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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: 484675

Reported Deaths: 9480
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison33151493
Hinds31184589
DeSoto30803365
Jackson23735349
Rankin21390373
Lee14963221
Madison14206272
Jones13430227
Forrest13199241
Lauderdale11623307
Lowndes10501176
Lamar10258130
Pearl River9151221
Lafayette8268137
Hancock7534113
Washington7144152
Oktibbeha6989124
Monroe6533167
Neshoba6489201
Warren6486166
Pontotoc632993
Panola6278127
Marshall6165126
Bolivar6129145
Union576089
Pike5626138
Alcorn540590
Lincoln5310132
George473572
Scott461596
Leflore4495140
Tippah448180
Prentiss447979
Itawamba4457100
Adams4429117
Tate4420103
Wayne434667
Simpson4339114
Copiah432988
Yazoo423686
Covington417192
Sunflower4155104
Marion4111104
Coahoma3986100
Leake398286
Newton372375
Grenada3565104
Stone351360
Tishomingo338389
Attala325987
Jasper316062
Winston305691
Clay297374
Chickasaw287866
Clarke283290
Calhoun267741
Holmes262887
Smith252249
Yalobusha224347
Tallahatchie221150
Walthall211758
Greene209945
Lawrence207034
Perry201054
Amite199452
Webster196942
Noxubee179339
Montgomery172954
Jefferson Davis168342
Carroll162537
Tunica154235
Benton143035
Kemper138840
Choctaw128826
Claiborne127134
Humphreys127038
Franklin116928
Quitman104227
Wilkinson102036
Jefferson91533
Sharkey63020
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 790648

Reported Deaths: 14025
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1117431765
Mobile709021237
Madison50032633
Shelby36350315
Baldwin36278495
Tuscaloosa34034548
Montgomery33229678
Lee22712220
Calhoun21297410
Morgan19852335
Etowah19341462
Marshall17716274
Houston16862386
St. Clair15479305
Cullman14659258
Limestone14609188
Elmore14507264
Lauderdale13557281
Talladega13015236
DeKalb12214237
Walker10604330
Blount9735157
Autauga9691137
Jackson9400158
Coffee8934175
Dale8631173
Colbert8545184
Tallapoosa6688181
Escambia6599121
Covington6466167
Chilton6395144
Russell608755
Franklin5805101
Chambers5425134
Marion4818120
Dallas4713189
Clarke464079
Pike463297
Geneva4433117
Winston427395
Lawrence4124108
Bibb410281
Barbour347470
Marengo326485
Monroe320253
Butler318490
Randolph306656
Pickens306474
Henry302658
Hale293085
Cherokee290855
Fayette280373
Washington245548
Crenshaw238770
Cleburne236751
Clay229265
Macon220658
Lamar200443
Conecuh182046
Coosa170835
Lowndes170858
Wilcox159736
Bullock149543
Perry136537
Sumter124736
Greene121443
Choctaw73427
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