Who Is America? Is at Turns Hilarious and Unsettlingly Mean

Not every random jerk's terrible opinion is worth a national spotlight.


'Who Is America?'
'Who Is America?,' Showtime

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.

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  1. Hey, what’s the good of being a wealthy celebrity if you can’t make fun of the common folk?

    1. Keep in mind that Cohen’s methodology is to keep acting like a bigger ass until he gets the reaction he wants. If someone acts politely around him, he’ll keep goading them in order to provoke an extreme response and go, “See? SEE?! Look at these backwards rubes and their lack of sophistication!” Like John pointed out the other day, “Borat” is really more an indictment of Cohen’s infantile personality than the people he’s supposedly making fun of.

      One day, he’s going to pick the wrong target and end up in the hospital or the morgue because he doesn’t know when to let things go.

      1. Keep in mind that Cohen’s methodology is to keep acting like a bigger ass until he gets the reaction he wants.

        The Daily Show called and wants its methodology back.

      2. If all else fails, your being polite will be taken as an endorsement of his nonsense.

      3. I have this deep seated suspicion that for every one of these segments where they finally get someone to crack in a comedic way, there are several other segments where people act as expected- they say “Hey man, we don’t believe homosexuality is right, but you are going over the line there.”

        The problem is we will never see those instances. Just as we will never see the segment where the gun store owner id’s Cohen, we will never see those many segments where someone just reacts decently in a way that is just unfunny.

        1. This is true. But it’s odd that the people who “crack” are often the ones in power. Legislators at all levels, famous people, etc.

    2. Pretty much

    3. It’s a shame really – cuz the idea tends to really work well when the targets are the pompous and powerful. But too many of them are surrounded by bodyguards and bubbles and handlers

  2. Garvin is not saying that Cohen can attempt a clumsy gay seduction of Rachel Maddow? Or is he?

  3. 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?

    I’m sure he’d love to do these things.

    1. Haha. Now that’s funny

      1. There aren’t proggies under your bed man. You’ve got to get out more. Relax.

    2. I’m sure he’d love to do these things.

      Could you elaborate on what’s stopping him?

      1. We could start with the probable reality that he’d be stepping on the toes of his money men

  4. He’s just Piers Morgan in drag at this point. A mean-spirited asshole. I can’t believe that cable outlets are still playing this act after a couple decades (with a mysterious eight-year gap where I guess he was busy doing something else).

    1. BORING!

    2. “I guess he was busy doing something else”

      Isla Fisher

      1. Wood.

  5. you’re confusing borat and bruno. an easy enough mistake to make i suppose, but aren’t journalists supposed to verify these kinds of things?

    1. Not any more – – – – – – –

  6. I’d put this guy right along side the Jackass guy in the category of Shit That’s Funny For About 2 Minutes. He’s basically got one joke that he’s been retelling for years.

    1. Let’s not slander the Jackass crew. They truly put themselves on the line for their art.

      1. I bet you were particularly fond of the bit where the midget kicked himself in the forehead.

        1. No, it was the toy car up his ass.

          1. Nope. It was the time they let themselves get shot with riot control weaponry.

            1. Truly gifted artists.

    2. He’s basically got one joke that he’s been retelling for years

      And the joke depends mightily on bending social conventions of not being a raging dick to the breaking point so as to elicit nervous laughter, if nothing else.

  7. I prefer the humor in ‘Nathan For You.’ It’s not as mean-spirited, and most of the time we’re laughing at Nathan.

  8. “I’m racist toward Muslims,”

    Though let’s ask ourselves this, is this a phrasing used by someone who isn’t in on the joke? Because that sounds like someone taking the piss.

    1. Most bigots have learned to hide their racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. But some either don’t know or don’t care about the modern approach, and others lower their guard when they believe they are in reliably conservative company.

      1. So you’re saying he would have gotten you.

      2. But the phrasing itself is awkward. I’ve seen people be racist, and I’ve never seen it manifest as “I AM RACIST” which is a strawracist if I’ve ever seen one.

        1. well for one, its impossible to be racist against something that is not a race. Muslim is a religion, not a race.

          1. You would think Glenn would delight in making that pedantic (but important) point himself.

            “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”
            “Forget it, he’s rolling.”

        2. It seems more like a forced “acting” attempt from some poor schmuck who needed $150.

      3. To paraphrase Tony,

        Relax, there aren’t bigots hiding under your bed.

    2. I noticed the same thing. The tongue in cheek was immediately obvious to me, maybe not to Glenn. He says he’s not interpreting, but he did interpret the statement as literal and genuine.

    3. I just watched this one last night. There was definitely no indication that they were in on the joke. It looked very genuine.

      Having said that, it’s pretty obvious he cherry-picked the town they did this in. He found the most backwards town he could find. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of racists in backwards towns. Shocker.

      1. How did he identify a backward, bigoted town?

        Republican voter registration?

        1. Maybe someone told him you lived there?

        2. Buy a gun and shoot yourself in the face.

      2. If Kingman is the most backwards town he could find he certainly did not look very far, or very hard.

  9. “Kazak scientists have proven that women have smaller brains than men.”

    I am too lazy to google, but don’t we know that women have smaller brains? Same number of neurons, but smaller heads.

    1. Be happy you don’t work at google.

  10. Haha, Kingman, AZ. I once stayed at a motel there where it cost $26 per night. There is a “ghost town” near there called Oatman with wild burros roaming around and shitting all over the place. The locals are an interesting bunch, that’s for sure.

    1. Has a good rum distillery. Definitely a small place. Though, not particularly small by Arizona standards.

    2. You can get nearly the same experience in San Francisco, if you replace “wild burros” with “homeless people and drug addicts.”

      Hotel’ll be more, though.

  11. The person who asked a right-winger to review a Sasha Baron Cohen work must not understand that and why the liberal-libertarian mainstream has all of the strongest comedians, musicians, actors, etc.

    1. the liberal-libertarian mainstream has all of the strongest comedians, musicians, actors, etc.

      Please provide a list of mainstream comedians, musicians and actors who wouldn’t be horrified at being labelled “libertarian.”

      1. Is Doug Stanhope mainstream yet?

        1. Living in the suburbs of Bisbee is not gonna get ya much mainstream.

        2. Is Doug Stanhope mainstream yet?

          I’ve never heard of him, so obviously not.

          * Disclaimer: the most recent record in my record collection is Yoko by Beulah.

      2. kurt russel?

      3. Adam Carolla

      4. Seeing as we have “comedians” of most stripes, colors and creeds, libertarians being unable to attract or grow their own probably indicates a problem with libertarian branding then with comedians.

    2. I’m going to just point out that you tend to only make one of two arguments. Argument from Authority or Appeal to Majority. Both are fallacies, and they make up almost every argument I have seen from you.

      1. Yeah – I thought Tony was bad before this guy showed up. Tony at least has a sense of humor.

      2. Look at the uneducated bitter clinger, trying to pretend he understands fallacies from under his MAGA cap.

        The reason that the liberal-libertarian mainstream has all the best comedians, of course, is that we understand that to be funny one must always punch up, against privileged white cis male evangelical hegemons, like the rubes in Kingman, instead of against powerless women and minorities like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

        1. Okay ^ this is clearly OBL who’s just used a capital “I” for the “L” in “Kirkland.” No way someone said that and seriously meant it.

          1. No, he’s right. I am wearing my MAGA cap.

            I’m going to return to Breitbart now. Sorry everybody…

        2. If having a college degree makes one better, than mocking someone for going to college is punching up. Aha, this explains why so many teenagers in one party progressive school districts do poorly on standardized tests. They are afraid of getting beaten up for getting good grades.

        3. Bigoted, right-wing authoritarian Mini-Me is back!

          We missed you, goober. Busy suppressing black votes, harassing women near clinics, and calling the rent-a-cops at ICE to report everyone who doesn’t look like an American to you?

          1. Projecting your secret desires on to me, Rev. Evil? Again?

        4. Hey Rev….?

          instead of against powerless women and minorities like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

          This is sarcasm….right??? Some of your famous lib-lib humor….???
          Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama…powerless…?? Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha!!! Stop it man, you’re Killing Me!

        5. Please kill yourself.

    3. Arnold Schwarzenegger was very strong back in the day.

    4. Explains the desire of prog comedians to stop being funny in their stand up. The EXPRESSED desire to not be funny, mind you. Not the unintentional desire to fail.

    5. If you don’t lower your head a big fly is going to get up your nose.

  12. We have met the enemy, and they is us.

  13. 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?

    Enh, they might not twig on that, but if you told them there was going to be a huge windmill farm or solar array or some other large industrial but supposedly ecofriendly endeavour, they’d almost certainly scream about that.

    And if not, say you’re putting in a $385 million Wal-Mart. 😉

    1. A solar powered Walmart.

  14. Most people are forebearing and nonviolent, which is why Cohen isn’t in a home for people whose brains were beaten to mush by angry mobs of insulted people.

  15. One of these days one of the victims will sic their lawyers on Cohen, and then we’ll see how long this sort of thing can last.

    1. Exposing bigotry without a permit?

      Intentional infliction of self-inflicted goobery?

      Unlicensed illumination of stupidity?

      Depiction in true light?

      1. Fuck, you’re a bore.

      2. Everyone on planet earth wants you to be beaten to death.

  16. I just think he’s a boring one-trick pony. No politics required.

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  18. Again, Sasha Cohen is the Impractical Jokers without comedy but with plenty of scorn and enmity.

  19. If you have to get your laughs at the expense of other people, you arne’t funny.

    You’re a dick.

    1. Yeah, that’s a big no-no for me. I mentioned them earlier, but the Impractical Jokers involve the public a lot, but the four guys are ALWAYS the butt of the joke, They have to look like idiots or say really uncomfortable things and the public just reacts to them. They do not seek to demean or insult the audience (like once, they had one of the guys, for a punishment, walk around NYC and just talk the cigarettes out of people’s hands. They didn’t insult or demean the smokers — the whole bit was basically “Can we get one of our guys to actually DO it”.

      Cohen is big on making sure HE is not the butt of the joke. He is always the winking monkey laughing at the marks. And given that people, generally, will be polite to somebody, no matter how much an idiot he may be, they aren’t going to ASSUME the guy is trying to mock them. It’s quite easy to mock people if they are unaware that is your goal until too late and, well, you own the tapes and editing equipment.

    2. If you see a bigot and a comedian in a room and conclude that the comedian is the dick, you might be a wingnut.

      1. You need to have your head viciously and repeatedly stomped against a curb.

        1. I’m pretty sure that already happened.

  20. The notorious s.b.c.’s schtick Is pretty obviously not 100% good natured, but in the end he can only show clips of you doing things you actually did or saying things you said. what I’m saying is if you come off looking like a jackass, it’s on you.

  21. And when a Republican film maker did this sort of thing to planned parenthood directors, he was prosecuted by the Left who tried to have him thrown in jail for exposing that PP is very open to selling bits and pieces of human babies.

    1. True. And they presented the full video of the interaction on their site. I assume Cohen will not do the same,

  22. [?] desolate western Arizona town of Kingman [?]

    Kingman, AZ is a town of some 30,000 people. It’s no bustling metropolis, but it’s hardly desolate.

    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.

    … Is Garvin seriously arguing that poor people are more racist then others?

  23. WTF is up with all of the snowflakes? This is humor (and damn good humor at that), so stop being such little bitches and get it. I like these pranks that expose degenerates on both sides so keep them coming.

  24. WTF is up with all of the snowflakes? This is humor (and damn good humor at that), so stop being such little bitches and get it. I like these pranks that expose degenerates on both sides so keep them coming.

  25. The parts of the show with the bachelor contestant were painful to watch. I mean, I hadn’t heard of half the people they brought in, like the racist legislator, but at least there was context there and he seemed to be making an arse of himself with little help. Getting a reality show contestant to do ANYTHING is not terribly hard. I actually felt kinda sorry for her, like she knew she was saying and doing stupid stuff, but the nature of the career path she has chosen sorta meant she had to.

  26. Humor can be useful.

    Conservative and libertarians need to work on theirs; the left keeps dropping these opening, and we just are not picking up the joke and running with it.

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