News · TV

Sacha Baron Cohen Returns to Ask ‘Who is America?’

From what we know so far, the man behind Ali G and Borat will be as overindulgently gross as always.
Borat America The Star-Spangled Banner
Twentieth Century Fox
By  · Published on July 9th, 2018

From what we know so far, the man behind Ali G and Borat will be as overindulgently gross as always.

Sacha Baron Cohen has been relentlessly plugging a new project of some sort for the past week. New teasers and clips are popping up every few days leading up to the premiere of his latest venture — a Showtime series — later this week.

The campaign began with Showtime’s cryptic announcement back in late June that “the most dangerous show on television” is headed our way on July 15th. The tactic itself banked on utmost secrecy that sounded needlessly edgy. It was, frankly, an easily ignored ad.

Even when a Fourth of July “message” was then posted by Cohen to the masses via Twitter last week, there was no confirmation that this clip had much to do with the Showtime teaser. Without that context, Cohen just seems intent on taking on Donald Trump, which many a comedian has been apt to do for years. The teaser declares that “Sacha graduates” before cutting to the logo of the now-defunct for-profit education company Trump University.

However, a day later, Variety confirmed that Cohen and Showtime would, in fact, team up for a new interview comedy show. The man behind Da Ali G Show, Borat, and Brüno would reportedly be back as a brand-new politically-charged character at the center of more controversy. Variety’s coverage even notes that O.J. Simpson was approached back in February to participate in the project in some capacity. Knowing Cohen’s brand of shock comedy, this comes as no surprise, particularly in its distastefulness.

Soon enough, posters sporting the slogans “Who is America?” and “You’ve Been Warned” began popping up in Brooklyn, according to Vulture. The minimalistic designs indicate that the former phrase could actually be the title of Cohen’s show given how often it’s repeated throughout the posters. The ads feature a pair of sunglasses-clad eyes – very likely Cohen’s – peering out from beneath a peeling corner of the American flag.

The most recent teaser comes in tweet form yet again by Cohen. While off-camera in a deliberately accented tone, he asks former Vice President Dick Cheney to sign a “waterboard kit,” which Cheney obliges to. Now, that certainly is one of the most unsavory sentences I’ve ever had to write. Importantly, the clip asserts that Cohen had gone undercover for a year to film the series.

All these pieces fall into place only to assure us that Cohen is back. They all signal a return to his routine of supposed covert impersonation, although that’s not really anything new for him. Cohen was practically quintessential to satire in the early 2000s when his series Da Ali G Show (which started out in the United Kingdom before moving to the United States) blew up.

The show introduced a number of off-the-wall characters which were spun off into various solo cinematic ventures, namely Ali G Indahouse, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and Brüno. Cohen indulged in both weird and pernicious stereotypes when embodying the titular characters in these movies, and public opinion is rightly split down the middle when discussing any of them. Either Cohen is in the business of reinforcing toxicity or these men that he portrays are too outrageous to be taken seriously.

Gross-out humor is obviously incredibly subjective, and Cohen’s movies tap into opinions that remain offensive even if said in a joking manner. Yet at least many are able to ingest the political critique he presents because his caricatures have made enough waves to spark those conversations in the first place. Still, Cohen’s “jokes” never feel consistent throughout his films. This further waters down any political commentary that could be found in them. They are very much mixed bags with good intentions.

Cohen eventually retired Ali G, Borat, and Brüno by the late 2000s, although the former has made a few reappearances since. Cohen then brought a fresh character to life in The Dictator, creating a deeply satirized version of the modern-day authoritarian. This time, there’s more acting involved, with the film starring the likes of Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, and John C. Reilly. The mockumentary style directing that has come to characterize Cohen’s most famous work was also notably missing in The Dictator. But the film still meanders through a series of extreme situations that play into the cringe-worthy comedy that made him a household name.

Cohen has also found success when moving away from the scandalous output he is most known for. Cohen not only has appeared in some absolutely commendable movies – one could say that his turns in them have even been memorable. Between the Madagascar movies, the Will Ferrell comedy Talladega Nights, musicals such as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Les Miserables, and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Cohen’s knack for voice work and ostentatious physical comedy have been variably used.

Still, in his attempts to spearhead an evolving comedic brand that can also count on linear storytelling, he wrote, produced, and starred in Grimsby (aka The Brothers Grimsby). The film further featured a strong cast including Mark Strong, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson, Penelope Cruz, and Gabourey Sidibe. However, it flopped miserably at the box office, grossing only $25 million worldwide against a $35 million budget.

When comparing the dismal returns that Grimsby generated to The Dictator‘s $179.4 million gross against a budget of $65 million, it’s easy to see why Cohen would want to come back to what he does best. He is definitely making sure that we are all aware of his so-called “dangerous” return to the world of satire, for better or for worse.

Related Topics:

Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)