Brow Beat

Ted Koppel Escaped His Sacha Baron Cohen Interview Just by Knowing Night From Day

Ted Koppel!
Ted Koppel, speaking in 2009.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

As the premiere of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Showtime show nears, a murderer’s row of Republican grifters are coming out of the woodwork to claim that Cohen unfairly tricked them into saying stupid things on camera: Sarah Palin, Joe Walsh, and even alleged pedophile and conservative hero Roy Moore, back on the national stage at last. But one of Cohen’s targets seems to have gotten away clean: Ted Koppel. As the former Nightline host told the Hollywood Reporter, Cohen arranged an interview at Koppel’s home under false pretenses, but he smelled a rat and asked Cohen and his crew to leave when things got weird. It’s clear that Koppel’s years in journalism have honed his detective skills to such a Sherlock Holmes–ian edge that not even Cohen—never mind Palin or Moore—could keep up, and within minutes, by picking up on minor clues that others would have missed, Koppel was able to slice through the web of deception and see Cohen for who he was. Just kidding: All it took was knowing the difference between night and day.

According to Koppel, in mid-November, he participated in a scheduled interview at his house for a Showtime program he was told would be called Age of Reason. The initial pitch was for a show about “conversations with distinguished experts in science and public policy, highlighting the brightest and most reputable minds on today’s most important topics,” and who doesn’t want to be one of the brightest and most reputable minds? When a man in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank—presumably Cohen—arrived with a film crew to do the interview, Koppel, whose wife has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, tried to commiserate:

I tried to engage him on the subject, but he seemed confused. He clearly had no idea about what COPD is, and I felt sorry for the guy, which is obviously how you’re supposed to feel.

The interview itself turned out to be not so much about “today’s most important topics” and more about the interviewer yelling at Ted Koppel about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. The man showed Koppel a photograph of a man holding a digital clock reading 11 p.m. in front of a large inaugural crowd and argued that if the crowd was that big at 11 at night, it must have been enormous when the inauguration actually happened. Koppel made the not-unreasonable point that most photographs taken outside in the Washington area at 11 p.m. in January do not feature a lot of sunlight, whereas the interviewer’s photo was clearly taken in broad daylight. At that point the photographer argued that the inconsistent lighting was probably caused by an eclipse. When Koppel pointed out that eclipses are generally known for reducing the amount of sunlight, not increasing it, the interviewer said it was probably the kind of lunar eclipse in which the sun passes between the moon and the Earth, which struck the Nightline host as improbable, astronomically speaking, and he ended the interview.

At that point I realized something was really wrong. And that’s when I said, “Guys, I don’t want to be rude; you’re guests in my home. But we’re done. Break down and time to leave.”

So there you have it: The key to escaping an interview with Sacha Baron Cohen is embracing heliocentrism, a scientific theory that has been trendy among Hollywood elites since the publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium 475 years ago. Better luck next time to Palin, Walsh, and Moore. And condolences to Donald Trump, who now must acknowledge Koppel the next time he wants to make this boast:

It’s worth watching that interview again to see Trump explain that “hundreds of millions of years ago, people were doing business,” which would come as news to the dinosaurs of the Jurassic period, but it’s true that he walked out of his interview. It’s also true that, years later, he was so not-mad-about-it that he publicly fantasized about Cohen getting beaten up in one of his “From the Desk of Donald Trump” vlogs in 2012, after Cohen spilled ashes on Ryan Seacrest:

If that ever happened to somebody with real security, Sacha Baron Cohen would not be in good shape right now, he’d be in a hospital. He would have been punched in the face so many times, he wouldn’t have known what happened. I only wish that Ryan took a swing at him. And I only wish that the security guard that allowed it all to happen, number one gets fired, and number two, go to school, learn about being security. You don’t know, man.

What a good sport! But although Koppel can take a joke better than the president, or Palin, or Walsh, or Moore, he thinks Cohen’s tactics are bad for journalism:

I think there’s a larger issue here and that is, if there’s one thing we don’t need any more of in this particular era it’s people posing as documentarians. I think there’s enough skepticism to go around about people who actually are reporters, who actually are documentarians. And to undermine whatever tiny little bit of confidence might be left by pulling a stunt like this … maybe it will make for a good comedy show. I don’t know. But I don’t think it helps the overall atmosphere.

On the other hand, if more legitimate journalists would borrow the nondeceptive part of Cohen’s technique—asking experts basic questions and watching them flail—there’d be no need for a Sacha Baron Cohen.