7:30pm PT by Jean Bentley
'Who Is America?' Premiere: Who Did Sacha Baron Cohen Dupe?
As promised, the first episode of Sacha Baron Cohen's top-secret new series, Who Is America?, hoodwinked some of the biggest names in politics — on the left (Bernie Sanders) and the right (Trent Lott and more). There were also segments involving non-celebrities (a Trump delegate from South Carolina and an art gallery consultant from California) and a PSA with multiple, real-life Republican members of Congress encouraging Americans to support a program called "Kinderguardians" that would teach 4-year-olds how to shoot guns.
Here's everything that happened in the first episode on Sunday (read the review here).
Victim: Bernie Sanders
Character: Billy Wayne Ruddick, Jr., PhD
What Happened: Pretending to be a character who runs an Infowars-esque website called Truthbrary.org, Cohen spoke with Bernie Sanders about redistributing the wealth of the 1 percent to the 99 percent — but wouldn't acknowledge basic math (i.e. the way percentages work, and that everyone can't be a member of the 1 percent because then that would equal 100 percent). After some frustrating circular logic and nonsensical flow charts (on Ruddick's part), Sanders ended the interview, saying, "Billy, I don't know what you're talking about."
Response: None from Sanders. On Monday morning, a hijacked Hollywood billboard targeted Baron Cohen over his Dr. Ruddick character, prompting Showtime to release the following statement: "There has been widespread misinformation over the past week about the character of Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., performed by Sacha Baron Cohen on the Showtime comedy series Who Is America? Baron Cohen did not present himself as a disabled veteran, and viewers nationwide who watched the premiere on Sunday can now attest to that. In Sunday’s episode, during an interview with Senator Bernie Sanders, Baron Cohen in character as Dr. Ruddick was asked by the Senator if he is disabled, and he stated that he is not and uses a mobility scooter to conserve his energy." In response to claims from Sarah Palin, who will be featured on a later episode, the statement continued, "In addition, Baron Cohen never presented himself as a veteran of the U.S. military to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin during the booking process or during the filming of her interview, and contrary to her claims he did not appear in a wheelchair. In both the interview with Governor Palin and the interview with Senator Sanders, he did not wear military apparel of any kind."
Victims: Philip Van Cleave, gun rights advocate; Larry Pratt, Gun Owners of America founder; Trent Lott, former Senate Majority Leader; Dana Rohrabacher, Republican congressman from California; Joe Wilson, Republican congressman from South Carolina; Joe Walsh, talk show host and former Republican congressman from Illinois; and Matt Gaetz, Republican congressman from Florida
Character: Col. Erran Morad
What Happened: Purporting to be an Israeli anti-terrorism advocate, Cohen convinced gun pundit Van Cleave to film a children's show about arming toddlers, teaching them how to load toddler-friendly guns (with stuffed puppy faces). He then interviews Pratt about the same thing (where Pratt jokes along when the Morad character says "it's not rape if it's your wife"), and convinces Lott, Rohrabacher, Wilson and Walsh to film a PSA encouraging people to support a toddler-arming program called "Kinderguardians." The only person shown refusing to participate was Gaetz.
Response: After Sarah Palin was the first politician to publicly admit she'd been duped by the comedian, Walsh came forward with his own story on Twitter. Sunday night, Walsh replied to a tweet from Montel Williams by saying: "He got me. All I can do is laugh and own it." He continued to respond to journalists and others on Twitter throughout the night, saying in one tweet: "@SachaBaronCohen got me. Do I believe kindergarteners should be armed? Hell no. But, it's on me. Sacha fooled me good. Flew me out to DC for some made up friend of Israel award. I gotta live with it." He added in another, "I gotta own what I said. But @SachaBaronCohen flew me out to DC, put me up in a hotel, all to have an Israeli TV network give me a big 'Friend of Israel' award. The entire thing was a big lie. But he got me to read 30 seconds of crazy stuff about guns." Gaetz later confirmed he was approached by the same person Walsh was, but he wouldn't endorse anything when he was asked. On Monday, Wilson said in a statement to The State, "I was targeted due to my strong support of Israel and my open-door office policy — and what I told this group was that I’ve worked to strengthen our relationship with Israel and that I will continue to work with President Donald Trump to do so.” Rep. Rohrabacher released a statement about his appearance, saying his apparent endorsement of the program is "false news."
Victim: June Page Thompson, South Carolina Trump delegate, and her husband Mark Thompson, a Trump voter
Character: Dr. Nira Cain-N'Degeocello
What Happened: Purporting to be a liberal man riding his bike across the country and talking to Trump voters to bridge a cultural divide, the ultra-liberal character went to the Thompsons' home for dinner and told more and more outrageous stories about his life — that he forces his daughter to pee standing up, that he she free bleeds on American flags instead of using sanitary products, that his wife had an affair with a dolphin — as the couple politely nodded and played along. They were exceedingly polite, and never once called him out on the obviously ridiculous stories. At the end, once he was gone, they confessed they thought his values were "fucked up."
Response: None as of Monday.
Victim: Christy Cones, fine art consultant, Coast Gallery, Laguna Beach
Character: Rick Sherman
What Happened: Posing as an ex-con who paints on cardboard with his bodily fluids, Cohen fed a Laguna Beach, California, gallery consultant a story that got more and more outlandish about his art — at one point he went to the bathroom and "drew" a picture of her (purported to be with his own feces) — that ended with her pulling up her skirt to donate a pubic hair to his special paintbrush, which he said was made with pubes from famous artists.
Response: In a story posted Sunday on The Washington Post's website, Cones was shocked to learn the truth of what happened: "Oh my God, it was all an act? He faked his tears? I don’t care. Am I supposed to say I’m embarrassed? All conversations about art are important." She added: “Sacha Baron Cohen owes me a face-to-face meeting as compensation for his underhanded tactics and his preying on the vulnerable, especially by pretending to be someone who suffered when he probably hasn’t suffered a moment in his life. That’s the least he could do after putting me through this. That, and buy a painting."
The series also revealed its sizable writing staff: creator Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Swimer, Dan Mazer, Lee Kern, Adam Lowitt, Brian Reich, Kurt Metzger, Eric Notarnicola and Aaron Geary, with Hines, Todd Schulman, Andrew Newman, Dan Mazer and Lowitt exec producing. The law office of Wendy Heller, Christina Tajalli and Jillian Waldrom provided legal services.
What did you think of the series premiere? Sound off in the comments section, below. Who Is America? runs Sundays on Showtime for another six weeks.