Film & TV

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Tired Elitist Shtick

Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the premiere Who Is America in Los Angeles, Calif., May 15, 2019. (Monica Almeida/Reuters)
The British comedian’s condescending mockery was never funny. It’s no longer novel, either.

‘Donald Trump got elected, and I was upset by it,” said British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen in an interview last week. “That anger and disappointment and revulsion. . . . I was so angry, I felt I actually have to channel it.”

Cohen’s show Who Is America?, which concluded its one-season run last year, was, he says, his attempt to do just that.

One might expect, then, that the show would be a productive, genuine attempt to reach across the aisle and better understand the political forces that elevated Donald Trump to the presidency. But Cohen clearly prefers an alternative approach: He sets out to viciously mischaracterize and ridicule those of whom he disapproves, including virtually anyone who lives outside of the coastal cities or shares a worldview different from Hollywood’s, ranging from Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney to gun-rights advocates to working-class residents of rural Arizona.

The template for the show is quite simple, really: Cohen, disguised as an exaggeratedly prejudiced foreign character, hosts a guest in a fake interview or engages with a group of strangers in any variety of settings. He proceeds to make a series of outrageously offensive comments, and the footage is cut to make the reactions of his almost-always-conservative interlocutors seem damning.

Cohen has made a lucrative career of this shtick, mocking ordinary Americans’ toleration of his eccentric and offensive behavior. In his previous endeavors — most notably the 2006 feature-length film Borat — he followed the same formula, smiling maliciously while his bemused guests did their best to remain polite in the face of his provocations, as if their politeness were evidence of prejudice in and of itself.

Of course, Cohen doesn’t see it that way. For him, this is all much deeper than slapstick comedy.

“Borat essentially works as a tool,” Cohen once explained in an interview with Rolling Stone. “By himself being [offensive], he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice.” In another interview, he argued that his characters actually serve as a “dramatic demonstration of how racism feeds on dumb conformity, as much as rabid bigotry.”

Ah, you see, we just didn’t understand. Silly us! We thought that Cohen was a con man whose notoriety was gained from going on crass, obscene rants and weaponizing the charitability of his unsuspecting interview subjects to portray them unfavorably. But actually, he’s an artist, exposing and uncovering bigotry wherever it lies! In fact, he’s so vehemently anti-racist that he’ll invent racism himself just to expose it!

This is the narrative to which we are subjected by Cohen and his adulatory fans in the media. The pensive, black-and-white photos, the valiant attempts to treat his rambling obscenity as art (“sporadically excellent conceptual art,” to be exact), and the perpetual television interviews stand to reason: His work validates the condescension its elite, progressive cheerleaders naturally feel toward those who inhabit middle America.

This is, of course, hardly news. The systematic misrepresentation and subsequent parodying of working-class conservatives is something of a sport for the progressive elite. Think of all those execrable late-night television hosts piecing together absurdly out-of-context video clips of Republican politicians or doing man-on-the-street interviews using techniques similar to Cohen’s. When one recognizes the pattern, it becomes immediately insufferable.

It is, one suspects, not coincidental that the objects of such mockery are almost always conservatives; the audience for it is near-uniformly progressive, and will pay good money to be sold the pretense that they’re somehow smarter or more virtuous than those backward hillbillies in the middle of the country. Still, the techniques used to construct this product are drearily repetitive: go say outlandish or asinine things to unsuspecting Republican voters, make sure to remove any semblance of reasoned, rational argument from their responses, splice together the most damning clips, and voilà! Rinse and repeat. Ad nauseam.

It’s hard work, but someone’s got to do it.

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