Behold the Manipulative Genius of Sacha Baron Cohen

Behold the Manipulative Genius of Sacha Baron Cohen

Sacha Baron Cohen during the 6th Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards on Dec. 7, 2016, in Sydney, Australia.

SourceMark Metcalfe/Getty

Why you should care

Britain’s king of immersive humiliation has returned to troll American politicians. 

Of all the volatile questions searing our public life today, it took Sacha Baron Cohen to think to ask: How many American political leaders are ready and willing to arm the nation’s preschoolers?

The answer: quite a few.

In his new Showtime comedy series Who Is America? — which premiered on Sunday — Cohen, the British comedian, writer and master troll, is back to show just how far astray our political influencers can be led when agreeably encouraged. From former Vice President Dick Cheney signing a waterboarding kit, no questions asked, to ex-congressman Joe Walsh (and many others) emphatically endorsing a faux safety program “Kinder-Guardians” aimed at arming children, Cohen’s antics serve as the shape-shifter’s latest weaponized comedy vehicle. And once again, he has the country talking.

When Cohen released a series of teaser clips on social media, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore and Walsh professed that they’d been duped, and dismissed Cohen’s tactics as “disgusting” and anti-American. The ensuing conversation around Who Is America? is wide-ranging and layered. One thing is certain: Cohen hasn’t changed. But has the country?

In less than a month. … Yes, less than a month. A first-grader can become a first-grenadier.

Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh

Written and directed by Cohen, the seven-episode series highlights characters from across the American political spectrum. Much like popular works Da Ali G Show and Borat, Cohen totally commits himself to his characters, then pushes and prods his interview subjects. Some, like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz in the first episode, prove up to the challenge. Others are as malleable as Silly Putty. It’s a ridiculous exercise illuminating just how easily influenced some people are when a camera is rolling. And in the age of Alex Jones’ Infowars, that knowledge alone may prove useful.

Cohen first shot to fame when his character Ali G, an uneducated, rap-obsessed suburbanite from “west of London,” began appearing on Channel 4’s The 11 O’Clock Show in 1998. Eventually, Ali G landed his own award-winning programs on Channel 4 and HBO. Borat, who began as a side character on Da Ali G Show, was so successful that a 2006 mockumentary based on the character grossed $261.6 million at the box office. Fashion designer Brüno Gehard and the dictator Admiral General Aladeen came next. In Who Is America? Cohen unveils characters from an Israeli anti-terrorism expert to Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., a mobility scooter-riding conspiracy theorist whom Palin says she believed to be a disabled war veteran. “Cohen did not present himself as a disabled veteran, and viewers nationwide who watched the premiere on Sunday can now attest to that,” Showtime said on Monday in a statement.

No matter the character, Cohen skillfully manipulates and discombobulates the powerful. But how much can you blame him for loading the gun when these big names are pulling the trigger? Take the first episode, for example.

In an astounding segment from Sunday night, Cohen manages to persuade (at times, without much prodding) numerous congressmen and activists to lobby, on camera, for a program that would teach children as young as 3 how to handle a firearm. The goal? Stop school shootings by arming the children. While the result is somewhat expected for Cohen fans, it’s still rather shocking. At one point, Cohen’s Israeli anti-terror expert, Col. Erran Morad, and real-life gun rights advocate Philip Van Cleave make a “common-sense training video” teaching preschoolers how to operate firearms disguised as stuffed animals (in order to “stop naughty men and have them take a long nap,” Van Cleave reads from a teleprompter).

Arguably the most emphatic, camera-ready endorsement came from Walsh. “In less than a month,” he says, nearly doing a double take before proceeding. “Yes, less than a month. A first-grader can become a first-grenadier.”

From a ratings perspective, the program launch has been a moderate success: The first episode drew 628,000 viewers in the key 18- to 49-year-old demographic. After multiple encores of the premiere, Showtime’s viewership was just over 1 million for the night, and the network says Who Is America? also drove the most sign-ups of any series for Showtime’s streaming service in a single day this year. In these divided times, viewers will tune in to the recorded humiliation of their political leaders. But at what cost? Palin is not the only person who believes that Cohen’s characters “make a mockery of middle-class America” and veterans. On Monday morning, a street artist overtook a Los Angeles billboard to convey his beliefs that Cohen’s act is an exercise in “stolen valor.”

At its most harmless, Who Is America? is another Cohen classic that will provide some laughs and hopefully teach politicians better critical-thinking skills. But more likely, the series will serve as further ammunition for the growing number of conservatives who deem any news or Hollywood entertainment as #fakenews. It’s worth a watch, but it won’t change anyone’s mind. In the case of Walsh and Palin, it’s only causing them to further dig in their heels.

Hopefully, we can all take a lesson from Gaetz — one of President Donald Trump’s biggest defenders in Congress — who escaped from Cohen’s ruse with a positive outlook intact. “It’s very consistent with his model, beginning with a seemingly normal interaction, and then the brilliance of his comedy is that he accelerates the awkwardness of it to some usually ironically humorous end,” Gaetz, 36, told The Daily Beast after realizing he’d been had. “I can’t wait to see it.”

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