Quorum

Who is America? On Truth, Lies and Laughter

Maggie Hennefeld

Sacha Baron Cohen’s new mockumentary series, Who Is America? (Showtime, 2018-), reveals the soul of the nation’s fragmented cultural landscape through an utterly ridiculous line-up of burlesque caricatures and topsy-turvy scenarios. Gun-toting three-year-olds, cross-dressing Trump voters, executive golden showers, and deranged conspiracy theories are among its many topical trappings, which run the gamut from political satire to apocalyptic absurdity. Since its July release, the show has ignited ongoing debates about the powers of political humor to sway opinion and effect social change.

In an era characterized by post-truth politics, rising authoritarianism, preposterous television spectacle, and rampant corporatization, it is a tall order to believe that prankster laughter still has the teeth to cut through the social media echo chambers and speak truth to freewheeling nonsense. What is the power of a punch line to uphold the distinction between evidence-based knowledge and pandering disinformation? Before “fake news” became weaponized as a catch-all signifier—meaning everything from bad press by “the failing New York Times” to insane conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate—the phrase was used primarily to refer to self-defined news parody and political satire: The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Da Ali G Show, The Yes Men, and The Onion.

“Fake news” satire was a variant of the neologism “truthiness,” which won Merriam-Webster’s 2006 competition for “word of the year” a full decade before the Oxford English Dictionary bestowed that dubious honor on the hyphenated clusterfuck that is “post-truth.” As responses to the crisis of truth in a deregulated, hyper-mediated, digital entertainment economy, both fake news and truthiness symptomatized the erosion of boundaries between news and entertainment, between serious journalism and comedic tomfoolery. They signify a broader decline of belief in evidentiary images and traditionally refereed sources of expertise and knowledge.

colbert-truthiness
Video: “The Word – Truthiness” (The Colbert Report)

As Stephen Colbert defined his playful concept in the pilot episode of The Colbert Report, “truthiness is the fact that you don’t ‘think with your head,’ but that you ‘know with your heart’.” He elaborates, parodying Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and the other bellicose shouting heads of Fox News: “Who’s Britannica to tell me that the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I want to say it was 1941, that’s my right.”

In other words, “truthiness” refuted pandering disinformation, not with cold hard facts or evidence-based argument, but with absurdist exaggeration and revelatory parody. Comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert vividly challenged the post-9/11 consensus—the lies about WMDs and “Mission Accomplished” used to justify imperialist wars and state-sanctioned torture—by revealing its murderous consequences and predatory opportunism. Taking a page out of the rhetorician’s playbook, truthiness-practitioners employed the tactic of reductio ad absurdum: dismantling a flawed or dangerous argument by pushing a dubious idea to its outrageous but all-too logical conclusion.

There is a perverse echo reverberating between the absurd logic of “truthiness” and the bald-faced illogic of recent “fake news.” Devotees of The Colbert Report could hardly be surprised, therefore, when Trump claimed falsely that three million people voted illegally in the 2016 elections, that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese to threaten U.S. manufacturing jobs, or that a photo ID is required to purchase toilet paper in American grocery stores, since this refusal of verifiable truth had been ingrained and even celebrated in American culture for over a decade.

When seeing no longer inspires believing, when the once-indexical sign represents yet another digital simulacrum, then laughter is increasingly tasked with the responsibility of ratifying truth. I laugh therefore I believe. Or, rather, I laugh in order to believe, not unlike Pascal’s Wager—to pray until you believe in God—retooled for the secular age of postmodern parody and social media echo chambers. Hard-hitting, truth-telling, satirical laughter intermingles implicit knowledge with ideological tribalism, offering an epistemological play-zone where new ideas can be tested, trusted knowledge articulated, and hard-fought truths firmly established.

Who Is America?

If “truthy” satire once cut through the bullshit with ironic reversal and nuanced absurdity, such tactics fall short in the Trump era of “alternative facts,” “The Fake News Awards,” and algorithmically micro-targeted disinformation. There is nothing truthy about Cohen’s head-scratching title, Who Is America?, which evokes Colbert’s 2007 self-help book, I Am America (And So Can You!) rephrased as an ominous question. The show is both a throwback to a more optimistic time and a demonic harbinger of future crisis to come.

Who Is America? picks up where his Da Ali G Show (2004) left off, featuring once again a slate of absurd characters, all played by the super-famous and by-now widely recognizable prankster-troll Sasha Baron Cohen. He baits his victims with unrealistic prosthetic make-up and eye-catching props, which range from a pussy hat or Confederate flag to a doctored Instagram page or bogus offshore account. Cohen’s prey includes Dick Cheney, Roy Moore, O.J. Simpson, Joe Arpaio, as well as Bernie Sanders, Ted Koppel, Jill Stein—and a slew of unassuming but ideologically fervent bystanders.

Cohen’s characters are engineered to reflect the most insane paranoid projections of their interviewees: he plays an Israeli anti-terrorism expert (Colonel Erran Morad), a fanatical gender studies instructor at Reed College (Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello), an alt-right conspiracy theorist (Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D.), an ex-convict turned fecal artist (Rick Sherman), and a vapid Italian billionaire philanthropist (Gio Monaldo), among others. Like Ali G, who once trolled Donald Trump into doing an interview about investing in an “ice cream glove,” these zany personae provoke their zealous victims into mirroring back the dangerous absurdity of each character’s ludicrous extremism in all its grotesque, monstrous insanity. At their worst, Cohen’s pranks revert to pubic potshots: blowjob gags and bad menstrual jokes (no doubt, a consequence of the show’s all-male writing team). At their best, they reach beyond the easy laughs to assert themselves as a last frontier between biased enjoyment and freewheeling disaster.

The show’s punch lines are not about revelation, but dystopian premonition—testing how far the gag itself can go. For example, Rick Sherman entices a famous food critic to devour the human flesh of a Chinese dissident. In this spirit, Colonel Morad goads Republican gun hawks into advocating the arming of preschoolers with military weapons. Morad, Cohen’s most effective persona for ensnaring far-right ideologues, hoodwinks two other prominent victims: Roy Moore, who comically and repeatedly fails Morad’s pedophile-detection test, and Dick Cheney, heavily made up to appear alive, who autographs Morad’s personal “water torture kit.”

The N’Degeocello figure panders to the most outrageous stereotypes of leftist identity politics. He forcibly socializes his children, Malala and Harvey Milk, to adopt the opposite of their assigned gender roles (there are 24 genders in total, according to N’Degeocello). In one scene, he chastises a gangsta rapper, Bone Crusher, for identifying as “Black” rather than as “Afro-marginalized,” and for not having seen Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016). N’Degeocello’s caricatured “political correctness” irresistibly incites conservatives to double down on their illiberal bigotry, while revealing the hypocrisy of where one draws the line between spineless opportunism and righteous indignation. Staunch right-wing advocates of homophobia, anti-pornography, and Confederate-flag pride repeatedly leave these interviews in a rage; as Utah Republican David Pyne howls, “You have caused me to have more negative energy than I’ve ever had…and it’s offensive beyond words.”

The skits that thematize the unraveling distinction between truth and lies—between evidence-based facts and obscene disinformation—are particularly fascinating. The specters of Pizzagate, Alex Jones, and QAnon are personified by Cohen’s character, Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., a self-employed investigator who runs a far-right conspiracy website called TRUTHBRARY.org. In the opening scene of the pilot, Ruddick interviews Bernie Sanders, proposing to solve gaping class inequality by moving all of the disenfranchised 99% into the 1% using an alt-math flow chart. In another gag, Ruddick impishly trolls Ted Koppel, who walks out after Ruddick repeatedly assaults his careful logic with conspiratorial gibberish. For example, he insists that a daytime photo of Trump’s Inauguration had been taken at 11:56 PM, proven by the presence of a digital clock and coincidence of a solar eclipse (which, Ruddick spuriously claims, makes the sky appear brighter). Ruddick exists to underscore the inadequacy of traditional expertise and reasoned debate in the current media climate. As he tells Koppel, “your facts are,” in fact, “a matter of opinion.”

In contrast, Gio Monaldo preys on those who take shameless joy in lying and who gain celebrity capital from it. In the finale, Monaldo attempts to cajole O.J. Simpson into confessing to the murder of his wife. He taunts him: “We are both, how you say, ‘lady killers.’” He also lures Bachelor reality TV star, Corinne Olympios, into telling tall tales about her humanitarian work in Africa, while posing in a sexy hazmat suit in front of a green screen. She describes nursing Ebola victims back to health and rescuing them from an African warlord, adding: “He [the war lord] recognized me, and it turns out he was a really big fan. He was really nice actually . . . and it was good, because I saved 6,000 people.” In another scene, Monaldo dupes a luxury yacht salesman into knowingly colluding with Bashar al-Assad in illegal human trafficking and the mass murder of Syrian refugees. The wager of these skits is that truth only matters when it can feel as obscene as it blatantly appears. With the weakening of testimonial evidence comes the empowerment of aggressive calculation.

These stunts echo the paradoxical logic of “truthiness,” which claims a purchase on the truth through its absurd, intentional decimation. Cohen’s characters establish their initial credibility using phony Twitter and Instagram accounts, along with doctored videos and bogus news stories (such as a press release about Monaldo’s purchase of the Greek Tragonisi Island). [1] Yet, Cohen’s modus operandi is less “truthy” than “trollish,” another awkward neologism that went viral in 2016. Trolls prey on affect, deriving their “lulz” (sadistic enjoyment) from the other’s injury and exasperation. Beyond good and evil—or even truth and lies—Cohen’s trollish pranks emphasize the mutually apocalyptic consequences for all parties, regardless of whether one ends up as the butt of the joke or as the laughing aggressor.

The Absurd Aesthetics of Neoliberal Autocracy

In my favorite stunt, Cohen makes a laughingstock of Joe Arpaio: the racist, former Arizona Sheriff who bragged repeatedly about his penal “concentration camps” and was convicted on charges of racial profiling, only to be pardoned by President Trump in 2017. [2] Arpaio sits down with Cohen’s character, OMGWhizzBoyOMG, a Finnish YouTube celebrity who specializes in “unboxing” various tchotchkes known as “Shopkins.” The undigestible absurdity of the aesthetic—Cohen’s neon red hair and Hawaiian shirt, maniacally exaggerated grin, and strange collectible figurines—underscores the unimaginable horrors divulged during the interview.

At one point, Cohen comments that he has 43 guns that he is hoarding in preparation for “the upcoming race war” and Arpaio nods. Later, Arpaio directly addresses an anthropomorphic donut Shopkin whom he counsels: “Delish Donut, you have to follow the Constitution and the law and allow people to have guns . . . [if you’re attacked,] I’m hoping someone else has a gun and shoots that person before he shoots you.” Finally, Cohen asks Arpaio whether his friend “President Dongle Trump” would ever give him a golden shower, prompting Arpaio to confide: “I’ll tell you one thing, if he sees this, and the way you’re speaking, he’s gonna like you. Because you think like he thinks.” The interview concludes with Arpaio agreeing to accept a hypothetical blowjob from Dongle Trump: “I may have to say yes.”

I am enthralled by this skit’s jarring collision between satirical absurdity and dystopian apocalypse. It enacts an emergent cultural aesthetic of “neoliberal autocracy” which I characterize as a provisional response to the phenomenon of resurgent bigotry coupled with unbridled consumerism. Since Trump’s election—along with Brexit, the global rise of far-right populism, and the intensification of ethnic bigotry—commentators have scrambled to find the right historical framework or political concept for understanding the present moment in all its catastrophic volatility. Analogies to interwar fascism, for example, focus narrowly on the brute power of democratic collapse but elide the different contexts of market-based turmoil. While it is true that Hitler seized power amid economic Depression and high unemployment, the crises of the present are precipitated less by poverty and dispossession (though those are alarming symptoms) than by all-consuming wealth and opportunistic privatization.

Who Is America? exemplifies the satirical aesthetics of neoliberal autocracy. Absurdity on this show arises from the repeated confrontation between the old specters of state autocracy (race wars, mass deportation, ethnic persecution) and the new demons of neoliberal capitalism (“Shopkins,” reality TV celebrities, billionaire offshore accounts). [3]

However, satire must go beyond the theatrics of unveiling to remain consequential. It is no longer effective to expose dangerous unreason to the light of day and then hope for the best. How can it be, when white supremacists and xenophobic bigots are now party-line operatives? I repeat: Cohen’s gags derive rhetorical punch from the flamboyant collision between old-school racism and cutting-edge commodity fetishism. In today’s global economy, the “Shopkins” are no less dangerous than the Sheriff. Here the dialectics of neoliberal autocracy are unleashed by the absurd aesthetics of prankster satire.

The Joke’s on Who?

Cohen notoriously trolls the rich and famous, but some of his best hijinks target the common folk whose narrow interests and overt prejudices have given the extremists and billionaires license to govern. Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, the dogmatic leftist, is his persona of choice for enraging the populist masses. In one stunt, N’Degeocello pitches a job-creating development project at a town hall meeting in deep-red Arizona, offering to erect a large mosque in the center of the town which would be co-sponsored by Saudi oil money and the Clinton Foundation. (Revealingly, the latter co-sponsor incites far greater protest, despite the prank’s emphasis of aggravated Islamophobia.) Though pandering to clichés that white working-class Republicans will always invest in racism and cultural resentment over their own economic interest, the skit is illuminating in its deadpan observational humor. It pits the familiar rhetoric of white supremacist bigotry against the shape-shifting contexts of global financial dispossession.

The running gag involves N’Degecello’s incredible obliviousness to the audience’s palpable anger. For example, he asks to hear from any Muslims in the room, against a chorus of protests, only to point to a white male Trump voter in a camo hat, while inviting others to describe their “dream mosque.” It is a pro forma rehearsal of predetermined identity positions, triggered through call and response:

N’Degecello: “I didn’t mean to imply anyone here is racist.”

Trump Voter: “I am, I’m racist towards Muslims.”

The joke is aimed at the impotence of liberal multiculturalism which can’t get at the roots of American racism and cultural prejudice. With every subsequent ethical signifier and righteous gesture, Cohen further infuriates the crowd, who viscerally react in utter disbelief at seeing all of their worst nightmares confirmed in rapid-fire succession right before their eyes.

There is something unfailingly funny about the use of the horrified or disbelieving reaction shot in films. For example, in the documentary The Yes Men (Sarah Price, Dan Ollman, Chris Smith, 2003), the titular pair of political hoaxsters impersonate representatives from McDonald’s and The World Trade Organization. They propose to solve world hunger by feeding the recycled feces of “First World” McDonald’s consumers to a developing market of “Third World” fast food eaters. The audience, a group of high school students, exhibit stunned and dismayed expressions that strongly resemble those of N’Degeocello’s town hall congregants. The Yes Men used satirical theater to expose capitalism’s routine inhumanity and systematic exploitation for a classroom of idealistic students, but their antics would hardly seem shocking in Trump’s America.

Critiques of Who Is America? question the reach of the show’s nihilistic absurdity in a climate where political norms are daily defiled with equal parts ludicrous incompetence and shameless indiscretion. Yet the novelty of Who Is America? is precisely its awareness of how little difference the act of disclosure actually makes: a Republican State Representative from Georgia and author of a bill banning the burka, Jason Spencer, drops his pants and repeatedly threatens to castrate “S**d N****rs” in the Middle-East, and a group of Trump voters pose in prosthetic vaginas and then grab one another’s crotch in an elaborate scheme to entrap illegal Mexicans at a fake Quinceañera party. There seems to be no limit to what Cohen will try or what his unwitting targets will agree to do.

The airing of these grotesque misdeeds—however humiliating to those three male Trump voters and career-ending (maybe) for Jason Spencer—is not the point here. Rather, Cohen’s pranks serve as reminders of a broken system that elects and emboldens racists and which Trump himself merely aggravates. Whether Cohen is familiar with the notion of biopolitics—and its key claim that visibility is a mechanism of modern repressive governance—or just remembers the outcome of the last Presidential election (“grab ‘em by the pussy” tapes and all), he is not kidding himself that exposure to the light of day will liberate humanity from the tyranny of destructive unreason. While The Yes Men were prophetic in 2003 in their use of absurdity to skewer the disastrous effects of global democracy’s fleet-footed collusion with multi-national capitalism, Cohen’s antics are no less insightful today for their lack of redemptive optimism.

Laughter at War

In order for laughter to be politically consequential, beyond rallying the base or fleshing out the details of an already familiar viewpoint, it has to burst through the ideological echo chambers and catch the ear of a hostile or indifferent audience. Though some comedians have admirably attempted to do this with love and civility—particularly Sarah Silverman’s I Love You America (Hulu, 2017-), Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi (Amazon, 2015-17), and W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America (CNN, 2016-)—such joyful empathy falls short of laughter’s escalating role in the bitter culture wars. Though it’s inspiring to see Silverman bond with Trump voters over their common humanity and shared national identity, ultimately, this faith in civility cannot go very far. It provides soothing reassurance for the ethical liberal self (“I did what I could!”) rather than provoking pointed ideological contact with the other’s bottomless estrangement and enraged hostility. [4]

There are many recent examples of this virtual weaponization of laughter, both successful and unsuccessful (though that judgement varies with the politics of the assessor). At the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner, for example, comedian Michelle Wolf confronted Sarah Huckabee Sanders head-on, accusing her of “burning facts to create the perfect smoky eye. Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.” [5] A less successful moment of contact erupted in early June, when Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” on Full Frontal (TBS, 2016- ) during a segment about border separation and the migrant refugee crisis. [6]

Portraying a grotesquely incongruous situation as “absurd” is therapeutic, in that it preserves the integrity of a prior norm while lending a humorously pleasurable lens to the spectacle of its transgression. This tactic harkens back to the mid-century “Theater of the Absurd,” a term coined by Martin Esslin and epitomized by the existentialist plays of Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, which similarly attempted to convert nihilist despair into humorous counter-imagination. In Ionesco’s farces, humans inexplicably metamorphosed into rhinoceroses, non-sequiturs displaced pretenses of idle small talk, and murderous bloodlust erupted seemingly without rhyme or reason. Most of these plays begin with nonsense and end with violence. As Esslin explains, this mode of theater attempts to confront the spectator with “a genuine intellectual problem,” in a Brechtian wager, so that instead of waiting in suspense for “what will happen next,” audiences must contemplate how the next event will add to their understanding of what is actually happening. [7]

bald soprano

Absurdity thrives in that grey zone between invigorating surprise and destabilizing upheaval, frequently mixing enjoyment with discomfort. Yet, it is often a fine line between the awareness of absurdity and its dialectical counter-politics. In order for the absurd to do its radical political work—that is, to confront the systemic collusion between habitual oblivion and mounting catastrophe—it has to go beyond mere description. This is the sweet spot between observation and intervention where Who Is America? has the potential to be extremely consequential.

Lesbians Laugh Last

In the season finale, Colonel Morad and a staunch Trump voter named Glenn go on a field trip to thwart a feminist Antifa terror plot at the International Women’s March in San Francisco. The two attend the March in drag as radical lesbians—donning pink pussy hats, wielding sassy protest signs, and rattling off their encyclopedic knowledge of Girls (HBO, 2012-17) as a sly proof of feminism. The zany terror plot involves “a special type of diaper,” infused with a hormonal agent that will turn any baby who wears it “into a transgander” [sic], which the lesbian Antifa plans to sell widely in Republican baby stores. Glenn credulously hangs on Morad’s every word, including his directives to commit mass murder by planting and detonating secret bombs on liberal protestors’ bodies.

However, the skit’s political punch comes by way of affect, not action. The two develop an erotic intimacy that Morad repeatedly highlights, snuggling in bed with Glenn at the end of the day, displaying public tenderness at the rally, and finally propositioning Glenn to leave his wife and elope with him to Israel. When homicidal collusion and insane conspiracy theories fail to disturb Glenn, corporeal intimacy and queer desire pick up where reality falls short.

Finale-pussyhats

The absurd crescendo arrives with the duo’s descent into laughter. Alone in their hotel room, Morad takes it too far—he cackles throatily, monotonously, imperiously, and continues well past the point of Glenn’s personal comfort or mutual recognition. The scene turns awkward, but the burst of laughter itself provides a bridge between parodic subterfuge and satirical burlesque. The inflexibly male, homophobic, anti-feminist Glenn is willing to cross-dress and commit mass murder to uphold his credulity in transgender baby diapers. The line for Glenn (or for the caricatured stereotype that Cohen trolls him into performing) is homoerotic desire, a much more banal and unspectacular symptom of his ideology than the skit’s conspiratorial pretense. The real scandal is that Cohen’s pranks only feel scandalous at the point when they become utterly ludicrous but somehow not before that point.

Laughter resonates. Absurd political antics—such as “Shopkins” and “Transgander-gate”—challenge laughing spectators with a genuine intellectual problem: to imagine how to live together given the pandemic collapse and decline of the democratic political order. Who Is America? is the promising set-up to a cosmic joke that is still awaiting its punch line.

[1] “Italian Billionare Gio Monaldo Purchases Tragonisi Island,” Markets Insider, September 18, 2018, https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/italian-billionaire-gio-monaldo-purchases-tragonisi-island-1002378635.

[2] Julia Carrie Wong and Lauren Gambino, “Donald Trump pardons Joe Arpaio, former sheriff convicted in racial profiling case,” The Guardian US, August 26, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/25/donald-trump-joe-arpaio-pardon-arizona-sheriff.

[3] “Shopkins” are real, launched in 2014 by the Australian-owned “Moose Toys.”

[4] For a compelling take on many of these issues, see Kyle Stevens’ think piece on “Wet Humor,” which he defines as “a humor that registers the fear, anger, and exasperation of inhabiting this precarious and nonsensical cosmology.” Kyle Stevens, “Wet Humor,” Critical Inquiry, September 17, 2018, https://critinq.wordpress.com/.

[5] Michael Nordine, “Samantha Bee Addresses Her ‘Feckless C—t’ Critics: ‘I Could Not Give a Single F—k What They Think of Me.’ She still regrets her exact choice of words, however,” IndieWire, August 25, 2018, https://www.indiewire.com/2018/08/samantha-bee-feckless-cunt-apology-ivanka-trump-1201997689/.

[6] Emily Stewart, “Wonder what Michelle Wolf said to make everyone so mad? Read it here,” Vox, April 30, 2018, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/4/30/17301436/michelle-wolf-speech-transcript-white-house-correspondents-dinner-sarah-huckabee-sanders.

[7] Martin Esslin, “The Theatre of the Absurd,” The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 4, no. 4 (May, 1960), 3-15.

My profound gratitude to Nicholas Baer, B. Ruby Rich, and Girish Shambu for their insightful and generous feedback about this essay.

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