In “Who Is America?” Baron Cohen’s goal is no longer to illuminate the fact that people have racist, xenophobic thoughts, but to see just how far those views will go and the horrible things they will guide them to do.
Each episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? begins with the familiar voices of JFK (“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”), Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), and FDR (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”). Suddenly, the peaceful music playing behind these soundbites stops and we see the disgusting clip of Donald Trump imitating a disabled reporter, “Uhh, I don’t know what I said. Uhh!,” and “AMERICA TODAY” flashes on the screen. With hectic music playing, we see flashes of recognizable images of protests and political figures, and the words, “325 MILLION PEOPLE . . . DIVIDED . . . FOUR UNIQUE VOICES . . . WILL TELL US . . . WHO IS AMERICA.” Immediately, we are confronted with the harsh truth of our contemporary political reality. The illusions we may have once held about this “great country” have been shattered by the election of Donald Trump. At the Hollywood Reporter’s “Comedy Actor Roundtable,” Cohen explained that after the 2016 election, he found himself in a state of disbelief and rage with nowhere to channel it. When sending passionate emails about the state of the country to his friends wasn’t enough, he decided that he needed to create characters who could sit down with Trump’s supporters and see just how dangerous this kind of politics and rhetoric is.1 In an interview with Deadline, he says that he had sworn off his signature style of undercover comedy, where he is the only person acting in a scene surrounded by real people, after his 2009 movie made in this style, Brüno. In addition to his fears about the dangers of filming undercover, his increasing fame made him worry that he had become too recognizable to do it again. However, after the 2016 election, when prosthetics technology was advanced enough to disguise him fully, he felt that he needed to go back undercover, as six new unique characters, to uncover the true face of America.2
Sacha Baron Cohen has refined and built upon his particular brand of comedy throughout his career. After graduating from Cambridge, where he studied history with a focus on the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement, he went to Paris to study at the prestigious clown school, École Philippe Gaulier. Once he was a working actor on The 11 O’Clock Show, he put his clowning and character skills to work and created his infamous white middle-class wannabe rapper, Ali G.3,4 It was in this character that Cohen discovered his love for undercover work. While filming a segment as Ali G, he saw a group of “real life Ali Gs” and began talking to them as the character. When he revealed that he was just acting, the group was shocked, and Cohen realized he had really found something special. After this first experience tricking people as Ali G, he felt “completely invigorated.”5 . This adrenaline rush and his ability to fool the people around him sparked his incredible career. After Ali G, he created Borat, the misogynistic, antisemitic reporter from Kazakhstan. As a wink to the audience, the Kazakh that this antisemite speaks is actually a mix of Hebrew and Polish, and for viewers who speak Hebrew, he is often saying outlandish things that only they will understand. His third big undercover character is Brüno, the flamboyant Austrian fashion journalist who often uses nudity and sexual comments to shock the people around him.
While Cohen has gone on to do many other scripted roles in films and TV, in productions such as Les Misérables, Talladega Nights, The Dictator, and most recently as Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7, he will always be known for his iconic undercover work. Cohen weaponizes cartoonish stereotypes to expose a specific aspect of his subject’s prejudice. With these characters, Cohen is able to make his audience laugh while engaging them in whatever topic he is trying to explore. Cohen explains that in the first Borat film, in 2006, his goal was to expose the rampant xenophobia and antisemitism in the United States. Similarly, in Brüno, he utilized the character’s flamboyant sexuality to expose homophobia in the U.S. In an interview with Brown University, he explains that while exposure was the main goal of the first two films, Borat: Subsequent Movie Film, released in 2020, was made with the intention of inspiring people to get out and vote for Biden because of the uncontrollable and dangerous nature of Trump.6 He told NPR, “I was terrified that if Trump got in again, America would be a democracy in name only.”7 Who Is America? also departs from the purely expository aims of Borat and Brüno, primarily because of the different time periods in which they were filmed. In 2006 and 2009, people saying homophobic and anti-Semitic things was shocking, but now it has become far more commonplace, largely due to Trump’s presidency and social media. Cohen says, “People are saying things that they never would have dreamed of saying publicly, prior to Trump.”8 The goal of Who Is America? is no longer to illuminate the fact that people have racist, xenophobic thoughts, but to see just how far those views will go and the horrible things they will guide them to do. As you will see in my descriptions of some of the scenes in the show, they go very far and guide them to do terrible things.
Who Is America? delivers many impactful and shocking scenes that fulfill Cohen’s goal of testing the dangerous limits of prejudice in America. However, not every character reaches this caliber of political impact. One of his characters, Rick Sherman, a British ex-con turned aspiring artist, conducts interviews such as one with a fine art-consultant whom he asks for some of her pubic hair for an art piece he is making.9 Cohen uses the Sherman character to try to point out the ridiculousness of the artwork, but all of his scenes, like this one, tend more towards absurdist comedy than cultural criticism. This is also true of his character Gio Monaldo, a billionaire playboy and fashion photographer from Milan. Monaldo’s scenes go slightly further than Sherman’s. He interviews a yacht designer who is willing to design a boat for Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, that will be used for sex trafficking, and, in another scene, he jokes with O.J. Simpson about murdering his girlfriend.10,11 In these scenes, Cohen attempts to show the superficiality and immorality of the super wealthy, but in comparison to the impactful political comedy in the rest of the show, they fall short. However, these scenes still uphold the show’s comedic tone. After Cohen had gotten so many shocking truths out of all of his interviewees, he studied with an FBI interrogator and went into the interview with Simpson, which was his final interview, with the overambitious goal of trying to get him to admit to murder. It is hilarious watching Cohen trying to get Simpson to confess, even if it doesn’t fulfill the political aim of the show.
Besides Monaldo and Sherman, the rest of Cohen’s characters are more politically focused. The most absurd of the group is OMGWhizzBoyOMG!, an eccentric Finnish YouTuber with neon pink hair, a cartoonish goofy voice, and a YouTube channel where he unboxes “Shopkins,” tiny collectible plastic toys, while interviewing guests. Cohen uses this outlandish character to interview political figures that he disagrees with, like Joe Arpaio, the former Sheriff of Maricopa Country, Arizona, who was in contempt of court for directing his subordinates to continue racial profiling, but was pardoned by Donald Trump. In the interview, Arpaio discusses his conservative views on gun control while OMGWhizzBoyOMG interrupts to say things like “OMG! Super-crazy! It’s D’lish Donut as he unboxes the little toys. OMGWhizzBoyOMG tells Arpaio that “D’lish Donut is anti-guns,” to which Arpaio responds, “D’lish Donut, you have to understand that you have to follow the Constitution and the law and allow people to have guns.”12 Watching Arpaio, and the other conservatives Cohen interviews in this character, trying to present their political views to this insane person who is playing with children’s toys, is funny because of how disarmed they are.. Cohen deploys this popular style of video used by many influencers, called “unboxing,” which is familiar to most young people but odd to most adults, to put his interviewees in an outlandish setting where he can humiliate them and their views. While the “gotcha!” aspect of Cohen’s undercover work is less shocking now due to the mainstream nature of alt-right pundits, he is able to achieve a new kind of exposure by placing these people in his hilariously strange environment that is completely alien to them, to highlight the ridiculousness of their political position. The absurdity of Cohen’s character, his voice and behavior are truly bizarre, juxtaposed with the ultra-conservative opinions of his guests, renders those opinions laughable.
Sacha Baron Cohen is particularly interested in the ideas of paranoid conspiracy theorists and the ways that harmful alt-right ideas are spread online. He personifies these absurd alt-right theories in his character, Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick, Jr., PhD (the “Dr.” and “PhD” are of course, self-appointed), a Southern conservative who wants to “confront the mainstream media” as an “unbiased journalist” who posts his findings on his website, “truthbrary.org.”13 Cohen has Ruddick say contradictory things like “Trump is the least vain person in the world,” which he follows up with an exhaustive list of the countless buildings and businesses that have Trump’s name slapped all over them.14 Ruddick displays his arguments in such an obviously incorrect way that they highlight the truly dangerous nature of many alt-right conspiracies. While Ruddick interviews liberal politicians, scientists, and journalists who try to dissuade him of his disbelief in climate change and his insistence that AIDS is a hoax, I believe this character is most effective in illuminating the absurdity of alt-right conspiracy theorists in his interview with Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. The strength of its impact is because Ruddick uses Lewandowski to validate his own outlandish claims. Cohen takes advantage of the fact that Lewandowski is closer to Ruddick’s ideology than the Democrats he interviewed earlier in the series, by trying to align Ruddick’s ridiculous ideas with Lewandowski. In the interview, Ruddick will make a point that he knows Lewandowski will agree with, such as justifying Trump’s remarks that excused the events in Charlottesville, and then likens it to an extremist view, saying, “Ya, you can’t be attacking honest, fascist people who just want to express their right to start a genocide!” Lewandowski responds with some hesitation saying, “Look I don’t know about that, but what I do know is . . .” and continues on to say that since the law says that people can protest peacefully, they should be allowed to do that.15 In this exchange, Cohen is able to incriminate Lewandowski’s conservative arguments by placing them on the same side as Ruddick’s ridiculous rhetoric. Even though he may not agree with Ruddick’s outlandish statements, he doesn’t disagree with them, which demonstrates the fact that they are more ideologically similar than they are different.
Cohen creates another political character who is the polar opposite of Ruddick, Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, an ultra-liberal professor who describes himself in his introduction as “a self-hating white male,” with a partner named Naomi, and a son and daughter named Harvey Milk and Malala.16 Cain-N’Degeocello’s segment, “Heal The Divide,” shows him trying to understand the source of polarization in America through discussions with people across the political spectrum. Cain-N’Degeocello’s tensest exchange (and my favorite segment in the show) is with a room full of conservative residents in Kingman, Arizona, after he put up posters around the town advertising a town-hall meeting to discuss a new building coming to the city. In the scene, Cain-N’Degeocello presents the citizens with the exciting news of a new urban development coming to Kingman that will bring economic prosperity back to the struggling town. The audience of the town hall is excited to learn of this opportunity, until they learn what the development will be. With sheer joy in his voice, Cain-N’Degeocello announces that they will be building “a brand new, state of the art mosque.” Immediately the citizens become angry. In what I believe is Cohen’s best performance, Cain-N’Degeocello continually misunderstands the anger in the room and tries to appease the audience by describing how incredible this mosque will be. Cohen is using this refusal to acknowledge the audience’s prejudice to coax more outrageous behavior from them. He is making it so that they need to explicitly prove their bigotry to him. An audience member demands to know why there needs to be a mosque in Kingman, and Cain-N’Degeocello responds saying that it will become a tourist hub for Muslims from all around the world. After announcing this, he says, “Can I get a ‘Whoop, Whoop’” to which the audience members scream “NO!” Cain-N’Degeocello thinks he will please them by showing the two options for the design of the mosque, a big mosque, and an even bigger mosque. My favorite line is when Cohen looks at one of the most aggressive audience members and asks, “If you don’t like this design, tell me about your dream mosque.” The man can’t believe Cain-N’Degeocello isn’t seeing his frustration and he screams, “There is no dream mosque!” In addition to ignoring the group’s racist remarks, Cohen also spins every horrible thing they say into something positive. When one audience member announces that “This town is even lucky to have Black people in it,” Cain-N’Degeocello deliberately misinterprets the meaning of this statement and says, “Ya, of course you are lucky to have Black people; they add a lot to society.” When the audience expresses their fears of terrorism, Cain-N’Degeocello says they are doing everything they can to protect the Muslims from it, which is obviously not what they wanted to hear. Cohen’s performance of Cain-N’Degeocello relentlessly assuming that these people want the mosque is hilarious and extremely effective. The more he resists their racist remarks, the more they want to prove their racism to him. At one point, one audience member even identifies himself as a racist because he thinks Cain-N’Degeocello is still not understanding him. This is a perfect example of what Cohen is trying to show. While Islamophobia has been a major problem in America for a long time, in a post-Trump world, people will explicitly admit to their own racism, on camera, in front of a crowd of people.
The tension and aggression in the Kingman town hall is tangible as the cameras pan between Cohen’s calm disposition and the furious faces of the audience members. In his Hollywood Reporter interview with Don Cheadle, Sacha Baron Cohen describes the real danger that he faced there. He explains that his security team had confiscated guns from every audience member but that many of them had guns in their cars. Cohen’s security was so worried for his safety that they gave him a bulletproof clipboard to have with him in the scene.17 However, Cohen braved this tense exchange because he wanted to see the ways that Islamophobia manifested in people’s behavior, particularly in one of the most conservative towns in the country. He wanted to present these economically disenfrachised white people with an opportunity to improve their livelihoods, as the mosque would bring an investment of $385 million to their town and would lead to the financial improvement of every Kingman resident, and see if their hatred for Muslims was so strong that it would supersede their desire for personal success. What he found, and showed his audience, is that Islamophobia is so strong in this country that a group of people was willing to forgo their chance at a better life to uphold their hatred of Muslims.
Lastly, the character who conducts the most shocking interviews is Sergeant Colonel Erran Morrad, a bulky, harsh-sounding Israeli military officer (he may have been in the Mossad, but you didn’t hear it from him!) who has come to America to teach citizens about how to fight terrorism. Cohen uses Morrad to see how far he can push conservatives by using their fears about terrorism and Islamophobia. In one of the most the famous scenes in the show, Erran Morrad is meeting with Jason Spencer, a former Republican state representative from Georgia, to teach him how to detect and fight off terrorism. In the interaction, Cohen gets Spencer, under the guise of helping him understand terrorism, to do a racist impression of Chinese tourists, shout the N-word, and pull down his pants to show his bare butt to Morrad because he told him that terrorists were afraid of being gay.18 In addition to the sheer horror of everything Spencer said, the scene is truly shocking because of Spencer’s complete confidence in everything he is doing. He feels so validated in this behavior because he believes it is to stop terrorism. That was what Cohen wanted to prove. The fear of terrorism, fueled by Trump, is so strong, that it can lead people to act in disgusting ways, and do so proudly. After this segment aired on Who Is America?, Spencer was forced to resign, which is a pretty incredible, tangible example of the show’s impact.
Morrad also sits down with U.S. politicians to discuss gun violence and terrorism. One of the biggest politicians he speaks with is Dick Cheney, whom Morrad truly admires for his policies. Throughout the interview, Cohen uses Morrad’s enthusiasm over war and violence to show Cheney’s joy in what he did as Secretary of Defense. The first thing Morrad asks Cheney is, “Which was your favorite war?” and without hesitation, Cheney explains it was Desert Storm.19 Cohen even gets Cheney to autograph his waterboarding kit. Similarly, in the first episode, he gets many politicians, including Trent Lott, Dana Rohrabacher, Joe Wilson, Joe Walsh, and the previous Director of Gun Owners of America, to publicly endorse his “KinderGuardians” program, which would arm three and four year olds to protect them from school shooters. Cohen uses these interviews with politicians to show the ease with which they will endorse and publicly express their support for violence. Once again, these interviews are not necessarily designed at exposing the fact that these politicians would support arming children or that Dick Cheney is proud of his involvement in the death of hundreds of thousands of people but that they are all willing to say so publicly, on camera, and show no hesitance in doing it.
In the seventh and final episode of the series, Cohen answers his question about the heights that the fear fostered by Trump against certain groups can reach by having Morrad instruct three conservatives on how to “infiltrate” Antifa, which they believe to be the most dangerous terrorist group in the United States. In the beginning of the segment, Morrad teaches them how to act like a liberal, suggesting that they be able to discuss Lena Dunham’s TV show, Girls, or that they learn how long quinoa cooks (which is nine minutes). After selecting oneof the three men to be his “partner” in his mission to infiltrate Antifa, Morrad takes one of the men to a Women’s March in San Francisco where they go “undercover” as a lesbian couple and stick “tracking devices” on the backs of some of the people at the march. Once the liberals are “tagged,” Morrad pulls out a tablet and explains to the man that the devices have an explosive inside of them that causes deadly heart attacks. When Morrad tells him which button to press to “kill” the targets, he does it.20 This is the answer to Cohen’s question, “who is America?” America is a country where someone will go as far as “killing” another person because of their fears and hatred that are fueled by politicians like Trump and are validated by the conspiracy theorists around them.
Sacha Baron Cohen uses these five characters to show the effects of having a bigot like Trump in the White House. Each character is carefully crafted, with elaborate backstories, costumes, and accents, to trick his interviewees and appeal to the audience in a specific way. Cohen went through an extremely elaborate process in creating these characters. In 2009, Cohen went to Oscar award-winning special effects makeup artist, Rick Baker, and asked him if it would be possible to have prosthetics that would be usable in the real world. At the time, Baker said that prosthetics technology was not quite there, but in 2016, Baker’s protégé, Tony Gardner, was able to do so.21 It was particularly difficult because they had to create a disguise that would look real to any regular person in broad daylight as opposed to just being seen on a TV screen. After successfully creating the visual aspects of his characters, in which Cohen often has to put on what is essentially a new head, he had to ensure that the characters had an airtight backstory in case the interviewee had questions for him. In his interview with Dick Cheney, Cheney actually asked Cohen (whom he believed to be Erran Morrad) about his experience in the Israeli military. Before the cameras began rolling, Cohen had to improvise thirty minutes of material about Morrad’s military experience based on the brief discussion he had with an Israeli soldier.22 Luckily, Cohen was able to pull it off and the interview went forward.
The painstaking process of creating and executing these characters was definitely worth it for Cohen given his passion for stopping the dangerous rhetoric of the American alt-right. In his speech accepting the Anti-Defamation League’s International Leadership Award, Cohen called Facebook “the greatest propaganda machine in history.”23 He has expressed his fears over the ways that conspiracy theorists utilize social media to spread their views widely across the platform. This wildfire of aggressive conspiracies, particularly the ones fueled by Trump, are truly dangerous and can lead to real violence, as Cohen shows in his Antifa-infiltration segment. In his speech, he says, “Voltaire was right: ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,’ and social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people.”24 Cohen has become involved in the Stop Hate for Profit campaign which seeks to “hold social media companies accountable for the hate on their platforms.”25The fears Cohen has about the ability of false information and hate to be spread on social media and throughout the nation clearly inspired much of his work in Who Is America?
Despite the explicitly political tone of the show, Cohen still publicly emphasizes that he is just a comedian. While discussing the ways that Trump’s language validates the violent racism occurring in the country in an interview with Deadline, Cohen says, “Bear in mind the caveat in this whole thing is, I’m a comedian, I’m an actor, I’m not a political commentator, I’m not an academic. So take all my views with a pinch of salt.”26 This is a statement that he says in virtually every interview about the show. I believe that he does so, primarily because of the risk he is taking as an actor, and especially a comedian, in making such a political project. I think that this “caveat” that he mentions in all of his interviews is to protect himself from the criticism that he, as a comedian, is extending too far past his reach into a subject he is not properly equipped to handle (even though he studied American History at Cambridge and is clearly much more than only “a comedian.”) He expressed a similar hesitance surrounding his personal connection to the press for the show. In his interview at Brown University, he explained that he had “always done interviews in character or not at all,” and that this was the first project he endorsed and promoted publicly, as himself.27 While this hesitance never appears in the content of the series, the combination of endorsing the show as himself and expressing his political beliefs in the series led to his increased reluctance surrounding endorsing the show in the press.
Despite Cohen’s worries about the reception of his political undertaking in the show, I found his comedic approach to our grim political reality to be extremely effective. Regardless of the serious subject matter in Who Is America?, Cohen’s performance is consistently hilarious. Even when his guests are saying something horrific, it is the outlandish characters Cohen creates, and his unwillingness to break character in any way, that maintains the show’s humor. The audience also feels a unique closeness to Cohen because we are the only ones who know that he is underneath those prosthetics. In the face of his interviewees’ terrifying remarks, we are laughing at their expense because we are in on the joke. We get to feel like we are pranking them along with Cohen, which helps make the show more digestible. By making us laugh at these shocking displays of racism and xenophobia, Cohen forces us to confront both the interviewee’s and our own prejudice. Comedy is something that pulls us in rather than pushes us away, which is why comedy is so helpful when discussing a topic we may not want to confront. Cohen says, “And as a comedian, I’ve tried to use my characters to get people to let down their guard and reveal what they actually believe, including their own prejudice.”28 While he may describe himself as a comedian who aims primarily at making people laugh, Who Is America? achieves so much more by showing us the new heights that bigotry in this country has reached as a result of Trump’s presidency. Although Trump has left office, the behavior of the politicians and individuals that Cohen documented is still a shocking testament to the ugliness unearthed by Trump’s rhetoric. As we move on to the next chapter of our history, we must remember to continue questioning, Who Is America?
- The Hollywood Reporter, “How Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘Revulsion’ Over Trump’s Win Inspired ‘Who Is America?’ | Close Up,” June 19, 2019, YouTube video.
- Mike Fleming Jr, “Sacha Baron Cohen On Unseen Shocking Scenes in Trump-Inspired Golden Globe-Nominated Series ‘Who Is America?’,” Deadline, December 19, 2018.
- Rebecca Alter, “The Many Guises of Sacha Baron Cohen,” Vulture, October 23, 2020.
- Alexia Fernández, “Sacha Baron Cohen on His Very Intense Experience at Clown School: People ‘Would Burst Into Tears’,” People, March 26, 2021.
- Fleming Jr, “Sacha Baron Cohen On Unseen Shocking Scenes in Trump-Inspired Golden Globe-Nominated Series ‘Who Is America?’
- Brown University, “IFF Presents: A Conversation with Sacha Baron Cohen,” interview by Georgia Salke and Emma Weiss, Brown University Ivy Film Fest, recorded March 30 2021, posted May 12, 2021, YouTube video.
- Sacha Baron Cohen, “Sacha Baron Cohen on ‘Borat’ Ethics And Why His Disguise Days Are Over,” Interview by Terry Gross, Fresh Air, NPR, February 22, 2021.
- Fleming Jr, “Sacha Baron Cohen On Unseen Shocking Scenes in Trump-Inspired Golden Globe-Nominated Series ‘Who Is America?’
- Who Is America?, episode 1, directed by Sacha Baron Cohen, Payman Benz, Saniel Gray Longino, Dan Mazer, and Todd Schulman, aired July 15, 2018, on Showtime.
- Who Is America?, episode 4, directed by Nathan Fielder, Daniel Gay Longino, and Dan Mazer, aired August 5, 2018, on Showtime.
- Who Is America?, episode 7, directed by Daniel Gay Longino, and Dan Mazer, aired August 26, 2018, on Showtime.
- Who Is America?, episode 4.
- Who Is America?, “101,” episode 1.
- Who Is America?, episode 5, directed by Daniel Gray Longino, Dan Mazer, and Todd Schulman, aired August 12, 2018, on Showtime.
- Who Is America?, episode 5.
- Who Is America?, episode 1.
- Hollywood Reporter, “Sacha Baron Cohen & Don Cheadle – Actors on Actors,” June 6, 2019, YouTube video.
- Who Is America?, episode 2, directed by Sacha Baron Cohen, Nathan Fielder, Daniel Gray Longino, and Dan Mazer, aired July 22, 2018, on Showtime.
- Who Is America?, episode 2.
- Who Is America?, episode 7.
- Hollywood Reporter, “Sacha Baron Cohen & Don Cheadle – Actors on Actors.”
- Hollywood Reporter, “Sacha Baron Cohen & Don Cheadle – Actors on Actors.
- Sacha Baron Cohen, “Read Sacha Baron Cohen’s Scathing Attack on Facebook in Full,” The Guardian, November 22, 2019.
- Baron Cohen, “Read Sacha Baron Cohen’s Scathing Attack on Facebook in Full.”
- About,” Stop Hate for Profit.
- Fleming Jr, “Sacha Baron Cohen On Unseen Shocking Scenes in Trump-Inspired Golden Globe-Nominated Series ‘Who Is America?’”
- Brown University, “IFF Presents: A Conversation with Sacha Baron Cohen.”
- Baron Cohen, “Read Sacha Baron Cohen’s Scathing Attack on Facebook in Full.”