Philip Van Cleave.
Photo: Screen Grab/SHOWTIME
The first episode of Who Is America? has a lot of familiar Sacha Baron Cohen shenanigans. His new characters — a Trump-supporting conspiracy theorist who sits down with Bernie Sanders, a British ex-con who tries to sell art made from his own bodily waste, a liberal caricature who tries to understand South Carolina conservatives — are funny, crude, and proudly cringeworthy. They’re attempts to make fools out of everyone, and to varying extents they succeed. With each one, Baron Cohen tries to push the boundaries of good behavior and see how far the social contract will extend before his subjects crack.
But the final segment in the episode has a much different tone, and seems to be pointed at a different goal. Baron Cohen’s character is Erran Morad, a gun-loving, terrorist-hating Israeli who’s arrived in America to lobby for increased gun access for everyone — most especially, for young children. Morad’s goal is to promote his “Kinder-Guardians” program, an educational curriculum that teaches children as young as 4 about firearms and to equip them to, as he explains, be the good boy with a gun who stops a bad man with a gun.
On the surface, Morad seems like Baron Cohen’s other characters: He’s meant to occupy an extreme position, and then force people to respond to that position. The idea is to show off a person’s discomfort, or catch them in the act of agreeing with lunacy, or generally make everyone involved look like idiots. The difference here though is the kind of position that Baron Cohen’s character takes, his targets, and in the specific kind of response he’s fishing for.
Morad’s initial targets are gun-rights activist Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, and gun lobbyist Larry Pratt, founder and former director of the Gun Owners of America. Baron Cohen gets Van Cleave and Pratt to enthusiastically agree to a number of unconscionably disastrous stances about arming preschoolers, and Pratt guffaws along at some awful “jokes” about how there’s no such thing as rape inside a marriage. They’re the most happily willing collaborators in the Kinder-Guardians segment, and Van Cleave participates cheerfully in the part of the bit that extends Morad’s concept to its absurd conclusion: an “educational” video that both explains where children should aim a gun, and markets child-friendly gun accessories disguised as plush toy animals. “Aim at the head, shoulders, not the toes, not the toes,” Van Cleave sings.
This is obvious, but still worth saying: It’s horrible to watch a person agree that preschoolers should use guns, and the Kinder-Guardians bit makes your skin crawl in a way that is unquestionably distinct from the rest of the episode. Watching a Laguna Beach art gallery owner hand over her own pubic hair, or watching a South Carolina couple politely respond to the revelation of an interspecies romance — those bits lean on shock, body humor, and the ever-nebulous idea of a contract of good behavior. Watching adult men earnestly agree that 4-year-olds should carry guns is something else.
While the intro portion with Van Cleave and Pratt makes up the bulk of the Kinder-Guardians segment, it’s also only the setup. Their feelings about guns are not a mystery, after all: Van Cleave’s organization has worked for years to end all gun restrictions in Virginia, and Pratt is known as an influential lobbying figure in the pro-gun movement. It’s sickening to watch them agree with the ideas that Baron Cohen’s character puts forward, but not too enlightening. The real trap is sprung when their participation in the Kinder-Guardians promo allows Baron Cohen to then pitch the curriculum to more well-known conservative figures, including former senator Trent Lott, current Florida representative Matt Gaetz, California representative Dana Rohrabacher, South Carolina representative Joe Wilson, and former Illinois congressman and current talk radio host Joe Walsh.
It’s one thing to watch Baron Cohen make someone like Bernie Sanders play along with his bit. It’s another to watch him get Van Cleave to mime being a baby shooting a weapon through a stuffed bear. It’s another thing entirely to listen to several sitting and former elected politicians, whose brains are seemingly still attached to their mouths, saying aloud that preschoolers and kindergartners should be using firearms. “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,” Lott says. “A 3-year-old cannot defend itself from a assault rifle by throwing a Hello Kitty pencil case,” Wilson explains. It’s a damning moment, especially when delivered with the added oomph of Walsh’s impeccably media-trained performance. “In less than a month — less than a month! — a first-grader can become a first-grenader,” Walsh says, sounding like a salesman.
For most of the first episode, the question of the show’s title is open to all kinds of answers. But “Who is America?” is also posed so broadly that the answers can seem largely meaningless. America is Bernie Sanders, and it’s the southern couple from the elaborate dinner party, and it’s the California gallery owner. As shocking as each of those segments may be, they’re also providing very simple answers to Baron Cohen’s question. America is all of these people!
But when the answer is also “America is people who legitimately believe that young children should have access to lethal firearms,” the show suddenly feels barbed and bracing in a stomach-twisting way. It taps into an undercurrent of not just idiocy, but indictment. Not just shock, but real threat. It almost feels like a protest.
Except it also raises the same questions as every other comedy that gets lauded for “destroying” or “eviscerating” or “crushing” its target. If Baron Cohen’s goal with the Kinder-Guardians segment is portraying a specific, harmful, outrageous stupidity, then … so what? We already live in a world where the idea of giving guns to preschool teachers is apparently debatable. Is giving the gun to the kids actually absurd enough to shake up popular opinion? Does Baron Cohen’s comedic reach have more cultural sway than John Oliver or Jimmy Kimmel? Is that even the intent?
Whatever else Who Is America? may be doing, it’s also proving a potentially inadvertent point: The distance between Baron Cohen’s shock comedy and the world we live in has gotten much smaller since the last time he put on a mustache and traipsed around the country. If the Kinder-Guardians segment is indeed meant as a more barbed version of his comedy — say, if the implicit aim is help unseat politicians like Rohrabacher or Wilson — it’s still a question whether it will have any impact at all. Will a significant number of people be outraged by elected officials who say they think babies should have guns? I doubt it. And that makes Who Is America? much less funny.