STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen pranks politicians

Former Congressman Joe Walsh (R-IL) talks to CNN's Michael Smerconish about being pranked by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

Posted: Jul 16, 2018 10:57 AM
Updated: Jul 16, 2018 11:19 AM

Sacha Baron Cohen has been punking people for the last 20 years in various guises, which at first blush made his Showtime series, "Who is America?," sound like just more of the same. But the provocateur has reeled in some big fish -- who have dutifully denounced him -- as marks, adding sizzle to what otherwise amounts to serving old wine in a new bottle.

Sarah Palin, Alabama politician Roy Moore and former congressman Joe Walsh are among those who have lashed out at Cohen in advance, essentially turning themselves into ambassadors for Showtime's marketing department.

Other high-profile figures will be featured over the course of the series, although the premiere opens with Bernie Sanders, indicating that Cohen's targets won't all be of one ideological stripe, even if conservatives receive the lion's share of abuse. "I was forced to see a doctor, and suddenly I have three diseases," Cohen's Southern conservative character tells a fidgety Sanders, seeking to illustrate the evils of Obamacare.

As with his earlier work in this vein, including "Borat" and "Da Ali G Show," Cohen's shtick is a kind of performance art, built around just how far he can push his subjects, whose instincts to walk away or yell "cut" are curbed by the fact that they're being interviewed on camera. He is, basically, boiling a frog -- becoming gradually more outlandish, waiting to see how long it takes before they exhibit some inkling that the situation is abnormal.

Perhaps for that reason, most of the edited segments run four or five minutes, with each half-hour picking on a range of guests and topics, from a Trump delegate in South Carolina to a Southern California art gallery owner who thinks she's meeting an aspiring artist who has spent 20-plus years in prison, having taught himself to paint using bodily secretions.

The piece de resistance, though, comes during the closing third, as Cohen masquerades as an Israeli gun enthusiast, convincing gun-rights advocates and Republican politicians to endorse his proposal to train toddlers in the use of firearms.

Walsh turns up during that sequence, which also includes former Mississippi senator Trent Lott and GOP congressmen Matt Gaetz, Dana Rohrabacher and Joe Wilson. Those interviews are riotously funny, if only because everyone seems so earnest -- or at the very least, polite -- about someone asking them to read copy that proposes arming four year olds, backed up by claims peppered with scientific gibberish.

While the complaints have focused on the deceptive practices Cohen and his collaborators employed, the elected officials engender far less sympathy than the ordinary folks who have been duped, lacking the media savvy or support system to help sniff out this fraudster.

Cohen's ability to adlib in character has always been his greatest gift, even if it's tempting to wince at times at his excesses, which can tend to place a higher priority on discomfort than comedy.

Simply by virtue of the noise generated it's hard not to say the show already qualifies as a success by its star and Showtime's standards, although given that "Borat" triggered several unsuccessful lawsuits, in terms of potential grief, the network's legal department might beg to differ.

As for whether "Who is America?" finds an answer to its title, as with Cohen's past efforts, the series generally provides exaggerated snapshots of America, connected by one overarching picture: the hypnotic, numbing effect that the promise of TV exposure can induce, even on those who should theoretically know better.

"Who is America?" is currently available on demand and premieres July 15 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 319948

Reported Deaths: 7371
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto22285267
Hinds20719421
Harrison18431317
Rankin13901282
Jackson13718248
Madison10263224
Lee10059176
Jones8467167
Forrest7832153
Lauderdale7261242
Lowndes6517150
Lamar635188
Lafayette6313121
Washington5425137
Bolivar4841133
Panola4670110
Oktibbeha466198
Pearl River4605147
Marshall4574105
Warren4440121
Pontotoc425873
Monroe4157135
Union415777
Neshoba4063179
Lincoln4008112
Hancock386987
Leflore3515125
Tate342486
Sunflower339491
Pike3371111
Alcorn327272
Scott320374
Yazoo314171
Adams308086
Itawamba305178
Copiah299966
Coahoma298784
Simpson298589
Tippah291968
Prentiss284161
Leake272074
Marion271280
Covington267283
Wayne264642
Grenada264087
George252251
Newton248663
Tishomingo231868
Winston230181
Jasper222148
Attala215073
Chickasaw210559
Holmes190474
Stone188433
Clay187954
Tallahatchie180041
Clarke178980
Calhoun174132
Yalobusha167840
Smith164134
Walthall135347
Greene131834
Lawrence131124
Montgomery128643
Noxubee128034
Perry127238
Amite126242
Carroll122330
Webster115032
Jefferson Davis108234
Tunica108127
Claiborne103130
Benton102325
Humphreys97533
Kemper96629
Franklin85023
Quitman82216
Choctaw79118
Wilkinson69632
Jefferson66228
Sharkey50917
Issaquena1696
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 548657

Reported Deaths: 11306
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson810031566
Mobile42105831
Madison35690525
Tuscaloosa26173458
Shelby25607254
Montgomery25081614
Baldwin21868314
Lee16278176
Calhoun14719327
Morgan14629285
Etowah14175364
Marshall12453230
Houston10781287
Elmore10293214
Limestone10179157
St. Clair10162251
Cullman9952201
Lauderdale9603250
DeKalb8972190
Talladega8460184
Walker7338280
Autauga7241113
Blount6945139
Jackson6932113
Colbert6413140
Coffee5635127
Dale4928116
Russell454841
Chilton4476116
Franklin431382
Covington4275122
Tallapoosa4138155
Escambia401680
Chambers3728124
Dallas3607158
Clarke353061
Marion3240107
Pike314378
Lawrence3133100
Winston283472
Bibb268564
Geneva257981
Marengo250565
Pickens236962
Barbour234559
Hale227278
Butler224271
Fayette218862
Henry194543
Randolph187544
Cherokee187345
Monroe180041
Washington170539
Macon163051
Clay160059
Crenshaw155957
Cleburne153444
Lamar146837
Lowndes142254
Wilcox126930
Bullock124342
Conecuh113630
Coosa111729
Perry108626
Sumter105732
Greene93634
Choctaw62125
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Clear
82° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 87°
Columbus
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 83°
Oxford
Clear
81° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 85°
Starkville
Clear
77° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 78°
Tropical Depression Claudette has now moved into Alabama and Georgia, leaving with some cloud cover but dry conditions. Most of us will stay dry through this Father's Day but some spotty showers will likely through the late afternoon.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather