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On July 4, Sacha Baron Cohen posted a video of Donald Trump calling the comedian a “third-rate character” who needed to “go to school” to “learn about being funny.” The Independence Day clip hinted that Baron Cohen had a new project in the works, which Cohen teased again days later with another mysterious video. This one urged viewers to “imagine if Sacha Baron Cohen had been undercover secretly filming a new show for a year,” and included a clip of former Vice President Dick Cheney autographing a waterboard kit.
The following day, Showtime revealed that the project was actually a new series, titled Who Is America?, which bows Sunday, July 15. In advance of the debut of what has quickly become must-see TV, The Hollywood Reporter rounds up everything we know about the show (so far).
What Is It?
A new half-hour satirical comedy from the actor, who returns to series television for the first time in more than a decade. Per Showtime, the “seven-episode series explores the diverse individuals, from the infamous to the unknown across the political and cultural spectrum, who populate our unique nation.”
Who Is Behind It?
The series was created and is executive produced by Baron Cohen. Other EPs include the actor’s longtime collaborators Anthony Hines, Todd Schulman, Andrew Newman and Dan Mazer — who were all involved in at least one of Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show-related projects (including its spinoff movies) — and The Daily Show‘s Adam Lowitt.
When Does It Premiere?
Who Is America? debuts Sunday, July 15, at midnight ET/Saturday, July 14, 9 p.m. PT online and on Showtime On Demand, and will debut on air July 15 at 10 p.m. on Showtime. Subsequent episodes will be released Sundays at 10 p.m. through Aug. 26.
How Long Has It Been In the Works?
Baron Cohen has been filming segments for the series during the past year, and a producer claiming to be working on a Showtime documentary series called The Age of Reason set up an interview with Ted Koppel — so the series has been set at Showtime since at least late 2017.
But details didn’t begin leaking until Baron Cohen’s mysterious Trump teaser, which was likely filmed following the former reality star’s appearance on Da Ali G Show in 2003.
— Sacha Baron Cohen (@SachaBaronCohen) July 4, 2018
That segment featured Baron Cohen’s Ali G trying to get the then-Apprentice star to invest in an ice cream glove. While Trump tweeted that he immediately discovered the ruse …
I never fall for scams. I am the only person who immediately walked out of my ‘Ali G’ interview
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 30, 2012
… Baron Cohen told James Corden on The Late Late Show that Trump was actually there for “about seven minutes.”
A few days after the Independence Day teaser, Baron Cohen released another video hinting at a new project, with footage of Dick Cheney signing the interviewer’s “waterboard kit.”
— Sacha Baron Cohen (@SachaBaronCohen) July 8, 2018
Cohen’s publicist later confirmed that the signed waterboard kit is available to bid on eBay. Auction for the kit will benefit Amnesty International.
The following day came Showtime’s official announcement and the first trailer for the series.
Who Has Been Duped?
According to Drudge, both Republicans and Democrats were targeted, including Cheney, Sarah Palin, Howard Dean, Alberto Gonzales, Bernie Sanders, Trent Lott, David Petraeus, Ted Koppel and more. Former vice presidential candidate Palin was the first to speak out about the incident, penning a note accusing Baron Cohen of posing as a wounded soldier. After first speaking out in a Facebook post (below), Palin eventually revealed more details on Good Morning America about what she called a “sick” interview. “It mocked our values,” she said. “It was occurring to me that whatever this show is, whatever this interview really is, it is all about humiliation and devaluing middle-class Americans whom I represent.”
Yup – we were duped. Ya’ got me, Sacha. Feel better now? I join a long list of American public personalities who have…
Then came former congressman and current radio host Joe Walsh, who said he thought he was doing an interview to talk about his pro-Israel stance, and the interview was cut short when a fight broke out.
I totally believe @SarahPalinUSA‘s account of the @SachaBaronCohen incident. Dressing up as a wounded veteran is absolutely stolen valor, his tactics are disguisting – I know cause I too was duped. Here is what happened…#BoycottShowtime
— Joe Walsh (@WalshFreedom) July 11, 2018
Former Alabama judge Roy Moore, who lost the race for an open Senate seat in his state after allegations of an inappropriate encounter with a 14-year-old girl, then released a statement saying he was targeted and threatening legal action against the comedian. “I did not know Sacha Cohen or that a Showtime TV series was being planned to embarrass, humiliate, and mock not only Israel, but also religious conservatives such as Sarah Palin, Joe Walsh, and Dick Cheney,” he wrote.
Ted Koppel revealed to The Hollywood Reporter that he was interviewed by the same character who duped Palin. A producer purporting to be from a new Showtime documentary series said the show would include “conversations with distinguished experts in science and public policy, highlighting the brightest and most reputable minds on today’s most important topics.” The show was supposed to include “ordinary folk interviewing the expert,” and a man in a wheelchair “with an oxygen tank hanging off one of the handles” arrived to Koppel’s home and began asking him questions about the size of Trump’s inauguration, but refused to concede even the most rudimentary of facts (like, say, the sun would have been down if a photograph were taken at 11 p.m.). Koppel said he cut the interview short after that.
What Characters Is He Playing?
So far, the only confirmed character is Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick, the guy who duped Palin. A Twitter account for the character (retweeted by Baron Cohen) has been active since mid-May, tweeting links to stories hosted on his Infowars-like website, Truthbrary.org (sample articles: “Hillary is Satanist Illuminati,” “Secret CIA Time Travel” and more).
Baron Cohen retweeted a statement from that account in response to Palin’s accusations.
“I am Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick, founder/ceo/accountant of Truthbrary.org and it was I that interviewed you,” he wrote. “I did NOT say I was a War Vet. I was in the service — not military, but United Parcel, and I only fought for my country once. When I shot a Mexican who came onto my property. (Coincidentally, just like our Great President, I was sadly prevented from joining the regular army on account of bone spurs bein discovered in my testies.)”
— Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., PhD (@BillyWRuddick) July 12, 2018
Conservative radio host Austin Rhodes told THR he was duped during a live radio interview while the comedian was posing as Dr. Nira Cain, a professor of gender and women’s studies at Reed College in Portland. Rhodes told THR that “some of ‘Dr. Cain’s’ best hits from the interview included calling the U.S. Army ‘an active terrorist organization,’ saying that The Dukes of Hazzard is like the Southern version of Roots,’ and my favorite, claiming that ‘white supremacists are responsible for most of the gun deaths in America.'”
The production team even set up a fake Amazon listing for a book supposedly authored by Cain.
One day after the show’s premiere, Showtime released a statement about the Dr. Ruddick character in response to Palin and a hijacked Hollywood billboard spreading “misinformation.” The statement read: “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 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.”
Did Anyone Catch On?
According to Rhodes, many of his listeners believed the interview — which was broadcast live — was “performance art” and he learned of Baron Cohen’s involvement when a listener connected the name of the supervising producer, which was mentioned on air, with someone who had been involved with Borat.
Said Rhodes, “The listener told us that [Todd] Schulman was the man who had secured his participation as a guest in the infamous “Southern dinner scene” in the hilarious Cohen movie Borat. A quick IMDb check revealed Schulman to be connected to virtually every project Cohen had starred in dating back to the Da Ali G Show, including Cohen’s new show. I was flummoxed. I have been a fan of Cohen’s work for years, and I have seen Borat probably 20 times from start to finish. How in the hell did I miss that this was Sacha Baron Cohen? When I replayed the show, literally the very next day, his voice was obvious, despite a clever attempt to disguise the voice we have heard in countless dialects and characters.”
While local news reported the appearance at the time, no other media caught on.
Who Is America? premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime. Stay tuned to THR for a review and full coverage of the series.
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