No one comes out of a Sacha Baron Cohen show looking good. Your mere presence on Showtime’s Who Is America? means you’ve already been duped by a guy in a costume. It’s an impossible game to win, but some guests make it out relatively unscathed by refusing to play along.
The people who look the worst on Who Is America? tend to look that way because they are the worst — egged on by Baron Cohen’s characters, they reveal their own deeply held, morally repugnant beliefs. Or, just as bad, they reveal that they’re willing to say morally repugnant things in order to be on television. Here is a ranking of all the guests in Who Is America? episode one, from those who leave with their reputations intact, to those who … do not.
You don’t want to get into a debate about how percentages work with Bernie Sanders. Take, for instance, his Who Is America? appearance with Sacha Baron Cohen’s new character, Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., who tells Sanders that economic disparity could be easily solved through a plan put forth by the “International Institute of Truth and Knowledge” that simply moves the 99 percent into the one percent. “Well, if you put everybody into the one percent, it wouldn’t be the one percent,” Sanders says, visibly bewildered.
“Well, no, it still would be,” Ruddick tells him.
“No, it wouldn’t be. The rest of the population, by definition, they’re not in the one percent. They’re the rest of the population. All of the population is a hundred percent,” Sanders responds.
The Vermont senator doesn’t budge on the mathematical impossibility Ruddick pitches him, so he leaves the segment pretty much unscathed. If you like watching Bernie Sanders say the word “percent,” though, you’re going to love this interview.
Trump delegate Jane Page Thompson and her “staunch Republican” husband Mark welcome Baron Cohen’s liberal character Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello into their South Carolina home for a fake show called Heal the Divide. Much like the Sanders interview, Baron Cohen’s goal seems to be less about setting them up to say ridiculous things than it is seeing how many ridiculous things he could say that they’d politely tolerate. (Notable line from Mark about Trump: “He wants to make America great, and I truly believes he believes that.”)
The couple appear keep their cool as Cain-N’Degeocello describes the way he and his partner Naomi use “compliance cams” to monitor how their children pee, and how their daughter Malala menstruates by “free-bleeding” on an American flag to learn “about the bloodshed that arose from the creation of our country” — which, naturally, inspired Nira and Naomi to start a “Menstrual Flag Program” sponsored by the Clinton Foundation. As if that weren’t enough, Cain-N’Degeocello goes on to tell the Thompsons about Naomi’s ongoing sexual affairs with dolphins. (“How does one compete with a … sea mammal?”) Mark’s poker face finally comes off during the episode’s end credits, when he’s asked to assess the “values system” of Cain-N’Degeocello: “Can I be crudely honest? Fucked up.”
Baron Cohen’s ex-con character Ricky Sherman meets with Christy Cones at her Laguna Beach art gallery, where he shows off paintings made from his own bodily fluids. The setup here — juvenile jokes about feces, ejaculation, and prison rape — don’t exactly provide the best material, but it’s somewhat unsurprising to see an art expert take faked-for-a-TV-show paintings as seriously as she does. (“Am I supposed to say I’m embarrassed? All conversations about art are important,” she told the Washington Post after the episode premiered.)
“I hesitate to use the word, because I don’t mean to burden you, but just by virtue of the medium, it’s indicative of a sort of … genius,” Cones says to Sherman at one point, later telling the camera while he’s in the bathroom creating a new painting, “Well, I guess this is the part where the art gets made. Who knew the world was capable of such oxymoronic, paradoxical juxtapositions?” Moments later, Cones jumps at the chance to contribute to Sherman’s pubic hair paintbrush and gladly cuts some fresh hairs for him on two different occasions — once in a back room and again in the middle of her gallery. “If you could get a couple, you know, however many you’re comfortable with, I feel embarrassed to even ask for one,” Sherman says while Cones is busy cutting. “I offered! You didn’t ask,” she tells him, clearly excited that her pubes will be joining hairs from Banksy and Damien Hirst on Ricky’s very special paintbrush.
The Florida Republican confirmed ahead of time that Baron Cohen’s Israeli character Erran Morad had asked him to “hold up images of weapons systems and endorse those weapons systems,” but he refused to go along with it, which lines up with his appearance during the Kinder-Guardians segment. “You want me to say on television that I support 3- and 4-year-olds with firearms? Is that what you’re asking me to do?” he asks Morad. “Typically members of Congress don’t just hear a story about a program and then indicate whether they support it or not.” It’s a short appearance that isn’t really damning, but Gaetz’s last line does serve as the perfect introduction to a compilation of conservatives who do, in fact, agree on camera that arming toddlers with guns is a great idea.
The most sane version of support for Kinder-Guardians — a very dubious honor — goes to Dana Rohrabacher. The California Republican’s statement falls in line with the program Morad wants, but manages to swerve away from specific ages or explicit scenarios. “Maybe having the young people trained and understand how to defend themselves in their school might actually make us safer here,” he says. The quote doesn’t make much sense, but then, neither does this ludicrous idea!
It’s not a great appearance for Trent Lott, former U.S. senator and Republican Senate Majority Leader. He seems to read aloud from a previously prepared statement, and he doesn’t even blink before the final phrase: “I support the Kinder-Guardians program,” Lott says. “We in America would be wise to implement it, too. It’s something that we should think about, America. About putting guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens — good guys — whether they be teachers, or whether they actually be talented children or highly trained preschoolers.”
The current House Representative from South Carolina’s 2nd District – you know, the guy who yelled, “You lie!” during one of Obama’s State of the Union addresses — Joe Wilson clearly supports the idea of kids with guns. And he does so with what seems like a bit of ad-libbing: “A 3-year-old cannot defend itself from a assault rifle by throwing a Hello Kitty pencil case at it. Our Founding Fathers did not put an age limit on the Second Amendment.” That kind of alarming imagery puts Wilson toward the top of this list, even though his statements are, I suppose, technically true.
A former Republican congressman turned radio host, Joe Walsh was one of the first conservatives who attempted to get ahead of his Who Is America? appearance. Before the episode aired, he gave several interviews explaining how he was duped into attending a fake event celebrating Israel’s 70th anniversary, so perhaps we’ll see more of Walsh in future episodes beyond the Kinderguardians segment. Which is saying a lot, since he’s already said things like, “The intensive three-week Kinder-Guardian course introduces specially selected children from 12 to 4 years old to pistols, rifles, semiautomatics, and a rudimentary knowledge of mortars. In less than a month, a first-grader can become a first-grenader.”
It’s the most astounding moment from the first episode: A real human man holds up a firearm decked out with a stuffed puppy, and then explains to children where they should aim “Puppy Pistol” in order to incapacitate an enemy. “Point Puppy Pistol’s mouth right at the bad man,” he explains, sans shame. That guy? Philip Van Cleave, a gun-rights advocate and president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. Later, again without apparent reservations, Van Cleave sings a mnemonic song so kids can remember where to shoot. “Aim at the head, shoulders not the toes, not the toes,” he sings, while holding a weapon barely disguised as a rabbit.
You’d think Van Cleave, who participates in a promo to sell guns to babies, would walk away looking the worst. But that honor goes to Larry Pratt, gun lobbyist and former director of Gun Owners for America, who cheerfully signs onto the Kinder-Guardians program, and then rounds out his stance that preschoolers should have guns with a hearty chortle at the idea that there’s no such thing as rape inside of a marriage. If “guns for children” plus “married women can’t be raped by their husbands” isn’t enough, he also adds a nice dash of homophobia (“Toddlers are pure, uncorrupted by fake news or homosexuality”), racism, and religious bigotry to the mix. “If [toddlers] hear someone shouting ‘Allahu akbar,’ they’re likely to instinctively go for that gun,” he explains to Morad. Congratulations, Larry Pratt! Your endorsements of guns for children, hatred of women, and the belief that Muslims should be shot is more than enough to make you the absolute worst of Who Is America’s worst.