Sacha Baron Cohen and his alter egos are back in 'Who Is America?'

Daniel Sugarman finds the comedian has struck comedy gold - in places


There is a sense that these crazy times were made to challenge someone like Sacha Baron Cohen.

In the age of Donald Trump, Can a comedian best known for his undercover antics actually deliver something so outrageous that it makes people sit up and take notice?

If the first episode of his latest show, Who is America?, is anything to go by, the answer is initially "no", followed by a resounding "yes".

The premise of the show, which premiered on Channel 4 on Monday night, is simple: “Imagine if Sacha Baron Cohen had been undercover secretly filming a new show for a year."

The comedian debuted not just one, but four alter egos. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr is a Southern conspiracy theorist touting a website called “Truthbrary” (as in, not a “LIEbrary”). Nira Cain-N'Degeocello is a “woke” far-leftist beyond the dystopian nightmares of any right-wing fantasy. Rick Sherman is a cockney ex-convict who has discovered the joys of art – more specifically, drawing with his own faecal matter and another even more disturbing substance.

But the the final character is where Sacha Baron Cohen really comes into his own. Colonel Erran Morad is ex-Israeli special forces.

The first three segments are nothing new. As Billy Wayne Ruddick, Baron Cohen interviews a nonplussed Bernie Sanders. The meeting is more awkward than amusing, as an increasingly uncomfortable Sanders listens to the bizarre statements of “Ruddick”, before saying what many watchers must be thinking – “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

Similarly, as Cain-N'Degeocello and Sherman, there’s the sense that Baron Cohen is just doing the same thing as he has done at some points previously – attempting to shock basically decent people, with utterly bizarre behaviour. 

As Cain-N'Degeocello, he spends most of time attempting to outrage a right-wing couple who have invited him for dinner by telling them about attempts to police his children’s bathroom habits and his wife’s apparent inter-species love affair with a porpoise. And the less said about Rick Sherman’s “paintbrush”, the better.

But with Erran Morad, Baron Cohen has truly struck gold.

In the final, but by far the most captivating segment, the “Israeli Colonel” convinces some key right wing spokespeople – including serving members of Congress - to help him promote what he claims is an Israeli  programme encouraging the training and arming of schoolchildren as young as four, a programme he has named “Kinderguardians”.

Having established his apparent bona fides, Baron Cohen then proceeds to help these gun enthusiasts shoot themselves in the foot.

Only one, it appears, has the sense to question the programme. The others all eagerly buy into it, leading to scenes where one gun lobbyist nods sagely when the “Colonel” asks: “Do you think the Liberals are using the school shootings to further their anti-tragedy agenda?”

The same lobbyist goes onto read out lines on the “proven science” behind arming kids – “Children under five also have elevated levels of the pheromone ‘Blink-182’, produced by the part of the liver known as the ‘Rita Ora’. This allows nerve reflexes to travel along the ‘Cardi B’ neural pathway to the ‘Whiz Khalifa’ 40 per cent faster.”

Another lobbyist is convinced to appear with the “colonel” in an advert for weapons marketed at toddlers – introducing the “puppy pistol”, “gunny rabbit”, and the “rocket-ship RPG”.

At least one of the people featured has subsequently said that Baron Cohen “flew me out to DC, put me up in a hotel, all to have an Israeli TV network give me a big ‘Friend of Israel’ award. The entire thing was a big lie.”

The segment already has some Israel supporters questioning Baron Cohen’s methods, with one prominent US editor criticising how the comedian “repeatedly takes advantage of people's affection and respect for the State of Israel to deceive and humiliate them.”

But as someone responded: “Or is Cohen taking advantage of the objectification of Israel by its purported admirers, people so ignorant of how Israel functions they did not know how alien the notion of handing guns  to children would be to Israelis?”

As far as the first three characters go, Baron Cohen has produced some shoulder-shrugging television. With the Israeli Colonel, he has produced something truly jaw dropping.

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