Sacha Baron Cohen: After Ali

How do you follow an act like Ali G? By creating a character even more preposterous, more offensive and more effective in exposing small minds and huge prejudices. Enter Borat, shame of Kazakhstan and scourge of America...
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The Independent Online

"In Kazakhstan," claims Borat Karabzhanov, "the favourite hobbies are disco dancing, archery, rape and table tennis." No wonder the Kazakhstan embassy is a bit miffed. They insist that Mr Karabzhanov, who claims to be a Kazakh, bears absolutely no resemblance to the real inhabitants of their country. And they're probably right, since this roving reporter is the creation of Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comic most famous as Ali G.

Like a lot of the best comic characters (and quite a few of the worst ones) Borat's talent to offend is rivalled only by his ability to entertain. "Kazakhi people have many job opportunities in US and A," he declares, in his new series, filmed in America and broadcast this month on Channel 4. "For a man - construction work, taxi driver or accountant. For woman - prostitute." And the English aren't immune. "Englishman must have a hobby," he says. "Some like to collect the stamp or make jam. But the most fun is to kill a little animal with a shotgun or rip him up with a wild dog."

Baron Cohen's humour has always been provocative. Yet since he's relocated to America, it's acquired added bile and bite. His characters would still amuse in a conventional sketch show, but it's in their confrontations with Americans that the real satire resides. In conversation with his idiotic archetypes, interviewees betray things about themselves they'd never admit to in a normal documentary. Baron Cohen's comedy exposes prejudices that investigative journalism fails to reveal.

In America, as in Britain, a lot of his humour is merely harmless fun. "Is Disneyland a member of the UN?" Ali G asked Boutros Boutros-Ghali. "Let's go back to the Grassy Knoll," he said to the former CIA director James Woolsey. "Who actually shot JR?" However, his last two programmes have exposed a disturbing strain of tacit anti-Semitism that most undercover reporters could only dream of revealing. A big-game hunter in a golf buggy claims Jews cause trouble everywhere. A prospective congressman claims Christians go to heaven and Jews go to hell. In a country and western club, good old boys (and girls) in Stetsons sing along with Borat's merry little ditty, entitled "Throw the Jew Down the Well". It's a spectacular coup de grâce, probably Baron Cohen's finest hour - a dramatic demonstration of how racism feeds on dumb conformity, as much as rabid bigotry.

With its extrovert, confessional culture, and its vast reservoir of extreme opinions, America was always going to be a happy hunting ground for Baron Cohen - but, surprisingly, his hit-and-run humour is also immensely popular with American audiences. He's already had two hugely successful series on HBO, America's top cable channel for comedy. Nowadays, he resides in a £2m house in Los Angeles, a world away from Ali G's native Staines.

Baron Cohen's clandestine comedy evolved in his native Britain, where he dressed up as Ali G (a moronic middle-class yoof from the Home Counties posing as a Jamaican gangsta) to conduct fantastically ill-informed interviews with everyone from Judge James Pickles to Tony Benn. Ali G was ridiculous, but somehow, Baron Cohen managed to make him convincing. "Even after I left the studio I thought it was genuine," said Benn, one of the few British celebrities bold enough to stand up to Ali, rather than pandering to his preposterous (yet strangely plausible) opinions.

Like The Young Ones in the Eighties, Ali G quickly permeated the national psyche. "It was a word-of-mouth thing," says the writer and comedian Dave Cohen, who worked on Channel 4's 11 O'Clock Show, where Baron Cohen got his first big break, in 1998. "It was very popular with young black kids as well, because it popularised the way young black kids talk." Almost overnight, Ali G made the giant leap from underground cult to household name. "Everybody was quite taken aback by the success of Ali G - I'm sure Sacha was himself," recalls Cohen. However, Baron Cohen's characters thrive on anonymity, and once everyone in Britain knew about him, he was forced to seek fresh pastures, hence his migration to the United States.

Inevitably, some people in Britain and America have been a bit put out by Baron Cohen's satiric gambits - particularly "Throw the Jew Down the Well". Ofcom, Channel 4 and the Board of Deputies of British Jews have all received complaints, and America's Anti-Defamation League wrote to Baron Cohen about this sequence when it was shown in the US. "While we understand this scene was an attempt to show how easily a group of ordinary people can be encouraged to join in an anti-Semitic chorus," the League's Abe Foxman told The Jewish Chronicle, "we are concerned that the irony may have been lost on some of the audience, or worse still that they simply accepted Borat's statements about Jews at face value."

Yet the richest irony of all is that Baron Cohen is Jewish - an observant Jew who keeps kosher, started acting in a Jewish youth group and spent a year on a kibbutz. His fiancée, the Australian actress Isla Fisher, is converting to Judaism before they marry. Born in 1972, the second of three brothers, he was raised in an Orthodox household in north London. His mother is Israeli. His father owns a menswear shop in Piccadilly. He was educated at Haberdashers' Aske's in Elstree. He read history at Cambridge University, but it was the title of his dissertation that was most revealing: The Black-Jewish Alliance - A Case of Mistaken Identity.

Despite Baron Cohen's sincere interest in civil rights, some black observers have sometimes objected to his ethnic humour. A couple of years ago, when Ali G (not Baron Cohen) arrived in London's Leicester Square for the premier of his feature film, Ali G in da House, he was greeted by protesters bearing placards with slogans like "Al Jolson Go Home". "He is the new Al Jolson - he's effectively blacked up to take the piss out of a stereotype of young black men that is deeply offensive," argues Peter Akinti, editor of Untold magazine, and one of the demonstrators in Leicester Square. "There's no way you would be able to get away with making similar jokes about the Jewish community." In fact, some Jews did object to Ali G, but for completely different reasons. "As a Cohen, you should realise that it's all about leadership and role models," wrote the founders of Britain's biggest Jewish website, in an open letter to Baron Cohen. "What sort of values are you giving to young Jews?"

Of course, the vast majority of viewers don't find Baron Cohen's comedy objectionable. They find it extremely funny. And shrewdly, throughout every furore, Baron Cohen has kept his own counsel, leaving the media to tie itself in knots debating the rights or wrongs of Borat and Ali G. Incredibly, his other alter-ego, a camp Austrian fashionista called Bruno, who thrives on exposing latent homophobia, has incited no major controversies so far. Like a great Hollywood star of old, Baron Cohen never gives interviews. He's always available for comment as Ali G (or Borat or Bruno), but never as himself.

Comic characters are always embraced by some of the people they set out to satirise. It happened with Alf Garnett. It happened with Loadsamoney. But no comedian can be held responsible for the opinions of their punters, any more than an artist can second-guess what their audience is going to think. In the end, only one man knows what Borat really thinks of Jewish people, or what Ali G really thinks of black people, and he's not telling. "I wanted to be Britain's first great Jewish comedian, but I was beaten to it by a man called Sacha Baron Cohen, who came up with this amazing character called Ali G," quips Ivor Dembina, another brave Anglo-Jewish comic who's courted controversy searching for insightful (rather than easy) laughs. "A white man playing the part of an Asian who wants to be black? Only a Jew can make money out of this." As Ali G would say, "I's just joking, innit?"