Why Sacha Baron Cohen's Targets Agree to Be So Colossally Humiliated

The Milgram experiment led to conclusions about people’s willingness to do things that seem off-the-wall. Sacha Baron Cohen took those conclusions to heart in 'Who is America?'

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Sacha Baron Cohen's Capt. Erran Morad and Jason Spencer in "Who is America?"
Sacha Baron Cohen's Capt. Erran Morad and Jason Spencer in "Who is America?" Credit: Screenshot from Showtime's Youtube channel

In the fifth episode of his well-received television series “Who Is America?”,  Sacha Baron Cohen, assuming the persona of Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., a far-right conspiracy theorist and journalist, interviews Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager. He bombards Lewandowski with amusingly provocative statements such as, “I am not an anti-Yosemite. In fact, some of my very good friends hate Jews,” and “You can’t be attacking honest, fascist people who just want to express their right to start a genocide.” He adds claims that are deliberately untenable, such as that the war in Iraq started because of something intimated by the leader of “the Rafastarian lobby,” Gen. Robert Marley.

Lewandowski doesn’t flow with Baron Cohen’s provocations; in fact he barely nods and for the most part offers evasive diplomatic responses. After all, he’s a campaign pro. But Baron Cohen also chalks up a victory – another public figure who stays with him through an interview in which there are no safety catches to stop the comic from firing his bursts. It leaves viewers asking themselves why the interviewee didn’t stop the interview if he took umbrage at the interviewer’s remarks.

Much has been written about Sacha “Borat/Bruno/Ali G” Baron Cohen, who overall, apart from a few fig leaves from the left who aren’t seriously targeted, makes Republicans appear stupid and extremist, including those who hold public positions. And there’s no point denying that the feelings of condescending contempt that the series generates are a source of pure joy – especially if you’re not a member of the camp that’s being ridiculed.

With the exception of a few extreme instances – such as when Jason Spencer, a member of the Georgia state legislature, chases former Mossad agent “Erran Morad” with his trousers down to demonstrate how ISIS terrorists can be intimidated by threatening to render them “homos” – the series shows mainly how far most of us will agree to go when spurred by a feeling of discomfort and a desire to please.

In a famous experiment conducted at Yale in the 1960s, the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram asked participants to administer electric shocks to others taking part in the experiment (but who were actually actors working with Milgram). Many of the participants did as he requested, even when those on the receiving end of the supposed shocks screamed in pain or even stopped responding. Many follow-up experiments over the years further underscored the corruptive power of authority.

Less well known is the fact that some of the conclusions derived from the original experiment go well beyond the occupation with authority and its ramifications. Quite simply, they lay bare the elements that will induce us to cooperate with instructions and situations that are distinctly uncomfortable or feel inappropriate. Unsurprisingly, some of those elements are very much present in every frame of the series by Baron Cohen, who by chance is also the cousin of the well-known clinical psychologist Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen. One conclusion reached by Milgram and his associates, for example, is that people will tend more to extreme cooperation in a situation that is foreign and bizarre to them, different from their everyday reality. Baron Cohen’s name is indeed foreign sounding, and even when the interview seems to be quite routine, his extreme personae transform it into an experience probably never before undergone by the interviewees.

Hitting bottom

Another psychological element which, according to the study, will prompt us to acquiesce in uncomfortable and untoward situations is a very gradual transition from the legitimate to the non-legitimate. Probably, if Baron Cohen had begun his interviews with questions about “golden showers,” or by asking Dick Cheney to sign a “waterboarding kit” at the start of the interview with him, the interviewees would have refused to cooperate. But Baron Cohen is adept at applying psychology, and in the many hours of filming, most of which are naturally not accessible to viewers, he puts the participants through a gradual, cadenced process from the legitimate to the blatantly non-legitimate. We see only the end of the process of deterioration, by which time the interviewee has already hit bottom.

Two additional conclusions reached by those who conducted Milgram’s famous experiment are equally relevant in terms of the success of Baron Cohen’s interviews: Obedience and cooperation are more likely to be forthcoming if they are part of an already ongoing sequence that would be unpleasant to stop. The effect is heightened in the case of a rapid process that gives the participant little time to think. Thus we find the comedian placing the participants in front of a teleprompter and simply ordering them to read out grotesque texts about the right to use weapons on toddlers, or about their supposed assistance in persuading a mass murderer who likes reality shows not to perpetrate a massacre in Sierra Leone.

In addition to the footage we are not shown, and beyond the large investment in Baron Cohen’s cover story, a great deal of effort has obviously gone into planning a situation of discomfort, in which the possibility of the interviewee’s refusing is psychologically limited. When an interviewee is told he is going to get a prize from the State of Israel (this cover was used only with men), he finds it difficult to avoid the caprices of the interviewer. At best, the interviewee will nod, curmudgeon-like, as Cheney did throughout the “Dick pic” interview that has become a YouTube scorcher.

That Baron Cohen is a comic genius is a consensus that spans societal groups (even the series’ most acerbic critics, on the Fox morning shows, tend to preface their comments with “Baron Cohen is a genius, but”). But it’s not certain that the series succeeds in conveying the message that the humiliating and ludicrous interviews really demonstrate: that interviewees will simply try with all their might to please an interviewer.

As for those who say they would have behaved differently or boast that “It would never happen to me” – let’s see them up against the effective psychology of Baron Cohen, who, to the good fortune of the American left, aims his arsenal of personae primarily toward the right. And if there’s something the electric-shock experiments and their like have taught us, it’s that there are situations in which we cannot say: “That wouldn’t happen to me.”