Posted Thursday morning, August 23, 2018.
Goats and Monkeys: Sacha Baron Cohen in disguise as counterterrorism expert Capt. Erran Morad [right] tricks now former Georgia state legislator Jason Spencer into making a monkey of himself on Baron Cohen's comedy series for Showtime "Who is America?" Screenshot from Showtime's Youtube channel via Haaretz.
Catching up on my TV viewing or, in this case, my not-viewing…
Well, that was over in a hurry, wasn’t it?
Just a few weeks ago I was reading how he was saving the Republic by disguising himself as a set of outrageous characters of varying degrees of implausibility on his comedy series for Showtime, “Who Is America?”, fooling all these Right Wingers into accepting the characters as real people, and tricking them into showing themselves up on TV as the lunatic bigots and racists they are, and now it’s as if it never happened. He’s not even done. There’s one more episode to come. Yet it seems that people, if they think of him, are thinking “Oh, yeah, the Borat guy! You know what he was really good in? ‘Madagascar’!” He did make monkeys of Roy Moore and Jan Brewer. Georgia state legislator Jason Spencer made such a monkey of himself he had to resign from his office in shame. Those are good things, but, considering what a mess we’re in, ultimately trivial achievements. Meanwhile, the Republic still reels and it’s still left to Robert Mueller to save it, with our help and support and and votes, of course.
But that’s the way it’s always been with satirists. None have ever really changed things. Mark Twain wrote “The Gilded Age” and Congress remained our only native criminal class. He wrote “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” and the United States still became an empire and took the Philippines for our own. Molly Ivins wrote column after column and Shrub still became president. We still invaded Iraq, NOLA still drowned. Garry Trudeau drew thirty years worth of comic strips and still, when the time came, the political media treated Trump like a credible politician, respectable businessman, and worthy tribune of the People. Five nights a week Colbert and Kimmel and Meyers and Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah…
You get the picture.
Did it work?
Depends on how you look at it. They showed themselves up. Doesn’t appear to have made much of a difference towards saving the Republic. People didn’t like what he was doing. Even liberals who were cheering him on at the start got tired of his act.
Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for the New Yorker, doesn’t appear to have liked his act to begin with. She thinks of him as “a skilled troll, whose work is fuelled by contempt…” She doesn’t mention what she thought of his voice work in “Madagascar” but she was not taken with his act in “Who Is America?”
When his sketches get laughs, they’re barks of disgust, as when I found myself yelling, “Are you fucking kidding me?” during the now famous montage of prominent N.R.A. shills, including the former congressmen Trent Lott and Joe Walsh, plugging a program to train toddlers to shoot guns. The show uses nihilism as a stripping agent, sort of the way the Cat in the Hat touted Voom as the proper method to clean up the stain he’d helped create. During its weaker segments, it’s juvenile—and, in maddening, unexamined ways, misogynist. But during that Kinderguardian segment, which manages to nail the G.O.P., the N.R.A., and right-wing support for Israel, Baron Cohen’s method is like radiation: sickening, but better than cancer, unless it kills you first. He’s Tocqueville by way of Willy Wonka, a sadist who’s certain he can separate bad eggs from good ones.
I like that. Especially the bit about Willy Wonka being a sadist. Even young readers of Roald Dahl’s book and fans of the movie starring Gene Wilder recognize that Willy Wonka is more demon than angel. There’s something sinister and malicious and borderline villainous about him but that’s the first I’ve seen anybody call him a sadist. And when you think about it, he never tests Charlie the way he does Veruka Salts and Mike Teevee and the others. It’s as if he knows from the start Charlie is the only one who’s deserving. He might as well have sent the other kids away right then but instead he invites them into the chocolate factory just to torture them. But Willy Wonka is an agent of the author. Dahl himself has already shown us how the life he’s been handed has tested Charlie. The difference between Willy Wonka and what Baron Cohen is up to is that there are no Charlies in Baron Cohen’s chocolate factory. People are all Verukas, Mikes, Violet Beauregardes, Augustus Gloops---greedy, vain, self-centered, demanding, ill-tempered, lazy, self-indulgent brats who might as well be the things we’re greedy for most, deserving of the harsh judgments and punishments we wish upon others, an assortment of bad nuts to be taken out with the garbage.
I’m not a fan of Baron Cohen’s brand of satire.
Satire that makes monkeys out of people to show that people are monkeys.
Instead of making his audiences want to be better, Baron Cohen makes them feel worse about themselves.
In “Othello,” Iago sees people as goats and monkeys, that is, as animals at the mercy of their appetites and desires. The success of his villainy is in his making Othello start to see people, including himself and Desdemona, as goats and monkeys. This actually seemed to me to be Baron Cohen’s object in “Borat”, to show people up as goats and monkeys, although without Iago’s explicitly malicious intent, and I’ve not been able to stomach his act since.
The best the best satirists manage to do is make individual readers and audiences think to themselves, “I need to do better, I need to be better,” and get some of them to follow through, if only for a while. Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t work that. He comes out of a long tradition of misanthropic and cynical humor that goes back to the Greeks. The satyr plays that closed out the theater festivals provided relief from the relentless ennobling of the tragedies, taking broken-hearted audiences on quick and remedial emotional vacations from the sublime to the ridiculous. Baron Cohen is a one-man satyr play. He degrades us in our own eyes. He degrades us in each other’s eyes. He makes us see our fellow human beings as gross, disgusting, and degenerate. There are three ways to deal with this.
Self-loathing and despair: God, I’m disgusting.
Reveling in it like pigs in mud, admitting you’re a pig in mud. Enjoying being a pig in mud. Letting yourself off the hook: If we’re all pigs in mud, might as well make the best of it and have some fun.
Or exempting yourself from the general contempt: Wow! Those people are gross and degenerate. Good thing I’m not like them!
The effect of all three is alienation, either from yourself or from the community of your fellow citizens and human beings
But the the satyr plays counterbalanced the tragedies; the tragedies counterbalanced the satyr plays. One provided relief through engendering contempt and derision: the other lifted audiences above contempt and inspired sorrow and pity.
There are no tragedies in popular culture to counterbalance Cohen Baron’s act. Only the real thing.
To read all of Nussbaum’s column, follow the link to Pranks and Masculinity on “Who Is America?” and “Nathan for You” at the New Yorker.