Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show where duped politicians elevate buffoonery to an art form: Ted Diadiun

July 25, 2018 GMT

Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show where duped politicians elevate buffoonery to an art form: Ted Diadiun

CLEVELAND -- Sacha Baron Cohen pranked me once.

It was in 2006, with the release of his movie, “Borat.” I’d seen the trailers on TV, and thought they were amusing, in a strange sort of way. So (for the first and last time), I offered to treat my daughter and her new husband, who has a strange sense of humor himself, to a movie with my wife and me. 

Guess I wanted to show them how edgy I was. 

Turned out I wasn’t all that edgy. Sitting next to my daughter, as the movie proceeded from bathroom humor to the ridiculing of unsuspecting citizens, to outrageous, graphic sexual dialogue and through the infamous naked wrestling scene, I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I can sometimes think about the experience without squirming, and it would have been fine with me if I’d never heard the words, “Sacha Baron Cohen” again for the rest of my life.   

But now comes “Who is America?”, which debuted on Showtime July 15. If you haven’t seen it, congratulations.

While I’m reluctant to shill for Baron Cohen’s latest exercise in his bizarre brand of comedic social commentary, though, it is something that has to be seen to be believed. I’ve seen it, and I’m still not sure I believe it. 

The idea of the show is to make people – some well-known and some not; right-wingers generally, but not always – look like buffoons, bigots or worse. But the question is, which comes first? Is the show tricking them into saying outrageous things, or is the buffoonery and bigotry already there, just waiting to be coaxed into the sunlight by Baron Cohen? 

He is very good at it, convincingly assuming a number of identities – an Israeli arms expert, a right-wing southern conspiracy theorist, a feel-good, politically correct liberal activist, an ex-con artist – and then either visiting people in their homes or workplaces, or flying them to Washington, D.C., under some phony pretext, and then ... well, then he gets this:  

* Former Vice President Dick Cheney, formidable and gimlet-eyed in memory, cordially responding to a question from Baron Cohen’s Israeli officer about “his favorite war,” and cheerfully signing a “waterboarding kit,” which consisted of an empty milk bottle and a towel.  

* Trent Lott, former Senate majority leader, thinking he was being interviewed for a news video about a supposed Israeli program of arming elementary school-aged children: “I support the kinder-guardian program. We in America would be wise to implement it, too,” including the arming of “highly trained preschoolers.”  

* Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina: “A three-year-old cannot defend itself from an assault rifle by throwing a Hello Kitty pencil case at it. Our Founding Fathers did not put an age limit on the Second Amendment.”  

* Joe Walsh, former congressman from Illinois and now a radio talk show host, really got into it, passionately supporting the program for the camera: “The intensive kinder-guardian course introduces specially selected children, from 12 to four years old, to pistols, rifles, semi-automatics, and a rudimentary knowledge of mortars. In less than a month, a first-grader can become a first-grenadier.”  

* Larry Pratt, executive director emeritus for the Gun Owners of America, read from a teleprompter about the science of arming young children: “The science behind this program is proven ... Children under five also have elevated levels of the pheromone Blink-182, produced by the part of the liver known as the Rita Ora. This allows nerve reflexes to travel along the Cardi B neural pathway to the Wiz Khalifa 40 percent faster.” (For the uninformed, which certainly includes Pratt ... Blink-182, Rita Ora, Cardi B and Wiz Khalifa are all recording artists.)  

* Jason Spencer, a state representative from Georgia, took the prize in a different segment, a supposed self-defense training video with the Israeli character in which Spencer bared his buttocks and threatened to back into a terrorist, then screamed the N-word and other obscenities into the camera.  

There was much more, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m limiting the scope to politicians.  

So – what are we to make of this? 

I rarely think ridicule is funny, but would you have believed that these men were capable of saying such things? If I hadn’t read the interviews with them afterward, I’d have been certain those were look-alike actors. I’m still only half convinced that it’s not a joke that everyone but me is in on.

They said they were tricked. Could you be tricked into saying things like that? I sure couldn’t.  

Oddly enough, one person who came out of Baron Cohen’s ambush humor unscathed was Sarah Palin, who was flown to Washington but quickly caught on and refused to participate (Sarah Palin is too sharp to be fooled, but Dick Cheney isn’t? The mind reels).  

Several political analysts have predicted that Baron Cohen’s humor will backfire on the Democrats’ efforts to take back Congress in the fall; that it will just further convince the people in flyover country that they exist only to be mocked by the coastal elitists.  

The Rolling Stone reviewer predicted there will be no repercussions for Cohen’s targets, “because everyone has already chosen sides and the people on their side won’t care.”  

Perhaps they’re both right. But if nothing else, “Who is America?” is yet another confirmation of something we should have learned a long time ago: A lot of politicians aren’t as smart as we thought they were.  

Maybe the rest of us aren’t, either.

Ted Diadiun is a member of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.

To reach Ted Diadiun: tdiadiun@cleveland.com


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