Sacha Baron Cohen made a divisive return to television this month with the premiere of Who Is America? on Showtime. The show features Baron Cohen portraying characters and then going out into the real world to interact with and interview real people, including some famous faces. He's so convincing in his characters that some of the people he talked to had no idea that a comedian was underneath the wigs and makeup, and not all of his subjects were happy about it. Some folks on social media have condemned the show due to how Baron Cohen allegedly presented himself, but Showtime isn't just going to take the criticism. The network released a statement after reactions to his interviews with Sarah Palin and Bernie Sanders:
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.
During Sacha Baron Cohen's interview with Bernie Sanders -- yes, the real Bernie Sanders -- as the character "Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr.," Baron Cohen sat in a mobilized scooter, which led some to believe that he was presenting himself as a disabled person. The first episode that aired on July 15 clarified that Billy Wayne Ruddick used a scooter to conserve energy rather than because of any disability, although it's possible that the episode didn't reach enough people to quell any fury that broke out due to early footage and/or what has been posted on social media. Baron Cohen wasn't entirely honest in his interview with Bernie Sanders, but he didn't mislead Sanders that he was disabled, and Showtime wanted to make sure everybody understands that distinction.
The bad rap Sacha Baron Cohen got for allegedly presenting himself as an American veteran is due to Sarah Palin. She was one of the high-profile subjects interviewed by one of Baron Cohen's characters, and she did not take kindly to the reveal that the person she interacted with was actually a persona invented by somebody in showbiz. Palin took to Facebook to share her thoughts, claiming that he "heavily disguised himself as a disabled US veteran, fake wheelchair and all."
According to Showtime, at no point did Sacha Baron Cohen claim to be a U.S. military veteran during his interactions with Sarah Palin, nor was he named as a veteran when the interview with Palin was being booked. The network also takes issue with Palin's statement that he conducted the interview from a "fake wheelchair," stating that he did not appear in the wheelchair and he did not wear any kind of military uniform. Palin didn't hold back in condemning Baron Cohen's behavior; Showtime disputes that everything went as Palin claimed on Facebook.