What I've Learned: Sacha Baron Cohen
Here the comedian behind Ali G, Borat and Brüno shares some wit and wisdom.
BY Sanjiv Bhattacharya | Oct 16, 2016 | Film & TV
Sacha Baron Cohen, Actor, 45
I have been incredibly lucky. And this business is predominantly luck. It's hard to tell others to keep following their dreams forever. Unlike becoming a surgeon, you can be incredibly talented and still unlikely to make enough to feed your family.
Honesty is great, but I'd prefer it if someone was funny. It's actually quite hard to make me laugh.
The funniest people I've ever known died within weeks of each other: Garry Shandling and my dad. My dad was the wittiest man I've ever met. He could spar with the greatest; most of his lines were gags.
When I was 23, I went on holiday to Astrakhan in south Russia. It was incredibly primitive. The plane was like a bus, there were people standing in the aisle all the way. The woman next to me was chewing on a chicken bone and reading an anti-Semitic cartoon. Anyway, I went to this doctor there and he said, "In England you say, 'Cock! Cock!' But in America they say, 'Caak! Caak!' Yes?" And I started laughing immediately. He was the guy that eventually became Borat. I owe him some roubles.
When I pretended to kill an elderly woman at the Bafta-LA Awards, Mel Brooks sent me an email saying that the gag was a classic. That was one of the most satisfying moments of my career.
In England, being funny is part of masculinity. If you're the funniest guy in the room in England, it's like being the richest guy in the room in America.
Satire challenges the autocrats. In mocking the establishment you keep their power in check to some degree. Although I might just be trying to sound like I have an important job.
I think Americans are more polite than the English. If I brought a bag of human excrement to the dinner table of a posh English family, they'd tell me to get out. In high society in the South, they were more focused on not offending me.
Originally, Borat was a disaster. I was depressed, the original director left and the studio gave us two weeks to replace him, or they'd shut it down. So, anyway, I went to Garry Shandling's house—he had this basketball game on Sundays for comedians—and when I went up for a basket, I landed on his foot and rolled my ankle. I tore two ligaments. But because of that, the insurance paid for a three-month hiatus and I managed to call Peter Baynham, who had worked with Coogan on Partridge, and together we re-wrote the movie. So really, Shandling's foot saved Borat.
People in London are direct. If they don't like you, they call you a cunt to your face—which I get a lot. But people in LA have this pseudo-psychoanalytic way of speaking because most of them have had therapy. It's hard to know if they think you're a cunt or not. Which makes life a bit challenging.
Satire becomes easier the more absurd the world gets. Part of the success of Borat was that it was in the middle of the Bush government. When there's frustration and anger, satire feels good, it releases some of that energy.
International politics can be incredibly petty. I actually got a letter from Tony Blair saying that I'd made the President of Kazakhstan's state visit complicated. He'd asked Blair to shut down the movie, and Blair had to explain that England wasn't a dictatorship.
My clown coach, Philippe Gaulier, taught me a style of comedy called bouffon, where if you want to undermine someone you insist you're them, and they're the imposter. So you both end up saying, "No, no, I'm the real one." I used it as Borat. When the President of Kazakhstan flew to Washington DC, partly to try to shut down the movie, I held a press conference outside the embassy and said that I was the real voice of Kazakhstan. It was a medieval theory of comedy but it worked.
I bet the other two writers for Brüno I could get celebrities to sit on Mexicans as chairs. They said it was impossible, but I'd read about the Milgram experiment, where if you tell someone everyone's doing something, they're more likely to do it. I told the celebrities, "Oh, Johnny Depp sat on some Nicaraguans..." And Paula Abdul and La Toyah Jackson both sat on Mexicans. I won.
I'll do anything for a joke. In Borat, the original naked fight had me sitting on Ken [Davitian's] face. On the day, director Larry Charles said, "It'd be funnier the other way around." I couldn't argue. I told the makeup person, "You have to thoroughly clean his rectum. And I need a mask for the nose and mouth." But when we did the scene no one could find the mask. Ken found it later hidden in a part of his tummy.
When they put me on The Sunday Times Rich List in England, I almost sued. Most people sue because the list says they're poorer than they actually are, but my problem was they'd made me richer and I was embarrassed by it.
Everything is shit until it isn't. In any creative work, it's very unlikely it's going to be good at first. You have to have faith and work on it till it's good. I'm in the turd-polishing business.
On the night of the premiere of Da Ali G Show in America, The Evening Standard headline was "Ali G bombs in America", and the Guardian wrote this in-depth analysis about why. But it wasn't true! They were so committed to this idea that American and English humour are different. But I don't think they are.
There's this great camaraderie among comedians in LA. In England, people work in their individual fiefdoms, but [in LA], they offer advice on each others' projects. If Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] have a movie, they'll get my thoughts on it and vice versa. They've realised that if comedy is successful it's good for everyone because they'll make more comedies.
In Arkansas, there's a public decency statute loophole that allows you to simulate gay sex onstage, even though the law was meant for straight sex.
Danger isn't thrilling, it's scary. I'm not very brave. At the end of Brüno, there's this gay scene in the middle of a cage fight, and it felt like there was a 50–50 chance I'd go to hospital in a significant way. You've got your crew there, you don't want to waste their time and you want to give the audience something they've never seen. That's the impetus. I guess I can overcome my fear and just do it.