The first three episodes of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Showtime series Who Is America? recall a time when pranksters on the airwaves were plenty, when Ashton Kutcher and Jamie Kennedy lorded over a certain kind of nerd who considered himself too edgy to be a magician. More or less everyone from that generation has given up the schtick—it’s interesting that Cohen hasn’t. The series—which sees him go variously undercover as a right-wing conspiracy theorist, an Israeli anti-terrorism expert, a liberal professor of gender studies, an ex-con looking for a second chance as a painter, and an Italian TV host in the vein of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous—is impish enough. In one segment, which went viral a few weeks ago, Cohen poses as the stone faced Col. Erran Morad, a combative, constipated-sounding “terrorist terminator” who convinces lobbyist Philip Van Cleave, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and current elected officials Rep. Joe Wilson and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, to endorse a program, “Kinder Guardians,” which would arm toddlers with guns. Much has been written, with this in mind, about who Cohen’s targets are in Who is America?: they’re most obviously conservative ideologues and reactionary racists. Rarely does he go after, say, neoliberal Democrats.
On Who is America?, technology is as menacing as stupidity.
Relying on the frame of television shows, web series, or instructional videos hosted by his characters, Cohen interviews (and otherwise embarrasses) the powerful, prodding, bemusing, and exposing them. The Morad character, for example, asks Dick Cheney what his favorite war is. Although Cheney says he’s never thought of his work in those terms, he still answers, “Desert Storm.” The Georgia state lawmaker Jason Spencer, who sponsored legislation that would have banned burkas in public and once threatened a black woman colleague over her protest of confederate statues, agrees to learn counterterrorism techniques from Morad. These tactics include screaming the n-word and pulling down his pants while backing into Morad bare-assed. Ted Koppel tries and fails to dress down the “fake news” claims made by Cohen’s InfoWars clone. These shows-within-the-show leverage our mediated present; not only is there too much media to vet and stay abreast of, it suggests, but there are also potentially countless unhinged, media-drunk assholes ready to undo us with smartphones—like Spencer, who practices upskirting a woman in a burka. As with America itself, D-list celebrities are hanging around the show’s fringes, like former Bachelor in Paradise contestant Corinne Olympios, who yearns to deceive audiences through the dark magic of television. Olympios wants everyone to believe she did charitable work in Africa, only she doesn’t realize that it’s the production being taped, not the final product. On Who is America?, technology is as menacing as stupidity.
Which is to say that Cohen’s show ties together two complaints about Americans and American life: 1) we are a nation of cheats and frauds led by a perpetual racketeer; and 2) we now persistently record and share much of this graft in the form of screencapped correspondences, message receipts, and sousveillance footage. The second and third episodes of Who is America?, it’s worth mentioning, landed alongside the revelation that Trump’s personal attorney had secretly recorded his conversations. In this environment, the scamming-the-scammer format of Cohen’s show has cathartic potential, but it also risks slotting itself into the churn of the hype cycle.
What’s more, liberals now join hands with Trump’s base in at least one respect: for them, skewering Donald Trump is no longer funny, if it ever was to begin with. In January 2017, Emily Nussbaum wrote about how jokes won Trump the presidency; two months later, Dave Chappelle deemed Trump “bad for comedy.” The sobering effect of the president’s daily transgressions, on the other hand, seems to be strangely galvanizing—despondency and frustration have become a weak form of consensus. In wanting to make a comedy, Cohen has elected to avoid this trap, or try to, which results (for him) in a “both sides” approach that sometimes cancels itself. Even the title of the series recalls the self-nullifying classic Abbott and Costello gag, “Who’s on first?”—or at least the proper way to answer a question on Jeopardy. The ridiculous gun lobbyist who thinks it’s fine for toddlers to be trained in the use of firearms: “Who is America?” The admirably patient, somewhat befuddled Bernie Sanders, who pitches a universal healthcare plan to Cohen (disguised as a far-right conspiracy theorist Billy Wayne Rudick, Jr.): “Who is America?” Like the vaudeville origins of “Who’s on first?” these pranks call back to a simpler time: a time before MAGA, a time when mass shootings were less frequent, a time when Nazism lived on the fringes of mainstream political discourse. America’s parochialism as illuminated by Cohen’s characters—Ali G, Borat, and Bruno—was once spirit-raising, or at least more obviously funny. Now, post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-the United States pulling out of UNESCO, post-Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement, post-Trump’s immigration policy pulling families apart: the foreign-born characters in Who Is America? play like an extension of critique from abroad. It all brings to mind the dystopian fictions of Margaret Atwood, which reliably accelerate American folly, or at least portray it at its most cartoonishly stupid, all the better to remind us she’s from Canada.
Who Is America? would probably have been more shocking a few years ago, when its form was paradoxically less familiar and more common. Though it is an example of activist cultural tourism, a kind of retrotopian vacation in America—even its title sequence juxtaposes inspiring speeches by Kennedy and FDR with Trump’s puerility—it is also a strain of American reality television that rose to prominence over decades. In reaction to the bland wholesomeness of Kids Say the Darndest Things, Candid Camera, and America’s Funniest Home Videos, there emerged a balls-to-the wall style of prank-extremism that largely depended on the performer having actual balls. Although there was one good prank show featuring women, Oxygen’s Girls Behaving Badly, and women pranksters who did fine work (including Whitney Cummings on Punk’d), the prank show is a genre of reality TV dominated by men.
What often motivates the prank show is a posturing brand of masculinity, one that thrives on seeing other people, mostly men, exposed. This was clearly the impulse behind the prank comedy shows of the early aughts, an era that saw the arrival of Cohen’s Da Ali G Show. At around the same time, Punk’d had Ashton Kutcher fooling his fellow celebrities, and although women were frequent targets of his attempts at roguishness, his insular focus on a who’s who of other pop culture fixtures amounted to a rhetorical circle-jerk of the famous and now largely forgotten. On The Jamie Kennedy Experience, Kennedy gulled non-celebs, but he also donned elaborate costumes and disguises, transforming with the gusto of a dude who wanted to earn an Oscar—the show, in other words, was about what it was like to experience one man, Jamie Kennedy.
The manboy pranksters of the early aughts took the premise of foundational family-friendly hidden-camera shows and pushed them past their mannerly limits. More disturbingly—and likewise beyond the decorum of the milquetoast family show—came investigative network programs, most notably helmed by John Quinones and Chris Hansen of What Would You Do? (which is still running) and To Catch a Predator, respectively. Although these shows had serious aims, like apprehending pedophiles and testing the social mores of onlookers witnessing staged spousal abuse, racism, and other ills, the hosts’ manner of revealing themselves through calm, hand-on-the-shoulder ambushes suggested an offshoot genre best described as the “dad prank.” The format was uncomplicated: from the relative comfort of a backstage monitor, Quinones and Hanson observed all kinds of aberrant behavior taking place in front of the camera; then, once the madness climaxed, they emerged from their hiding places and revealed the setup to unwitting “average Americans” and sexual predators. They encouraged chaos before swooping in to restore order, injecting fatherly concern into the tension they’d drummed up.
Aughts aside, What Is America? owes its sense of pace to recent bizarro, dude-led Adult Swim shows, which, in their focus on petulance and frat humor, flip the conventions of the dad prank show. The early 2000s prankfest has given way to the immersive hybrid prank-comedy talk shows of Eric Andre and Derrick Beckles, of The Eric Andre Show and Mostly 4 Millennials. On these programs, there is now total chaos and little to no order—or at least no on-camera attempt at reconciling the two. The same goes for Who Is America?, which cultivates a blitzkrieg sense of speed that recalls the cram-it-in mania of The Eric Andre Show in particular; Cohen’s show even cops Andre’s jarring freeze-frame transitions (you know, the ones that inexplicably zero in on a person’s face). For his part, popular YouTuber Logan Paul represents the newest branch in this prank lineage. In fact, “it’s everyday, bro”, his prankster brother Jake’s catchphrase, together with “buckle the fuck up,” a tagline in Logan’s preamble to his most controversial video—in which he vlogged his encounter with a dead body in Japan’s infamous “suicide forest”—articulate the mundane macho energy that motors these stunts.
The stunt show is the physical apotheosis of the prank show, a subgenre unto itself. Inasmuch as the prank is a kind of stunt, the stunt is also a prank of sorts, one perpetrated by a daredevil who obscures from viewers the immense televisual scrim filtering all of this danger: the medics on standby, the producers, the cameramen. (There’s a lot of crossover between the two.) Cohen’s complete physical immersion in these characters (though not unique to him) has been a trademark of his career since he began, and he combines it with a Bowling for Columbine-like confrontationalism that comprises his signature comedy. This reckless sense of abandon—he toys with unstable figures, courts security teams and policemen, and generally invites threats to his person—brings him more in line with a show like Jackass. When the effete, NPR-listening academic character Dr. Nira Cain-N’degeocello pitches a 385-million-dollar architectural development in the form of a mosque to the residents of Kingman, Arizona (a one-time haunt of Timothy McVeigh), the all-white town hall erupts in anger. One man in particular rages at him, saying, “Now I know exactly why there was told ‘No weapons’ here.’” Cohen asks, “Why sir?” “Because when you come in here saying this kind of shit in front of us Arizonites, somebody’s gonna get hurt.”
Again, we’re not far from the show John Waters once equated with cultural terrorism. From its first episode in 2000, Jackass and the media franchise it spawned distilled the physical extremism (carried forward by Cohen) into a demonstrative man-credo; ringleader Johnny Knoxville and his cadre of exhibitionists pole-vaulted into tables, flew down hills in shopping carts, and crashed onto mattresses. More than the adrenaline rush that comes with cheating death, they seemed to delight in the pleasure of emasculating each other, or at least devoting outsized attention to testing the durability of their groins—often exposing or maiming their genitals. In one memorable bit, Knoxville tore his urethra while riding a motorcycle up a ramp. During similar half hours, on Wildboyz and Viva La Bam, Knoxville cronies Steve-O, Chris Pontius, and Bam Margera kicked each other in the balls, got Voodoo pins inserted near their “wieners,” or else slammed basketballs, sledgehammers, and other instruments into each other’s tender scrotums. These guys guffawed as the other men clutched their crotches, wailing. In another clip, Margera asks his uncle Vito if he’s happy Bam injured his privates on a handrail. Vito chides him, “I’m very happy you wrecked your goddamned nuts. I wish you would’ve goddamn broke one of your legs.” Through the piercing yelp one of these dudes let loose after having his testicles slammed by a blunt object, you got the sense you were supposed to be seeing his essence: a wounded animal-id inside a crashing man, all while a rollicking polka-rock anthem scored his journey to the brink of physical collapse.
This style of reality TV is all swaggering masculine intervention. This is Big Dick Energy before it had a name. And Big Dick Energy, the comical concept that emerged in the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s death, feels particularly apt given the prank show’s obsession with male genitalia. Of course, crotch anguish is a staple of comedy, but these shows made it a focal point. And even on its own terms, many years after Jackass, Who is America? is similarly dick-centric. Through episode three, most of the guests have been men. We’ve been treated to comical shots of a penis (in the burka bit); in two separate segments, the gender studies professor blurts that he has a macro-penis and admits to being cuckolded by a dolphin; the Rick Sherman character makes paintings out of bodily fluids, including his own cum; in episode three, Cohen tricks a trio of male Trump supporters into wearing prosthetic vaginas; an addendum to episode two has (again) Georgia representative Jason Spencer screaming at terrorists (into the camera): “All you damn sand niggers over in the Middle East, we are tired of you coming to America, and we are tired of you trying to threaten us. We will cut off your dick!” He then chops off a cock made of sausage from a dummy draped in presumably Muslim garb. If Who is America? is invested in mocking dumb men, Cohen is also making an argument about how masculinity should present itself. Just look at the docile gender studies professor/liberal stand-in who announces himself to the audience: “Namaste, my name is Dr. Nira Cain-Ndegeocello, and I’m a cisgender, white, heterosexual male, for which I apologize.”
Cohen is punching at the nuts.
Who Is America?, like virtually any man, refuses to apologize. Amid cries from Sarah Palin and other participants that they’ve been tricked, Cohen has stayed pat. Last Wednesday, Jason Spencer announced he will (eventually) resign his position in the state legislature. Many others have been humiliated and shamed. But even if Cohen’s latest set of pranks has led to some real-world changes, it still feels limited—its benefits seem shortsighted and unsustainable (considering that his cover has been blown). Meanwhile, you have to wonder: is Cohen punching up or punching down? At first it’s hard to tell.
Yet by the end of episode two, the answer becomes transparent: Cohen is punching at the nuts. He is performing a Jackass-type in-your-face pugnaciousness that aims merely to embarrass—as if embarrassment amounts to more than instructive comedy, as if it is the end-all-be-all of comedic discourse. In fact, Cohen is nut-punching even when he’s pranking women; he’s still out to expose, to metaphorically catch prominent figures with their pants down. The popularity of Who Is America?, and other shows like it, depends on the exhibition of male risk, which it then shoulders into the next sketch, or next episode, or next season, interminably. If that’s not a metaphor for politics in this country, there isn’t one.