The Current

Sacha Baron Cohen's controversial new show has critics reevaluating comedy in Trump era

Baron Cohen uses his usual deceptive tactics in Who is America?, which critics warn may fuel distrust in a time of fake news and growing tensions.

Ethics of new show Who is America? are up for debate

A still from Who Is America?, Sacha Baron Cohen's new Showtime series, where the actor puts on various prosthetics and accents in an attempt to embarrass those on the political right and left. (Showtime)

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At first glance, Sacha Baron Cohen's newest political parody may seem a perfect fit for the Trump era — but critics are split over its ethics.

In the new Showtime series Who is America, Baron Cohen follows his traditional script. He uses a fictional persona to coerce people into saying and doing unbelievable things — this time pointing his camera at U.S. politicians. 

In a time of fake news and growing political tensions, The Current asks a panel of experts whether Sacha Baron Cohen's deceptive tactics tap into the issues he aims to criticize — or amplifies them:

  • Aja Romano, culture reporter for Vox.
  • Kliph Nestoroff, comedy historian.
  • Amanda Barker, comedic actor, writer, and producer.

​​Aja, you've written a piece that's pretty critical of this reboot. What concerns you about the show?

Aja Romano: We already live in this age where prank culture is sort of a given in our daily lives.

We have these gimmicks that allow shocking reveals and "gotcha" moments playing out on YouTube every single of the day. We're used to it by now. 

This show isn't so much of a value-add as an empty provocation. And the ramifications in reality for the aftermath of all of these conservatives and fringe extremists getting duped might be unpleasant for the rest of us.

The TV journalist Ted Koppel says he was targetted by Baron Cohen, but caught onto his act. He says now is not the time for people to be "posing as documentarians." What do you think?

Amanda Barker: I think Ted Koppel is an excellent example because really, what the show is doing is showing who can be bought and who can't. Ted Koppel can't be bought. And [Cohen] gives him equal stage time.

After a decade hiatus, Sacha Baron Cohen returns with Who is America? (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

In an era of fake news, should comedians be blurring the line between real journalism and fake journalism?

Kliph Nestoroff: Comedy exists in continuity. We've already had years of The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee — who are parodies of news shows.

That's what satire is. It's an extension of reality and an exaggeration of reality. And so far in this discussion I haven't even heard the word "comedy" mentioned once. The purpose of comedy is to make people laugh ... and I think the show's been very effective in that manner.

People are worried this will tarnish the perception of journalism.

KN: I mean it's obviously a comedy show. It's primetime on Showtime. And I think that most intelligent people can discern the difference. The people who are not paying attention, who only read the headline in a tweet, maybe can't discern the difference. And I mean, whose fault is that? That's almost a symptom of the culture.

AR: [But] for people who are going to be grandstanding against "journalism" … they're going to say "he went undercover, he did research and he came to this political point of view." If they think that looks like journalism I'm not really sure I'm in a position to argue.

Baron Cohen himself famous with characters like Ali G., and Borat, pictured above. (Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

Is Sacha Baron Cohen actually doing a better job revealing truth about politicians than political journalists?

AR: You're getting a very eye-opening glimpse of just ignorance at work in front of you. But ... I think we're missing a lot of context. We don't really get to see his thought process play out. You know, we just see the effect of it.

KN: All comedy is fake … and any show, including this radio show we're doing right now, has to have parameters set out in advance. All context generally is removed from public view when you're doing any sort of public performance.

Do you feel at all sympathetic to the victims of Baron Cohen's pranks?

AB: I feel sympathy for us as a culture and I think that's really the who the joke is on. I mean the show was called "Who is America?" Are we skewering Jason Spencer, or are we skewering the people that elected him?

Some people have seen Sasha Baron Cohen deceptive tactics as unethical. What do you think?

KN: Ultimately I don't feel that it's more unethical than what is happening in front of our eyes in American politics with the most corrupt people imaginable and the most immoral people currently governing.

AR: I think again it goes back to this question of what is journalism and how clear are the lines being drawn … It looks like journalism, and for whatever level of trust most of us still have in journalism, we like to think that transaction and exchange is being done honestly and in good faith.

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.

This Q&A was edited for length and clarity. This segment was produced by The Current's Kristian Jebsen and Alison Masemann.