Day 6

How Sacha Baron Cohen keeps punking A-list political figures 18 years after Ali G

Sarah Palin and Bernie Sanders are among those duped on 'Who Is America?', Sacha Baron Cohen's new TV show.

Some of the people Baron Cohen tricked include Sarah Palin, Roy Moore and Joe Walsh

A still from Who Is America?, Sacha Baron Cohen's upcoming Showtime series. In the new show, the actor puts on various prosthetics and accents in an attempt to embarrass those on the right and left. (Showtime)
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From Borat to Ali G, Sacha Baron Cohen is no stranger to taking on the roles and appearances of fictional characters in his efforts to prank famous people. The actor and comedian is at it again in his latest project, Who is America?.

Making its premiere this week on Showtime, Baron Cohen plays four new characters in the show, including a supposed Israeli anti-terrorism expert named Erran Morad.

Baron Cohen and his characters have fooled people from across the U.S., including gun rights advocates and well-known politicians. Sarah Palin, Roy Moore and Dick Cheney have come forward to share their stories of being duped by a disguised Baron Cohen.

After 18 years of these stunts, Baron Cohen is still pulling off his tricks.

While Baron Cohen's team has remained tight-lipped, Ben Schreckinger, a national political correspondent with Politico, has a good sense of how the actor does it. He managed to get access to an email chain between Baron Cohen and one of the actor's targets, former congressman Joe Walsh

He spoke to Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Sacha Baron Cohen during the 6th AACTA Awards in 2016 in Sydney, Australia. Baron Cohen plays four new characters in his new show Who is America? (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images for AFI)

Brent Bambury: It's been 18 years since Sacha Baron Cohen started punking people on camera. Were you surprised that he was still able to pull off these high profile stunts?

Ben Schreckinger: A little bit, yes, and I've been surprised at the number of high profile names that have come out, either in his show or just reports, that they'll be appearing in future episodes. It's pretty impressive.

BB: One of those high profile people is former Republican congressman Joe Walsh. You managed to get your hands on an email chain between Baron Cohen's team and Joe Walsh. How did Baron Cohen's team convince Joe Walsh to say something so outrageous to camera?

BS: The prelude to this lasted several months. They first reached out to Walsh last October. A woman saying that she was with a made up production company called First Liberty Pictures said they were working on a docu-style series about combating terrorism and they wanted Walsh to sit down with an Israeli anti-terror expert who had some unusual and little-known ideas about countering extremism.

They agreed to that interview. It was going to happen last December. It fell through for some reason. And so, Cohen's team made a second pass in February. This time, they said they were from an Israeli production company, that they wanted to present Walsh with an award, a 70th award for the 70 greatest allies of the nation of Israel for the 70th anniversary of the nation's founding. They told him that Bono, Tony Blair, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison were among the luminaries that had already sat down with them. Of course, that was totally made up. Walsh said 'great,' and he flew to D.C. in February and taped that interview.

Former Rep. Joe Walsh during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. He was one of the politicians Sacha Baron Cohen managed to prank on his new show Who is America? (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

BB: So they took two different prongs of attack and one of them worked. What lengths did they go to in order to give legitimacy to these fake organizations — First Liberty Pictures and the Israeli organization — that they claim to represent?

BS: In both cases, they had these fake email domains set up with the names of the production companies. In the case of this Israeli production company, Walsh's wife, who handles his scheduling, who was dealing with a lot of the logistics on all of this, did take a look at the website that they made up. It was in Hebrew, it looked to her at first blush at least like it could be legitimate. She asked Cohen's team for an English language version so they could figure out exactly who they were about to sit down with.

Cohen's team ignored that request and sort of ploughed ahead with scheduling this thing, and Walsh and his wife never circled back and said, 'Wait a minute, we need to learn more about this.' They just gave the interview and it wasn't actually until after they had sat down for this interview that they reached out to the Israeli consulate there and the consulate took a look at the website and said, 'This is absolutely fake.' But it was too little too late.

BB: Did they not know they had been duped after they sat for that ridiculous interview?

BS: I went back and forth with Walsh's wife a little bit about this. She said that there were some odd things, she didn't go into great depth, that gave them pause [and] that made them finally reach out to the consulate when they got home.  

BB: Walsh, to his credit, seems somewhat good-natured about the fact that he was duped and that is not the case for Roy Moore, Sarah Palin and some others who seemed to have been duped here. But it appears that he was open to flattery. What did they say to butter Walsh up?

BS: Well, in addition to telling him that he was among a group that included Bono, Tony Blair and Larry Ellison, they said that ... the actual sentence is quite something: "Grateful Israelis realize that they owe the very existence of their country to powerful figures like Mr. Walsh."

He was a one-term congressman in the House. There are over 400 members of the House. He is not among the most powerful figures in American politics and he never was, but they told him that he was and he must have liked that because he gave them that interview.

He is among esteemed company in that a number of very high profile figures including Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean, reportedly Ted Koppel, David Petraeus, have also been duped.- Ben Schreckinger, national political correspondent with Politico

BB: You were able to speak to Joe Walsh and his camp about what happened. Did you speak to anyone directly from the show about their strategy and how successful it's been?

BS: I didn't. They've been tight-lipped over the years. They were very tight-lipped leading up to the release of this premiere about what exactly the show would contain.

I did try emailing those dummy email addresses that were used in the Walsh correspondence. Both of them bounced back. The websites that had been set up for them no longer exist. I tried to visit them. After they served their purposes, they shut that part of the operation down.

BB: So Walsh, like Sarah Palin and others, has gone on TV now to defend himself. He actually says he was reading off of a teleprompter. He had no idea what was going on. What do you make of his efforts of damage control? How effective do you think they'll be?

BS: The good news for him is that he is a former congressman. He has a radio show. So, even if he does look foolish, there's just only going to be a limited attention span. If you are a current office holder, it could be a bigger problem for him. I think the best thing he has going for him right now is that he is among esteemed company in that a number of very high-profile figures including Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean, reportedly Ted Koppel, David Petraeus, have also been duped. 

Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin speaks at a rally in Montgomery, Ala. The former Republican vice presidential candidate says she fell victim to British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen during an interview for his upcoming Showtime series, Who is America? (Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

BB: But what do you think of the level of sincerity that he attached to that read, talking about letting four-year-olds set off mortars?

BS: He was certainly very empathic. He's certainly telegenic. He may want to pay more attention to what he's reading off the prompter going forward, and he probably will. But in terms of just raw performance, I have to give him high marks on that.

BB: Episode two of Who is America? drops tomorrow. Whose appearance are you waiting for at this point?

BS: There are reports that Dick Cheney appears and signs a waterboarding kit, so that's a little bit morbid, a little bit dark and probably will make for good television.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Ben Schreckinger, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.