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The many guises of Sacha Baron Cohen

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Borat Sagdiyev’s humor may be any number of things, but unintentional it is not. Unapologetic, uncouth and even unkind are more apt descriptions. But, as his originator freely admits, the infamous Kazakh journalist first reared his gleefully crude, mustachioed head thanks more to mere chance than sheer inventive genius.

“Borat is based actually on a guy I met in southern Russia. I can’t remember his name. He was a doctor,” revealed Sacha Baron Cohen in a press junket touting Borat’s feature film debut, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”

“The moment I met him I was totally crying. He was a hysterically funny guy. Albeit, totally unintentionally.”

Still, Cohen, 35, deserves more than a little credit for transforming the good doctor’s quirks into his own. In the process, he’s added a third member to his troika of eccentric, inappropriate, but undeniably riotous alter egos – Ali G, Brüno and Borat himself. All three personalities are fictional journalists born out of “Da Ali G Show,” Cohen’s satirical cult-hit series, with a single goal in mind – seek and annoy.

Unscripted and unrestrained, “Da Ali G Show” was Cohen’s first taste of success. Originally created for the United Kingdom’s Channel 4, the show gained global recognition with its second and third seasons, both broadcast on HBO. Cohen used his relative obscurity to fully inhabit his three creations.

Whether he was assuming the guise of Brüno, a limp-wristed, flamboyant fashion reporter, the obnoxious, misogynistic Borat or hip-hop poser Ali G – the self-proclaimed “voice of da youth” – Cohen turned journalistic integrity on its head. In each show, he badgered his interviewees while hiding behind a mocking ignorance. Long before Ashton Kutcher was adding Punk’d to the national lexicon, Cohen was showing him how it’s done – with more intelligence and, consequently, far more significance.

Born in southern England, Cohen was the second of three sons and attended the prestigious University of Cambridge, where he studied history. Crude humor may be his forte, but Cohen was on the path towards a PhD before taking a detour into comedy. Cohen’s success across the pond prompted an invitation to deliver the 2004 Class Day address at Harvard University. Of course, he appeared in character as Ali G, but Harvard students surely had no complaints about their unorthodox guest.

Like all fine actors, Cohen is as methodical as he is hysterical. He’s known for arriving on talk shows and in public as his oddball characters, not unlike more reputed thespians like Christian Bale. Bale maintained his American accent for “Batman Begins” press tours, and Cohen has done the same for every “Borat” appearance – reveling in his broken, faux-Kazakh English.

While each of his creations is a distinct manifestation of Cohen’s comedic brilliance, it’s Borat who’s finally bringing the British comedian the mainstream acclaim he so richly deserves. His feature film opened at No. 1 at the box office this past weekend, despite the misguided apprehension of movie moguls at Twentieth Century Fox.

Worried that the film’s offensive humor would dissuade audiences, the studio slashed its debut from 2,000 theaters nationwide to just 837. Regardless, the film delivered an estimated haul of $26,455,463 – besting family-friendly fare “Santa Clause 3” and “Flushed Away” by well over $6 million.

Fox should have known better. After all, the Emmy-nominated Cohen has been using crude but socially aware humor to win the hearts of fans for years. Although the man is a devout Jew, Cohen’s Borat is as anti-Semitic as any character in fiction. These seeming contradictions are what separate Cohen from his peers. He’s never shied away from revealing the truth – that racism is still an issue, as is the ugliness of bigotry – through uproariously tactless skits.

The millions generated by Borat’s feature-length foray reveals one indisputable fact – Cohen can no longer be ignored. He has arrived in spectacular fashion, with as much flourish as any of his screen personas. Hollywood’s finest have certainly taken notice, with Brad Pitt among those slavering at the chance to appear alongside one of the comic’s zany creations.

Cohen’s journey since his fateful meeting with that Russian doctor has been a strange, circuitous one. And while Borat’s birth may have been one of happenstance, there’s nothing coincidental about Cohen’s rising star status. After all, there are plenty of words – some not so nice, in Borat’s words – to describe both the man and his counterparts.

Uncharismatic is not one of them.