Last week, while President Trump was off in Europe being a dick to Queen Elizabeth and pals with Vladimir Putin, Sacha Baron Cohen was giving the rest of us a double treat with his new CBS/Showtime series, not only by pranking right-wing politicians (including several well-known gun nuts he convinced to do insane promos for a guns-for-children program) but also with the resulting angry denunciations he drew from the dopes he punked — including Sarah Palin, Roy Moore, and Joe Arpaio — and the conservatives who rose to defend them from the one thing, besides universal healthcare and white minority status, that really terrifies them: being made fun of.
I hardly need explain that conservatives hate when artists make them look bad, and wage what they are pleased to call “culture war” to dispel this aesthetic black magic. As bullies particularly hate to be laughed at, they have a special animus toward comedians.
This is the reason for their years of shit fits over left-wing clowns, from Will Ferrell as George W. Bush to Zach Galifianakis trading rimshots with Barack Obama, and especially Jon Stewart and other liberal faux-newsman types — see, for example, Liberal Fascism author Jonah Goldberg in 2008, consoling himself after his disastrous Daily Show appearance with fan mail (“I found it impossible for me to sit through whatever you call that television appearance — it certainly wasn’t an interview — without feeling nauseated”).
This tendency has metastasized in the Trump era, something that’s to be expected, given that Trump is the ultimate conservative bully; also, Trump’s primary appeal is inchoate rage against elites, which includes popular artists, whom the average Trump supporter probably thinks got to be on TV or in the movies by swearing a blood oath to the Democratic Party on a Pizzagate child sex altar.
One would think Cohen’s reputation for pranks was by now universally understood, having begun with his Da Ali G show eighteen years ago and continued through several popular movies, including the 2006 hit Borat. So it was a delightful surprise to see right-wing pols and pundits crying in the press that they’d been hoodwinked into saying horrible things because they thought Cohen was a real supporter — though none of them explained why that would make their endorsement of crazy ideas any less appalling.
Give some Cohen victims like Dick Cheney credit for taking their punking like pros, but Palin responded with her usual word salad, referring to “Hollywoodism’s disrespect and sarcasm,” saying the show mocked “middle-class Americans,” and doing the old stolen-valor thing, claiming Cohen had pretended to be a disabled veteran — which afforded Cohen a fresh opportunity to make fun of her: “I was in the service — not military, but United Parcel.” Arpaio made himself so ridiculous even Breitbart couldn’t cover for him (“He said he thought it was unusual that they didn’t offer to powder his face before the interview”).
The brethren stepped up to defend Palin and other victims of Cohen’s satirical sneak attack.
“New Sacha Baron Cohen series a Hollywood hit job on GOP, source says,” reported Hollie McKay at Fox News. “I couldn’t believe how unbelievably partisan it is,” said the unnamed “source.” “They also interviewed Bernie Sanders but didn’t mock him at all.” (Reportedly Sanders tried the unique strategy of calling out the ridiculous things Cohen said to him as ridiculous instead of promising to support them.)
Another unnamed source — this one reputed to be “close to Palin” — told Breitbart the show was “meant to mock Trump voters as a bunch of ignorant and offensive kooks.” This “source” strained verisimilitude a tad, particularly in declaring the prank would “backfire dramatically” because it was “the epitome of a contemptuous Hollywood enclave that hates the ordinary working class Americans who swept Donald Trump into office. This is exactly what the American people voted against in 2016.” (“Close to Palin” apparent means “press agent.”) But it appeared at Breitbart, whose readers probably think Sinclair Network must-runs are the spontaneous effusions of news anchors, so no one will notice.
Some of the cleverer conservatives tried PR techniques that were ancient in the days of Hedda Hopper: declaring the show a dud that no one should watch, and insisting that Cohen was a fading star using conservatives to revive his flagging career.
“ ‘Dumb,’ ‘Pointless,’ ‘Boring’: TV Critic Absolutely Destroys Sacha Baron Cohen’s New Show,” announced Joseph Curl at Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire. Curl praised Dominic Patten of Deadline, declaring that, unlike critics who liked the show — which opinion was after all just “the predictable take for Hollywood, which clearly despises President Trump and all Republicans” — Patten was simply “looking at the show without the normal liberal bias, just trying to inform potential viewers whether they should bother to tune in,” so his was the one honest opinion of the show and naturally the same as Joseph Curl’s.
Fox News’ Carley Shimkus and Howard Kurtz did their bit. “What Sacha Baron Cohen did to Sarah Palin was horrible,” huffed Shimkus, but she cautioned that when people react, Cohen “loves it, he feeds off it, it’s why he does what he does, so I do think that some of these conservative politicians sort of fell into that trap” — though, she quickly clarified, “You can’t blame them for complaining about this.”
“So we’re playing into his hands because we’re giving it some airtime,” harrumphed Kurtz. “Does CBS owe the public some kind of response to these low, slimy tactics?” Shimkus thought so, but again cautioned that seeking comment helped Cohen, because he “was completely irrelevant two and a half weeks ago.” “I’d frankly forgot that he even existed,” nodded Kurtz.
Thus, Shimkus and Kurtz agreed Cohen was counting on conservatives like them to talk about the show, as they were doing, and that was too bad.
At The Stream, John Zmirak called Cohen “Just Another Stale Comedian Attacking Safe Targets,” and also said he wanted to “punch Baron Cohen in the face for disrespecting veterans,” and furthermore, “I want to see the sketch, because it will probably be hilarious.” Adding to the confusion, Zmirak admitted he was once a fan of Cohen, but “by the time of the movie Borat, Baron Cohen largely abandoned his even-handed satire.” That’s right, Borat’s when Cohen went all-in for the libs; the bit where he wrestles his manager naked is pure gay propaganda.
“Comedy used to be the one thing that transcended politics,” lamented The Federalist’s Joseph A. Wulfsohn, but now “the comedy branch of Hollywood,” which actually has its offices in Oxnard, “has chosen to narrow its target audience by alienating the roughly half of the nation who supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election.” Those poor Pennsyltucky coal miners haven’t had a good laugh in eighteen months — nice going, libs! Liberals can do this, Wulfsohn went on, because “the Left owns comedy. They have for decades.” Liberals also own chocolate and rainy spring mornings, and they won’t share, but that’s another column.
The real problem with Cohen’s “so-called ‘comedy’ ” — yeah, I know it sounds like one of my gags, but he really did call it that — was that it was “lowering” America into a “bottomless pit of blind hostility and pessimism towards Republicans and Trump supporters,” wrote Wulfsohn. “Comedy is supposed to connect us as humans. Now it’s tearing us apart.” Therefore we should unite and together help the president scoop up babies at the border, put them in cages and make sure their parents can never find them again.
The brethren got some support from the Main Stream Media; after all, the dopes who believe in Palin, Moore, and Arpaio watch TV and buy magazines, too, and so rate some ass-kissing. People magazine reported that “a source” — ha, ha, ha — told them Palin “walked out of the prank interview after the disguised Cohen asked her a ‘horrible’ question about Chelsea Clinton.” Gasp! Surely bothsides can agree this is now a bipartisan matter.
“Is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Show ‘Who Is America?’ Too Deceptive?” chin-stroked E! News. “When it was Ali G, it was kind of fun to watch him just dupe everybody, because the stakes in the world felt kind of low,” said host Will Marfuggi. “Do you think that viewers will respond to this kind of political humor in this climate or is he too volatile?” To put it another way, should we only do political satire when things are actually OK? Didn’t The Great Dictator just make Hitler worse?
By the show’s opening on Sunday, normal viewers knew there was some sort of controversy over the show, while for conservatives there was no controversy at all — merely the conviction that, whatever bad or crazy things their leaders appeared to be doing, it was all a trick and a trap, a bid for attention by a Hollywoodist has-been and — like everything they see and hear about Donald Trump (even if it’s on tape) that Trump says didn’t happen — fake news.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 16, 2018