Is Sacha Baron Cohen's 'Who Is America?' The Satire We Need Right Now?
Showtime's Who is America? is the latest socio-political satire from British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. It was under attack before it even debuted Sunday, with former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore threatening to sue him over his appearance on the show. Moore wasn't in the first episode, but current and former members of Congress were — including Bernie Sanders and Trent Lott.
Then Monday morning, he was accused of "stolen valor" in a billboard put up in Hollywood by conservative street artist Sabo, covering an actual billboard for Young Sheldon. While the move seems like something straight of one of Cohen's shows, Showtime was forced to defend him, noting that Cohen never presents himself as a veteran.
Cohen's rise to cult comedy icon began in 2000 on Da Ali G Show. We witnessed him as Ali G, asking Buzz Aldrin when
Cohen uses the most ridiculous means possible to expose prejudice. This time around, the effectiveness and ethics of his political satire
It's hard to make punchy political comedy at a time when real breaking news could be mistaken for an Onion headline — but comedy may be one of the only ways to tell the raw truth about our nation's political climate.
To discuss what worked and what didn't in Cohen's Who is America performance, KPCC's The Frame spoke with David Litt, a Funny or Die executive and former speechwriter for the Obama administration. (To hear the full interview, subscribe to The Frame's podcast.)
In the show, Cohen plays four characters. Two of the segments were heavily political, involving
"I think the segment that made the biggest splash on social media was the clip of the 'Kinderguardians' program, which a variety of Republican congressmen and conservative lobbyists proudly endorsed," Litt said. "What makes that segment so revealing, not to mention funny — a little darkly funny — is the preposterousness of the program. The idea that arming a 4-year-old child is something that anyone that's in a leadership position would endorse.
"The second is that it's exposing the way that a lot of our politicians have abandoned their critical thinking to interest groups. I think the truth is that most of these politicians weren't considering whether this was a good idea or a bad idea, rather it was what already fits with my NRA-endorsed
Litt said that it's difficult to be a satirist these days — a problem he's experiencing personally through his work with Funny Or Die.
"In political comedy,
Litt said that sketches like this one
"One of the things that I think good political comedians can do is tease out something that is strange or seems bizarre but you can't quite put your finger on it
Litt said that what a satirist does is make the audience focus on that idea, then follow the rule of "if that, then what else?"
"What is she really saying when she's comparing separating kids from their parents to sending your kids to summer camp? Let's actually explore that and not move past it," Litt said. "Let's think about what it really indicates and what it's really saying. Comedy can focus our attention in a way that is really important during times like these."
Who Is America? airs Sunday nights on Showtime, and you can follow Litt's work with Funny Or Die