How Sacha Baron Cohen Keeps From Getting Sued
On Friday night, I went to see “Bruno.” I laughed. (Hardest at the part where Bruno goes camping with a bunch of rednecks and, as they sit around the campfire, he asks them which “Sex and the City” character they are.) I cried. (When Bruno’s velcro suit caused chaos at a fashion show, and he’s shunned by the entire Austrian fashion community.) I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat. (When a mom agrees that her 4-year-old would have liposuction in order to land a modeling gig. And again when Bruno crashes a swinger’s party and is repeatedly whipped by a woman with nipple rings. Now that I think about it, at least 40% of the scenes in the movie were squirm-worthy.) But as I left the theater, one big question kept running through my mind—how does Sacha Baron Cohen get away with these stunts without getting sued a hundred times a day? Back during “Da Ali G Show” days, things were much simpler. Sacha Baron Cohen would send out interview requests under the guise of being a British production company called United World Productions. When interview subjects arrived, they were greeted by a clean cut, legitimate-looking director. It wasn’t until the red light on the camera blinked that Sacha Baron Cohen made his appearance.
Things got a little more complicated for “Borat.” Producers focused scenes in rural areas, where not nearly so many people have cable television. When producers pre-interviewed subjects, they threw in questions to make sure that they’d never heard of Ali G or Borat or Sacha Baron Cohen. The producers would give all subjects a release form which, conveniently, didn’t identify where the footage would be appearing. Often times, they’d hand out release forms en masse. “We’d have someone in the lobby of a hotel with release forms,” director Larry Charles told Squidoo. “We’d tell people we were shooting today and they may be in the background of a shot. Then they’d get in the elevator and, boom, two naked guys would come running in.” Most people were so quick to sign the forms that they didn’t notice any irregularities.
The crew also had a lawyer who they ran through all their plans with. The lawyer helped determine the line between okay and way too much.
So how did they find enough suckers to fill “Bruno” with equally as amazing scenes? For celebrities, the answer is easy—go through their help. That’s how Paula Abdul got tricked—the producers called her publicist and said that she had won a German “Artist of the Year” award. She showed up at a Hollywood Hills home to receive the award on-camera and her publicist signed a release form for her. She went in and saw there was no furniture—only three Mexican workers on all fours. In character, Bruno encouraged her to sit down on one of them and she did. It wasn’t until an assistant rolled in a naked man covered in sushi that Abdul high-tailed it out of there. She had no idea what had happened—she thought she’d actually run into an insane foreign television crew. Then her manager got a call in April asking about her appearance in “Bruno.” Paula had an aha moment. “I said, ‘I’ve never done anything with Sacha Cohen … they’re wrong!'” she said. “At 2 o’clock in the morning that night, I woke up in a cold sweat. I popped my body up out of bed and I went, ‘Holy crap! Oh my God!’ And that’s what happened.”
Even with the precautions, Sacha Baron Cohen has been sued. Multiple times. Shortly after “Borat” came out, two fraternity brothers claimed that the producers encouraged them to drink before asking them to sign releases. They also claim they were prompted to make super racist remarks. They said they suffered, “humiliation, mental anguish, and emotional and physical distress, loss of reputation, goodwill and standing in the community.” Their case was dismissed. The judge reasoned, “No reasonable person could consider the statements made by Ali G on the program to be factual. To the contrary, it is obvious that the Ali G character is absurd, and all his statements are gibberish and intended as comedy.”
Soon after, the etiquette coach who Borat hands a bag of poop in the movie sued for emotional harm. Ditto for the truck-driving instructor. Neither lawsuit were successful.
For “Bruno,” only one lawsuit has come up so far. During filming, Bruno crashed a charity bingo game. The event’s organizer, Richelle Olson, was told he was a big celebrity volunteering to call out numbers. But when he started, well, being Bruno, Richelle tried to take the mic from him. In her original lawsuit, Olson said that after a struggle, she fell and suffered two brain bleeds which left her in a wheelchair. However, after being shown footage of the incident, her claims have changed. She now says she was so upset over the incident that she left the room and fainted, falling onto the floor and hurting her head. It remains to be seen whether she was actually hurt by Sacha Baron Cohen, or if she’s a faker just trying to cash in. By the way, that scene got left on the cutting room floor and didn’t actually appear in the movie.
So what do you think—are Sacha Baron Cohen’s methods legit and hilarious? Or totally wrong? Do you think you could ever be duped by him and his crew into saying some looney tunes thing on camera? And if you did, would you sue?