of Trump voters from the South who cannot be baited into grabbing and shaking him when he offers them progressive child-rearing tips ("My son, Harvey Milk, is not allowed to urinate standing up") or his disclosure that he and his wife are in an open marriage with a dolphin.
But not every interview is a fair fight. In his Cain-N.Degeocello guise, Cohen calls a "town meeting" with a couple of dozen residents of the desolate western Arizona town of Kingman. The subject: a new development that turns out to be a $385 million mosque that he describes as the world's biggest outside the Middle East. The grizzled Kingmanites react with predictable hostility and some open racism. (This is not an interpretation. "I'm racist toward Muslims," yells one of them.)
The chattering classes have seized the Kingman episode as Exhibit A in the Trump Era's deformation of the American soul. What goes unmentioned: The folks at the meeting were not exactly a cross-section of the city, but more from its busted-luck demographic. Recruited on Facebook in return for a $150 payment, they were either out of work or have the kind of jobs that make it attractive to skip a day of work for $150.
Also not mentioned during the show: Some of the people in the room recognized immediately that they were being duped in hopes of provoking hateful reactions that would look suitably barbaric on a reality TV show.
"We even tried pointing out to those around us to stop playing into the speaker's hands by responding because it was all a set-up," said one woman to a reporter from the local Mohave Daily News for a story published back in January, long before anyone knew anything about Who Is America?
It's fair to say that, set-up or no, nobody forced the Kingman folks to brag about their racism. But it's also fair to say: So what? Does every damn-fool thing somebody says someplace in America have be waved as a bloody flag on television? And if it does, when will Sacha Baron Cohen sneak a camera in to record the casual anti-semitism at Park Avenue dinner parties? Or call a town meeting in Malibu to announce the construction of a $385 million mosque down the street from the seaside mansions of Barbra Streisand and her neighbors?
The chattering classes are right: Who Is America? does expose something mean and ugly afoot in the land. But it's not the presence of a few racists out in the desert. It's a small meanness of the soul, the same one that leads the lynch mobs on Twitter and Facebook in persecution of social heretics. When the spectacular stupidity of a Georgia legislator on the show forced his resignation this week, one British website headlined its account "Sacha Baron Cohen has claimed his first Who Is America? scalp." The clear and almost certainly correct supposition is that there will be more.
Back in the early days of Candid Camera, Allen Funt regularly killed segments that had turned embarrassing—including, legendarily, a stunt in which hotel guests were fooled into hanging a "men's room" sign on a closet door, which backfired when somebody walked into the supposed bathroom and used it before realizing what was going on. Does anybody doubt that today, Who Is America would air that same footage? Innocent pranks about exploding bowling pins have turned into a blood sport.