Those who know Sacha Baron Cohen will tell you he is nothing like Brüno or the other characters he impersonates. The third son of an orthodox Jewish family, he grew up in a suburb of London, went to fancy British schools, and spent a year living in Israel. He read history at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where an interest in the role of American Jews in the Civil Rights Movement led to his thesis on the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi. Not the biography of a man you would imagine inventing Ali G, an American ghetto rapper; or Borat, an anti-Semitic TV reporter from Kazakhstan; or Brüno, a gay Austrian fashionista who wants to be as famous as that other Austrian, Adolf Hitler. These characters have made Baron Cohen one of the preeminent icons of popular culture.
He may have read history, but Baron Cohen had always been interested in acting. He played classic leads—Tevye and Cyrano—in college productions at Cambridge. His acting career floundered after he graduated, but for a time he found work as a model. When he got a job at a local television station as the host of a call-in show, he began to eke out a career as a hypomanic wiseass who pushed the limits of good taste. On the basis of what one can find of the early persona, the real Sacha Baron Cohen was not all that charming or charismatic. For one television gig he invented Kristo, an Albanian character who later morphed into Borat, a boorish but wise fool who was much funnier and more appealing than Baron Cohen himself. Baron Cohen has said that the late Peter Sellers, one of the most talented “wise fools” of modern cinema, was an important influence.
Walter Kaiser, a scholar who studied Shakespeare’s fools, has suggested that the wise fool is a fixture of western civilization. He gave it a Freudian reading. The wise fool is not held to the rules of civilized society; instead, he “embodies the untrammeled expression of the id. . . . His enemy, the superego, represents all the ordered conventions and civilizing rationality of society.” But the wise fool is not an oxymoron: in his innocent wisdom and wit he holds a mirror up to the world of hypocrisy. The edge of cruelty in the wise fool’s humor can cut too deep. One feels it, for example, in Shakespeare’s Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice when Gobbo fools/deceives his blind father.
Baron Cohen’s Ali G, another wise fool, launched his career on BBC’s Channel 4. Legend has it that he heard some white disc jockey on London radio whose shtick was talking like a hip-hop Jamaican. He seized on the idea. He grew a mustache and goatee, dressed in shiny Hilfiger tracksuits and matching skullcaps, and decked himself out with bling and wraparound sunglasses. A Cambridge-educated white guy impersonating a caricature of a ghetto rapper might be considered politically incorrect and racist. Indeed, Baron Cohen has been picketed by black activists who describe his routine as a modern minstrel show. Borat and Ali G were, of course, caricatures and would have been totally offensive had Baron Cohen not made them into wise fools. Most viewers found them hilarious; by 2000, Da Ali G Show was on air, and Baron Cohen soon had a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award.
Da Ali G Show took Baron Cohen’s caricatures on the road in a comic format that was part reality TV, part candid camera, and part theater of cruelty. The audience was in on the joke, but Baron Cohen and his staff were able to arrange interviews with unsuspecting dignitaries who had never seen any of his 3 faces.
By 2003, Ali G’s audience had grown so large that even Queen Elizabeth was said to be a fan. The Ali G version of the Queen’s Christmas Day message is not to be missed. But Baron Cohen’s success meant he had run out of gullible notables, so Da Ali G Show moved to American cable, where Baron Cohen began to interview unsuspecting Americans: Ralph Nader, Newt Gingrich, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, and Noam Chomsky. In the interviews, Ali G’s questions would become increasingly inappropriate—escalating from tamer inanities to embarrassing, even vulgar, questions and comments about sex. Baron Cohen seemed able to improvise brilliantly on the spot depending on how the unsuspecting victim responded. However, according to one knowledgeable account, his talent is not improvisation; the success of the interviews depended on careful advance preparation for hundreds of possible scenarios.
Baron Cohen’s true comic gift is his ability to be completely offensive to his victims without offending his audience. Here it is worth remembering Freud’s theory: it is the wit of the jokester that gets the eruption of the id past the superego. We are in on Ali G’s mischief and in the moment feel no great sympathy for his hoodwinked guests. Ali G has a mantra of saying “Respek” when he is being most disrespectful—it takes some of the bite out of his cruelty. Baron Cohen’s first feature film, Ali G Indahouse (2002), centering on sex and British politics, was a broad farce that got bogged down in an absurd plot and never exploited the comic genius of Ali G’s encounters with real people. Baron Cohen learned from that experience. His next film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, would be a mockumentary, a series of encounters with people who believed Baron Cohen was a Kazakh TV host visiting the United States to learn about American ways.
Borat earned a quarter of a billion dollars, and the critics laughed, as I did, in spite of ourselves. The wise fool Borat could get almost anything past your superego: getting a barroom crowd to join him in singing the Kazakh folk tune “Throw the Jew Down the Well” was surreally funny. And the nude wrestling scene between Borat and his obese producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) was inexplicably and unforgettably hilarious. However, many older people were not amused and one senior critic, Andrew Sarris, writing for The New York Observer, skewered Borat: “The theory of comedy here is that you can get away with almost anything if you manage to make your target audience feel superior to the human beings being mocked on the screen.” Sarris is quite right: that is the theory of Borat, but it is also the theory of Groucho Marx’s anarchic humor and of all comedy with a bite. If you don’t feel superior to the people being mocked, you will not get the joke. The enemy of laughter is sympathy with the victim.
Perhaps because Baron Cohen knows that his impersonations have made him a star, his public appearances are almost always in character. For the past several months, he has been parading around in hot pants, his hair dyed in blonde highlights as the flamboyant, gay fashion model Brüno. But Brüno is not the wise fool that made Baron Cohen famous as Ali G or Borat.