Friday, October 23, 2009

#70 - The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen

It was the decade when...

A Cambridge educated, former model proved himself the most fearless comic since Andy Kaufman.

In the Aughts, the triumvirate of Ali G., Borat Sagdiyev, and Bruno represented a kind of comedic holy trinity, three distinct manifestations of one hilarious person. His name is Sacha Baron Cohen and he is out of his mind. In what can only be called guerrilla comedy Cohen's modus operandi is always the same: Invent a eccentric over-the-top character, play him without so much as a twinkle of self-awareness, find gullible people who don't know you are a comic and then humilate, humilate, humilate. Humilate them, humilate yourself, humilate the audience. Anything for a laugh. This format would have all the novelty of a candid camera re-run if it weren't for the specificity with which Cohen imbues his alter-egos and the sheer audacity and gutsiness of his act.

Unafraid to look right down at the cold dark heart of civil society, Cohen's characters know no taboos nor inhibitions. The laughs often come from painful places; misogyny, anti-semitism, homophobia, our distrust in the intelligence of the lower class - Cohen is picking at scabs, and we're all laughing. This is satire, but it's also a kind of cultural anthropology; outside of Cohen's theatrics the imbelicity on parade is all quite real. It's painful. You don't just laugh watching something like Borat, you squirm.

Dense as a brick wall, Ali G was Cohen's first successful character - a deadpan gangsta youth with a penchant for track suits and ostentatious bling. Spouting a whole vocabulary of faux-slang, Ali G. exposed the blind spot of upper-middle classes when the topic turns to rap and urban youth culture. More than the other loons in Cohen's repertoire, Ali G relied on a string of absurd punchlines, breathtaking in their inanity. (Ali to a terrorist expert: Are you worried that someone is going to crash a train into The White House?) Ali G put Cohen on the map and made him a star in England, but the character didn't resonate as well across the Atlantic where Rap culture is much less of a novelty and Ali's thick cockney was perhaps a bit too local an anachronism to land across the pond.

With Bruno, Cohen's uber-gay Austrian fashionista, homophobia was the target du jour. A debate still rages on whether the character actually encouraged the mindset that it was trying to putsch, but such kirfuffles are somewhat beside the point; the wardrobe of the character alone proves that we shouldn't take this particular schwuler all that seriously. Bruno was the cheapest character of the three (cock jokes tend to be) but having a bare-cheeked Bruno dressed as an angel lowered onto Eminem's face is still, crude as though it may be, sublimely hilarious.

It was Borat however that cemented Cohen's status on the cultural landscape. Hating jews with a vehemence equaled only by his distaste for women, the Khazakhstan native and amateur journalist is a sublime creation of utter inappropriateness. Rekindling our discomfort with the latent anti-semitism in America, Borat's relentless invectives against the Chosen people are so jarring to our PC ears that we recoil almost as fast as we guffaw. His tour through America in his 2006 film (lengthily titled, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) is one long needle pop to the over-inflated balloon that is American Exceptionalism. From announcing in front of a Rodeo crowd that he supports George Bush's "War of Terror" to pun'king political figures, the real raison d'etre for Cohen's one-of-a-kind road-trip is to undermine the exalted status that Americans award themselves. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Putting Borat in situations that often veer on dangerous, Cohen never betrays the comic persona he has so carefully crafted; if it's funny, he is committed to it. He is also not above a big gross out wrasling match with a disgusting old naked guy. Try not to laugh watching that. I dare you.

Does Sacha Baron Cohen have any more tricks up his sleeve? Are there new characters left to be created? With his three original stooges now retired, and suffering from a bit of overexposure, one wonders what Cohen's Second Act will look like. If it's anything like his first, it's gonna be hilarious.

You AUGHT to remember...

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