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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 11:15 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.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 915942

Reported Deaths: 9606
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1786832038
Ramsey739711046
Dakota67683587
Anoka64112577
Washington40545359
Stearns33631279
St. Louis29591409
Scott25994186
Wright25957217
Olmsted22339130
Sherburne19000127
Carver1670669
Clay12104105
Blue Earth1147970
Rice11451138
Crow Wing11213123
Chisago995379
Kandiyohi9815108
Otter Tail9813127
Benton9033125
Beltrami816997
Goodhue811798
Douglas7875101
Itasca772299
Mower733449
McLeod713084
Winona710258
Isanti700783
Steele685731
Morrison672879
Becker628574
Polk603187
Freeborn561246
Carlton546974
Mille Lacs532479
Lyon528461
Nobles525054
Nicollet522460
Pine515043
Cass501253
Todd492843
Brown470759
Le Sueur459734
Meeker433458
Martin386544
Wabasha375510
Waseca374333
Dodge361112
Hubbard355249
Roseau316231
Fillmore305315
Wadena302940
Redwood281445
Houston272017
Renville268451
Faribault258233
Sibley252317
Pennington252130
Kanabec250136
Cottonwood230132
Aitkin222450
Chippewa220542
Pope207410
Watonwan198020
Yellow Medicine188023
Rock177729
Koochiching176725
Swift173123
Stevens167511
Jackson161016
Clearwater158020
Marshall153522
Murray151811
Pipestone149729
Lake132924
Lac qui Parle123025
Wilkin121116
Mahnomen106014
Norman10509
Grant101510
Big Stone9485
Lincoln8805
Kittson73223
Red Lake71410
Traverse6056
Unassigned545124
Lake of the Woods5265
Cook3071

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 525758

Reported Deaths: 7379
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk81677809
Linn32838430
Scott27126295
Black Hawk22334382
Woodbury20736263
Johnson20150108
Dubuque18996243
Pottawattamie16215214
Dallas15573115
Story1398059
Warren8637107
Cerro Gordo8141125
Clinton7928115
Webster7419124
Des Moines7153106
Marshall675494
Muscatine6717117
Wapello6546145
Jasper630591
Sioux622477
Lee5977106
Marion567697
Buena Vista503449
Plymouth493388
Henry427155
Benton414760
Jones413564
Bremer403873
Boone397042
Washington395464
Carroll373355
Mahaska372366
Crawford355647
Jackson324047
Dickinson317555
Buchanan312743
Delaware303255
Clay297636
Kossuth293477
Fayette290356
Hardin289253
Tama282878
Page276133
Wright270050
Cedar269527
Winneshiek267744
Hamilton262757
Floyd261049
Clayton252360
Poweshiek242043
Harrison240979
Madison237425
Butler237346
Cass235667
Iowa234336
Jefferson228544
Mills225330
Hancock222840
Winnebago222339
Cherokee217347
Appanoose210157
Lyon209842
Allamakee209456
Calhoun199519
Shelby199542
Union197141
Humboldt188231
Franklin188031
Grundy186137
Chickasaw184522
Mitchell184343
Emmet180146
Louisa178653
Sac175626
Guthrie169338
Clarke163629
Montgomery163146
Keokuk152639
Palo Alto152332
Howard150624
Monroe144340
Ida134141
Greene128818
Davis126825
Lucas126127
Monona124940
Worth12309
Pocahontas122125
Adair118239
Osceola105718
Decatur104813
Taylor100914
Fremont98913
Van Buren95922
Wayne86125
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