In Sacha Baron Cohen's new series Who Is America?, he has returned to one of his earlier influences, the British satirist Chris Morris, who specialised in getting the great and the good (and not-so-great or good) to say really stupid things on television. Characters such as Ali G, Borat, and Bruno specialised in getting reactions from people to their bizarre antics and questions, often getting gags from people humouring them. But in Who Is America? he goes the full Morris, getting people to back campaigns.
Chris Morris made stabs at this in his earlier radio shows, such getting politicians to provide advance obituaries for their colleagues. But it was on the 1997 TV show Brass Eye that he weaponised it, getting TV celebrities and politicians to endorse fictitious and ludicrous campaigns, whether against genetically modified spherical cows or for vertical farms, or an appeal to help a German zoo remove an elephant's trunk from its own rectum…
…but most memorably, against a fictitious chemical narcotic drug called cake, which saw one MP encouraged to ask questions in Parliament about it. And celebrity after politician after celebrity said into the camera, "cake is a made-up drug" without the penny dropping.
And so Cohen's first episode of Who Is America? for Showtime has his attempt to get American politicians to back an appeal to train 4-year-old kids in handling guns.
Congressman Matt Gaetz was the only target with the wits about him to not actually go along with anything put in front of him, to say, "You want me to say on television that I support 3- or 4-year-olds with firearms? Is that what you're asking me to do?… Typically members of Congress don't just hear a story about a program and indicate whether they support it or not."
This was followed directly by such members doing just that. And not just that, but repeating scientific gobbledygook, including that children are like owls and see things in slow motion, as well as having more of the chemical Blink 182 in their bloodstream.
Some will see this as an attack on the right, or on gun owners, or the Second Amendment. But what it really is doing, like Brass Eye, is exposing something that Matt Gaetz said wouldn't happen: politicians, or celebrities, or trusted voices, blindly saying anything put on a screen in front of them. That we, as the audience, give some people credence that they demonstrably do not deserve.
When Brass Eye aired in the UK, one of the complaints from a targeted individual was that now they were going to have to research charities or campaigns before they supported them and gave them their voice — the reaction to which was… good. That's as it should be. That you weren't doing that already is the problem.
Who Is America? also does Sacha Baron Cohen's schtick of seeing how far he can push the tolerance and compliance of those he interviews. But in the conclusion, he did something far more interesting. And this is just week one… what bizarre and ludicrous causes will other politicians be prepared to back?
Joe Walsh reveals he was persuaded to back the cause, including telling kids "happy shooting" with a flight, a hotel room, and the promise of an award from an Israeli organisation. That's all it takes, folks…