As Showtime prepares its Emmy submissions for 2019, one of its contenders is a bit of an outlier: Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?”
The seven-episode series, which premiered last July, mixes elements of comedy, satire, sketch, reality, talk and variety — making it the kind of hybrid that could be entered in several categories.
And that’s Showtime’s plan. Although there are unscripted elements to “Who Is America?” (such as the time Baron Cohen got Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio to address the infamous alleged Donald Trump “pee pee tape”), the network is following the precedent set by “Saturday Night Live” in splitting its major submissions in both the comedy and variety/sketch categories.
“Who Is America?” will be submitted in the outstanding variety/sketch series category, where it would potentially face shows like last year’s winner “SNL,” and previous nominees such as “Drunk History” and “At Home with Amy Sedaris.”
But Baron Cohen, as the star of the show, will be submitted in the outstanding actor in a comedy series category.
That’s because since 2008, variety series performers have been eligible to enter in the lead, supporting, or guest comedy categories for the Emmys. (Previously, there was a category for outstanding individual performance in a variety or music program.) Since then, sketch performers from shows such as “SNL,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Key & Peele” have been nominated in those races.
These kind of strategic Emmy discussions are currently being held all over town now that the Television Academy has opened submissions for this year’s awards. As television content has become more sophisticated (especially in the era of “peak TV”), category confusion has also grown. It’s getting harder to put shows in a single silo — but the TV Academy has tried to resist category proliferation. In cases where shows straddle multiple genres, there are sometimes rules (such as specific divides between comedy and drama, or unscripted formats). But in other cases, it’s up to the submitting network or studio to decide where to submit a program and its talent.
In the case of Baron Cohen, the decision to submit him as outstanding comedy actor follows a similar tact that Showtime took with the Golden Globes — and Hollywood Foreign Press Association voters ultimately nominated the comedian this past year as best comedy actor.
For directing and writing, “Who Is America” will compete in the variety series categories (last year won respectively by “Saturday Night Live” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”).
Similarly, “Who Is America?” was nominated in the best variety/talk/news/sports category at the recent Directors Guild of America awards, and was submitted in the variety category for the Writers Guild of America awards.
Also, because of the way the Emmy categories are set up, the show’s below-the-line submissions will also vary among different designations. Among the other categories the show will be submitted: costumes for variety, nonfiction or reality programming; hairstyling for a single-camera series; prosthetic makeup for a series, limited series, movie or special; sound mixing for a variety series or special; and sound editing for a comedy or drama series (half-hour).
“‘Who Is America?’ is such a wildly unconventional and original series that it straddles many different Emmy categories within the TV Academy,” Showtime entertainment co-president Gary Levine told Variety. “We hope that wherever Sacha and the show appear on the ballot, voters will recognize and reward all the inspired work that created this provocative tour de force.”
“Who Is America?” was Baron Cohen’s first TV show in more than a decade, and launched under supreme secrecy — and a bit of pre-launch controversy, as stirred up by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
Baron Cohen had previously been best known for his characters such as Ali G and Borat, but created a whole new army of disguises for “Who Is America?” including conspiracy theorist Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D; left-leaning activist Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello; former Israeli Mossad agent Erran Morad; British ex-con Rick Sherman; Finnish YouTuber OMGWhizzBoyOMG!, and Italian photographer Gio Monaldo.
Among Baron Cohen’s targets during the series run were Georgia State Rep. Jason Spencer, who resigned after he was seen shouting racist taunts on the show, as well as former vice president Dick Cheney, who signed a “waterboarding kit.”
Other notable marks included Sen. Bernie Sanders, former presidential candidate Jill Stein, former Alabama judge Roy Moore, former Sen. Trent Lott, and Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke. Palin, who had loudly complained about being duped by Baron Cohen, never actually appeared in the final product.