The genius of Sacha Baron Cohen: 5 comedy strategies that make his insane interviews work

"Who Is America?" uses the art of in-character satire to offer a much-needed comment on our current crisis

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published July 21, 2018 11:00AM (EDT)

Sacha Baron Cohen interviews Philip Van Cleave on "Who Is America?" (Showtime)
Sacha Baron Cohen interviews Philip Van Cleave on "Who Is America?" (Showtime)

There is probably no better publicity for a new comedy show than having former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin lash out at you. Well before Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?” first aired on Showtime, Palin was whining that the comedian had duped her.

"I join a long list of American public personalities who have fallen victim to the evil, exploitive, sick 'humor' of the British 'comedian' Sacha Baron Cohen," Palin wrote in a Facebook post.

Palin was not only offended that Cohen put one over on her; she also took offense to the character Cohen played in their interview — one of five that will appear on the show. For the Palin interview, Cohen appeared as Billy Wayne Ruddick, PhD, founder of Ruddick is modeled after a conservative conspiracy theorist, not totally unlike the character played by Jordan Klepper on the recently cancelled Comedy Central show “The Opposition.” The difference is that Ruddick uses a scooter and speaks of his service to his country, traits that led Palin to mistakenly assume Ruddick was a disabled veteran.

"Mock politicians and innocent public personalities all you want, if that lets you sleep at night, but HOW DARE YOU mock those who have fought and served our country," wrote Palin.  Showtime has since released a statement saying that Palin incorrectly assumed that Ruddick was disabled and a vet.

Some critics have suggested that Cohen’s no-holds-barred style of in-character satire might be too much for our fact-averse, fake news-consuming, politically polarized public. Some even wondered if a show like this could even be funny, given the way that public discourse has shifted in the Donald Trump era.

There is no question that as civil discourse gets dumber and more contentious the art of a show like Cohen’s will be harder and harder to appreciate. But for those of us who like to think, this is exactly the type of comedy we need.

This is not a show like “Candid Camera,” which exposed human beings doing stupid things when they thought no one was watching. This is a show designed to expose how stupid we can be when we think everyone is watching. One of the critical features of “Who Is America?” is that each featured guest knows they are on camera. What they don’t realize is that the person interviewing them is a comedian in character.

The art of in-character satirical comedy has a long history, one that dates back in this country at least as far as the 18th century with  the satire and hoaxes of Ben Franklin. More recently it was the in-character comedy of Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report” that really popped the genre.

What makes the in-character satire of Cohen especially fascinating is that it typically revolves around interviews. While his in-character movies have gone beyond the interview format, most of Cohen’s comedy revolves around embodying a ridiculous persona and having that persona conduct an interview on an unsuspecting guest. On “Da Ali G Show” he perfected the form, even getting a chance to make businessman Donald Trump seem pretty stupid back in 2003, but as others have pointed out, the context for those interviews was quite different from the world we live in today.

Folks worry that the nation can’t handle the harsh comedy of Cohen in the current context. They worry that discourse is already too divisive, facts already too loose, and identities already too much at odds for Cohen’s comedy to do anything more than throw salt on a wound.

But to worry about that is to miss the critical work that his style of satire can do. Here’s a breakdown of five features of Cohen’s comedy that make his new show worth watching.

1. Who’s the real fake identity?

Cohen is a master at disguises and that is part of the reason why he has such success convincing his interlocutors to engage with him. “Who Is America?” premiered with four characters, and word is that there will be one more to come. Much has been made about the fact that some of these characters are pretty flat and maybe not even that creative or funny, but focusing on the creativity of the character is not the point.

What Cohen is able to do by producing a range of outrageous personae — none of which seem even remotely believable — is offer his audience a chance to really think through the idea of a “fake identity.” As evidenced by Palin’s hysteria over being duped, Cohen’s character is able to expose the extent to which everything she says is also the staged performance of a persona.

READ MORE: Emmy nods for Larry David and "Curb Your Enthusiasm": What's the point?

On his first show, the four different characters were received in vastly different ways by the so-called “real” people he interviewed. In the opening sequence, Bernie Sanders tried to remain patient with Ruddick, but he also didn’t fall for any totally outrageous BS. Meanwhile, Cohen’s Israeli anti-terror expert Erran Morad not only got a series of hard-right pro-gun conservatives not to just go along with him, but as Vulture points out, to actually “want to impress him.”

The range of responses to Cohen’s various characters brilliantly exposes how quickly and easily so many public figures are willing to turn their own identities into a performance.

2. Stereotype v. Stereotype 

Since he began working in this genre of comedy, Cohen has typically created over-the-top characters that take a stereotype to an entirely new level. The reason why the gags work, though, is because Cohen’s characters embody a range of stereotypical characteristics that play perfectly well into the preconceived ideas of his interlocutors. As Cohen put it in reference to how people played along with his Ali G persona, “Their stereotype of the uneducated ethnic masses meant that they believed that somebody as idiotic as Ali G could exist.”

The critical issue, though, is that Cohen also tends to choose pretty stereotypical people to interact with while in character. On the premiere of his new show, he had his over-the-top, lefty, wing-nut character Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello interact with two southern Trump supporters. Cohen’s character gets the couple to believe a Hillary Clinton supporter is in an open marriage with a dolphin. The result is a brilliant standoff of stereotypes. Even though Cohen’s is an exaggerated performance, the fact that the audience watching the show actually expects the Trump supporters to fall for Cohen’s character exposes a lot of our own prejudice as well.

This strategy is not without risks, as evidenced by the fallout over the fact that many thought that Ruddick was disabled. (According to the character he uses a scooter to conserve his own energy.) The art to the dueling stereotypes, though, is that Cohen is able to expose the extent to which stereotypes can, at times, be connected to actual behaviors and beliefs, and the extent to which they are nothing more than absurd delusions. In his in-character retort to Palin, he wrote, “You used to hunt the most dangerous animals in the country, like wolves and people on welfare,” he wrote. “So why hunt a fine citizen journalist like myself?” The letter ended with the words, “I DEMAND an APOLOGY.” Cohen uses his own ridiculously exaggerated stereotype to highlight the way that Palin operates according to one too.

3. Being dumb to show stupidity

In a similar vein, one of Cohen’s trademark moves is to ask an insanely dumb question and see what the interviewee does with it. This is what happens, for instance, when Morad is able to get a series of conservatives to get on board with the idea of arming 4-year-olds to keep themselves safe from “bad guys.”

Again, as with his use of stereotypes, using a dumb question or dumb prank to expose a complete and total lack of reason or rational thinking turns out to be a pretty brilliant move — especially in an era when our collective brainpower seems to be endangered.

Part of the art of this strategy is to show the audience how each of his interlocutors will respond to the series of dumb interactions differently. Apparently Ted Koppel, whose segment has not yet aired, called for an end to the interview when it was clear that the Ruddick character couldn’t tell night from day during a conversation over the size of Trump’s inauguration audience.

When the audience watches the various ways folks process these stupid questions, they fine-tune their own ability to know when to call BS. But even more importantly, they observe how easy it is to be manipulated into buying into BS — a skill certainly of value in an environment when BS is a central feature of public discourse.

4. Is this a staged interview?

The interviews aren’t just filled with stupid questions. They also fail to follow any sort of predictable format for the genre. Today, when more and more of the media the public consumes is a predicable circus of hubris, hype and hysteria, this tactic is even more important than when it made Cohen famous with Ali G more than 15 years ago.

Watching Cohen disarm the interviewee by asking questions that are totally off script helps remind the public how constrained the format of the interview tends to be. Cohen uses unexpected questions to mock the way that the interview tends to follow a format that never challenges the interviewer.

This is why his exchange with Gun Owners of America founder Larry Pratt is so beyond the pale. Pratt interacted with Cohen’s Morad character, who explained he was meeting with a series of gun rights advocates to try to get their support for his Kinderguardians campaign. The whole sequence is entirely absurd.

Cohen’s character makes it possible for us all to watch a series of right-wing public figures enthusiastically support a totally inane idea, a move we would never witness on any mainstream news interaction. But one of the most disarming parts of the sequence takes place when Pratt giggles along with the Morad character after he says "it's not rape if it's your wife.” It is a perfect example of how Cohen can take his interviews into the sort of uncharted territory we all need to discover.

For what it’s worth, that tactic has been used by Colbert on the “The Colbert Report” as well as many other comedians, especially those working on “The Daily Show” in field pieces.  The reason why the in-character interview is so common today is not just because it pokes fun at an unsuspecting interviewee, but also because it offers the viewer a refreshing interaction unlike most of the formulaic interview encounters found on the mainstream TV news.

5. Who’s crossing the line?

Perhaps the best part of Cohen’s creative strategy is the way that he pushes on the idea that his comedy is crossing lines. Palin went after him, calling him “evil, exploitative, sick,” and yet she is the one who called on conservatives to buy guns after the Sandy Hook shootings and she is also the one who decided to call vulnerable congressional districts “targets of opportunity” shortly before Gabrielle Giffords was shot.

Similarly, the former Alabama Senate candidate who was accused of pedophilia, Roy Moore, went after Cohen for attacking his “honor and character.”

Palin’s and Moore’s outrage over Cohen is akin to the fallout from Michelle Wolf’s performance earlier this year at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Wolf was condemned for what some perceived as inappropriate comments about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The joke, though, was the fact that comedian Wolf was being called out for crossing a line, but Sanders, who lies to the public all the time, doesn’t get that same critique.

Colbert suffered a similar backlash when he had the nerve to go after President George W. Bush back in 2006. At the time Bush was leading us into an unjust war and Colbert was using comedy to call him out. But Colbert was the one some folks thought had “crossed a line.”

So if Moore and Sanders and Bush didn’t cross lines, how is that the comedians are?

Cohen’s entire comedy routine is centered on crossing lines in the most outrageous way he can. Each time that Cohen purposefully crosses the line he asks his audience to consider when and how and why we should and shouldn’t cross lines. He further reveals the fact that comedians are far more likely to be held to higher ethical standards than most other public figures.

It is important to note, as well, that Cohen does an excellent job of crossing all lines. That is, he mocks the left and the right, as evidenced by his scene between an ex-con and an art gallery owner where the ex-con convinces the gallery owner to give him some of her pubic hair for his next project.

Much Trump-era comedy has been accused of favoring a left perspective, but Cohen is an equal opportunity offender, a refreshing and much-needed tactic that further shows why “Who Is America?” will be valuable in the current context.

His edgy comedy will likely continue to ruffle feathers in the weeks to come, but that’s entirely the point. By stirring up the performance of outrage, his comedy is able to show us how outrageous America has already become.

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By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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