Sacha Baron Cohen: Just Another Stale Comedian Attacking Safe Targets

Sacha Baron Cohen, as his character Ali G.

By John Zmirak Published on July 12, 2018

The news that British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen “punked” Sarah Palin by pretending to be a disabled vet evoked in me a rare emotion: Ambivalence. I don’t mean that in the sense it’s often used. It’s not “indifference” or “apathy.” No, think instead of the Merriam-Webster definition: “simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion).”

Such mixed feelings need not be weak. Instead, they can hang in high tension, pulling you this way and that. The best example I can offer is the character of Hamlet. He deeply loves his mother, but is also blazing with anger at her betrayal of his father. It’s not that he was kind of “meh” about his dad, and rather blasé about his mom, so he can’t decide what to do. And he might do nothing at all. That would explain my feelings about the current World Cup, for instance. Because, you know, it’s SOCCER. Meh.

To Watch, Or Punch? Or Watch, Then Punch?

No, on hearing this news I felt two powerful stirrings at once.

YES, I want to punch Baron Cohen in the face for disrespecting veterans. And joining in the smug Progressive pile-on against ordinary, patriotic Americans whom Palin appeals to. The revolting elites have moved from simple scorn to real harassment and threats of violence. We’re not in the America of 2007, when the profane but hilarious movie Borat premiered. Leftist scorn felt a lot less dangerous back then. (Which might explain, though it doesn’t perhaps excuse, my seeing the movie over and over, and bringing my girlfriend to see it on our second date.)

Maybe I’ll watch the sketch, laugh at it, then find Baron Cohen and punch him in the face.

And YES, I want to see the sketch, because it will probably be hilarious. Not because there’s anything wrong with Mrs. Palin. She’s simply earnest, and earnest people make for great “straight men” in sketches like Baron Cohen’s.

So maybe the compromise is to watch the sketch, laugh at it, then find Baron Cohen and punch him in the face. Then send some money to a disabled veterans’ charity. But that kind of thinking is what led to the Church selling indulgences, so I think that I’d better skip the show.

A Once Courageous Comedian

I speak as a onetime, early-adopting fan of Baron Cohen’s comedy. I read about him while he was still working in Britain. I’d actually travel an hour on the subway to a British restaurant and gift shop (only in New York City!) to pick up the tapes as they became available.

His Ali G character mocked political correctness, sending a wannabe London Jamaican (who was obviously white) into outrageous situations. Dressed in ghetto bling and speaking in “street” language, he’d barge into meetings of humorless white academic feminists, and speak of the importance of granting more rights to “b**ches.” Then he’d watch their outrage battle with their desperate fear of seeming racist. The outcome was hilarious.

My favorite sketch? Where he joined a crowd of hysterical anti-nuclear demonstrators, and shouted nonsense from a megaphone — till the protestors asked for the cops to remove him. When a London bobby dragged him off, Ali G demanded to know, “Is it cause I is BLACK?” The look on the cop’s face was … priceless.

Likewise when Ali G toured a historic Welsh coal mine, and pointed to photos of 1930s miners (their faces covered in coal dust). “Why is they all blacked up? That’s racialist, innit?”

Cohen covered much the same ground with his character of Borat, who pretended to be from the former Soviet Kazakhstan. Borat reflected both vaguely “Eastern” chauvinism, and Communist-era crassness.

A third character, the bratty German homosexual “Bruno” was simply vile and unfunny. I’d fast forward straight through those sketches. I tried to watch the movie, but walked out 10 minutes in when Bruno put the moves on the elderly, courtly Rep. Ron Paul.

Goring All Oxes Equally

Back then, Baron Cohen was pretty even-handed in his satire. Likewise on his short-lived American TV show. What was telling was the reactions of famous Americans to his crackpot characters. Andy Rooney reacted to his vulgarity with outrage. Newt Gingrich got into a ferocious argument with him. Pat Buchanan, God bless him, patiently tried to explain the roots of the Iraq War to an Ali G who kept asking him whether Saddam Hussein indeed was hiding “BLTs.”

Donald Trump spotted the prank almost immediately and walked out after ten seconds.

Safe Targets Now

But by the time of the movie Borat, Baron Cohen largely abandoned his even-handed satire. Most of the folks he mocked in that movie were culturally “safe” targets. Southerners selling Civil War memorabilia. Upper middle class Charlestonians teaching an etiquette class. Pentecostalist Christians. The hotel clerks at the Dallas Adolphus Hotel, who wouldn’t rent a room to Borat when he was dressed as a pimp. Patriotic Americans at a rodeo, who were outraged when he insisted on singing the National Anthem … of Kazakhstan. (Steve Sailer ventured the theory that Baron Cohen’s entire comedic approach was one nasty, extended “Polish joke.”)

But by the time of the movie Borat, Baron Cohen largely abandoned his even-handed satire. Most of the folks he mocked in that movie were culturally “safe” targets.

It was funny, but very one-sided. And apart from the politics, I can think of one reason why. Baron Cohen chose to rag on people in regions of the country with customs of courtesy and kindness. His brief adventures in New York City, by contrast, showed Manhattanites ready and willing to pound him into jelly. He chose not to risk that too often.

Islam Is Not Funny

The worst piece of risk aversion on Baron Cohen’s part? That would be his treatment of Islam. While Borat is grossly misogynist and viciously anti-Semitic, he isn’t Muslim. Nor is Kazakhstan, by his reckoning. Instead, he pretends that the people of that huge, Muslim country “follow the Way of the Hawk.” Yeah, right. Pretty courageous there, Baron Cohen.

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So I guess I’m not surprised that as his schtick has worn a little thin. Baron Cohen is sticking to targets approved by the cultural Left. To gulling Republicans who want to be kind to veterans.

Yeah, that’s really sticking it to The Man. If Cohen keeps playing it this dull and safe, he might well end up in the place where laughter now goes to die: On the cast of Saturday Night Live.

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  • Howard Rosenbaum

    Yeah, I wattched every Ali G episode online over a period of a few weeks with my 21 year old son a few years ago. Thought at times predictable & yet always outrageous we both shared some moments of hilarity.
    It was a good thing .
    Hey, He even got the tee shirt when I bought the Borat dvd some years ago . That was also a good thing.
    With anticipation we awaited the release of the next big “Borat” inspired sure to be block buster .
    Well as the box office demonstrated , it was nothing on the level of laugh till you turn blue as was it’s predecessor . Nor was the film which followed, though not without a remnant of the “Borat” irreverent humor. Just a very small remnant however.
    So what to do to win back an audience ..? Well if this recent wounded veteran skit debacle is to be any indicator of Mr Cohens future in comedy perhaps he can replace Ms Wolf as the comic inspiration & spokesperson for the New Democratic Party. Heck not a problem that he’s British . The direction that empire is seemingly headed in would compliment the open boarders disingenuous character apparently embraced by the comedically challenged left ….

  • Ken Abbott

    He did a decent turn as the character Thénardier in the film version of “Les Miz.”

  • Karen

    I would check the temperature in Hell, because I actually agree with Zmirak. Baron-Cohen’s schtick here was niether enlightening nor funny. I am no Palin fan, but she’s out of office and never going to be back in one. Find someone with more influence to insult.

  • Ineverleavecomments

    I thought I read or heard Sacha Baron Cohen say in an interview, 10-15years ago (vanity fair? Fresh air? cannot remember), that his Ali G interview with Pat Buchanon was his favorite one ever and that he was the only person to immediately get the joke and play along. (Buchanon’s performance, I had thought was just the normal result of growing up with ~9 siblings-you size up ppl and their stupid s#%* and play along bc that’s life). Gotta watch this video again-It has been ten years since I last saw it!

    And another thing about the era of unfunny comedians: Camille Paglia was correct back in 2016 or so when she said unfunniness is a symptom of under-developed, stunted masculinity. There’s something there there I think.

  • Patmos

    I used to like Sacha Baron Cohen, especially his interviews and interactions with real people while in character, then I made the mistake of watching a few of his scripted movies. They were so bad and downright disgusting that it honestly made me feel disheartened, that this is what it’s come to.

    Comedy is at least in part a deviation from the norm, and I guess when the norm has sunk so low, what else can you really deviate to? It’s not really comedy anymore.

  • Hoyos

    I would also toss in that in the Ali G show it was public figures, in the movie mostly”civilians”. Bagging on someone going about their day is mean, celebrities and politicians is something else.

  • Kelly B

    What a bummer – I suppose I can love Borat but not like SBC

    “…all other countries have inferior potassium!” Heh…

  • Craig M

    My feeling about him from the beginning was that he uses his talent to take advantage of Americans’ good nature and willingness to go out of their way to help an immigrant in order to mock and ridicule them, and make them look ignorant. Mean-spirited and beyond cheap. He puts his own ignorance on display more than anything. He’s a disgusting human being.

    “Baron Cohen chose to rag on people in regions of the country with customs of courtesy and kindness. ” Exactly.

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