Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest series Who Is America? isn’t funny. But then, nor was his terrible 2016 movie The Brothers Grimsby. Nor was his rubbish 2012 film The Dictator. Nor, let’s be honest, were his classic original characters Borat, Brüno or even Ali G.
Obviously, they had their moments: the ‘mankini’ — that bizarre, electric green, giant-thong-like swim wear worn by Borat; the classic late-Nineties catchphrase ‘Is it because I is black?’ And sure it must have taken some nerve — even in character — to explain to a clearly impatient and unimpressed Donald Trump his business plan for some anti-drip ice-cream gloves.
But how often, even at his best, does Baron Cohen ever make you laugh? The grin you wear throughout his skits is an embarrassed rictus, not a smile of pleasure. That’s because what his various characters are doing to his victims is more often sadistic than it is witty; and the satirical point is rarely clever or valuable enough to justify the cruelty involved in reaching it.
I remember first feeling this when in 2006 I went to see his breakout movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. I like Borat as a character: his appalling, ill-cut suit; ridiculous moustache; the insinuating silliness and innocent bonhomie which allows him to say the most dreadful things (such as his jaunty traditional folk song ‘Throw the Jew down the well’). What troubles me is the misuse to which Baron Cohen puts his considerable acting skills, his quick brain and his undoubted ballsiness.
That scene, for example, where Borat is entertained by a dining society in the Old South and rewards his hosts’ hospitality by bringing along an uninvited black prostitute. This wasn’t the Ku Klux Klan. It wasn’t high-level hypocrites ripe for taking down a peg or two. These were just good ordinary folk who’d been conned into being hospitable to a chap they imagined was a foreigner trying to learn more about their culture. Their reward was to have this generosity thrown back in their face so that a privately educated, millionaire Cambridge graduate could make a few bucks out of ridiculing them.
Fast forward 12 years to the present and the thin joke has worn threadbare. Sure he has bagged a few high-ish profile victims — Sarah Palin, Bernie Sanders — though without scoring any palpable hits. Sanders, for example, mainly just sits there with strained politeness while Baron Cohen rambles on in character as a crazy, Trumpista conspiracy-theory type. You admire the mechanics: the persuasive skills of the production team that arranged the interviews; the prosthetics and make-up used to transform Baron Cohen into his various characters; his acting and ad libbing on camera. But to what end?
It’s especially not funny when the people he’s mocking aren’t powerful or famous. That poor Trump-voting couple who have to sit there politely as Baron Cohen, posing as a liberal, talks about his daughter’s periods and about watching his wife have sex with a dolphin. What did they do to deserve this? Isn’t this a perfect example of the things impeccable progressives like Baron Cohen are forever accusing conservatives of doing: punching down?