satire isn't working
Sacha Baron Cohen’s new programme 'Who Is America?' only shows that the world has become too weird to be parodied.
“Toddlers are pure, uncorrupted by fake news or homosexuality,” says Larry Pratt, a lobbyist for the gun industry, on Sacha Baron Cohen’s new TV show, Who Is America? Because of this, Larry argues, we should arm them. It’s part of a segment devoted to satirising the destructive madness of machine gun-toting America, and which makes up the most shocking and funny moment in Who Is America? A series, which for a brilliant moment, promised to accurately capture the strangeness of Trump’s America, but in the end fell down where most satire falls down these days; life has got too strange to be aped.
Larry Pratt and a rogues' gallery of American elected officials, ex-politicians and gun activists are set up by a Baron Cohen character called Erran Morad -- meant to be an Israeli anti-terrorist specialist -- to advocate a programme called Kinder Guardians, that calls for the arming of children. The kids are pure, uncorrupted, definitely-not-homosexual. Give them uzis and bazookas and pistols. Together they create a promotional video marketing kids weapons decorated with cuddly and cute fluffy toys. It’s appalling and amusing and unfortunately it is not too far from the low, sad truth of American politics.
It is Erran Morad who provides the most shocking moments in the show, the other sketches mainly miss the mark. An Infowars-esque journalist fails to rile up Democrats. A Californian art dealer cuts off her pubes to give to Baron Cohen’s ex-con turned artist character Ricky Sherman, which he will use as a paint brush. Much of the second episode was better, to be honest, but suffered from similar flaws. A piece involving Dick Cheney is troubling -- he signs a piece of waterboarding kit, endorses torture, talks about his favourite wars -- but is ruined by dick pic jokes. A no-mark American reality TV celebrity is tricked into endorsing a 'sponsor a child soldier' scheme, to provide kids fighting in African conflicts with better weapons.
Two pieces in it were genuinely chilling though. A Georgia State Representative screams racial slurs and takes a upskirt picture of a woman in a Burqa, via selfie stick, to check if she’s a terrorist. He drops his pants and runs at Baron Cohen, screaming “no homo” because terrorists don’t want to be gay. The citizens of Kingman, Arizona are presented with a proposal by the Clinton Foundation and the Saudi Arabian government to build a giant Mosque in the town, and become increasingly racist. One townsman shouts out that he’s proud to be racist towards Muslims, another that black people are barely tolerated in the town, let alone Muslims.
Who Is America? is funny and shocking but also puerile. It hits some of its targets, but these are targets that are easy to hit -- reality TV celebs are idiots! American gun-nuts are fucking nuts! Americans are racist arseholes! -- they’re big and stationary and Baron Cohen is using a bazooka. The problem is, that from "Libtards" to "Trumptards", crypto-fascists to card carrying-fascists, white nationalists to white apologists, the actors in American public life are already overblown caricatures. It may provoke a quiet moment of self-reflection from some sectors of the American public, but American racism, idiocy and brutality are laid bare in more shocking terms every day on the news, on the internet, on the president’s own Twitter account.
And what can satire do in the face of a president who sleeps with porn stars and wants to create a space army? A president who has three TVs in his bedroom, a terrified fascination with sharks, and is apparently only semi-literate. A president who accidentally tweeted about secret CIA operations in the Middle East, and complimented a murdering despot on his shoes.
This is not just an American problem, because what can satire say about Brexit that isn’t already being said by the Brexiteers themselves. You cannot attack these bloated hypocrites for that very hypocrisy, because they are experts at shifting public discourse around such quaint ideas as truth and reality and facts.
In a wider world, Brexitism and Trumpism are set against a backdrop of Kim Jong-un and the glistening promise of nuclear annihilation, Elon Musk and his pedo submarine, Gareth Southgate and his nation-unifying waistcoat. Sexting Tory MPs want to be called daddy and pink-haired fucbois hack elections. We have trade wars over chlorinated chickens while Kim Kardashian lobbies for prison reform. Lena Dunham accuses badly made sushi of cultural appropriation. Jacob Rees Mogg’s new child is called Sixtus Dominic Boniface Christopher. Danny Dyer calls David Cameron a twat on TV as Pamela Anderson watches on.
The world is too weird. And it’s getting even weirder even quicker. How can satire keep up? Let alone find an angle to pry open and speak some kind truth to power. That’s the real problem with Who Is America? -- it relentlessly baits with old fashioned lures. It feels out of time just by virtue of the speed of life right now. Whatever was said yesterday is ancient history today. Lost in the fog. Who Is America? is trying to make its targets look stupid when they have already embraced looking really fucking stupid. Deliriously prosaic violent stupidity is the central tenet of their whole ideology.
What is said, and what was meant, changes by the minute. This speed means effective satire is not to be found on TV but online, the only medium nimble enough to cope with the pace of the descent and the rapidly spiralling strangeness. Yet still life gets weirder.
For example, a parody Twitter account, called Italian Elon Musk -- sample Tweet: “I send a the calzone into space!! I don’t pay a the taxes!! Ohh!” -- had to close down recently, its creator claiming that the non-Italian Elon Musk was beyond satire now. “No conceivable parody could be funnier than calling a rescue hero a pedophile because he made fun of your waterproof space trash boy casket,” he said. Which just about sums up where we are right now.
As we live more and more of life online, it becomes not only the natural home of satire, but the thing we satirise too. Culture wars are fought on social media via accounts that accurately spoof the race-to-the-bottom of algorithmic content creation. The Onion, Reductress and Clickhole all equally provide a LOL for those stuck in a never ending death spiral of pompous online publishing. @dril provides similar relief, the belligerence and division of online language reduced to nonsensical frothing meaningless.
But really, the only thing I have found that accurately conveys the sad, bleak horror of the world in 2018 is McFadden’s Cold War, a Twitter account of badly Photoshopped collages that create a garish parade of British soap stars, C-list provincial entertainers and rogue geo-political morons. It is politics re-crafted into a sad, provincial nightmare. Hieronymus Bosch of Estuary England.
Trump takes Theresa by the hand for a stroll next to the caravan whilst Piers Morgan sleeps bare chested on a deckchair and the titular Steve McFadden -- Phil Mitchell from Eastenders -- speaks into a phone next to a pile of trash. Trump, Melania, Steve, Kim Jong-un and Cliff Richard loiter outside a Toby Carvery. Michael Barrymore, Vladimir Putin and Nigel Farage are on a fishing trip. The Queen and David Cameron and Kim Jong-un stand and admire a picture of former Newcastle footballer Peter Beardsley, Danny Dyer smokes a fag at the window, Steve is drunk and passed out on a yellow sofa. This is your life now. The only way to fight these absurd political forces is with more absurdity. The world’s fucked. Might as well have one last laugh.