At his core, Sacha Baron Cohen is a French clowning and Peter Sellers devotee, who prides himself in his ability to create characters that are both deeply absurd yet still believable in the real world. His three characters from The Ali G Show — Ali G, Borat, and Brüno — were so fleshed out, they each were able to make the jump to their own movie. (Only one of those movies was good, but it’s still a testament to his devotion to them.) After one episode, Showtime’s Who Is America? invites four more characters to enter the Baron Cohen canon. But are any of them any good? Do any of them match his best? Here is a ranking of where the Who Is America? characters stack up thus far.
At its best, Who Is America? is laser-focused, escalating the comedy of a piece with both a clear point and clear comedic perspective. At its worst, it feels arbitrary, if not cruel. Ricky Sherman is the show at its worst.
Before we talk about how he’s wielded, let’s focus on the character itself. On a basic level, Ricky Sherman doesn’t look or sound that funny. His clothing, hair, and makeup choices are neither grounded nor absurd. The British accent isn’t exciting and doesn’t totally make sense in this context. The idea of an ex-con with a heart of gold trying to go straight isn’t especially novel, either — same goes for the idea of a violent guy who is secretly an artist — though so far, the entire show has a character originality problem. Worse yet, Baron Cohen uses him to make the world’s 10 millionth prison rape joke. The fact that he uses bodily fluids to make his art is a funny-ish idea, but not a particularly interesting one.
The bigger issue is how he is used in the first episode. Like a lot of pranks generally, there is an undeniable element of punching down here — a punching that is paired with frustrating self-satisfaction. (That’s something a lot of pranksters do, and it was perfectly parodied by Oh, Hello’s Too Much Tuna.) In the case of the Laguna Beach art gallerist, what’s the point? That she’s phony? That she pretends to humor an ex-con who’s trying to make it on the straight and narrow? Without satisfying answers to these questions, the segment comes off as manipulation for its own sake, as if Baron Cohen was showing off. It’s like a sort of socially induced hypnotism that builds to exploitation — that is, the woman cutting some of her own pubic hair to add to his paintbrush. If you want to act like she wasn’t manipulated to do that, consider that Baron Cohen already had the prop made and ready. His goal was to slowly build trust to get her to that point, and he was going to keep on trying until she acquiesced. (Honestly, it felt very pick-up artisty.) At minimum, showing the woman’s pubic hair was unnecessary shock for the sake of shock. Which all goes back to the original question with Ricky Sherman: What’s the point? It’s unclear what Ricky wants and what Baron Cohen wants from him.
Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello is another not especially distinct character. A pastiche of everyone ever on Portlandia, he comes off as a particularly extreme straw liberal, in the vein of the character David Cross used to play on The Colbert Report (and many others). That said, the best part about this character is how he can be so absurd and still read as believable to the husband and wife he visits in the first episode. It’s comedy of low expectations. On his 2016 WTF interview, Baron Cohen partially credited bias for Ali G’s success at getting smart people to take his stupidity seriously: “Their stereotype of the uneducated ethnic masses meant that they believed that somebody as idiotic as Ali G could exist.” With Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, Baron Cohen is revealing how little Trump supporters think of liberals. Plus, there’s the Borat thing of playing with and against Southern hospitality. Not only does he get the couple to believe a Hillary Clinton supporter would be in an open marriage with a dolphin, but anytime the husband questions anything Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello says, his wife tells him to be polite. I’m not sure how powerful or revelatory of a message this is, but it’s hard to argue the bit doesn’t succeed at what it attempts to do.
Billy Wayne Ruddick is a mirror image of Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello (I have to imagine this is by design). And similarly, he has a lot of the same unoriginality problems. Hell, Comedy Central just canceled a show with a very similar character because it didn’t feel vital enough. Thanks to fantastic hair, makeup, and wardrobe, Baron Cohen looks more the part than Jordan Klepper, but Billy Wayne Ruddick also doesn’t feel like the exactly correct avatar for the right.
To put it simply, where Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello is weird, Billy Wayne Ruddick is dumb. The joke is not the extreme to which he goes to believe Trump, but the stupidity of his belief — like his misunderstanding of the one percent and 99 percent suggests. As was clear with Ali G, Baron Cohen is good playing a dumb clown and that’s what we got. The game of the scene involves Bernie Sanders not blinking an eye at the fact that this guy acts and talks in such a stupid way, which suggests how little he thinks of Trump supporters. But there’s a little bit more going on here, too. In that same WTF interview, Baron Cohen said, “The idea was if I sit there with this incredibly powerful person and this person indulges me for an hour with the most idiotic questions, than maybe that person should not be given complete respect.” This wasn’t necessarily a vicious takedown of Bernie, but a question of the stakes we put in anyone to provide answers. As is the problem with provocation, though, there’s a sloppiness to what the bit is supposed to specifically communicate.
Still, Baron Cohen’s goal was to get someone of Bernie’s stature in a room with a character, regardless of how well-composed that person ended up acting. He lead Who Is America? with this segment for a reason, so credit has to be given to the character for getting him there.
Now we’re talking. Erran Morad is the only character of Who Is America? to date that seems to have the potential of the characters from The Ali G era. Again, the über-aggro, Islamophobic, ex-Mossad agent Israeli is not terribly inventive, but it at least is less well-trod in the States. Beyond that, Baron Cohen does a tremendous job inhabiting his physicality, with the help of a (I’m sure, future Emmy-winning) hair and makeup team. I just love how he sits in the chair, making manspreaders looks like legless torsos jammed in the corner of a subway bench.
With this presence, Erran Morad achieves something previous characters never had: Powerful people not only tolerate him, but want to impress him. The conservative men in the gun segment are clearly jealous of his cartoonish masculinity — and it is straight-up gross. The way Gun Owners of America founder Larry Pratt laughs at Erran Morad saying, “It’s not rape when it’s your wife” is so baldly vile because Baron Cohen is getting him to do so proudly. The pacing and heightening of the Kinder Guardians bit is masterful, pushing satire forward as a form. And it all starts with this character. Erran Morad is the one to watch as Who Is America? goes forward.