Two Sacha Baron Cohen Super-Fans Discuss His Career, from ‘Da Ali G Show’ to ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’
Two Sacha Baron Cohen super-fans dig into what makes the actor so amazing.
Will Mann: So, as we get started, I know we’re both big fans of Sacha Baron Cohen, and I think we both had experiences getting hooked on his comedy early on. For me, it was a combination of watching some episodes of Da Ali G Show in preparation for the first Borat movie, and the movie itself. Once it came out, I think it far exceeded my expectations. Though we were both teenagers in high school when it came out, I think it’s fair to say that Borat is at least partially intended for teenage boys in high school. Was there any early Sacha Baron Cohen moment that really helped rope you in? For me, I think it was going back and watching episodes of Da Ali G Show that really solidified it for me. You got to see more of his range as he did not just in Borat, but the wannabe-white-gangsta Ali G and Austrian fashionista Bruno. Da Ali G Show seemed to be an experimental space, as well as the foundation of Baron Cohen’s later career success. Of particular note were Ali G’s roundtable discussions, in which very smart, capable people had to discuss topics with the ridiculousness that is Ali G. My favorite roundtable is easily the one about religion, which includes both a rabbi and a priest. It might have my favorite Ali G line of all time: “Why did Jesus go around with all them reindeers?”
David Zavelsky: Some older friends of mine in BBYO introduced me to Da Ali G Show my freshman year of high school. I was hooked on the concept right from the start, particularly Borat. My parents are Jewish Soviet immigrants, so there was some familiarity with the cultural aesthetics of “Borat in USA” which helped draw me in. I loved the cringy, offensive, and inappropriate elements of Borat; it felt like lowbrow genius. Seasons 2 and 3 of Da Ali G Show (which are the only seasons to air in the U.S.) are packed with countless laugh-out-loud moments, and remain my favorite of all Borat content. More than any single moment, it was the consistency with which he surprised us and his guests with topics that normally aren’t discussed in polite society, much less in front of a camera. Among my favorites are his exploration of American politics (the priceless confusion on his face when he explains “in America, woman can vote, but horse cannot?”) and hobbies, where a martial arts instructor offers some strategies to defend himself from surprisingly specific assailants. One of the most notorious segments is best known for Borat’s performance of “In My Country, There Is Problem (Throw the Jew Down the Well)” which led to the Anti-Defamation League writing to Baron Cohen concerned that “the irony may have been lost on some of your audience.” But the real gems of Borat’s exploration of country music were in his conversation with country singer Porter Wagoner, where he introduces Wagoner to “star” singer Korky Buchek and praises his sister’s professional accolades.
The Ali G roundtables were always phenomenal, as well, as were his and Bruno’s interviews. I found very little there that did not tickle me and was eagerly anticipating the Borat movie; I think I went to see it straight from school the Friday it was released. Although at the time I remember feeling some mild disappointment that the pure guerilla-style did not play out on the big screen the same way, in retrospect, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I even downloaded, listened to, and learned the Kazakh National Anthem! So overall, it would be a stretch to say I was disappointed. Anyway, that’s how I got my start as a Cohen fanboy.
Mann: I think something that can be gleaned from what we’ve said so far is that Borat was the true breakout moment for Sacha Baron Cohen. Da Ali G Show served a niche on HBO, and while you and I might have gravitated towards it and championed it, Cohen’s antics were not significantly popular to the public at large. Borat became a surprise box-office success, it was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in what felt like a win for the underdog at the time. Cohen himself won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy Film and was favored to be nominated for Best Actor Oscar, only to ultimately not get the nod. From there, it would have been really easy to double down on Borat, even if his increase in popularity would have prevented the type of engaging with oblivious participants he was known for in future movies. Hell, Rupert Murdoch even announced a sequel, before Cohen later denied it. It’s easy to see a scenario where Borat could star in scripted sequels and spin-offs like Sacha Baron Cohen did for Ali G in 2002’s Ali G Indahouse (which is… fine?).
But that’s not what happened. The next time there was a major Cohen vehicle, it was 2009’s Bruno, formatted similarly to Borat but focused on a different character from Da Ali G Show. Bruno is fine, it definitely has its moments. I think I saw it once in the theater and then maybe one other time, but it simply didn’t resonate the way Borat did. So, the fact that success couldn’t necessarily be easily replicated indicates Borat was a lightning-in-a-bottle situation in hindsight. Do you agree? What sort of things were happening in the larger zeitgeist that allowed that first Borat movie to breakthrough? Not only is it worth considering that Borat was released 5 years after 9/11 and Kazakhstan is a Muslim-majority country, but that the character of Borat recalls other popular catch-phrase-uttering movie characters of the time, such as Austin Powers, as well as ones played by Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler.
Zavelsky: We’re in agreement here. Much of what got the public talking about Borat had to do with the novelty of the concept and outrageous antics, which is difficult to replicate or spin-off without sacrificing artistic freedom. Rather than doubling down and becoming more dependent on the very subjects he was satirizing (like Rupert Murdoch), Sacha Baron Cohen decided to retire Borat at the end of 2007. When it came around to Bruno, he opted for a deal with Universal instead of 20th Century Fox, playing within the system without becoming a component in it. But the subject matter was a little too cringy for the mainstream and the depiction too different from Da Ali G Show‘s Bruno to flourish with Baron Cohen’s cult following. I remember a decent amount of people walking out almost immediately (nothing endears itself to the American public like full-frontal male nudity) and a continued trickle throughout the first half. The tricklers must have been the optimists.
The role of cultural trends in the success of Borat certainly warrants a closer look. As a student of history, Sacha Baron Cohen’s satire illustrates a contrast between the individual’s indifference to xenophobic groupthink compared to society’s condemnation of racism and bigotry of the past. The tragedy of 9/11 is editorialized as bringing about American unity and a new era of patriotism. But many came together looking for someone to blame and they found a scapegoat in Muslim people. Although Sacha Baron Cohen didn’t address Islamophobia directly back then, the instinctual resort of people to tribalism and its rationalizations is what his comedy shines a light on. The characters’ brashness and ignorance lull seemingly normal people into lowering their barriers and expressing thoughts –or thoughtless sentiments– they would otherwise hold back in public, much less on camera.
A decade since Borat and almost two since Ali G first debuted, Baron Cohen continues revisiting the topic, notably as the types of sentiments I mentioned have grown stronger in global politics. In both Who Is America? and the Borat sequel, Baron Cohen isn’t as subtle about his political targets as he’d been previously. Do you think his message is reaching those who need to hear it? Or is he just another Hollywood elite, out of touch with ordinary people?
Mann: I think it’s commendable that, throughout most of his run, he has sought to include ordinary people. I think that was part of my issue with why I didn’t embrace Who Is America? as much is because it felt more like entrapment, or that he was specifically ridiculing people with whom he disagreed. Whereas I always believed that at least part of what he did on Da Ali G Show was less about the pranks or mocking other people so much as it was about pointing out the stupidity of Ali G, Borat, and Bruno. At those roundtable discussions that Ali G used to do, the object of ridicule was Ali G and not usually any of the guests, which is something Stephen Colbert similarly mastered a few years afterward with The Colbert Report. So, I don’t think he necessarily comes off as a Hollywood elite. Hell, he’s already got a better track record than anyone who participated in Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” debacle from last year. I think, even in character, he has a way of relating to everyday people that most other celebrities simply can’t.
As to whether or not his content is reaching the people who most need to hear it, I think that far-right politics is such an insular bubble that very little that doesn’t meet that standard makes it through. But I think Baron Cohen thrives on this and a lot of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm even seems to confirm this. Everything from the QAnon-believing guys Borat quarantines with to an alt-right event where Borat is not only even allowed to take the stage, but sing lyrics like “Dr. Fauci, what we gonna do? Inject him with the Wuhan flu!” and “journalists, what we gonna do? Chop ‘em up like the Saudis do!” Borat can only infiltrate their culture by emulating their talking points and radical beliefs. So just by that level of commitment, you see that there is a willingness to engage with the public that you don’t see a lot of performers willing to do for what is essentially a setup or a joke.
Speaking of his performative prowess, I was hoping we could briefly touch upon some other characters and movies he’s done away from Ali G, Borat, and Bruno roster. In movies like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and even Martin Scorsese’s wonderful film Hugo (2011), Baron Cohen is adept at playing a certain type of smug Frenchman. We got to see his singing ability in Les Misérables (2012), where he plays the high-energy role of Monsieur Thénardier with the typical enthusiasm of his Broadway predecessors, particularly when it comes to the iconic showstopper “Master of the House”. (And once again, he’s playing a smug Frenchman. Go figure.) Also of note is The Dictator (2012), where he plays Admiral General Aladeen, a Qaddafi-esque authoritarian leader of the fictional nation of Wadiya. Cohen admits that the project came about because he always considered that late Col. Qaddafi to be “hilarious.” There are a few great moments, especially one where Aladeen and a Wadiyan ex-pat played by Jason Mantzoukas speak to each other in their native tongue on a helicopter, where a couple misinterprets their conversation to be a 9/11 style attack. But most of the time when I was watching it, I was wondering why it couldn’t be in the guerilla mockumentary style of his other movies. There seemed to be so much potential there. What are some of your favorite other performances of his?
Zavelsky: His portrayal of Eli Cohen, the Mossad agent who infiltrated the Syrian government and high society in the 1960s, in the Netflix miniseries The Spy, moved me quite deeply. He essentially plays two characters between Cohen, an Egyptian-Jewish immigrant to Israel, and Kamel Amin Thaabet, who kind of fits that “smug Frenchman” mold you mentioned. We’ve gotten used to seeing comedy actors stray into drama, to the point that maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that a professional actor thrives in different mediums, but the project showcased his diverse range of talent.
Another favorite is Jean Girard in Talladega Nights, as you mentioned. I also love his voice work as King Julien XIII, king of the lemurs in the Madagascar series. The magical hilarity of crazy primate potentate singing and dancing to “I Like to Move It” is the only thing I remember from that movie. I wonder how many people saw Borat and were like “Huh? That’s the lemur king from Madagascar?” But in a way so many of his supporting roles create that impression because no matter how audacious the character, he is nowhere close to being as ridiculous as Baron Cohen’s creations.
(Authors’ note: By this point, both writers have seen and very much loved Cohen’s performance as iconic social activist and “Yippie” founder Abbie Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin’s new Netflix movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7, for which he is earning a lot of Oscar buzz. Both writers also admit they are rooting for a Best Supporting Actor nomination and eventual win for him!)
Mann: And now, with Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, he’s back in the spotlight with the character that originated a lot of the success that he has enjoyed for the past 15 years. Just like the first time, this new iteration of Borat has people talking. From the performance of Maria Bakalova as Borat’s daughter Tutar generating Oscar buzz to the now-infamous scene of Tutar alone in a hotel room with Rudy Giuliani, it’s clear that they wanted to up the ante. They were at a disadvantage just because of how well-known publicly Borat had become, which they make fun of in the movie when Borat stumbles on a “stupid foreign reporter” Halloween costume that looks suspiciously like him. But I also think they came up with clever workarounds, which the character of Tutar helps facilitate. It also has a surprising amount of heart, as evidenced by things like the role of Tutar’s babysitter Jeanice, a regular non-actor who was unaware she was in a movie, as well as the sweet moment Borat has with elderly ladies, one of whom is a Holocaust survivor, in a synagogue. To a certain extent, it’s more grounded than the original. For example, Borat finds himself in the company of QAnon believing guys who nevertheless want to talk him out of his fringe faux-Kazakhstani beliefs. There seems to be a clear objective in a lot of these setups, whereas in the first one, a lot of it seemed to be motivated by a combination of improvisation and happenstance.
That objective allows clearer focus, and Subsequent Moviefilm decidedly much more political than its predecessor, even ending on a plea for its audience to go vote (it was released in late October, right before the presidential election). But as video essayist Lindsay Ellis pointed out, this incarnation of Borat seems much more tied to this specific era in history than the first one did to its respective time. What are your thoughts on it?
Zavelsky: Given my emotional investment in Borat, it’s difficult to envision a sequel I didn’t enjoy. But it exceeded my expectations for a lot of the reasons you mentioned. We don’t expect heartwarming character development from Borat. What was the most touching moment in the first movie? Was it his realization that kidnapping and marrying Pam Anderson wasn’t what he needed to be happy…? Subsequent Moviefilm, in comparison, delivered powerful messages on themes of female empowerment and the evolving relationship between a parent and their young adult child. There’s something poetic about nuggets of wisdom living among masturbation and menstruation humor; our common humanity is the thread in all of this.
I agree that this incarnation of Borat is more tied to our specific era. The Trump presidency, COVID-19, and media narratives of the 2020 election cycle are central to the plot points of the film. Given the backlash to cultural change in America since the original, the satirical content is even more relevant now than it was then. While this adds to the popularity at the moment, there is a risk in the future that it will be remembered more for capturing the novelty of 2020 than the guts, message, and satire of the film. It will be interesting to see how it ages. Ultimately though, I do think this movie will stand on its own, with or without historical context, for people with the stomach for spicy comedy.