Sacha Baron Cohen ended his grand experiment seven-episode Showtime series Who Is America tonight with a disturbing segment in which Baron Cohen’s Italian photographer alter ego Gio Monaldo sat with O.J. Simpson and tried unsuccessfully for three minutes to get the former football great to admit he murdered his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. The episode just completed its East Coast airing. And by the way, Sarah Palin did not make the cut.
Don’t read further if you don’t want to know what’s in tonight’s finale.
Simpson sat for the duration of the segment that described him as “American hero and women’s rights activist.’ After some banter about making new friends, Monaldo brings in his Italian girlfriend, Christina, who doesn’t respond when Monaldo describes him as a Buffalo Bill and famous football player. When he mimics a stabbing motion toward her neck, she lights up and exclaims, “O.J.! Oh my God! Nice to meet you!” She exits and after Simpson calls her gorgeous, Monaldo says sure, but often he wants to kill her. It is one of numerous entreaties to get a rise out of Simpson, who continues to deflect with a hearty laugh. “Hey, I didn’t get away with nothing.” Monaldo finally gets down to business: explaining that his client, Sheik Mansour, is obsessed with Simpson’s acquittal and will pay to hear the truth. Simpson didn’t take the bait. But there was a high-five in there.
How in the world did Baron Cohen get in a Las Vegas room to ask such questions of Simpson, who was acquitted of the double murder in 1994 but served nearly a decade for complicity in robbing a sports memorabilia dealer, who was caught in a sting operation staged in a different Vegas hotel room? I’m told it wasn’t easy and that Baron Cohen’s intention was to elicit a confession. The gateway was one of Simpson’s lawyers, who took a payout to put Monaldo in a room with Simpson, acting as a middleman for the fictional Sheikh, who was prepared to pay a seven-figure sum to hear Simpson say what really happened that night, a confession to be delivered while the Sheikh was having sex with a prostitute. Monaldo would have to hear the confession, before his client would pay up.
This took preparation that included Baron Cohen spending hours with a former lead interrogator for the FBI, an expert in drawing out confessions. It also involved creating credible cover stories for the Sheik and Mansour, so that the lawyer who pocketed the fee and others could Google and feel they were dealing with real people. When Simpson didn’t take the bait, Baron Cohen’s Monaldo character had to be content with essentially calling Simpson a murderer continuously for a three minute stretch. The result is well, creepy. Said Monaldo: “What I hate about the press is you make a tiny little slip, and that’s all they remember you for. You’re not the O.J. the touchdown. You’re not the O.J. the movie star. You kill two silly people and suddenly, you’re O.J. the murderer.”
Simpson didn’t know he was on camera, as this was one of the few examples where a hidden camera was used.
The rest of the episode consisted of two skits. In the first, extreme right wing conspiracy theorist Billy Wayne Rudduck — the one who is heard saying that “mentally ill people need guns, because they are the people who are most bullied” — interviewed former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank. First order of business is to declare that Donald Trump’s infamous “pussy grabbing” Access Hollywood tape was in fact doctored, and that in the real tape he uncovered, Billy Bush confides he has a rat problem and when he asks Trump how to catch the pestilence, Trump replies “Grab ’em.” Bush then says he’s thinking of getting a cat to help and Trump says “Buy the pussy.”
“That’s a fabrication,” Frank replies. “I don’t believe Donald Trump was giving Billy Bush advice on how to catch mice.” Frank remains patient enough to hear Rudduck’s preposterous Pizzagate theory before he abruptly ends the interview.
Next is former Israeli commando Erran Morad an an elaborate plan to infiltrate a radical liberal Antifa movement. As he has done several times, the former Mossad agent tough guy needs to recruit and train a group of Trump-loving gun nuts. He culls three candidates who, he explains “have proven their courage by anonymously attacking women, immigrants and homos on the internet.” These dolts go right along with training to be believed as supporters of lesbian activism by being conversant in specific episode breakdowns of the HBO series Girls. They also must hide their fervent support for Trump, which they do by teaming up to violently sodomize a life sized doll made up to look like the president. “Take that, you fat out of shape motherfu*ker,” one of them says.
Baron Cohen’s show has gotten mixed reviews. To me, it has been the highlight of a summer filled with polarizing politics. I think he has reestablished himself as every bit the comedy superhero he was considered to be after Borat, and someone whose carefully choreographed and improvised performances would have pleased his idol, Peter Sellers. Baron Cohen’s intent was to create believable characters and provoke comedy, a task way harder than almost any comedian he would be compared to, because most of the participants in his sketches have no idea they are characters in a comedy bit. In seven episodes that were taped over the course of about nine months, Baron Cohen inhabited five richly drawn characters who were disarmingly hapless enough to get nationally known names to feel at ease enough for their arrogance to take over. With the slightest provocation, they reveal an unimaginable level of gullibility and stupidity, and horrible attitudes on important issues like guns and race and tolerance. Each of these required advance choreography to create the set up, and then for Baron Cohen to think quickly on his feet to create humor in the moment, depending on which way his unwitting subject went. I see the word “prank” used but that doesn’t come close to doing justice to what Baron Cohen accomplished here. It reminds me of the great days of Spy Magazine, when they would send checks for fifteen cents to famous wealthy people to see who cashed them, or assembled an art showing featuring the work of children posing as real artists, with art lovers overheard interpreting the results of paintings with titles like Jane, His Wife. Both poked holes in blowhard bravado.
The show helpfully displays moments where these people can be seen as talking heads espousing opinions on serious issues like the Second Amendment, followed by segments that make you feel that not only should these people not be allowed to carry guns, they should not be allowed to reproduce. The most shocking of these were Georgia State representative Jason Spencer, forced to resign for using the ‘N’ word and much worse, as he ended up with the phallic symbol of a terrorist in his mouth, as did Dan Roberts, a grassroots supporter of gun rights for young people who has been a regular on news programs. He was convinced by Israeli Morad’s own testimony that he survived two beheadings by scaring off his executioners with that maneuver. Former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was pardoned by Trump, said he would take a blow job from the president. It took little prodding to elicit these inexplicable on camera moments.
Beyond those morons, segments have been shocking enough to do harm to subjects including Larry Pratt, the executive director emeritus of Gun Owners of America, who got behind the preposterous sounding KinderGuardians movement means to arm American children as young as three to thwart school attacks. Convinced by science that established why kids are superior gun handlers that worked in sound scientific principles. Said Pratt, reading from a script: “Toddlers are pure, uncorrupted by fake news or homosexuallity. They don’t worry if it is politically correct to shoot a mentally deranged gunman. They’ll just do it. The science behind this program is proven. At age four, a child processes images 80% faster than an adult. Meaning that essentially, like owls, they can see in slow motion. Children under the age of five have elevated levels of the pheromone Blink 182, produced by the part of the liver known as Rita Ora, This allows nerve reflexes to travel along the Cardi B neuro pathway, to the Wiz Khalifa 40% faster, saving time and saving lives.”
Pratt then plugged Baron Cohen’s Morad character into meetings that elicited endorsements from former Senate Majority leader Trent Lott, along with California congressman Dana Rohrabacher, South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson and Former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh, who backed a three week Kinderguardian course “that introduces specially selected children from 12 to four years old to pistols, rifles, semiautomatics, and a rudimentary knowledge of mortars.” Said Walsh, “In less than a month, a first grader can become a first grenade-er. Happy shooting, kids.”
The number of mass shootings in the U.S. — there was another one in Florida just today — makes this an incredibly difficult place to mine comedy, but Baron Cohen has done it with a startling level of consistency, at the expense of people who put themselves up as experts on the subject. Some, like former Vice President Dick Cheney, endured Baron Cohen’s characters without digging themselves too deep a hole, but not others. Baron Cohen didn’t simply show the bad in these segments; on camera participants including Republican and Democrats acquitted themselves nicely amidst Baron Cohen character’s lunacy, and figures like Ted Koppel behaved just the way you would expect them to, enduring preposterous conspiracy theories before politely calling an end to the proceedings. An Atlanta rap battler who engages with Baron Cohen’s self hating white liberal Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, also acquits himself quite well. It is fun to watch these people get tested.
Those polemical moments were balanced with at least one or two segments per show that were downright hilarious, whether it was the moron who dressed as a 15-year old to stage a Quinceanera sting to trap illegal Mexican immigrants, or when The Bachelor reality star Corinne Olympios testified to a bogus month long stint in Sierra Leone working for with Ebola victims that included staving off a massacre when a warlord recognized her from TV. She then did a public service announcement to sponsor child soldiers. There was the pompous food critic, one who purportedly helps determines who gets a Michelin star, sampling a prison style food cuisine that ex-con Rick Sherman assembled, ending with a course that included the flesh of a Chinese dissident, with the critic looking in the camera and thanking the parents of the dissident for sacrificing their son for this wonderful cuisine. And how about the locals who bristled at the construction of a mosque in the town of Kingman, Arizona, because, well, they hate Muslims? Or the same character –Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello –enlisting a spiritual healer to oversee his plan to give birth to a baby doll from his rectum, only fleeing when Dr. Nira’s undocumented cleaning lady is elbow deep behind her crouched employer, trying to pull the doll head out of his rectum that separated from doll’s body during delivery.
But there has been social relevance to almost every skit. Like the yacht salesman who meets with Monaldo to sell him a vessel for President Assad of Syria, the mass murdering chemical weapon using strongman who created the massive refugee crisis. The salesman is only too happy to outfit a yacht to make it a fully armed sex slave trafficking vessel.
The final joke is that Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska who sank the late John McCain’s presidential election campaign, was left on the cutting room floor after being one of the first to whine loudly that she had been duped by Baron Cohen’s Rudduck character. Her interview just wasn’t that funny, apparently.
It seems a shame that Baron Cohen’s coterie of characters will have to be sidelined. How could they possibly dupe a new group of unwitting participants? But given the arrogance of the subjects whose flaws he exposed this summer, is there a future for the cast of this remarkable show?