If you like his brand of comedy or not, you cannot deny that Sacha Baron Cohen has enjoyed a career full of rich successes. There was a time, during the mid-2000s after the release of Borat in 2006, where it seemed as if there was nothing he couldn’t do. The classic mockumentary shone a spotlight from point-blank range in the face of America’s most absurd ignorances and cultural gaffes.
During this period, Cohen’s comedy was perfectly placed. By 2006, Western society and popular culture at large had hit ridiculous extremes. It was the era of celebrity and reality TV, and Borat provided a great antidote and caused a tsunami. It was hailed by one half of society and condemned by the other. This was comedy at its finest, appealing to the most basic understanding of the concept of satire.
However, the heights of Borat would seem hard to replicate. Brüno, The Dictator and The Brothers Grimsby came afterwards, and in 2020, Borat‘s sequel. There were a few memorable moments in the latter, especially that cringe-inducing moment with Rudy Giuliani. The film was decent overall, and another adequate satire of Donald Trump-era America, but it led some commentators to question whether Cohen’s brand of comedy is relevant anymore.
This led people to trawl through Cohen’s career, unearthing his best moments. Although societal mores have moved on, characters such as Ali G are still classic, even if they do not fit in with the cultural landscape anymore. They’re a reminder of how good comedy can be at points and also how out of order it can be. Society moved on from On the Buses, and it has started to move away from characters such as Borat. There’s no surprise that Cohen has started to move into more serious titles, which he shines at, such as The Spy and The Trial of the Chicago 7.
This is not to negate Cohen’s quality as a comedian, and his massive successes did not come without a lot of work. He attended clown school in Paris where master-clown Philippe Gaulier trained him, modelled, and even hosted a programme on a Windsor cable television alongside veteran BBC weather presenter Carol Kirkwood. Cohen’s rise to the top was incremental, and you can only say fair play to him, as he tried his hand at everything. These real-life experiences always imbued his comedy with a sincere, everyday essence, and there’s no surprise he became so successful. He was in the right place at the right time.
The most surprising job Cohen accepted when finding his feet as an actor came in 1996, starring as the chef in an advert for McCain microwave chips entitled ‘Ping Pong’. It was produced by the now-defunct but legendary Poulters advertising agency in Leeds, and was meant to herald a new beginning for McCain and their advertising brand. The surreal, early ’90s staple of ‘Quickety Quick, Micro Chips’ had been binned for the new advert featuring Cohen.
Cohen’s commercial is even more bizarre than ‘Quickety Quick’, and features a whole host of characters, including the chef, Guy Fawkes and a boxer. This is indicative of the period where the ’90s had lost its mind, and any sense of sanity had been forgotten in favour of the ridiculous. ‘Ping Pong’ is more like a vignette from Natural Born Killers than a primetime advert.
It seems as if McCain felt that the Poulters version was too out there even for the audience, and after only two weeks, they pulled ‘Ping Pong’ as they were afraid that audiences wouldn’t understand it, which even 25 years later, they don’t. Luckily for Sacha Baron Cohen, however, in 1998, he got his big television break as Brüno and Ali G, and the rest, as they say, was history.
Watch Sacha Baron Cohen star as the chef below.