Judd Apatow: How has it been returning to television with Who Is America?

Sacha Baron Cohen: Bizarre, because this is the first time I’ve shot something simultaneous to releasing it. I’d be filming, and then I decided to re-edit while I was filming. I looked at the show at three o’clock in the morning the day before I left Morocco, which is where we’d been filming, and realized I got it all wrong. So I started reordering and reorganizing everything.

J.A.: I bet Showtime loved that. They’re like, “We already did closed captioning!”

S.B.C.: Something I’ve noticed with all corporations is there’s a point where something is just “good enough.” They’ve done the budget, they’ve worked out roughly what it’s going to do for them, and the difference from its being good and very good, or very good and excellent, isn’t really worth the hassle. They just go, “O.K., this movie’s going to make $60 million. If it’s 10 percent better, it’s going to make $62 million.”

J.A.: They did it on Superbad. We knew the movie was good, but it needed more support from the studio, so we called Amy Pascal at Sony, and we said, “You have to throw a lot more money at this. We’ll put out the first five minutes of the movie on the Internet, just so people can get the sense of it.” And she did that.

S.B.C.: Our experience was the opposite in that they wanted to launch a traditional long marketing campaign. And I said no. “I want no marketing campaign. I don’t want you to announce the show.” Every two months, Showtime would say, “So, we’re going to announce it now, right?” And I said, “No, no, no. We’re going to drop the show.”

J.A.: Like a Beyoncé album?

S.B.C.: Yeah, but what I didn’t tell them was that I didn’t mind whether the show was a success or not. My aim was that the show was as good as it could be. And I knew that if we did a normal publicity campaign, [the real] people [in the film] like Roy Moore and Joe Arpaio would sue or try and get an injunction. Or they would start getting calls from the White House.

J.A.: They would have too much time to find ways to fuck with the show.

S.B.C.: They could get a court order or start suing and could basically shut it down. And part of the appeal for the show was we were getting powerful people. And once they start suing, the networks start thinking, Wait a minute, is this worth it? Do we really need Bernie Sanders?

“What I didn’t tell [the studio] was that I didn’t mind whether the show was a success or not.”

But the network was actually great, because they kept it secret, which is quite incredible, considering who we got. And secondly, they were tough when there were objections. We shopped this show around a bit, and one of the conditions for a channel buying it was that I could speak to the head of the channel and ask them, “If you get a phone call from Washington saying we want this thing pulled, are you going to say yes or no?” And David Nevins at Showtime got on the phone and said, “I’ll stand by you.”

J.A.: And did that call from Washington eventually come?

S.B.C.: Yes. We’re in D.C., our first interview is with Bernie Sanders, and I’m doing this character, Billy Wayne, who’s a conspiracy theorist. It’s my first time as this character, so I’m not deep in character; the accent’s not quite there. We sit down, and it’s chaotic. We know we’ve only got an hour with Bernie Sanders. He’s late. And he gets pissed off within five minutes, when he realized that he was with this idiot. He didn’t think it was part of a prank; he just thought, This is not the show that you told me that we’re going to make.

So, with Bernie Sanders, he comes out of it, and his team … immediately call up CBS, who owns Showtime, and they go, “What the hell is this? We’re going to the press with this. Who was this?” And the good thing was CBS didn’t know what it was. So, they asked Showtime. They go, “Do you know anything about this show?” Showtime said, “Yeah, we’re making it; it’s legitimate.” Sanders’s people said, “We don’t know. These could be terrorists, and if you don’t pull the interview we’re going to go to Congress and get a congressional hearing on this terrorist group that’s going around D.C.”

J.A.: What was your philosophy on what you wanted to accomplish by goofing on the Ted Koppels of the world?

S.B.C.: We were thinking in the writers’ room, “What’s the modern Ali G?” Like, who’s the modern stupid interviewer? And we thought, Actually, those guys are the conspiracy theorists. Because of the Internet, they have as much status now as respected journalists. It’s absurd that Ted Koppel, one of the most respected journalists in America, should sit with one of the worst journalists. This character is basically the worst possible journalist in America. But because of the Internet, he can possibly be on Breitbart.

“The rise of Ali G was so fast because he wasn’t a traditional white English character,” says Baron Cohen, pictured here in costume.

J.A.: It’s not shocking that [that] guy would have a show—and a show that people would want to be seen on, too.

S.B.C.: Well, Ted Koppel didn’t. We had the simple philosophy that this character, the interviewer, is a guy who believes every lie that Trump has said. So, Trump says he had the biggest inauguration crowd ever? This guy’s going to prove it. And he’s got a bunch of fake evidence, and it’s pretty bad faked evidence. And Ted Koppel had enough integrity to say, “You’re an idiot; you’re spreading lies. I’m not going to sit for this anymore. I’m leaving.”

There are different styles of comedy that we were looking at, and I think some of the reviewers missed that. They said, “Oh, this one failed with Ted Koppel because he didn’t get his ass out and scream, ‘America!,’ like another guy on the show.”

“We were thinking in the writers’ room, ‘What’s the modern Ali G?’ Like, who’s the modern stupid interviewer?”

J.A.: And then you have the rich character who’s like Trump.

S.B.C.: Gio Monaldo. Guys like Trump have their Roger Stones, the facilitators who let evil stuff happen. Weinstein had that as well. They go, “If Harvey Weinstein wants to rape somebody, how can I get the girl that he wants, because it’s going to be good for my career.” The idea was to have a look at what evil things people will do out of greed. And it was all done by hidden camera.

We had one interview, in Las Vegas, where we made Gio worse than Weinstein. We went, “Let’s say this guy has sex with children, and we’re going to get a concierge, one of those guys that help rich people in Vegas, and see how long it will take him to walk out of the room once he realizes that the rich guy in front of him has had sex with an eight-year-old boy. How many seconds is it going to take to get up and go, ‘I’m out of here and I’m calling the police’?”

The shocking thing we found out was that this concierge that we spoke to not only didn’t leave the room; he helped the rich guy solve his problem. My character said, “There’s this eight-year-old boy, he’s victimizing me; he’s threatening me. He sent me these Snapchat messages that he wants tickets to the Criss Angel concert, the bastard!” The concierge goes, “We can get the Criss Angel tickets, not a problem.” Then I go, “Can’t we get rid of the boy? Can we murder the kid?” And he goes, “Unfortunately, we can’t do that in America.”

By the end, he’s helping me fix the problem of the boy. And I go, “Thank you for helping fix the problem. I want to have fun tonight. Can you get me someone for me to play around with tonight?” And he goes, “All right. How old?” I go, “Under Bar Mitzvah, but above eight.” And he’s like, “O.K., I know somebody who can get you something for tonight.”

J.A.: Wow, and that didn’t air.

S.B.C.: It didn’t air. And it’s incredible. It’s journalism rather than comedy. We ended up turning over the footage to the F.B.I.

“I go, ‘Can you get me someone for me to play around with tonight?’ And he goes, ‘All right. How old?’ I go, ‘Under Bar Mitzvah, but above eight.’ And he’s like, ‘O.K.’”

J.A.: When did you first come up with characters like Ali G and Borat and this style of comedy?

S.B.C.: I had stumbled into this form of undercover-character comedy when it didn’t yet exist in England. I was the host for a live cable-TV show, which was a program for teenagers. I was 24, and I said to myself, O.K., I’m going to do this live show, but I’m going to perform as these characters who are going to comment about the show.

One of the characters that I did was an early form of Ali G, and as we’re shooting him, I see some guys dressed like me. With a skateboard in my hands, I go and talk to them and start doing bad tricks on my skateboard and falling off. After about three minutes of them laughing, I said, “Guys, see, I’m joking, I’m kidding around.” They were surprised that I was playing a character, and then, at that point, it was literally an epiphany for me. That was the moment that changed my life. I go, Oh my God, they believe me. The kids loved seeing me interacting with real people. It’s a new style of comedy for them.

I later take over another guy’s news show for one day because he’s sick, and two hours before I go on, there’s going to be this fox hunt. I couldn’t stand the upper class, and I hate the idea of chasing foxes just for amusement. So, I go down to where the fox chase is happening, and I go, O.K., I’m going to play some foreign character. As I’m driving down there, I look at what I’ve got in the car, and I’ve got a hat from Russia. I stick it on my head, and it’s basically the beginning of Borat.

J.A.: Why do you think Ali G became so wildly popular?

S.B.C.: The rise of Ali G was so fast because he wasn’t a traditional white English character. People didn’t know what his ethnicity was. Different people would claim him. The Greeks were claiming him; some people thought he was Black.

J.A.: Do you ever really fight for something, and you’re sure it’s the best thing ever, but then it just doesn’t work at all?

S.B.C.: Of course. That is the insecurity of any artistic business where it’s not a science. We’ve just got hunches. Sometimes you’re wrong. I think there are two things, and they’re not necessarily connected: There’s the product, and then there’s the ability to sell that product. There’s a difference between whether the product is good and whether the marketing campaign is good. We could have made Borat in England, and it could have made $3 million worldwide.

J.A.: Sometimes you just catch a different wave. Or a wave is going against you, and you don’t even really understand why.

S.B.C.: Unless you’re Disney, and you’re putting out existing brands, a lot of that stuff is luck. The sad part is that our work is tied in with money. We’re not allowed to lose money. However, you look at any sort of creator, and you’ll see that it’s a really important part of the creative process to put out disasters.

Look at Peter Sellers. I grew up idolizing Sellers and still do. If you look at his IMDB page, he does movie after movie that is dreadful, but the ones you remember him for are Dr. Strangelove and Being There. This guy’s a genius. It’s important to have the flop. It’s important to have the disaster and go, Yeah, I’m going to do something different.

Judd Apatow is a comedian and the director of several films and TV shows, including Freaks and Geeks, Knocked Up, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin