Mostly known for his creation and portrayal of fictional outlandish characters, including Ali G and Borat, English comedy actor Sacha Baron Cohen is no stranger to outrageous antics. Having cited some of his comedy inspirations as Monty Python and Peter Sellers, “the most seminal force in shaping [his] early ideas on comedy”, Cohen has a rich history of toeing the line of acceptability.
Cohen’s film credits include the likes of Ali G Indahouse, Borat, and The Dictator, a collection that best typifies the style of comedy in which he excels. When writing and performing his work, Cohen keeps satire and black comedy in mind. His work references and mocks stereotypes that cross cultures, a violation of social taboo topics, and a presentation constructed from inappropriate language and gestures.
Of course, Cohen’s work has earned him significant praise during his career. At the start of his entry into television, he was named Best Newcomer at the 1998 British Comedy Awards for his show The 11 O’Clock Show. He also received the 2012 Outstanding Achievement Award, which he accepted as Ali G for the occasion.
Despite his achievements, Cohen has received controversy and criticism because of his often contentious sense of humour. His characters and films have, on occasion, been interpreted as racist and harmful. However, with objection has also come support. HBO spokesman Quentin Schaffer attempted to counteract the criticism by stating: “Through his alter-egos, he delivers an obvious satire that exposes people’s ignorance and prejudice”. In 2016, Cohen appeared on The Jonathan Ross Show and discussed all the times his comedy pushed one too many boundaries and landed him in hot water.
The first story Cohen shares with Ross features his classic character Ali G, a ‘street wise rude boy’ from London. He talks about how during trips to America for interviews, Cohen would play tricks on people in character. He explains how he would prank figures such as Republican commenter Pat Buchanan by “convincing him that I was actually an idiot”. He would use multicultural London English to make jokes, such as “I was actually hoping to go to America” after being told he was currently in “the USA”. Cohen expressed this as “playing to psychological levels” to “expose some of their [upper class people] prejudice” about the lower class.
Cohen’s next story involves a heavier consequence of playing jokes on political figures. He shares his experience hosting the MTV awards as his character Borat, a Kazakhstan-born journalist, in front of some of the country’s residents. During his segment, Cohen’s Borat pretended that Kazakhstan’s then prime minister was about to come onto the stage. His next act was “I got on my knees and I kissed his crotch”, which made the residents “very, very angry”.
This off-hand joke caused an uproar of controversy and outrage in Kazakhstan. In an attempt to settle this, there was a “$30million campaign” aimed to convince people that Borat did not represent them. After the prime minister flew to Washington to make an official complaint to the President of America, Cohen decided to take the joke one step further. “I found out the half an hour window he…would be in the White House. I decided to throw a press conference outside the Kazak Embassy, pretending to be the real Kazakhstan”. During this mock conference, Cohen made statements involving a warning that “Sasha Cohen is not a real comedian…he is controlling the media”.
Ross responds fairly by stating: “what you’re doing is actually quite dangerous”, even though “it is quite funny”. Cohen agrees with this by adding a final story of a cage match fight that was planned for the ending of Bruno, filmed in Arkansas. “The idea was we built this ultimate fighting arena,” Cohen explains, with “some quite violent people”. Cohen was advised by his lawyer to “not cross a stage line and incite a riot”. However, this is exactly what Cohen wanted to do. He goes on to explain that he planned to “have a fight and then start kissing” the actor portraying Bruno’s boyfriend and eventually implies sexual intercourse. The aftermath of this is described as “these guys started throwing these metal chairs in”, demonstrating the anger the crowd felt due to Cohen’s suggestive gestures. Cohen reveals he only added this threat to his work to elevate it, stating: “If I lie on my back, I can move him (his co-star) from side to side and dodge the chairs”. This is a sight that would only feed into the homoerotic presentation, showing Cohen’s hunger for pushing boundaries and stirring reactions.