Over the course of history, comedians have shared their take on current events with biting commentary on everything from class and gender to fashion and politics, and the current presidential administration is definitely no exception — with President Donald Trump regularly lampooned on shows like “Saturday Night Live” and by late-night TV hosts. But when does the current political climate in the United States become no laughing matter? On the red carpet at an Emmys For Your Consideration event, Variety asked “Who Is America?” star and creator Sacha Baron Cohen if there is a point when politics stops being funny.
“Yes. I think in many ways we are past that point. I think there is a danger [in not taking things seriously],” Baron Cohen replied. Though, he added, comedy “can release the pressure.”
“I think you need people to remain repulsed,” he continued. “Obviously, there are a lot of people who are supportive — but those who are upset with what was going on, I think they need to keep that, their passion, and bring it to the voting booth.”
The creator of “Borat” and “Bruno” brought his passion about politics to his Showtime series, but he still employed his outrageous brand of comedy to tackle the tough subjects.
“Well, firstly, it’s a comedy show. And that was the primary aim, but I was driven to do it because of an anger and upset with what’s going on in America at the moment,” Baron Cohen explained. “And I think a lot of people express their rage and upset at the potential dissolution of American institutions in different ways. I do it by putting on a silicone mask for five hours in the morning and going and interviewing various white politicians. So it was something that I felt I needed to do to shine a light on what’s going on out there and to have some people expose themselves literally, quite literally in the case of Jason Spencer.”
During the Q&A portion of the event, hosted by fellow comedian Sarah Silverman (who called the series “a masterpiece” and repeatedly praised Baron Cohen’s “high-wire acting”), the comedian revealed that he decided to develop the series after President Trump signed in early 2017 the travel ban that affected predominantly Muslim countries.
“I felt very, very upset about that. And I thought, okay, ‘It’s time for me to do what I don’t like doing,’ which is why I haven’t done it for a long time, which is to create some characters and go undercover. And it was basically for me to just get this anger out of my system and so I should really credit Donald Trump as the creator of the show,” the comedian explained, joking. “I actually offered him to be co-creator, but he wanted sole creator.”
Baron Cohen went on to explain the process of creating the series, saying that “at the beginning I decided to set myself a task, which was to come up with a character each week for 10 weeks. And the idea was come up with the character on Monday and by Sunday to film with three real people with that character. So, in a week, to come up with a complete backstory — nationality, to learn the accents and by the end of the week to convince a real person for a few hours that I was real — it was kind of an acting challenge,” he explained “When you’re creating a character, you want to know as much of the backstory as possible. In this kind of scenario, you need to have a complete backstory.”
On the series, the comedian’s characters interacted with many leading (and often controversial) political and popular figures, including former vice president Dick Cheney, Senator Bernie Sanders, journalist Ted Koppel, senate candidate Roy Moore, O.J. Simpson and former state congressman Jason Spencer [Note: Spencer resigned from office in 2018, after backlash over his appearance on the series]. Because of the nature of the deception, the reaction of his interview subjects to finding out they’d been duped was often negative, at best. The comedian shared with Variety that Spencer’s response to the series surprised him the most, as Baron Cohen believed that the behavior the former Georgia state representative exhibited on camera “would have been enough to make somebody resign in the past.”
“However, he refused to resign [for a period of time], which I think is an indication of what’s going on at the moment and of the sort of level of acceptance of political misbehavior,” he said.
Baron Cohen also shared stories about interviews that never made it to air, including a disturbing interview which may have uncovered a Las Vegas pedophile ring (Note: the footage was turned over to the FBI), a botched attempt to interview cabinet secretary Dr. Ben Carson and the now-infamous interview with Sarah Palin. He explained that he was under immense pressure to air the Palin interview because of her claims that he posed as a disabled war veteran to obtain the one-on-one, but ultimately decided not to show the footage because he felt it wasn’t funny enough.
The question and answer session concluded when an audience member asked Baron Cohen if he’ll pursue a second season of the series.
“I can’t,” he answered. “So it’s a one and done, unfortunately. I mean this kind of stuff, you would never be able to get past a publicist again.”
“Who Is America?” is streaming on Showtime.