The mere mention of the name Sacha Baron Cohen will immediately bring a smirk to most people’s faces.
After all, the British comedian and actor is known for playing incredible pranks on a variety of unsuspecting people all across the globe.
Famous individuals who have fallen victim to Cohen’s gags include everyone from politicians such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan to well-respected national journalists such as former ABC news anchor Sam Donaldson and the late “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney.
No one is immune to his stunts.
Whether viewers are watching one of his mock documentaries such as the 2006 film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” or a segment from his former HBO television series, “Da Ali G Show,” there is no doubt about it, Cohen is the king of the con.
In fact, over the years, Cohen has managed to make entire towns look foolish.
A scene in the movie, “Borat,” where Cohen is invited to a rodeo in Salem, Va., back in 2005 to sing the national anthem, perfectly illustrates the point.
Before launching into the national anthem, Borat — speaking as a representative of Kazakhstan in broken English — announced to the crowd, “We support your war of terror!”
The crowd responded in thunderous applause.
But Borat then declared that he wished, “George W. Bush will drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq!”
Suddenly, the cheers and applause began to quickly taper away.
As the crowd began looking around at one another in complete confusion, Borat began singing, “O Kazakhstan,” a fictional national anthem sung to the tune of the U.S. national anthem with lyrics that claimed “all other countries are run by little girls.”
Needless to say, that was the final straw for the Salem audience.
By the time Borat was finished singing, his little stunt almost caused a riot that night at the rodeo.
“I’ve been snookered before,” the rodeo’s producer, Bobby Rowe, reportedly said, “but not to that degree.”
The truth is, Cohen is just that good.
He is a master put-on artist who thrives on the element of surprise and is known for injecting himself into real-life situations for his films and television segments, no matter how absurd or off the wall.
Cohen is also a political satirist who, while playing roles such as an ill-informed reporter, preys on the unsuspecting and uses those precious opportunities to test people’s patience and good humor with absurd, often highly offensive questions.
The result is often a hilarious masterpiece.
But the key to Cohen’s success is for him to carry out the hoax without anyone being the wiser.
No one must recognize him. No one can realize it is Cohen in disguise.
And Cohen works extremely hard to set the scene, pull off the prank and quickly cover his tracks.
He takes on a full-body immersion of the characters he’s playing, so that he can travel incognito throughout the world from New York City to Augusta, Ga.
That’s right, folks.
Just last week, Cohen, the award-winning British actor, comedian, screenwriter, producer and star of such films like “Borat,” “Brüno,” “Madagascar,” “The Dictator” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” came to Augusta for a live, on-air debate with WGAC Radio Talk Show Host Austin Rhodes.
However, Rhodes and the entire WGAC staff had no idea Cohen was even in the studio.
It was the perfect prank pulled off by Cohen.
“I had no clue,” Rhodes said, laughing. “When I found out, all I could think of was, ‘Holy crap.’ I mean, I’m a big fan of ‘Borat’ and I enjoy his other movies and shows, too. So when I learned I had sat in this studio with Sacha Baron Cohen for 90 minutes, I was like, ‘How in the world did I not see it?’”
But, a few weeks prior to the scheduled interview, Rhodes had been approached by a reputable publicist to participate in a documentary involving a “renowned author and lecturer” named Dr. Nira Cain, who was supposedly a left-wing college professor from Portland, Ore.
When Cohen arrived in Augusta, he was wearing a wig with a professionally done makeup job to pull off his role as Dr. Nira Cain, Rhodes said.
Right off the bat, Rhodes joked that Cain looked as if he was “straight out of central casting.”
“Are you Fred Armisen in disguise?” Rhodes jokingly said, referring to the co-creator and co-star of the comedy series, “Portlandia.”
Cohen, in his role as Cain, didn’t really respond.
“He acted like he didn’t even know who Fred Armisen was,” Rhodes said, chuckling. “In fact, he stared at me like I had hit him in the head with a baseball bat. I couldn’t tell whether I had insulted him or whether he just didn’t know who Fred Armisen was, because that’s how much of a left-wing hippie he was pretending to be.”
Looking back at the interview, Rhodes is still in complete disbelief that Cohen was able to fool him so well.
“I mean, I pride myself on being savvy about Hollywood and stuff, and I was like, ‘How in the world did this guy sit three feet away from me and I not pick up on it,’ especially after I heard his voice again after the interview,” Rhodes said. “I was like, ‘Holy cow. That’s him. That is really him.’”
And quite an interview it was for the listeners of The Austin Rhodes Show.
First, it is important to set the scene.
Prior to the interview, neither Rhodes or his producer, Bill Botham, even knew who was arriving to participate in the documentary.
“The publicist didn’t want to give us a name,” Rhodes said. “At first, the reason was that they didn’t want us to prejudge him by the content of his work. But then they said there were actually several liberals that were traveling around the country with him and they didn’t know which one was going to be available on that day to come visit with us.
So we had no idea what the name was until he literally walked in the door.”
Rhodes was quickly handed a list of quotes that were supposedly from some books that Cain had written.
“I instantly Googled him while he was getting mic’d up,” Rhodes said. “They had a very thin website set up that if you just looked at it quickly, it looked legitimate. I looked at it strongly after the interview and you could tell it was put together kind of last-minute, but there were even books with links to them on Amazon that you could buy, but when you hit the button it always said, ‘File not found.’”
Rhodes didn’t get to meet Cain until they were live, on the air.
“When he walked in the studio, I was literally on the air, so I was meeting him for the first time at that moment,” Rhodes said. “And it was an amazing amount of makeup that was done very well because I am extremely familiar with Sacha Baron Cohen’s work and I have seen ‘Borat’ thousands of times and here I was sitting three feet away from him and the makeup was so good that I had no idea.”
When fans of Cohen hear the interview, many people have asked Rhodes how he didn’t recognize Cohen’s distinct voice.
“Sure. Had I really listened to his voice, specifically listening for the Sacha Baron Cohen’s accent, I would have known it immediately,” Rhodes said. “But that just wasn’t anywhere in my realm of possibility to even think about.”
As the interview began, it seemed normal enough, Rhodes said.
Cohen, posing as Cain, explained to the audience that he believed since the 2016 presidential election that “there has been a divide in the United States,” and he didn’t think the country was “united anymore.”
Cain went on to discuss his appreciation for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and his desire to reconnect middle America with the Democratic Party.
But as the interview continued, Cain began to make some pretty bizarre and offensive comments.
During a discussion of terrorism and police brutality, Cain said gang members in this country shouldn’t be treated “like animals.”
“You could easily argue, they are not the only terrorist organization,” Cain said. “Sadly my brother joined a terrorist organization: the U.S. Army.”
Stunned by the comment, Austin asked, “How in the world do you classify the United States Army as a terrorist organization?”
Cain also surprised Rhodes by stating that Jesus Christ was an “important cultural icon” similar to musician Bob Marley and former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who was a close advisor of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Those were definitely some controversial statements, but many longtime fans of Cohen would say the character of Cain really started to show his true colors when he told Rhodes that the United States should create a “Burka Day” to be more “welcoming to Muslims.”
“If, for example, there was a national Burka Day where everybody, men and women, wore burkas,” Cain said. “I suffer from critiques and humiliations as a result of my large breasts. I’ve worn a burka before and I feel suddenly free. There is a freeing nature to that… That would be a sign to Muslims that we are welcoming.”
Surprisingly, Rhodes let the “large breasts” comment completely slide by and did not remark on it during the interview.
“I didn’t bite on that,” Rhodes joked. “That was a missed opportunity for both us. I should have encouraged him to show me.”
During his final segment with Rhodes, Cain cranked it up a notch and touched on several controversial issues such as Native Americans in this country, the Confederate flag and the history of slavery in the South.
Cain told Rhodes that the English pilgrims to this country committed “genocide against the indigenous people.”
Cain also insisted on describing Native Americans as “First People.”
“Native American obviously is very triggering and an offensive term,” Cain said.
Rhodes said, since he was part “Indian,” that he was proud to call himself Native American.
“You are from India?” Cain asked. “Where in India are you from? Calcutta?”
Rhodes once against said he was “Native American.”
“Native American is offensive,” Cain said. “Say ‘First People.’”
“Native America is offensive?” Rhodes asked.
“Yes,” Cain replied.
“Well, as someone who has got that blood in me, I disagree with that,” Rhodes said. “But that’s fine.”
However, Cain wasn’t going to let that go.
“Well, you are wrong,” Cain said to Rhodes. “You are incorrect.”
“Well, no. It’s actually my perspective,” Rhodes replied.
But Cain quickly shot back, “Your perspective is incorrect.”
Now, knowing that Cain was actually Cohen makes this exchange pretty humorous because Cain continued to insist that Rhodes use the term “First People.”
Rhodes responded with a joke, that some might find offensive.
“I believe the casino I was standing in a few months ago had Native American nomenclature all over the place and the term Native American was used by them,” Rhodes said. “And by the way, when I walked up to one and said, ‘Hi, how are you? Hi, how are you? Hi, how are you?’ They laughed. So, you know.”
While Rhodes chuckled at his own joke on air, Cain did not.
“I don’t even understand,” Cain said. “Was that humor?”
Rhodes repeated once again, “Hi, how are you? Hi, how are you? Hi, how are you?”
Cain still did not laugh.
After several minutes, Cain returned to the subject of Muslims in America.
“The overwhelming majority of Muslims here are completely peaceful,” Cain said. “It is a peace-loving religion.”
Rhodes seemed surprised, “Are you talking about Muslims?”
Cain said he was indeed.
“That is just not true,” Rhodes said.
“That is true,” Cain retorted. “What percentage of gun deaths in the United States are perpetrated by Muslims? It is .02 percent.”
Rhodes said that percentage was probably that low because Muslims make up only 1 percent of the country’s population.
“The majority of gun deaths in this country are done by white supremacists,” Cain said.
Suddenly, Rhodes wasn’t going to let that comment go unchecked.
“Pardon me?” Rhodes said.
“White supremacists kill far more people than Muslim terrorists,” Cain said. “And the problem is, in a state like Georgia, you have the Confederate flag…”
Rhodes again interrupted Cain to ask, “Where is the Confederate flag?”
“Stone Mountain,” Cain quickly replied.
“Well, I mean, that is a Confederate war memorial and it is historic and it is a spot that folks go to learn about the Civil War,” Rhodes said. “Why wouldn’t there be a flag like that there?”
Once again, Cain decided to crank it up a notch.
“Because you don’t go to Auschwitz and see a swastika up,” Cain said.
But Rhodes argued that Stone Mountain was no Auschwitz.
“You would go to the German Museum of Political History or whatever its equivalent would be and there would be Nazi symbols there,” Rhodes said.
There is a big difference between Nazi symbols in a German museum and the Confederate flag on Stone Mountain, Cain insisted.
“But it would not be flying high,” he said of a swastika flag in Germany. “I went to Stone Mountain and there was a big Confederate flag. There are ways to improve on that. You should not be flying the Confederate flag in Georgia.”
Instead, Cain suggested that the South amend the Confederate flag.
“There are ways to celebrate Southern pride,” Cain said. “I mean, why not have, I mean this will sound ludicrous, but why not have a pair of Daisy Dukes flying on a pole?”
Once again, Cohen was showing his true self a little bit in his character of Cain.
“Have you been to Stone Mountain?” Rhodes jokingly asked. “There are plenty of Daisy Dukes flying around.”
Cain wanted to push the idea of the Daisy Dukes a bit further.
“Why not just have a pair of Daisy Dukes flying as seen on the show, ‘The Dukes of Hazzard,’ which I believe is the southern version of ‘Roots,’” Cain said.
Rhodes couldn’t help but burst out into laughter with that comment.
“Why is that amusing?” Cain asked, adding that the South needed to come up with a flag that’s not offensive.
“I just don’t think that flag is offensive in the way that you believe that it is,” Rhodes said, referring to the Confederate flag. “Not all people of color are that offended by it.”
Cain said he found that very hard to believe.
“The vast majority of people of color are completely offended by the Confederate flag,” he said. “That is a fact.”
Near the end of their 90-minute discussion, Rhodes attempted to explain his feelings about the Confederate flag.
“I will defend the Confederate flag in that it is a symbol of southern heritage and the refusal of the southern people to take orders from outsiders who basically wanted to have their cake and eat it to,” Rhodes said, referring to the North.
As a result of their discussion, Cain offered another solution.
“I know this is maybe a little subtle but I know the people of Georgia will appreciate the subtext here,” Cain said.
“Why not amend or replace the Confederate flag with an image of Paula Deen on a spit with an apple in her mouth being roasted like a pig. Why not? And underneath her are the words, ‘Never Again.’”
Rhodes just laughed and defended the region’s love of southern cooking.
But Cain wasn’t going to give up.
“Just do something that is life-affirming,” Cain said. “Why not have a flag that is full of the image of the most life-affirming thing in the world: the vagina? That’s where we all came from.”
Rhodes once again burst into laughter.
“I want to see you fly that flag and watch the parade that forms right behind you,” Rhodes said, chuckling.
“Well, my wife would provide the image,” Cain responded.
And with that, the “vagina” flag suggestion was the last comment that Cohen, playing the character of Cain, said to Rhodes, both on and off the air.
“He was complaining the entire time that his stomach hurt,” Rhodes said after the interview was over. “And he kept leaving to run to the bathroom during the commercial breaks. He would run out the door and, looking at security footage later on, we could see that he was running into the bathroom with a makeup guy and a makeup case and they were probably touching him up.”
Just after the 6 p.m. commercial break, Cain ran out the door.
“He said, ‘Oh, I feel awful,’ and he runs out and he doesn’t come back,” Rhodes said. “That is when the producer guy stood at the door and said, ‘He has really taken ill. He has gone into the van and he is lying down. And so we are going to go ahead and call it a day. Thank you very much.’ And I said, ‘OK. Well, I’m sorry. I hope he feels better.’”
While both Rhodes and Botham thought the abrupt departure was odd, they didn’t really dwell on it.
However, Rhodes had noticed some aspects of the interview that were unusual.
“Toward the end of the interview, I kind of got the idea that something wasn’t on the up and up. And I mentioned it to Bill. I said, ‘Check these cameras out.’ These were like top-end, sophisticated cameras. They were way more sophisticated than any of our television stations would have,” Rhodes said. “Usually, these days, when they come to do an interview like this, it is one camera. If it is a really sophisticated shoot there will be two. This shoot had three cameras, plus two sound people, plus more technical people that I did not see that were outside. So they brought a big crew with them.”
The crew also kept both Rhodes and Botham occupied during the commercial breaks.
“They would fidget with my mic or make an adjustment that they needed me in the studio for, so I couldn’t walk around and see the rest of what was going on outside,” Rhodes said. “They also didn’t want me to have any conversation with Cohen at all, so he would run to the bathroom during every commercial break.”
If it hadn’t been for a savvy local listener, Rhodes said he may not have even discovered that Cohen had paid him a visit.
“Actually, a member of our audience was invited to participate in the ‘Borat’ movie, secretly,” Rhodes said. “In the movie, when Borat was having dinner with those fundamentalist Christians, this guy— who’s a listener — was there as a guest at the dinner. This guy was at that party and he was from Augusta.”
After the show, the listener contacted Rhodes and told him that he heard them mention the name Todd Schulman.
“He sent me a note and said, ‘I heard you mention the name Todd Schulman, the producer that was working with him. I know that name. You need to look him up,’” Rhodes said. “And when we looked him up, boom, there it was. Todd was a major league collaborator with Sacha Baron Cohen.”
Rhodes said he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“And when I showed Bill Botham the picture, he immediately said, ‘That’s the guy. That’s the guy who spent the entire interview in the studio with me,’” Rhodes said. “Todd was in the studio with him while Sacha Baron Cohen was in the studio with me.”
To this day, Rhodes says he is still in shock over the entire encounter with Cohen.
“I think it’s funny that the biggest brush that Augusta has had so far with real Hollywood was something that was kept completely under wraps,” Rhodes said. “This has the potential of being the biggest project that has ever been done here in the Augusta area. I can’t think of one bigger. Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t make little movies. So this is a huge deal.”
The one big question that still remains is why Cohen selected Augusta and The Austin Rhodes Show to potentially be featured in a new movie.
“That is a good question,” Rhodes said, adding that all of the possible local connections with people who have worked with Cohen or the producer in the past have not panned out. “I don’t know why he picked me. Who knows?”
But Rhodes is thrilled that he might have the opportunity to be featured on the big screen.
However, when the footage of the interview is in the hands of Cohen, Rhodes admits that he doesn’t really know what to expect.
“You are always nervous because you have no earthly idea how somebody is going to edit you,” Rhodes said. “And as Bill Botham said, ‘Hollywood does not have a track record of coming to the South and making us look good.’ So that’s a little bit worrisome.
Also, they were rolling on us the entire time, even when we weren’t on the air. But I don’t believe I said anything out of the ordinary. But again, who knows?”
The truth is, Cohen is in complete control of the content, Rhodes said.
“We signed releases, but they came in right while we were going on the air during a commercial break while we were getting mic’d up, and we signed them without even looking at them,” Rhodes said, chuckling. “So I don’t expect any money out of it. I just hope they don’t make us look too bad with the edit. God only knows.”