british comedy

Meet Brass Eye, the Original Who Is America?

Photo: Channel 4

The premiere of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show, Who Is America?, surprised viewers by exposing the incredible lengths some politicians and pundits will go to when provided with a teleprompter to read from while on a legitimate-looking television set. Fans of British satirist Christopher Morris’s 1997 TV show Brass Eye, however, were already well-aware of this phenomenon.

Who Is America? and Brass Eye share a direct link in the form of comic legend Peter Baynham, who has been involved with Borat and Brüno with Baron Cohen, nearly every Alan Partridge project with Steve Coogan, and several Chris Morris projects including Brass Eye. But these two programs, at their core, also share a thesis statement: Use television and comedy as weapons to start a broader conversation. Making gun advocates talk about Blink-182 and Cardi B for sport is funny, but it also exposes the fact that they’re either (best-case scenario) so desperate for publicity that they’ll read anything off a prompter, or (worst-case) they genuinely believe arming 3-year-olds is a great idea and are eager to help the cause. Either way, a conversation has started and eyes have been opened.

Brass Eye, alongside Chris Morris’s previous “news” projects, the BBC’s The Day Today (1994) and BBC Radio’s On the Hour (1991), operated in a similar way to Who Is America?, by satirizing actual issues that a news program might cover, but by immediately starting at the most insane exaggeration of the problem and building from there. Take, for example, the show’s second episode, which focused on drugs. In the first five minutes, Morris informs us while standing over a cadaver that drugs can be lethal in “the short-term, but there’s been absolutely no research into the long-term”; that alcohol isn’t a drug, it’s a drink; and that it’s legal to buy and sell drugs if it’s done through a mandrill. We see “police surveillance footage” of an actual primate walking under cover of darkness from a car to a customer waiting at their front door to complete their drug deal.

We are then told about a new drug that’s hitting the streets known as “cake,” and to help combat its spread in the United Kingdom, while holding the drug — which looks like a cartoonishly large, yellow pill — a number of actual British celebrities and politicians have recorded testimonials that outline its terrible symptoms. These include one’s neck swelling with water retention until it blocks your nose and mouth, crying all the water out of one’s body, or overstimulation of the part of one’s brain known as “Shatner’s bassoon.” They warn their viewers that cake isn’t made from plants. “It’s a made-up drug.” So concerned about what he had learned from Morris, one MP raised his concern at Parliament, and the made-up drug cake was entered into the official record.

Just as in Who Is America?, various characters played by Morris interviewed guests on different topics and pushed them into discussing truly insane concepts. These were no doubt edited to skip past what I assume was a reasonable discussion that slowly built to the heightened points in the conversation, like when Claire Rayner, a British journalist, is informed about a Japanese trend of smoking drugs through a dog and is asked whether this should be considered right or wrong. When Sir Rhodes Boyson, another member of Parliament, is interviewed and informed about the level of vigilantism in America, this happens:

But what Brass Eye did best, which Baron Cohen’s new show doesn’t do (at least not yet), was just make up entire news segments. The show returned in 2001 for a special episode after four years off the air for what was easily its most controversial broadcast. Titled “Paedogeddon!”, Morris satirized a rash of moral panic surrounding pedophilia the previous year in England in which the newspaper News of the World touted a plan to publicly name 150 pedophiles, until it was forced to suspend the campaign after it inadvertently inspired an upswell in vigilante violence. Brass Eye scared its viewers with claims that pedophiles were able to use the internet to make others’ keyboards emit fumes that make their victims suggestible and showed “CCTV footage” of one pedophile who attempted to lure kids by roaming the streets disguised as a school. Yes, you read that correctly.

This episode of Brass Eye became the episode of British television to receive the most complaints (around 3,000) up to that point. Perhaps it was Morris’s ability to truly capture the feeling of a real news program coupled with the lack of any kind of disclaimer that so unnerved his viewers. Perhaps the memory of the recent public fervor was too fresh and too real. Or maybe it was simply that some couldn’t see that the target of its satire was the media when the subject matter was so sensitive. Whatever it was, Morris was dragged into the tabloids himself for the episode, and its broadcaster, Channel 4, was forced to apologize. Brass Eye’s bold and dark humor divided its viewers, with some finding it abhorrent and others brilliant. But sometimes it could be both.

There are many elements of their personalities that link Sacha Baron Cohen and Chris Morris. They have both been referred to as reclusive, with each of them granting very few interviews, and with each of them seeming to reappear suddenly with something new every few years. But most important, there is an underlying morality to their work. Even as they attack certain topics with crassness —whether it’s painting with excrement for Baron Cohen, or, well, much of the material I’ve described above for Morris — it’s never done just to be shocking. There is a larger point that is driving the humor, and the belief that’s driving the piece, whatever it may be, is never sold out for a cheap laugh. Though it’s never explicitly confirmed for the viewer, one can usually discern the creators’ feelings on the topic from the way their comedy handles it, then engage in a conversation on that issue. But, like the best comedians, it’s never preachy. The humor always comes first, and the message makes its way through the laughs.

There hasn’t been much reported on it yet, but thankfully Chris Morris’s next project, his second feature film following 2010’s Four Lions, is in postproduction. Whatever it is, let’s be thankful: The world needs smart, bold, thought-provoking comedy now more than ever. Thank goodness Who is America? and the still-relevant Brass Eye exist to make us laugh and think when it often feels as though the world is making it difficult to do either.

Before Who Is America? There Was Brass Eye