Sacha Baron Cohen is Back: Can a Harmless Prankster Become a Weaponized Troll Against the Right Wing?


Is Sacha Baron Cohen a prankster or a troll? Depended on who’s being asked. Sarah Palin and Joe Walsh, two of the conservative personalities who came forward this week crying foul at being duped by Baron Cohen, probably characterize him as a troll. Baron Cohen himself and Showtime, the premium channel airing his new series “Who Is America?” have remained silent and coy in the wake of Walsh and Palin’s complaining; given the type of entertainment Baron Cohen makes, any whinging from thin-skinned wingnuts amounts to free advertising. (Just as surely, Walsh and Palin are savvy and hungry enough to know that this works both ways.)

Although Showtime describes “Who Is America?” as a showcase for “the diverse individuals, from the infamous to the unknown across the political and cultural spectrum, who populate our unique nation,” nobody really knows what we’ll be treated or subjected to with the show’s premiere, airing Sunday at 10 p.m.

The series was  produced in secret, with details kept under wraps save for a few sightings here and there as well as unconfirmed reports, such as a Daily Mail story alleging Baron Cohen paid O.J. Simpson $20,000 to appear in the project. Late on Thursday came the news of another controversial figure bamboozled by Baron Cohen: disgraced US Senate candidate Roy Moore.

All of these shenanigans are enough to inspire tune-in, but as added insurance Showtime is featuring Dick Cheney promoting his own appearance in one clip — featuring the former vice president signing a plastic gallon jug and a towel, presented to him as a “waterboard kit.”

“That’s a first,” says Cheney, grinning at someone off screen. “That’s the first time I’ve ever signed a waterboard.”

Cheney, you’ve been punk’d. Or is it trolled? Does it make a difference? Maybe it does.

Though it’s been many years since Baron Cohen’s flesh-and-blood caricatures were popular Halloween costumes, I have little doubt that the fictional personalities he’s cooking up for his new show will be perfectly tailored to our times. Yes, that includes whatever he was playing at when he hoodwinked Palin — which honestly, has to be about as easy as blinking.

How he curated his targets for “Who Is America?” is the real question, because there’s a vast difference in the sort of marks Baron Cohen could wring laughs out of in the mid-Aughts versus today.

In 2003, when Baron Cohen achieved stardom in the U.S. based on the popularity of “Da Ali G Show,” prank shows were in vogue. MTV was already several seasons into “Jackass” and would make a bigger star out of Ashton Kutcher with the introduction of “Punk’d.” Syfy also capitalized on the trend with “Scare Tactics.” In those days, being punk’d on TV wasn’t a bad thing because eventually everyone was let in on the joke. It was benevolent entertainment.

Baron Cohen took TV pranking to premium level by bringing the cameras into the open and engaging in elaborate subterfuge to lure some of the most famous, powerful people in the world into a room to talk. The pre-interview prep involved creating fake websites and registering shell companies, among other things, in order to pass a basic background check.

Because Baron Cohen and his producers knew how to approximate legitimacy in their set-up, he was able to get his jaw-droppingly ignorant rapper Ali G, his stunningly clueless gay Austrian fashion personality Bruno or Borat, the bumbling, backwards Kazakh journalist, in the room with the likes of  ABC’s Sam Donaldson, Bush administration EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, or even former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

With the exception of Donald Trump, who reportedly has never gotten over being fooled by Baron Cohen, nearly all of them sat through these interviews, or at least enough of them to edit together into segments worthy of spit-takes. Baron Cohen even persuaded a few to rap. Boutros-Ghali even very nicely explained to Ali G why Disneyland would never be a member of the U.N.

“The best targets — the legitimate targets — are successful, powerful white men,” Baron Cohen explained in a 2004 New York Times interview. Thus, the equal hilarity and horror of Cheney’s grin at autographing what he believes to be an instrument of torture.

But some of his funniest sketches pranked normal people, including a very flummoxed and frustrated gentleman (named Dr. George Washington, no less) who couldn’t get Ali G to understand the difference between a veteran and a veterinarian. Baron Cohen treated him more or less the same as he treated the dignitaries that he fooled. Only in that case, the point was not to expose the man’s arrogance but to highlight his character’s boundless stupidity and the veteran/veterinarian’s forbearance.

Trolling existed long before then — some who agree with Palin might call that sketch an example of it — although the concept would not enter the mainstream until around 2012. By then it had taken on new meaning. Originally the practice was limited to online forums and message boards, an in-joke among the super-nerdy guardians of newsgroups in the mid-’90s. It also was an anonymous practice, committed by pranksters fishing for lulz among the stodgy.

In an paper authored in by research scientist Judith Donath for the MIT Media Lab, Donath writes, “Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players.” Donath continues:

The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group's common interests and concerns; the newsgroup members, if they are cognizant of trolls and other identity deceptions, attempt to both distinguish real from trolling postings and, upon judging a poster to be a troll, make the offending poster leave the group. Their success at the former depends on how well they -- and the troll -- understand identity cues; their success at the latter depends on whether the troll's enjoyment is sufficiently diminished or outweighed by the costs imposed by the group.

Sounds a lot like a Baron Cohen project, doesn’t it?

“Da Ali G Show” ran on HBO for a scant 12 episodes, and between its cancellation in 2004 and now Baron Cohen has built successful films around Borat and Bruno in addition appearing in a number of other movies and TV series.

Over that same 14 years our affection for prank-based entertainment has largely faded as our susceptibility to trolling ballooned. Conservatives transformed what was once an irksome practice of angry nerds seeking a rise out of the politically correct into a weapon to used against political opponents.

It also evolved from something people do in the shadows into a force to be marshaled by famous imps. James O’Keefe, Milo Yiannopoulos and Roseanne Barr have made (and in Barr’s case, unmade) careers based on trolling, siphoning rage from the depths of the Internet and directing it forcefully towards feminists, liberals, minority groups, elected officials and yes, even democracy itself.

And in doing so, these and other right-wing trolls have sullied the concept of pranking. I don’t think it’s an accident that the most popular hidden-camera series on cable is titled “Impractical Jokers”; a practical joke is still an innocent enterprise that eventually brings everyone in on the laughs.

Pranks? These days? Not so much. While the word “prank” hasn’t been transformed into a pejorative in the way terms such as “feminism,” “liberal,” “political correctness” and "truth" have, the term has lost a share of its harmlessness because of its association with trolling, an action now tainted by vindictiveness, as opposed to comedy. To use O’Keefe as an example, any time a report characterizes him as a prankster, the merriment of true pranking is that much more diminished.

Trolling, on the other hand, has been co-opted in the service of resistance, mostly by the people who can get away with it unscathed: successful, powerful white men. A pair of Russian comedians famously owned UN Ambassador Nikki Haley by recording a conversation with her in which she makes a very serious statement about the difficulties being faced by Binomo, a non-existent country.

More recently John Melendez, known to Howard Stern fans as Stuttering John, completed prank calls to Jared Kushner and Air Force One. We would have been amazed that he got Trump on the line if not the fact that his stunt, and the Haley gag, were made to confirm what we already know: morons are in control of the country. This was their sole purpose, in a nutshell, and what laughs we gleaned from them weren’t all that comforting.

John Oliver, on the other hand, proves the usefulness of trolling. He and the staff of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” have purchased airtime on Fox News Channel so that a character known as the Catheter Cowboy can educate Trump on a variety subjects, including the First Amendment, the fallacy of the term “clean coal” and how to pronounce “Tiffany.”

Oliver also released a children’s book called “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo” (written by “Last Week Tonight” writer Jill Twiss) specifically to troll Vice President Mike Pence, known to harbor anti-LGBTQ views.

In the book, Pence’s pet bunny Marlon falls in love with another male bunny and they get married. The book became a bestseller, and all of its profits were donated to The Trevor Project and AIDS United.

Maybe this is what we’ll get with “Who Is America?” — an opportunity for Baron Cohen to reassert himself in this space, employing old tactics with a new purpose. And I’m guessing he knows the difference between trolling and pranking and may use a bit of both, the former on the “legitimate targets” and some of those “very fine people” we’re supposed to bear with civility and the latter to show how patient the best of us can be even in the face of lunacy.

At the heart of Palin’s accusation is the detail that the performer disguised himself as a disabled veteran, “fake wheelchair and all.”

She says she was made to believe she was participating in a “‘legit opportunity’ to honor American Vets and contribute to a ‘legit Showtime historical documentary.’”

In 2016, when Palin participated in a genuinely “legit opportunity” to honor American veterans, she left a lot of them legitimately angered by politicizing their struggles with PTSD, blaming the condition for her son Track’s arrest for assaulting his girlfriend and carrying a firearm while intoxicated. Some would call that thoughtless on Palin’s part, others opportunistic.

Seems Baron Cohen recognized it as a challenge to be answered in the form of a query: “Who Is America”? Is it people like her, or the men and women contending with the damage people like her create? Does it belong to the welcoming and patient, or the arrogant and gullible? And does it take some surgical trolling to reveal the difference between the two? I guess on Sunday we’ll find out.

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