The Countdown

Sacha Baron Cohen’s 15 most outrageous pranks, ranked

Louis Chilton counts down some of the actor and comedian’s most shocking stunts

Friday 23 October 2020 07:26 BST
Very nice: Sacha Baron Cohen incites the fury of a crowd as he mangles the US anthem while singing at a rodeo
Very nice: Sacha Baron Cohen incites the fury of a crowd as he mangles the US anthem while singing at a rodeo (Fox)

He may be a man of a thousand different faces, but Sacha Baron Cohen is surely one of a kind.

The comedian and actor rose to fame playing as Ali G on Channel 4’s The 11 O’Clock Show, before fronting his own projects in Da Ali G Show, Borat (2006), Brüno (2009) and, later, Who is America?

Baron Cohen became known for his clownish alter-egos, often undertaking elaborate pranks at the expense of his subjects.

As an interviewer of celebrities and politicians, Baron Cohen has enjoyed a career that puts revered journalists to shame. 

From Donald Trump to Noam Chomsky, Baron Cohen pranked, messed around with and otherwise humiliated some of the biggest public figures and luminaries of the past few decades.

Some of his pranks involve elaborate set-ups and public events; others need only a victim and a camera.

Here is a list of Baron Cohen’s 15 most outrageous pranks, ranked…

15. Donald Trump

Sometimes it takes a conman to know a conman. The US president has (erroneously) claimed he’s the only person to have ever walked “immediately” out of an interview with Baron Cohen, having cottoned on to the deception.  While it’s true that Trump doesn’t really play ball with Ali G’s fatuous business proposition – which involves a special protective glove used for eating ice cream – it’s nonetheless fun to see Baron Cohen poke at the seams of Trump’s tight, all-business persona.

Sacha Baron Cohen brings back Ali G to take shots at President Donald Trump

14. The 2013 Bafta Britannia awards

While accepting the Charlie Chaplin Award For Excellence In Comedy at the 2013 Bafta LA Britannia Awards, Baron Cohen violently knocked an elderly wheelchair user – introduced as a former castmate of Chaplin – off the stage. In reality, the “actor” Grace Coddington was in fact a stunt performer, and the incident was entirely staged.

13. Roy Moore

It may seem like low-hanging fruit to target Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of several instances of sexual assault, including by a woman who was just 14 years old at the time. Baron Cohen’s interview with Moore, under the guise of Israeli anti-terrorism expert Erran Morad, doesn’t offer any substantial interrogation of Moore’s policies or accusations, but the stunt, in which Baron Cohen waves a beeping “paedophile detector” in Moore’s general direction, remains brazenly amusing.

Who is America: Sacha Baron Cohen uses the 'paedophile detector' on Roy Moore

12. Bernie Sanders 

Appearing as the right-wing conspiracy theorist Dr Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr, Baron Cohen exasperates the socialist senator Bernie Sanders with an inability to understand what “the one per cent” means. Sanders’ look to camera as Ruddick tells him “this here scooter is to conserve my body’s finite energy” is one of quiet incredulity. By the end of the interview, it’s deafening. 

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11. Buzz Aldrin interview

Buzz Aldrin may have once slipped the surly bonds of Earth, but after he hung up his spacesuit, the famed US astronaut had to  suffer the ignominy of an interview with Ali G. Adrin, whom Baron Cohen at one point addresses as “Buzz Lightyear”, is asked the full gamut of stupid questions, including: “Do you think man will ever walk on the sun?”

10. Dick Cheney

In another of Who Is America’s highest-profile interviews, Baron Cohen was able to convince former US Vice President Dick Cheney (and architect of the “War on Terror”) to autograph a waterboarding kit. “Looking back at it, I think he felt happy and almost excited to sit in a room next to my character because I had done the one thing that he hadn’t actually done,” Baron Cohen later said of Cheney. “He’d ordered people to be killed but he never actually killed someone with his bare hands. ”

Dick Cheney signing a water board from Who is America?

9. Building a mosque in Kingman, Arizona

Assuming the persona of oblivious liberal Dr Nira Cain-N'Degeocello, Baron Cohen riles a room full of people from the small Arizona city of Kingman with the promise to construct a new state-of-the-art mosque. Their reactions range from bemused to outright bigoted ("I’m racist towards Muslims," exclaims one audience member), and Baron Cohen’s increasingly ludicrous proposals work the whole room into a fit of rage.

Sacha Baron Cohen proposes building a mosque in Arizona in 'Who is America?'

8.  Baby auditions

One of the most shocking scenes in Brüno saw Baron Cohen’s Austrian alter-ego interview a number of parents who wanted their infant children to be cast in a photoshoot. Baron Cohen makes outrageous, dangerous and illegal suggestions – from “Would you be ready for your baby to be strung up on a crucifix?” to “Is your baby fine with lit phosphorous?” – which are met with a disturbing compliance from all the interviewees.

7. Caged kissing

Brüno was condemned by many in the LGBTQ+ community for its often problematic depiction of its gay lead character, and the scene in which Baron Cohen, as Brüno, starts making out with his boyfriend Lutz in the middle of a cage fight, is not without its critics. But for sheer chutzpah, the stunt ranks among his very best. When the crowd of enraged spectators start hurling homophobic slurs and physical projectiles at the undressing couple, the actors were only able to leave through a trapdoor and pre-planned escape tunnel.

6. Milan Fashion Week 2008

One of the first scenes in Brüno sees Baron Cohen crash the Milan Fashion Week, wearing a suit made entirely out of Velcro. The stunt works as an innocuous satire on the fashion world, but it mostly serves as an excuse for the actor to show off his knack for stellar physical comedy.

5. Guns for kids

Another sketch in which Baron Cohen plays Erran Morad saw the “anti-terror expert” team up with gun advocate Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizen’s Defence League. In the sequence’s shocking highlight, Baron Cohen convinces Cleave to appear in a video for a fictitious “Kinderguardians” scheme, which instructs children as young as three how to wield firearms.

4. Human furniture

Bruno’s interview with Paula Abdul is a strong contender for the most cringe-inducing interview Baron Cohen has ever conducted. After “realising” that there is no furniture, Bruno invites Abdul to sit on “Mexican chair-people” instead. Abdul goes along with it, and the pair converse while sat on the backs of hunched-over gardeners.  She abruptly leaves the scene, however, when a sushi platter is wheeled into the room on top of a naked man.

3. Anti-terrorism training

Baron Cohen’s encounter with Georgia lawmaker Jason Spencer in Who is America? is far from his funniest work, but it ranks among the most shocking. Under the pretence of “anti-terrorism training”, Baron Cohen, as Erran Morad, is able to prompt a shockingly game Spencer to yell racial slurs, expose his bare buttocks, perform a racist imitation of a Chinese tourist, and use a selfie stick to take an upskirt picture under a woman's burqa. Perhaps inevitably, the clip had real-world consequences: Spencer resigned from the Georgia House of Representatives shortly after the episode aired.

Georgia lawmaker Jason Spencer yells the N-word on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America

2. National anthem

This classic Borat scene saw Baron Cohen take to the microphone at a rodeo. While the crowd initially react warmly to his praise for the War on Terror (“May your George Bush drink the blood of every single man, women, and child of Iraq”), the mood turns when he starts singing. As he warbles his way through the (fictional) Kazakhstani national anthem, set to the tune of “The Star-spangled Banner”, he incites boos from an entire mob of rodeo-goers. 

1. The naked fight

Perhaps the funniest and most widely remembered stunt from Baron Cohen’s entire career, this infamous sequence from Borat saw Borat and  his manager Azamat (Ken Davitian) fight and chase each other around a hotel, all while entirely naked. They actually filmed the fight three times, including once in Dallas, where the pair’s nude tussling was met with indifference as they gategrashed an engineering lecture. 

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