We don't know much about Sacha Baron Cohen's new show, and simultaneously we know exactly what it's going to be. Except for Ali G Indahouse, the 2002 movie everyone has agreed to forget about, the comedian's schtick has stayed consistent for nearly two decades: He pretends to be an over-the-top character and runs around humiliating people by exposing them to ridiculous situations. What makes it work, when it does, is that the people seem to have it coming.
Who Is America?, which premieres on Showtime this weekend, seems like it's going to follow that format, especially the "people who have it coming" bit. The only footage from the show that's been teased is a short clip of Dick Cheney signing a waterboard kit and laughing about it, but in the past week a host of prominent conservatives have come out of the woodwork to announce that they've been tricked by the British comic too.
Sarah Palin went on a Facebook tirade alleging that Cohen had pretended to be a disabled veteran and that his crew had dropped her off at the wrong airport. (Cohen replied in character and said he was a disabled postman, not a vet.) Former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio said Cohen had pretended to be a "Finnish comedian" who kept talking about "blowjobs" and "handjobs." Roy Moore, the disgraced former Alabama Senate candidate, said in a statement on Thursday he had been "invited to Washington DC to receive an award for my strong support of Israel in commemoration of her 70th anniversary as a nation," which he said turned out to be a trick. Moore threatened to sue and said, "As for Mr. Cohen, whose art is trickery, deception, and dishonesty, Alabama does not respect cowards who exhibit such traits! It's been a long time since I fought for my country in Vietnam. I'm ready to defend her again!" Congressman Matt Gaetz, a far-right Trump supporter who says disgusting things on cable news, was apparently at the same fake event, as was former Congressman Joe Walsh. Conservative radio host Austin Rhodes was also interviewed by Cohen, who Rhodes said was disguised to be "either the most amazingly bizarre left-wing extremist in the country or a complete lunatic. To be honest, I believed at the time he was both."
Cohen doesn't appear to have exclusively targeted right-wingers—Bernie Sanders and former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean are reportedly among those he tricked. But the conservatives have been the ones loudly announcing that they were duped. Palin and Moore, neither of whom has demonstrated much of an appetite for self-mockery, were furious, but Gaetz was actually cool with it—he even told the Daily Beast he was a big fan of the comedian and "gleefully mimicked the infamous Borat accent" during his interview.
This is all great publicity for the show. There are plenty of people who would love to see Cheney, Palin, and Moore get humiliated, and anything that makes those people angry is probably something to be cheered.
But Cohen will likely not be producing an entirely #Resistance-friendly show. His past projects have drawn heat from all sides—Bruno was denounced for being essentially a homophobic caricature (Cohen is straight), while Borat enraged Kazakhs who didn't appreciate him portraying them as backward anti-Semites. He also attracted a bunch of lawsuits from the people he lied to during filming. But those lawsuits failed, and Kazakhstan became more OK with the film as time went on. In 2006, Cohen, who is Jewish, defended Borat in a statement that could also serve as a manifesto for his work more broadly: "Borat essentially works as a tool. By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice, whether it's anti-Semitism or an acceptance of anti-Semitism."
We'll see if that sort of comedy plays in 2018. Cohen's use of deception as a tactic—particularly his lying about being a journalist—may not win him many admirers.
"Everybody loves seeing well-known people get duped," Ted Koppel, another of Cohen's victims, told the Hollywood Reporter. But while he was more good-natured about it than Palin or Moore, he did sound a note of caution. "If there's one thing we don't need any more of in this particular era it's people posing as documentarians," Koppel said. "I think there's enough skepticism to go around about people who actually are reporters, who actually are documentarians… Maybe it will make for a good comedy show. I don't know. But I don't think it helps the overall atmosphere."
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