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Is Sacha Baron Cohen's 'Who Is America?' The Satire We Need Right Now?

Sacha Baron Cohen as Erran Morad in Who is America?
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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 man would ever walk on the sun. We lost our minds watching him as Borat, singing the fake Kazakhstan national anthem to a packed rodeo in Salem, Virginia. Or that time in Bruno when he drilled new parents on whether they were OK with their infants being covered in wasps for a photo shoot.

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Cohen uses the most ridiculous means possible to expose prejudice. This time around, the effectiveness and ethics of his political satire is under question more than ever.

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 politicans and lobbyists.

"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 world view. And the lack of independence from some of our political leaders that we saw in episode 1 is pretty stunning."

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, there's all sorts of people that deserve to be poked fun at, but things are so absurd that it's almost difficult to top what's actually going on," Litt said.

Litt said that sketches like this one highlights what he's trying to do at Funny Or Die:

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"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 in the moment," Litt said. "For example, that idea that these kids are basically at summer camp is immediately something that jumps out. But at the same time it's also something that could easily be glossed-over because she so quickly moves on to making the rest of her argument."

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.

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