In a teaser clip for Sacha Baron Cohen’s secretive new TV show, the British comedian gets Dick Cheney to autograph a “waterboarding kit.”
“That’s a first,” says Cheney, looking as ghoulish as Mr. Burns, slouched in a high-back grey chair against an ominous black background. “That’s the first time I’ve ever signed a waterboard.”
At just 22 seconds, and even without any context, the footage is surreal.
Here is the former U.S. vice president simpering and scrawling his name on an instrument of torture. And there, off camera, is the voice of Cohen’s latest alter ego, a character Donald Trump fans may wish was shackled and unlawfully interrogated.
Cohen tweeted out the mysterious clip on Sunday. This followed another cryptic post on July 4, one featuring Trump in high dudgeon.
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“This third rate character named Sacha Baron Cohen,” says Trump, scowling into the camera as he sits in the office of his eponymous tower that was his bully pulpit before he started issuing insults from the White House. “I only wish that he would have been punched in the face so many times right now he’d be in a hospital. It was disgraceful. He oughta be fired immediately. Sacha Baron Cohen, go to school, learn about being funny. You don’t know (bleep).”
That was Trump preaching violence in 2012, reacting to Cohen storming the red carpet at the Academy Awards and, while in character as The Dictator, spilling the “ashes” of Kim Jong-il over a startled Ryan Seacrest.
And if Trump was so furious with Cohen over that stunt, one can only imagine what the U.S. president might propose in the months ahead.
This weekend, as Vulture reported, posters went up in New York City for Cohen’s new Trump-trolling project. Set to debut Sunday on Showtime (streaming on CraveTV in Canada), Who is America? promises to ratchet up the disdain between Cohen and his longtime nemesis.
The two first met in 2003, when Cohen “tricked” Trump into doing an interview for what the real estate mogul thought was an educational segment on the BBC. Instead, a bewildered Trump came jowl-to-bling with Cohen’s Ali G, the hilariously clueless aspiring rapper who lampooned establishment figures on both sides of the Atlantic with his gangsta patois, sophomoric mix-ups and disarming stupidity.
Ali G wanted Trump to invest in a new business idea: an ice cream glove.
Trump looked pained, like he was stuck in an elevator with a toddler speaking in tongues. He bolted mid-interview and later told the New York Times: “I thought he was seriously retarded.”
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Over the next 15 years, he has called Cohen a “moron,” “a bad guy” and “a loser.” In turn, Cohen has called Trump “a racist,” “a knob” and suggested he has “a brain like a female chicken.” When it comes to name-calling, they are evenly matched.
Two years ago, Cohen caused a stir when his film, The Brothers Grimsby, ended with Trump contracting HIV. The studio, skittish due to Trump’s litigious nature, insisted on a disclaimer at the end making clear this was satire and that Mr. Trump does not have HIV. Cohen refused, arguing he didn’t know for sure. Then he apologized — to HIV, for giving the disease a bad name by linking it to Trump.
So even without knowing what exactly this new show is about, Cohen’s feelings toward Trump are as unambiguous as a posted speed limit. As he reflected to James Corden two years ago: “I was the first person to realize he’s a dick.”
What we do know, based on a graphic that preceded Sunday’s bizarre Cheney clip, is that Cohen has been “undercover” for the past year, “secretly filming” this new show. Here, there are three crucial points to consider: 1. This unnamed character somehow managed to “trick” Cheney to be an unwitting participant in parody, as Ali G did with so many politicians in the early aughts. 2. Cohen has turned his satirical bazooka on American politics after Trump was elected. 3. Few in Hollywood are as fearless and outrageous as Sacha Baron Cohen.
And this is why Trump fans should now be terrified.
Unlike most of the comics who now flog the president with reactionary material, Cohen has the capacity to be scathing in an original way due to his gonzo approach, which is to turn unaware insiders into comedic weapons.
As we learned from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, this administration is remarkably loose-lipped and lacking in both discipline and judgment. And if they gave full-access to Wolff — a journalist working on a non-fiction book — imagine what damning insights a satirist might glean, especially if he’s posing as, say, as a far-right zealot.
The buzz is building. In the coy and torqued guerrilla marketing, Showtime has adopted Cohen’s sense of irony and called this “the most dangerous show in the history of television.”
That’s undoubtedly a stretch. Then again, they know what’s coming.
Vinay Menon is the Star’s pop culture columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @vinaymenon