When Sacha Baron Cohen gave the 2004 Harvard Class Day speech, few of the graduating seniors’ parents and grandparents in the audience had heard of the English actor. And most of them had no idea what to make of his masquerade as Ali G, a rapper with a vaguely Jamaican accent. To them the impersonation seemed as politically incorrect as his remarks: “lots of you are feminists, or as we call them in Britain, lezzies.” Half of the audience, mostly younger, convulsed in laughter while the other half, mostly older, recoiled in horror. That day at Harvard, Baron Cohen did what he rarely does: he stepped out of character after a particularly vulgar line and commented to the students, “Some of you are sorry you brought your grannies.”
Those who know Sacha Baron Cohen will tell you he is nothing like the characters he impersonates. The third son in an Orthodox Jewish family, he grew up in a London suburb, went to fancy British schools, and spent a year in Israel. He read history at Christ College, Cambridge University, 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 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 has always been interested in acting. He played classic leads—Tevye and Cyrano—in college productions at Cambridge. His acting career floundered after graduating, 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 wise-ass who pushed the limits of good taste. Based on what one can find of the early persona, the real Sacha Baron Cohen was neither charming nor 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 suggested that the late Peter Sellers, one of the most talented wise fools of modern cinema, was an important role model.
Walter Kaiser, 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; 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 The Merchant of Venice when Launcelot 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 Jamaican. He seized on the idea. He grew a moustache and goatee, dressed in shiny Hilfiger track suits and matching skull caps, and decked himself out with bling and wrap-around sunglasses. A Cambridge-educated white guy impersonating a caricature of a Jamaican 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. Ali G was, of course, a caricature and would have been totally offensive had Baron Cohen not made him into a wise fool. Most viewers found them hilarious; Da Ali G Show soon won Baron Cohen a BAFTA 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 three 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, C. Everett Koop, 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.
Brüno certainly qualifies as puerile exhibitionism that comes from the id, but it is cartoon humor—not the comedy of a wise fool.
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. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) 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 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 (Ken Davitian) was inexplicably and unforgettably hilarious. The Critic Andrew Sarris 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 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.
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Perhaps because Baron Cohen’s 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 and 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. Presumably Baron Cohen hoped to mine the same motherlode of wit with Brüno; it follows a similar formula. Brüno is the story of a gay man as an oblivious narcissist. In this role, however, Baron Cohen is isolated in his narcissism, and he gets laughs by making a fool of himself. Brüno certainly qualifies as puerile exhibitionism that comes from the id, but it is cartoon humor—not the comedy of a wise fool. It is even unclear whether it is a send-up of gay men or of homophobes.
Although Brüno, as of this writing, has earned more than $100 million, the only record it set at the box office was in the drastic decline of moviegoers from the first day to the second (pundits dissing the film on Twitter are allegedly to blame). I went the second day hoping to enjoy Brüno with a large audience, but found only about 25 others in the theater. Rather than laughing in spite of myself, I felt alone, disgusted, ashamed for being there, and sorry for Baron Cohen, who seemed trapped rather than liberated by his character. A few young voices shrieked with laughter from time to time. One young woman apparently thought what I shall call the-dance-of-the-large-Caucasian-penis was hysterically funny. But she seemed to be the only one.
Baron Cohen, who becomes Ali G and Borat with complete ease, seems to strain at the role of Brüno. Baron Cohen’s humor is always meant to make you squirm and wince, but to make you laugh, the wise fool must convey a kind of comfort in his innocence. Baron Cohen does not achieve that with Brüno. There are in fact moments when he seems quite uncomfortable.
Much of the Brüno humor involved dildos and anal intercourse; Baron Cohen has his own anus bleached on camera at a Hollywood establishment that apparently provides this service. It was of course meant to be shocking, but Brüno seemed more the victim of the joke than the jokester, the man who will do anything for a laugh rather than the fool who holds a mirror up to the hypocrisy of the world.
In one plot twist, having failed to become famous as a gay man, Brüno decides to go straight, as a path to fame à la straight actors John Travolta, Tom Cruise, and Kevin Spacey. This wink-wink humor for Hollywood insiders will mystify most of his audience. In his efforts Brüno attends a swingers party, so we get glimpses of heterosexual porn as well as gay porn. The episode ends with a “real” dominatrix whipping Brüno to get him to remove his last jock strap. Unfortunately Baron Cohen does not seem to be acting. He looks pained.
Brüno has the feel of a Hollywood movie created by a group of comedy insiders competing to out-shock each other. Baron Cohen seems to be the victim of what they produced. There are, of course, critics and millions of people who will find Brüno funny. But they will not be laughing at the humor of a wise fool. This comedy does not use wit to get past your superego. It appeals to audiences willing to check their superegos at the door.