We got a double dose of Sacha Baron Cohen’s far-left blowhard Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello on Who Is America’s latest, with both segments serving not to humiliate his marks so much as present a satirical vision of condescending, misguided neoliberal. The character’s second segment was especially amusing, with Nira squaring off against Atlanta battle rap legend Ness Lee, who furrows his brow as the doof in an NPR shirt “raps” about academic studies from 1997 and his “macrophallus” (which he finds to be an “encumbrance”).
Vulture caught up with Lee to talk about the stunt, and his responses offer some insight into just how committed both Showtime and Baron Cohen were to the stunt, both on camera and off. “I was so fooled by him,” Lee said. “His mannerisms were so genuine. It’s like he sat down to study somebody in their 50s for months. Just to see how they walk and move and shake people’s hands. How they say certain words. It was so genuine. After my friend told me it was Borat, I had to really think back in my mind. This guy might be the greatest actor of all time.”
The network, too, maintained the illusion of it being a low-budget project, as Lee says he was paid in “fives and ones” and even shorted “four dollars.” He added, “They were definitely trying to keep up the image of being some college project that happened to end up on Showtime.”
To watch the episode is to cringe at Nira’s “rhymes” about being totally fine with Lee sleeping with his wife (“I would approve of it / It’s happened in the past / I’ll wait outside the yurt and I’d listen to a podcast with noise-canceling headphones / To drown out any of her moaning.”). But Lee says that there was nevertheless something admirable about his performance.
“It’s funny, a lot of people get freestyle ability and rapping ability confused. They say if somebody can’t rap, they can’t freestyle, but that’s not true. Sacha’s freestyle ability is ridiculous. I’m listening to the references he’s using. He’s referring to actual cases they had back in the day for suffrage and all sorts of other things. His words and vocabulary are ridiculous. His freestyle is actually crazy! I’m like, “Yo, this old Jewish man is very quick on his toes.” But his rapping ability? I’m not gonna lie. It sucks. Absolutely terrible rapper. But his freestyle ability was through the roof.”
Watch the full clip above, in which Nira serves up the most backhanded “mine is bigger than yours” burn of all time.