No one comes out of a Sacha Baron Cohen show looking good. Your mere presence on Showtime’s Who Is America? means you’ve already been duped by a guy in a costume. It’s an impossible game to win, but some guests make it out relatively unscathed by refusing to play along.
The people who look the worst on Who Is America? tend to look that way because they are the worst — egged on by Baron Cohen’s characters, they reveal their own deeply held, morally repugnant beliefs. Or, just as bad, they reveal that they’re willing to say morally repugnant things in order to be on television. Here is a ranking of all the guests in Who Is America? episode two, from those who leave with their reputations intact, to those who … do not.
5. Ted Koppel
If you’re getting duped by Sacha Baron Cohen, Ted Koppel’s reaction is pretty much your best-case scenario. He’s confronted with the Trump-supporting character Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. Ph.D., and is forced to debate Trump’s inauguration crowd sizes. At first, Koppel seriously attempts to refute Ruddick’s claims (“You happen to be wrong, but that’s okay”), making careful statements about the photos and attempting to be reasonable. Once Ruddick refuses to accept that a photo taken in broad daylight couldn’t have been taken at night, though, Koppel’s patience runs thin. “A solar eclipse is when the moon covers the sun,” he says with a hint of exasperation. When Ruddick presents a photo of Obama’s inauguration and says, “If we zoom in with 35 magnification … ” Koppel sighs deeply before he even hears the rest. “I mean no disrespect to you, but this is a waste of time,” he concludes.
4. Corinne Olympios
This is not a great outing for former Bachelor contestant Corinne Olympios. Believing she’s filming promotional materials for a charity run by Baron Cohen’s Italian character Gio Monaldo, Olympios reads aloud from a script asking people to adopt a child soldier. (Support for a child soldier, she explains, involves buying them more weapons.) She puts on a hazmat suit to film fake footage of herself in dangerous locations, and then, at Monaldo’s prompting, she also lies about her experiences traveling in Africa, going so far as to make up a story about an African warlord who recognized her from television. “I saved 6,000 people,” she says, adding that her presence “really helped with the whole massacre situation.”
So, yeah, Olympios looks pretty bad here. The worst of it is her painful thirst to be recognized, to do whatever she needs to do to be on TV. But in the segment itself, her palpable embarrassment mitigates the damage — instead of funny, the whole thing seems sad. The most damning part may actually be in her post-encounter media coverage, in which she describes being immensely uncomfortable throughout the taping. Olympios makes the experience sound terrifying, and then quickly pivots: “I’m so excited to be a part of his new project … not everyone gets to just be a cameo as themselves, so it’s fucking awesome.”
3. Dick Cheney
The first Who Is America? footage that Showtime revealed came in the form of a 20-second promo released earlier this month, in which former Vice President Dick Cheney is asked by an unseen Baron Cohen character to “sign my waterboard kit.” (It’s now for sale on eBay.) Unsurprisingly, Cheney’s segment turned out to be even worse than that quick clip suggested. “You started so many wars — Afghanistan, Iraq 1, Iraq 2 — which was your favorite war and why?” Baron Cohen, disguised as his Israeli terrorism expert Erran Morad, asks Cheney. “Oh, I think it was what we did in Desert Storm, I really do. I never thought of it as having a favorite war,” Cheney replies. “Of course,” Morad interrupts, “but you’ve got to enjoy it too!”
It gets even worse from there. “I have killed some terrorists. How does it feel being the king of terrorist killers? I mean, you killed 100,000 actual terrorists and about 700,000 potential terrorists,” Morad says. After a casual laugh, Cheney says, “Well, it was never personal. I wasn’t in the same position you are where it was kill or be killed.” Cheney is infamous for his pro-torture (or as he likes to call it, pro–“enhanced interrogation”) stance, so making him look even more evil is a tall order. But now we know he’ll chat about which of his wars is his “favorite” as if they’re ice cream flavors.
2. The Arizona mosque focus group
Disguised as Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, Baron Cohen heads to Kingman, Arizona, to present a focus group with a $385 million proposal: The Saudi government and the Clinton Foundation want to replace the local shopping center with the biggest mosque outside of the Middle East, which would become “a hub for tourism for Muslims from around the world.” This does not go over well with the focus group, to say the least, and the bigoted responses from several attendees are incredibly painful to watch: “We don’t want that shit here … As soon as you said ‘mosque,’ you ruined it!” a bearded man in the second row says at one point.
When Cain-N’Degeocello says, “I didn’t imply anyone here is racist, of course not,” another man responds with, “I am! I’m racist toward Muslims!” Later, a third man interjects, “This town’s lucky to have black people in it!” to which Cain-N’Degeocello replies, “Yeah, of course you’re lucky to have black people. They add a lot to society!” That’s when the bearded man chimes in again: “He’s saying there are black people in Kingman that aren’t welcome there either, but we tolerate them.” The focus group is the only segment in this episode to feature non-famous people, and witnessing the unfettered fear and racism of these everyday citizens — after Baron Cohen pushes just the right buttons to instigate them — is more sobering than it is entertaining.
1. Georgia state representative Jason Spencer
What else is there to say about Jason Spencer? While taking what he believes to be a self-defense training course with Baron Cohen’s Israeli character Erran Morad, the Georgia politician pretends to be a Chinese tourist (which he does by yelling gibberish); screams the N-word; rams his bare butt into Moran in an attempt to thwart a kidnapping (because he thinks it will threaten to make his kidnapper gay); warns people about “sand N-words”; and cuts off the prop penis of a terrorist mannequin and bites into it.
In his statement about the taping, Spencer seems to recall little of his homophobia, attempting only to account for his racism: “I was repeatedly asked to shout provocative language which I requested be removed.”
Of all the individuals featured in Who Is America? so far, Spencer seems the most likely to have damaged his career. Happily, the people he represents took steps to make that happen long before this segment even aired: After serving four terms, Spencer lost his primary re-election in May to a 24-year-old newcomer who’d never run for public office before. Congratulations to the people of Georgia’s 180th district for already ditching this guy.