A bizarre hip-hop poser in a canary yellow track suit tells a feminist that women shouldn’t be treated equally in the workplace — because then they might expect it at home, too.
An effeminate Austrian with pink hair enrages the crowd at an Alabama-Mississippi college football game by dancing with the cheerleaders before querying one of the players if he’s ever dated a teammate.
A shaggy Kazakhstani journalist wearing a malodorous gray jacket of a pre-perestroika cut asks an uptight English gentleman what a urinal is, and if he can “do a dirt” in the sink.
A middle-class British Jew pens a thesis on the American civil rights movement and seriously considers an academic career.
That seems like a setup for the “Sesame Street” game “One of these things is not like the other.” But, in actuality, they’re all variations of Sacha Baron Cohen, a 35-year-old English actor whose specialty is portraying characters far brasher than he and interviewing oblivious members of the general public.
And while anyone with an Internet connection or video-rental membership card can locate clips of Cohen in character as Ali G asking the chairman of the Arts Council of England, “Why is everything you fund so crap?” or, as Borat, querying a U.S. Congressional hopeful if he thought Jews were doomed to hell (he did), it’s not so easy to find much about the real Cohen, who keeps his private life private.
Cohen and his two brothers grew up in a middle-class Jewish London household, the sons of a Welsh haberdasher and Israeli-born housewife. Cohen, an observant Jew, attended Christ’s College in Cambridge, was active in the Habonim Dror Zionist movement and wrote a serious thesis on Jewish involvement in the American civil rights movement centered on the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi.
Rather than pursue a doctorate, however, Cohen followed the lead of so many university-educated British comics and tried to break into television. A 1994 demo tape he sent Britain’s Channel 4 featuring himself portraying Kristo, an anti-Semitic, misogynistic Albanian reporter (proto-Borat, if you will), turned heads, but it wasn’t until four years later that he hit it, and hit it big, with Ali G.
Ali G rescued Cohen from a career of spot television work and male modeling. Portraying a daft, wanna-be rap lothario decked out in neon warmup suits who speaks in an odd British-Jamaican patois and displays a penchant for malapropisms and rampant ignorance, Cohen landed a job on “The 11 O’clock Show” linking sketches with his largely impromptu interviews of innocent bystanders.
His segments (including a bit where he interviewed a rabbi, placed a yarmulke over the do-rag on his head and asked “Is I now a Jewish?”) soon became the show’s most popular bits. Cohen received his own show and was an overnight smash; even Britain’s Queen Mother counted herself as a fan. In 2003, he took his act to the United States with an HBO show.
With Ali G soon one of the most recognizable figures in Britain, Cohen was forced to lean on his two lesser-known characters: Bruno, the extremely gay Austrian fashionista, and, of course, Borat.
The overt anti-Semitism expressed by Borat has made him Cohen’s most controversial character. When recently handed an award at GQ Magazine show, he stunned the crowd by saying, “I would like to dedicate this award to you, Mel Gibson. Melvin, it is you, not me, who should receive this GQ award for anti-Jew warrior of the year.”
And when Kazakhstani officials hinted at legal action due to his Neanderthal portrayal of the Central Asian nation, he agreed, in character as Borat, urging Kazakhstan to “sue this Jew.”
Heading to award shows and even holding long press conferences in character is a reminder of Cohen’s total commitment to his comedy — a commitment that, in his current film, involves much embarrassing public nudity.
“Sacha sometimes is quiet and maybe has a few nerves in the car on the way to an interview, but when he is in character and actually becomes Borat then he is ‘in the zone.’ I think he thinks he actually has become Borat,” longtime Cohen collaborator and producer Dan Mazer told the Web site Boratonline.co.uk.
In a wine-tasting segment for “Da Ali G Show,” Cohen, a light drinker off-camera, rapidly drank himself silly as Borat and passed out in the men’s room. Amazingly, he woke up in character as the Kazakhstani.
“The best targets — the legitimate targets — are successful, powerful white men who rule the country,” Cohen told the New York Times in 2004, one of the few interviews he’s granted out of character.
“And in Britain, the upper class are incredibly accommodating. You can punch someone from the upper class in the face, and they’ll go, ‘Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry.’ They’ll never, ever throw you out of the room.”