About thirty Middle Easterners wave flags and chant “Aladeen! Aladeen!” as Sacha Baron Cohen enters the Waldorf Astoria ballroom. It’s the New York press junket for The Dictator, his new comedy about a fascist dictator in America, and as with Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009), Cohen will be doing all of his press in character. Wearing a transparently phony beard and surrounded by buxom “virgin guards,” Cohen takes to the podium, surrounded by three portraits of himself and a logo for the “International Alliance of Constitutional Dictatorships.” Today, we’ll be pretending that Cohen is General Aladeen, dictator of the fictional North African nation of Wadiya.
“Welcome journalists of zah Zionist media, and death to zah West!” says Cohen. “Today, I wish to highlight dah innocent victims of a global human tragedy: dictators! Zese brave leaders are suffering daily victimization and brutality from zah suppose-ed crime of embezzalling money, oppressing zeir people, and doing a tiny little bit of genocide! In a-reeecent years, tyrants all ovah dah world have fallen one by one: Saddaaahm… Keem Jong-Eeel… Gadaffheee… and Oprah!
“Dere are steel some supporters of dictatorsheeps! On buh-half of my dear friend and doubles tennis partner President Assad of Syria, I want to thank thah United Nations for deir brave inaction over Syria! Thirteen months and steel no Security Council resolution! You guys are amazing! You have done next to nothing for thah Syrian people, but remember, you can always do less! Now please, let’s get some questions, anyone from zah North Korean press?”
We’ve been asked to submit our questions ahead of time, and we’ll be called to the microphone if ours is selected. This would normally be a breach of journalistic etiquette, but to be fair to Paramount, it’s probably what General Aladeen would have wanted.
“So general,” says a reporter, “is it true or just a rumour that you have been banned from British TV?”
“Yes, thees ees true, thah BBC has introduced sanctions against me!” says Cohen/Aladeen. “Dey have banned me from all dah BBC channels, and also dah BBC radio, ees true! Look, nobody is a bigger fan of state-sponsored-spensor—spensor—“ He trips on his accent. “Sorry, I have somezing in my mouth… Don’t worry, eet’s not vhat you’re thinking…”
He continues. “Nobody ees a bigger fan of zah state-sponsored-censorship than me, but zee BBC took it too far. All I wanted to do on dah BBC was use their airwaves to promote my anti-West, anti-Zionist platform, and quell zose nasty rumours about dah Holocaust! I guess no good deed goes unpunished!”
Dead silence. Cohen smiles a little. “I guess zat joke does not go down well in New York!”
As usual with Cohen, much of the humour comes from his character’s cheerfully grotesque anti-Semitism. When a reporter blurts out, “And yes, I’m a Jew,” there is some laughter as Cohen takes a moment to mug. He looks down at the podium, and blinks his eyes, and shakes his head, as if panting from taking a long run. “You are putting me in a very deefeecult position.” He smiles. “I suppose I should not be surprised. We are in New York wis za media. I will answer your question, I do not have a problem with Jews. It’s just descendants of zah tribe of Moses.”
“General, what Hollywood celebrity do you have the most in common with?” This reporter has a difficult-to-place accent.
“Are you a-from Australia?
“No, South Africa.”
“Ah! Okay, dey have a good history as well… Ah, it has to be Mel Geeebson! In fact, recently in Wadiya, we made heem our Public Relations Expert! Aldough he has said some pretty offensive things recently, like saying he would work with Jews, we half made heem the head recently of our Museum of Eeentolerance!”
When Cohen was pretending to be Borat and Bruno, those characters were promoting faux-documentaries. If there’s a conceptual problem with today’s junket, it’s that since General Aladeen is a character in a fictional movie, it’s hard to tell if we be asking him about a movie he should theoretically have no knowledge of, or if we should we continue asking him questions about important political issues. Most of the reporters settle somewhere in-between by asking about show business.
“What did you think of The Hunger Games, and are you thinking of instituting such an event in Wadiya?”
“What ees dah point? North Korea has done it literally! Now, King Keeem Jong-Ooon eez doing hiz verjion of Dah Biggest Loser; seven million people are competing to see who can lose zee most weight. Are zere any more Jews here? I want to know, yes, put your hands up?” Several hands go up. Cohen points to them one by one, and whispers animatedly to his “Virgin Guards.” “Do vee have enough sacks?” he stage-whispers. “No problem! Zank you!”
Cohen puts on an entertaining show: the way he inhabits characters while still keeping tongue firmly in cheek is impressive and downright paradoxical. He’s quick on his feet, always able to steer things on track whenever foolish reporters try to ad-lib with him. I’d pay good money to see a Sacha Baron Cohen do this as a one-man show. And yet… I’m not sure how much I appreciate seeing it for free at a press conference at the Waldorf.
Like Peter Sellers, Cohen has eluded a public persona, making a career of disappearing into other people. He has submitted to very few long interviews out of character, and indeed, very few short ones. Maybe he worries that explaining his process would ruin his mystique, but because his improvisational comedies are so unique and audacious, and because his material is so troubling (dealing as it does with sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and the tricky line between xenophobia and meta-xenophobia), few comedians warrant serious analysis as much as him.
I keep thinking about the questions I’d like to ask Sacha Baron Cohen, not General Aladeen. How different is making a scripted comedy like The Dictator from an improvised comedy like Borat? Is the process of creating, shaping, and refining characters any different? How long does it take to rehearse these characters? What is it like to spend months at a time as Borat, and how easy is it to shake that character once you get home? Is it fair to call Borat and Bruno “documentaries”? When you’re making those films, do you ever fear for your safety? The last time you wrote and starred in a scripted comedy was Ali G Indahouse; how did that experience inform The Dictator? How has your working relationship with director Larry Charles evolved over the years, and is it markedly different on a scripted film? What’s the difference between working on your own projects and working with Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese?
Your characters are ignorant and bigoted; how much do you worry about making them too likable, or not likable enough? As a practicing Jew, what draws you to humour about anti-Semitism? Do you worry that these jokes will be misinterpreted by some audience members, and is it the artist’s responsibility to worry about what the audience thinks? How about jokes about groups to which you don’t belong: gay people, black people, women, and Middle Easterners? Are there any topics you wouldn’t joke about, and are there any times you think you’ve gone too far?
What do you say to the accusation that you exploited the poor people of Moroeini, Romania (where the Kazakhstan scenes from Borat were shot)? The frat boys in Borat – they were certainly jerks, but did they really deserve to have their lives ruined? Is Bruno a homophobic creation, or an absurdist depiction of a homophobe’s perception of homosexuality, or both, or neither? Let’s say a guy like Bruno shows up on your hunting trip and comes into your tent with a dildo – would you feel a little peeved? What do you make of the hostility that greeted Bruno in some quarters?
I’m certain that Cohen would have smart and articulate answers to these questions. Soon I hope to hear them.