Daniel Roberts was getting ready for bed Sunday night at his home in Fort Mill, South Carolina. He had to be up early for his day job, as a truck driver for a construction company based out of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Then he received a Facebook message from a friend, who was asking: Why was Roberts being featured on the fifth episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s prank Showtime series, “Who Is America?”
He had no idea. He also had to dig deep to remember who Cohen was to begin with.
Unbeknown to Roberts, he had taken part in one of the more embarrassing segments of the show thus far. In it, Cohen posed as Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terrorism expert who was pretending to offer on-camera training segments to help Americans fight Islamic terrorism.
Roberts is the founder and president of Youth Shooters of America, and his 13-year-old daughter has gained some renown as a competitive shooter, having started when she was just 6 years old. Roberts has appeared in cable news segments to defend gun rights, including a particularly heated discussion with Piers Morgan, where Roberts said he hoped nothing would change about gun laws after last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas in which 58 people were killed and several hundred injured.
In the “Who Is America?” segment, which was filmed in Atlanta, Roberts told Cohen, “There’s something wrong with the culture that we can’t about talk being around guns.” To which Cohen — in character — responded, “It is crucial to have the guns in the school?” Roberts said: “Yes, absolutely. I absolutely agree with you.”
This was followed by Roberts’ being coaxed into a shouting match (to ward off terrorists) and into throwing a baby doll into a trash can to thwart a suicide bomb hidden in a diaper. In the segment’s highlight, or lowlight, Cohen gets Roberts to bite on a, um, toy used for sexual gratification by telling him that it is a proven tactic for stopping a terrorist.
Cohen has been mostly targeting conservatives with his pranks. A Georgia state representative, Jason Spencer, left his seat five months early after Cohen humiliated him with an act not unlike the one Roberts fell for. Cohen’s other marks have included several influential sitting and former lawmakers, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.
But he’s also taken aim at lesser-known people, if they are known at all, including Roberts, who was one of the few who didn’t realize he was duped until the episode aired.
Today, Roberts spoke about the experience. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
QUESTION: Did you watch the show last night? Did you know this was going to happen?
ANSWER: I don’t get Showtime. I had absolutely no idea. Sacha Baron Cohen — it’s like, “Who?” I guess he was kind of big in the early 2000s for some stuff? He never was on my radar as anyone I knew about or followed.
Q: Did you know after the taping that something was off or that you had been pranked?
A: No, absolutely not. There’s going to be a limit to some things I can say because I am actively exploring what legal remedies may be available. (Showtime declined to comment.)
Q: How are you coping today? Have you received a lot of calls?
A: Not yet. What can I do? It’s up there. I can’t deny it.
Q: When was the taping?
A: Last July. I was contacted by a production company. The way it was explained to me is that there was a group of Israeli special forces soldiers that were going around the United States shooting a show for Israeli television about terrorism and how Americans defend themselves.
I’ve always had a great amount of respect for the Israeli military. For me, it sounded like a perfectly legitimate opportunity to take advantage of a situation to be taught by people that I would regard as some of the best in the world with counterterrorism.
Q: What was your initial reaction to finding out about the prank?
A: I was absolutely baffled. To be honest about it, probably a couple months ago, I had the random thought, “Hey, I guess that show never aired,” still under the impression that this was going to be something for Israeli television. I never thought anything more about it.
Q: When the shoot was happening, were you uncomfortable with any of it?
A: There were definitely several moments of being extraordinarily uncomfortable. But at the same time, if you believe yourself to be in the presence of what anyone would rightly describe as experts in their field, and they are telling you that these are techniques or tactics that they themselves have used, and you’re just a rank amateur, would you question it?
Q: I think some people might say, “Well, there were cameras rolling.” Did you worry about how you were being portrayed on camera?
A: I don’t know that it ever crossed my mind. The use of the — what’s the polite way to describe this? — the use of the sexual device as a prop, in my mind, it made sense. Think about what they’re claiming: a last resort. You have one chance to do something, or you’re certain you’re going to die. That’s the scenario they’ve laid out. I don’t know many people, if they were completely honest, that they would say they wouldn’t take that opportunity to maybe, hopefully, grab one thing to maybe save their lives.
So using that item as a prop, sure, you could argue it makes sense because it’s a pretty dangerous thing to do. You could hurt somebody doing it for real, which obviously is the point. It was definitely very uncomfortable. At the very same time, I go back to being completely convinced that these were legitimate IDF special forces soldiers that had trained with these techniques or had actually used them.
Q: Had you ever been in training like that before?
A: Not to that degree, absolutely not. But I know enough about the subject to know that sometimes, things are supposed to make you uncomfortable so that you get over being uncomfortable.
Q: Have your children seen this?
A: No. If it ever comes up, I will give them the same exact explanation that I just gave to you. This was a malicious, willful and deliberate act on the part of Sacha Baron Cohen, the production company and Showtime, who blatantly lied to me about the purpose of the entire thing, in a deliberate effort to humiliate me.