Sacha Baron Cohen’s Long Journey From Anatevka to ‘Grimsby’

For the loudest person in the room, Sacha Baron Cohen took a while to find his public voice. Or voices.

From the time we met as 16-year-olds, through our college years and while we lived together, Sacha was always the center of attention and always the funniest person around. But people underestimate his commitment to craft: He would write and rewrite jokes on his antique Mac in the basement and spend hours repeating phrases until he had accents and intonations perfected.

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It took him years of ego-sapping hard work and getting schooled at LeCoq to become an overnight success. That’s how much time he put in waiting tables and doing obscure comedy gigs after graduating from college before he won a regular spot on national television as Ali G, the voice of youth for “The 11 O’Clock Show”, on Wednesday, September 30th, 1998.

Although his voices (Ali G, Bruno and Borat, at least) are instantly recognizable, if you listen to the subtext of his performances his message sounds surprisingly like that of Bernie Sanders. That’s true even in his latest film, the action flick “The Brothers Grimsby” where he plays the idiot brother of a James Bond-type character. He says, though, “I’m just a comedian and an actor, not a political theorist. My opinion isn’t more important than any accountant or shopkeeper. It’s just a quirk of technology that millions of people listen to my work.”

But still there’s an intellect at play in between the “big cock” jokes, and it’s a progressive one.

But it is really from the work of another American Jew that Sacha takes inspiration. Yale psychology professor Stanley Milgram, whose iconic 1960s experiments were inspired by the Holocaust, showed how easily people were convinced to go along with authority. In his most famous series of experiments, actual subjects would cause the people they thought were the subjects of the experiment apparent pain when doctors told them it was part of the test. As well as playing with the racial and financial injustices of contemporary capitalism, uncovering uncomfortable conformities on the part of our leaders and fellow citizens is a project of Sacha’s ongoing comedy experiment.

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For my 21st birthday, Sacha gave me a great present. He was playing Tevye in a university production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which brought me a trifecta. First, it meant that all of our friends had an excuse to come to Cambridge, England, and celebrate my birthday. Second, since Sacha had grown up with Topol’s Tevye, it meant we got to see the best Topol impression north of Tel Aviv. Finally, it meant I could review the show for Koleinu, the journal I was then editing. It was a great show, a romp as you’d expect but also, especially when Tevye loses his third daughter, Chava, moving.

Sacha was the heart of the show, not only in terms of performance but also of emotion. His rendition of Tevye taught those around him the value of reflection and connection. And now, after a 20-year diversion where Sacha’s characters have been the public sounding board for others’ bizarre thoughts, his new film, “The Brothers Grimsby” (which opened on March 11), comes back to the soul. In the film his character, Carl “Nobby” Butcher, teaches his brother the spy (“Spies are all somewhere on the [autistic] spectrum: They almost say nothing; they either sleep with women or kill men,” Sacha explained at a recent screening) the importance of humanity.

Koleinu, for which I reviewed “Fiddler,” is the journal of British Habonim Dror, a progressive Zionist youth movement to which Sacha and I belonged. Along with our other friend Dan Salem (with whom I formed the “Committee of Sacha”), in Cambridge, we led summer camps, and during the year we’d work on Sunday afternoons leading groups of Jewish kids and occasionally attending anti-racism protests with friends from the movement while wearing our historic, trademark blue movement shirts.

One memorable Sunday afternoon Sacha planned a program for the group which included playing a version of Monopoly with the kids. The rules were normal except that the teams started off with different amounts of money. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that those who had the most money to start with won easily.

Despite his intentions, Sacha didn’t do much comedy at Cambridge. With me as straight man, he auditioned for Footlights, the university group that gave the world several generations of comedians before and after Monty Python. We did a couple of spots at “Smokers” — curated public shows of acts who hope to join the troupe — and, though we got laughs, they weren’t the right kind of laughs, apparently. We did versions of those same sketches later on at a Jewish club in London where Erran Baron Cohen, Sacha’s brother, was in charge of the music. The acclaim at those venues was also somewhat limited!

That Footlights’ rejection meant that, though he would engage in long and intense discussions with our friends in Footlights about the mechanics of humor, he would spend three years at Cambridge mostly acting, not writing. In addition to “Fiddler,” he had major roles in such plays as “Cyrano de Bergerac,” and Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine the Great” (where, as Bajazeth, he was directed by famous Shakespearean director Tim Supple).

While there were glimpses of what he would become — most notably in a publicity stunt for “Cyrano” during our second year, when he walked around the town in character as Cyrano, complete with period costume and extensive nose prosthesis, encouraging people to come see the show — he had yet to find the characters that could marry his charisma to comedy.

It wasn’t until he was recording a low-budget weekly youth cable TV show, “F2F,” (Face to Face) in the PumpTV studios near the town of Staines that the parts of Ali G began to come together. At about that time, he was attending classes with Philippe Gaulier, a French master clown and professor of theater at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. Gaulier taught his own specialized principles of acting to classes of performers who especially wanted to understand how to connect with their “clown” persona. These two elements made Sacha fluent in the yearning, often laughable, desires of youth culture and skilful in the techniques that could make an idiot naif the perfect mirror to view a white establishment that in turn worships, scorns and radically misunderstands youth culture.

Ali G is at his funniest when his gentle idiocy is hilarious both on its own (“So how loud exactly was the Big Bang?”) and when his interviewee has little grasp of the particular brand of stupidity he is encountering thus ending up explaining absurd turns of phrase or misperceptions, such as when British Member of Parliament Teddy Taylor tries to explain why it’s not racism that keeps Jamaica out of Europe. The edits are unfair — the interview is cut to make it funny — but the comedy comes from people in power giving in to the stupidity of those they supposedly lead, either as retailers, thought leaders or politicians.

But not all of his subjects give in to Ali G. CBS broadcasting personality Andy Rooney teeters on the edge of civility and does all but deservedly kick him out. And, if you watch the interview with another Member of Parliament, the patrician socialist Tony Benn that was aired, it’s mostly a collection of Ali G gags: “Why do they call it the welfare state? Is it because getting money for doing nothing is well fair?” That’s because Benn himself doesn’t say anything very funny: He persists with his thoughtful optimism, chiding Ali G, but refusing to give up on the vacuous reporter, on human nature or on Benn’s own political vision: “If you think girls get pregnant because they think they’ll get benefits I think you’re living in a funny world.”

As a diagnostician, Benn is spot on. Ali G is living, exactly, in a “funny world.” Somewhere in the archives there is an amazing full-length interview where Benn responds, expansively and clearly, to all of Ali G’s half-baked assertions of premillennial entitlement and post-Thatcherite rhetoric with humanity, compassion and belief. He calls out Ali G for his lazy worldview (which is, by extension, that of a number of right-wing tabloids and politicians), and explains how nihilistic an understanding of human nature it is. Sacha came home from the interview shaken by it, as if the whole basis of the character had been debunked.

Ali G shows the extent to which the twin American exports of Reaganomics and hip-hop had leached into global youth culture by the end of the millennium. Sacha was able to tap into a major disconnection between the hopes of a new generation and the actions of the previous one. Demagogues use this disjunction to sow division for personal or political gain but Sacha played it for laughs. It was instantly massive. We were roommates in the Chalk Farm area of London just before “The 11 O’Clock Show” started. I was an impoverished academic and he had a cable TV show with more guests than viewers. When I went to say goodbye to my parents 18 months later, before I left for America, I had to drive to the airport below a massive billboard covered entirely in his Ali G face.

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During the first years of the new millennium, Ali G came to America and, to the surprise of many of his British fans, became quite popular. But it was Borat Sagdiyev’s visit to the United States — as portrayed in the 2006 documentary “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” — that brought Sacha box office success and mainstream fame.

He tapped into an authentic way of showing the broad spectrum of xenophobia in the Anglophone world. This mistrust of foreigners (often “immigrants”) ranged from the soft bigotry of New York Times readers enjoying their regular “aren’t the Japanese crazy” pieces, to a general belief that foreigners indulge in bizarre practices, to the visceral hatred that Donald Trump (to whom Ali G memorably pitched special “ice cream gloves”) would later touch on during his “Mexicans are rapists” speech.

After having grown several different moustaches, changed names a few times and morphed from Moldovan to Kazakhstani, Borat had become a perfect foil for America. In name he was halfway between the old Soviet enemy and the new Muslim one, from a country that no one knew anything about. Instead of talking exclusively to power, he took the founding statement of his host country at face value and talked to the democratic representatives of the country he was visiting — the American people. Grasping the baton of immigrant comedies like “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” and “Coming to America” or the outsider comedies of Robin Williams (“Mork & Mindy,” “Moscow on the Hudson”), Borat gave the people their voice and what we heard would not have surprised Milgram.

The most memorable of those moments, not least because of its catchy tune, is where everyone in an Arizona bar sings along with Borat’s rendition of “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” As Sacha told me: “No one really thinks that everyone in that bar was an anti-Semite. But in order to appease a simpleton with neo-Nazi views they are happy to make him happy by singing along to his fascistic choruses. They are bystanders, not ready to stand up against racial hatred or xenophobia.”

In the post-Holocaust world, we know that it’s not just prejudiced ideologues who make others suffer: it’s the willingness of the bystanding masses to go along with what they know is wrong. Whether going along to get along means that minorities are underrepresented at the Academy Awards, women are systematically deprived of healthcare and opportunities, or — one of Sacha’s particular bugbears — “The world stands by while atrocities happened in Syria which has allowed Assad to perpetrate ever worse violence on the Syrian population. As Edmund Burke put it, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’”

Borat, like his forebears, is almost impossible to pin down to a knowable location and set of beliefs. He is nominally from Kazakhstan, but he might just as well have come from Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan. He is jolly and engaging, but represents a series of horribly bad ideas to which people sometimes object (and for good reason), but more often patronizingly humor or, worse, go along with. The shiny gray suit he wears during his journey cross continent acts as a mirror to a nation that can barely come to terms with its own diversity, let alone the panoply of different cultures beyond its borders.

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Bruno, Sacha’s caricature of a gay fashionista, tries to marry the vacuity of the fashion world to a recognizably gay personality from the country that had brought the world Adolf Hitler. Instead of black culture and a delight in welfare queens, interviewees are faced with gay culture and chic that veers from the ridiculous to the abhorrent. While the explosion of Ali G was almost exactly concurrent with the other famously nonblack purveyor of hip-hop culture, Eminem, Bruno came just before “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” made it big. The scope was smaller, the jokes narrower but still packed a punch. As Sacha told a New York audience at a pre-screening for “The Brothers Grimsby” (and he may be stretching the point), until he released “Brüno,” “no major studio movie about gay people had actually had a plot where they weren’t dead at the end of the movie.”

As well as exposing a not-particularly-hidden streak of homophobia in America, Bruno’s total commitment to fashion at, literally, any cost led to some uncomfortable moments. Stage parents were fine with putting their babies with “dead and dying animals,” with subjecting them to “extremely rapid acceleration” (even with no seat belt), or with stringing them up on crucifixes for a photo shoot. The film also brought the most cutting example of Milgram cruelty to movie theaters. Paula Abdul is prepared to sit on “Mexican chair people” while being asked, “So tell me about your humanitarian work; how important is it to help other people?” She even reaches for water, on the back of a Mexican man as a table, when she says, “Helping people is vital to my life, as important as the air I breathe or the water that I drink.”

Sacha and I were talking over dinner recently, and he told me that, long after I’d stopped writing with him, he bet two of his writers that he could actually get a celebrity to sit on Mexican workers forming their bodies into furniture shapes. He was convinced that it would work because of the Milgram experiments. Once Abdul got to the house, all he had to do was to tell her that “celebrities that were more influential than her had done a similar thing. I said to her, well, ‘Ve had Johnny Depp sitting on some Germans, und ve had Leonardo DiCaprio sitting on some Croatians.’ Also, she was receiving an award, which appealed to her ego. People sit down because they are flattered.”

Again, though, the idea was to present a character of such artifice and whose ideas were so deeply flawed that to play along with him would make you blatantly complicit. Yet if you disagreed with him, the obvious route of opposition for many interviewees was flagrant, and unpleasant, intolerance for his sexuality. The filming of “Brüno” was significantly delayed because Sacha broke a leg running away from one angry interviewee.

Bruno, with blue-tinted glasses, had first appeared in short inserts in 1998 on Paramount Comedy Channel, in Britain, but by the time his eponymous movie came out in 2009 the tide had turned even if movie studios hadn’t fully turned with it. The flamboyant Bruno was outrageous but his gayness was no more of an issue than Ali G’s hip-hop culture.

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For “The Dictator,” Sacha decided that, since he could no longer anonymously interview people, he would embody the truly powerfully ridiculous. It didn’t have the impact of “Borat,” but the intent to satirize American mores was clear. The film’s final speech is a form of reverse riff on Charlie Chaplin’s closing “Great Dictator” speech. Beginning with an announcement of continued dictatorship, General Aladeen speaks passionately in favor of Wadiyan dictatorship over democracy: “If you had dictatorship in America you could help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes and bailing them out when they gamble and lose.” He then moves, because of love, to embrace the flaws of, and the necessity for, consensual democracy: “Democracy kisses you because she wants to, not because her father is in the next room, chained to a radiator with electrodes attached to his nipples.” He goes on to say, “And that is why I call for real democracy,” which is to say, not the democracy that feels like dictatorship.

So what sort of moral can there be to a scripted action movie like his new film “The Brothers Grimsby,” with Sacha starring as a soccer hooligan? Well, yes, in and amongst the gunfire there’s a comment or two that skewers American gun culture, and the fact that Nobby (Sacha’s latest idiot creation) has a big heart to go with his big family.

It’s also a return to Tevye, the incompetent family man who nevertheless chooses family, who is a victim of geopolitics but immortalizes the town he’s forced to leave. And, oddly enough, the main message of the film is an affirmation of the importance of rednecks, hooligans and idiots. Especially as compared to celebrities, but also when compared to philanthropists and politicians. Here come the spoilers.

In the film the myth that celebrities and rich people are somehow better than others because they are successful is comprehensively debunked. People are people, whether they are famous, wealthy, working or not. To prove that opportunities can shape us, Nobby is separated at birth from his younger brother, who turns out to be a highly skilled, highly educated, pathological killer. To show that appearances are contingent, Nobby looks like Liam Gallagher, one of the hired killers looks like a “Ukrainian Ben Affleck,” there’s a Daniel Radcliffe lookalike and Penelope Cruz plays the part of Rhonda George (the name of Sacha’s actual, lovely assistant) who is an evil megalomaniac.

Unlike Sacha’s unscripted movies and shows, the scripted ones seek to create a recognizable setting and then place a clown right in the middle. It is a sad fact of our mediated world that the action movie genre in which Nobby finds himself seems like the real world. Nobby is a man of heart: a family man and member of the non-working class. Discussing him at a restaurant recently, Sacha told me: “Like Alfie Doolittle [a part Sacha played in “My Fair Lady”], he [Nobby] represents the undeserving poor, but he’s this lovable character. He’s of a type demonized by Trump and others, but I wanted to humanize him.”

Nobby’s a man who sacrifices himself for his brother repeatedly (though mostly unsuccessfully), and like millions of others across the world who are vilified as welfare queens or dole scroungers, he is unprepared to trade in his roots and family for the vagaries of early third-millennium capitalism. He’s a loving husband, brother and father who, ironically or not, teaches his privileged brother what’s important in life.

“The Brothers Grimsby” is a film in which the protagonist is an everyman working class hero — a “non-working class hero” as Sacha put it at that same discussion — in a world where jobs, if there are any locally, are tenuous, temporary, tense. “Going up north I saw towns, like Grimsby, where there were no jobs,” he told me. “These people are faced with a stark choice: to leave their families to seek employment in towns hours away from where they live, or to stay with their family and go on the dole.” This isn’t just a threat of vast deracination and the destruction of local culture, it’s a potential attack on the poor — “I just worry that the vilification of the poor and those on welfare is a precursor to reducing the welfare state in England.”

These “undeserving poor” are just as much an unwanted side-effect of contemporary capitalism as the undeserving rich: those whose money-moving gambles have been subsidized until they pay off, or those whose exploitation of sovereign mineral rights has allowed them to accrue wealth at the expense of the nation and the environment.

Nobby has made a noble decision to stay and look after his family using the apparatus available to him — the welfare state and the network of community rooted in Grimsby. He is out of his depth at the fancy charity function in London, the posh ecolodge in South Africa and the Chilean spa. But he is at home in the grim post-industrial north of England, the shanty towns of South Africa and the streets of Chile — the places where people are “LinkedIn,” as the film jokes.

As Sacha comes full circle, he embodies the small-town English family man as he once embodied the shtetl family man. He seems to have closed the loop on the ambush characters Ali G, Bruno and Borat, but in doing publicity for this latest film he has unleashed a new character onto the scene, the character of “Sacha Baron Cohen.”

Appearing on talk shows like Conan O’Brien and “WTF With Marc Maron,” he has come out to explain the backgrounds of the characters, the reasoning behind what he’s done and the world in which the celebrity Sacha lives. By revealing the Milgram experiment that his comedy lab was conducting, he can enhance the posterity of his earlier work and concentrate on the strengths of Nobby. He can finally show the mind behind the characters who have disturbed the smug conventions of contemporary American and British society and teach a generation brought up on wordless first-person shooter games how to take heart.

Dan Friedman is the Forward’s managing editor. Contact him at dfriedman@forward.com or on Twitter @danfriedmanme

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Sacha Baron Cohen’s Long Journey From Anatevka to ‘Grimsby’

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