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Jeff Simon: Sacha Baron Cohen and the diminishing returns of humiliation

Sacha Baron Cohen's new TV show "Who Is America?" hit Showtime on Sunday with a bit of a thud. Cohen–- whose "Borat" had moments of provocative and revealing genius – was accompanied on the air this time by the news Sarah Palin thought his impersonation in their encounter was more than a little degenerate for his pretending to be in a wheelchair when he "interviewed" her.

That segment was not on Sunday's premiere of Cohen's half-hour show. My money is on next Sunday for that one.

A short segment with Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, where Cohen pretended to be a right-wing nut, was a failure for the simple reason a cagey Sanders refused to play along. His suspicions were, quite properly aroused, whether he was dealing with a comedian seeing how far he could go or a real, honest-to-pete right-flank wingnut. Sanders kept his dignity in this, the least-dignified era of American politics anyone can remember.

The West Coast art gallery dealer who agreed to take a look at Cohen's supposed jailhouse paintings from feces and bodily fluids was more pathetic than funny. So, too, was Cohen's pseudonymous dinner with a religious couple who were suitably sympathetic with Cohen (pretending to be a "Dr. N'degeocello") about his wife's supposed affair with a dolphin. (How, they marveled, is an ordinary husband supposed to compete with such a rival?)

But that, too, misfired in a fascinating way.

The jokes in "Borat" when Cohen was lucky to escape with his life from a very real Virginia rodeo were amazing, but they were fortified by their opposite – the sublime moment in the film where "Borat" is supposedly unacquainted, at dinner, with what Americans do after going to the bathroom in the middle of a meal. What happens in the film is not disgusted shock on the part of his hosts, but something far more endemically, even heroically American – a middle-class determination to be "nice" no matter how godawful the affront to personal dignity.

That was the moment where Cohen, whether he knew it or not, went too far to stay funny – so far into an attempt to humiliate that he discovered a trait that would always defeat his raunchy jokes: an American desire to be kind to guests, no matter who they are or what they do.

Our sweetness and hospitality can, indeed, be taken to ridiculous extremes. But at its outermost absurdity, anyone hoping for self-satisfaction will find their mockery coming off far less than intended. Such deranged impossible "niceness" will carry the day.

The joke is likely to be on Sacha Baron Cohen.

Luckily, Cohen's new show ended with a breathtaking segment in which real Republican politicians – including gun advocate Philip Van Cleave, former Senator Trent Lott and current congressmen Dana Rohrbacher and Joe Wilson – actually endorse Cohen's supposed plan to create "Kinder Guardians" to prevent school shootings by teaching toddlers to shoot in self-defense, all the way down to age 4.

So truly deranged are our politics that his final segment scored big. Real American politicians genuinely couldn't tell how horrific his pretend idea truly was.

The rest? It's Cohen's problem that his provocations only work when they're either dangerous or self-defeating.

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