A funny business: How Borat conquered America

It's a long way from the West Staines High Road to Sunset Boulevard. But the man who gave us Ali G has become a huge comedy star Stateside. Andrew Gumbel reports on the meteoric rise of Sacha Baron Cohen. Respect!
Click to follow
The Independent US

Of all the stunts Sacha Baron Cohen has pulled off in his short but seemingly blessed career as a comedian, this is surely the weirdest: he and George W Bush have both been spotted this summer dabbling in the same work of French existentialist literature.

The American President attracted attention and considerable ridicule when he revealed that one of the books he had read at his Texas ranch this summer was Albert Camus' L'Etranger. Just so nobody would think he'd turned his back on his Texas six-shooter image and morphed into some Francophone intellectual poofter, Bush made it clear that "Ca-moo" was only one of a whole range of "eck-electic" authors he'd been leafing through recently. Why, he'd also gone through "three Shakespeares" (and, presumably, several issues of Sports Illustrated too.)

How interesting, the media pundits mused, that the chief architect of the Iraq war should be reading a novel about a man who shoots an Arab and can't for the life of him figure out why he did it.

Baron Cohen, meanwhile, used L'Etranger as a prop behind the wheel of his Nascar racing vehicle in the summer comedy hit Talladega Nights. The film, due out in Britain on Friday and co-starring Will Ferrell and John C Reilly, has the erstwhile Ali G playing a flamboyantly gay French racing driver who casually drives the hero of the piece (Ferrell) to utter distraction. The whole film, felicitously, is a send-up of exactly the kind of white shit-kicker Southern mores that George Bush and his administration like to embody. And Baron Cohen's character, Jean Girard, reads Camus in precisely the pretentious. intellectual-poofter mode that Bush so abhors.

It's been three years since Da Ali G Show first achieved cult status on American television, much as it previously did in Britain. And with every passing year his ability to get under the skin of modern culture by straddling the uncertain boundary between fiction and reality has become ever more evident.

The American television critics who first watched Baron Cohen's antics on Da Ali G Show - his clueless hip-hop interviewer asking Boutros Boutros-Ghali if Disneyland was a member of the United Nations, or inviting a former CIA director to go back to the grassy knoll in Dallas in 1963 and say who really shot JR - may have thought he was a one-joke, one-note prankster. But the predominantly young audiences who tuned into HBO, the country's premier cable station, on Sunday nights (right after The Sopranos) couldn't get enough of him. Soon, Baron Cohen was being profiled in Vanity Fair and invited, in character, to address the graduating class at Harvard. He moved to Los Angeles, where he now lives with his girlfriend, the Australian actress Isla Fisher.

Ali G, and his other close-to-the-bone creations - the Eurotrash fashionista Bruno and the culturally misguided Kazakh television reporter Borat - lasted two glorious seasons before it became clear that too many people were now on to Ali G's true identity.

Undaunted, Baron Cohen is moving along in new directions, and greatly expanding his fan base. He played a lemur in the DreamWorks animated comedy Madagascar, and enjoyed a cameo on Larry David's dyspeptic comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Talladega Nights might not exactly be a comic masterpiece - it's just a little too crude for its satiric social barbs to have real bite, and Will Ferrell never quite finds the extra dimension his moron Nascar driver character requires - but two things about it are undeniable. One, it is the runaway comedy hit of the year. And two, Baron Cohen completely steals the show. His Jean Girard is like one of those casual villains from the old Wacky Races cartoon strip, with a little touch of the Frenchman from Monty Python and the Holy Grail thrown in as well - except that instead of vowing to fart in Will Ferrell's general direction, he sets out to kiss him full-on on the lips.

Baron Cohen's big breakthrough may yet prove to be this autumn's release of a full-length Borat movie. Or, to give it its full title, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Already it has proved a huge hit with audiences at film festivals including Cannes, and received mostly glowing notices this week at Toronto. It is due to go into wide release in the United States in early November - a sure sign that its distributors at Fox think they have a hit on their hands.

Chances are, it will cause deep offence to the real government of Kazakhstan, which can't understand why it has to suffer the indignity of such merciless ribbing from a foreign comic and which spent much of the production period shooting off futile protests to the top executives at Fox. There's a good chance, too, that it will cause offence to just about everyone else: Jews, blacks, women, homosexuals, and every other group the film defends by the distinctly unorthodox method of insulting them in novel and absurd ways. But the film is also likely to be forgiven its very outrageousness, for the simple reason that audiences find it howlingly funny.

Certainly, there may never have been a riper time for a mock-documentary about a crude and blinkered central Asian transplant who loves the West for all the wrong reasons - its vulgarity, pornography and fetishisation of ultra-violence. What's likely to provoke the biggest reaction, though, is the fearlessness of Baron Cohen's comedy.

Already, well-meaning intellectuals, Jewish advocacy groups and politically correct anti-racism campaigners have fretted that Borat might inflame exactly the kind of bigotry the character sends up. In other words, they fear Baron Cohen's creation might be too sophisticated for his own good.

Conversely, some of the middle American real-life audiences that Baron Cohen and his film crew encountered while they were shooting the film became so incensed that they were being sent up, and figured it out so quickly, that Baron Cohen had to be hustled out of a couple of locations at high speed to spare himself a mob scene. In other words, it could be that his comedy is in fact hitting home with withering accuracy. Last year, there was one particularly hairy moment on location in Salem, Virginia, when Borat told the crowd at a rodeo that he fully supported George Bush's "war of terror". "I hope you kill every man, woman and child in Iraq," he said, "and may George W Bush drink their blood."

Borat then led the audience into a rendition of the national anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner", only to replace the line about "the home of the brave" with "your home is the grave". Immediately the crowd erupted in boos. A couple of people pulled out guns and started firing in the air. Baron Cohen, staying in character throughout, was hurried out of the venue before things grew any uglier. And it didn't end there. Several leading members of the production received death threats over the coming days, and an unnerved Todd Phillips, the director, decided to pull out of the project altogether. (He was quickly replaced by Larry Charles, a veteran of offbeat television comedy and longtime associate of Larry David's.)

The close-to-the-edge Borat stories are beginning to pile up. The most widely recounted occurred in a country-and-western bar, when Borat induced the cowboy-booted crowd to join in what he said was a folk song from his native Kazakhstan, entitled "In My Country There Is Problem". The crowd didn't blink as he moved into the chorus: "Throw the Jew down the well/ So my country can be free/ You must grab him by his horns/Then we have a big party."

That escapade, which aired on Da Ali G Show, prompted the fiercely pro-Israeli Anti-Defamation League to say he had gone too far. "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 ADL wrote in an open letter, "we're concerned that the irony may have been lost on some of your audience - or worse, that some of your viewers may have simply accepted Borat's statements about Jews at face value."

On another occasion, Borat induced a white Mississippian to admit (or at least half-admit) that he regretted the end of slavery in the South - something that caused the Mississippian to lapse into fury when he realised how his remarks were going to be used, and who Borat really was.

The most dangerous moment, though, came in an escapade that has never been aired, and probably never will be. Borat visited a New Age retreat in the stone and crystal mecca of Sedona, Arizona, and pointedly refused to relax for a healer who had positioned him inside a symbolic hexagon. When the healer left the room for a moment, Borat hid himself under a blanket and pretended to start masturbating.

The healer went ballistic and called the police, who informed Baron Cohen that even the simulation of masturbation was a crime punishable by as much as two years in prison in Arizona. Baron Cohen, incredibly, remained in character throughout, insisting: "I did not touch my chram." (Even as he pulled a tissue from his pocket.) The police took the television footage as evidence, and ordered Borat and his crew to stay in town while they examined it. The entire HBO crew decided, though, to head straight to the airport.

If Baron Cohen can get away with these stunts at all, it is in part because he is himself Jewish, and a long-standing active campaigner against racism. If he has a razor-sharp understanding of the continuing legacy of racism in American politics, especially in the South, it is in part because he wrote an undergraduate thesis on the relationship between blacks and Jews in the civil rights movement and spent several months doing research at the Martin Luther King Centre in Atlanta. His biggest coup of that period - he was enrolled as an undergraduate at Christ's College, Cambridge - was to interview Robert Moses, a Jewish civil rights activist who was a major force behind voter registration drives in Mississippi and was famous for refusing to give interviews to anyone.

It's anybody's guess what Moses would have thought of Baron Cohen's in-your-face shameless humour. Once, in the guise of his Austrian fashion victim Bruno, Baron Cohen hopped on to the football field at the University of Alabama and joined in the cheerleader routine, hand on hip and buttocks wiggling. The crowd started yelling "faggot!" and other obscenities at him, at which point his bodyguard ran off. Baron Cohen kept going for a while before, once again, narrowly avoiding an international incident.

Baron Cohen doesn't talk much about his work in the media. In a rare interview with The New York Times last year, he observed: "Part of the idea of Borat is get people to feel relaxed enough that they fully open up. And they say things that they never would on normal TV. So if they are anti-Semitic or racist or sexist, they'll say [so]." In Toronto this week, he has appeared strictly in character, and given interviews accordingly. (He told one interviewer that Kazakhstan had a lot in common with Canada: "We too has cars pulled by dog, horses as police (maximum rank Chief Detective) and it also tradition in my country for wife of the Premier to give visiting dignitaries hand relief and mouth party if they royalty.")

Are these the words of the biggest phenomenon in global comedy? They may well be.

Comments