From Cambridge Scholar to Clown School: How Sacha Baron Cohen became the King of Comedy
Cambridge scholar and wannabe gangster aren’t two types of people you would usually associate with each other, but when it comes to Sacha Baron Cohen, both ring true.
The British actor known for creating absurd characters and then bringing them into the real world — and for interacting with people who have no idea the characters aren't real – turns 52 in October, yet is still as silly, comical and, dare we say, serious, as the first time he popped up on our screens as satirical character Ali G in 1998.
From his days as a budding actor to becoming a global sensation, Baron Cohen's career has been nothing short of remarkable. Read on as we will delve into his early life, the biggest moments of his career, some of the controversies he has stirred, and his insights on ageing.
Sacha Baron Cohen: A Genius is Born
Born on October 13, 1971, in Hammersmith, London, Sacha Noam Baron Cohen grew up in a family of Jewish descent. His father, Gerald Baron Cohen, was a clothing store owner, and his mother, Daniella Naomi, worked as a fitness instructor.
Showing real educational potential from a young age, Baron Cohen attended Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School and later studied history at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he wrote his thesis on the role of Jews in the American Civil Rights movement. It was during his university days that he developed an interest in performing and comedy, participating in various comedy clubs and productions.
From Cambridge to Comedian
While studying at Cambridge, Baron Cohen joined the Footlights Dramatic Club – a place where everyone from Monty Python to Fry and Laurie got their start. His next stop saw him moving to Paris for the prestigious French clown schooling at the École Philippe Gaulier and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1998, after a few years of filming commercials and making small TV appearances on British comedy shows, Baron Cohen debuted his Ali G character on The 11 O’Clock Show. A white middle-class boy from Staines mangling a London rapper aesthetic, he later went on to launch Da Ali G Show, a satirical talk show where Baron Cohen interviewed real-world figures while staying in character. It was an instant hit and showcased his exceptional talent for improvisation.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Borat is Born
It was almost 20 years ago that Baron Cohen introduced us to his next big character - Borat Sagdiyev, a dim-witted, anti-Semitic, sexist TV journalist from Kazakhstan. His 2006 mockumentary film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan – which actually got him on the FBI watchlist - aimed to expose American bigotry, xenophobia and sexism, and Borat became widely recognisable all over the world.
Baron Cohen followed up the success of Borat with Bruno, a film featuring his flamboyant Austrian fashionista character. While it didn't reach the same heights as Borat, it still showcased his daring approach to comedy.
Just when we thought we had seen the end of Borat, Baron Cohen revived the character when Donald Trump was elected president and there was a rise in anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic behaviour.
In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, which was released on Amazon in 2021, the character returns to America to offer President Trump a bribe. When it becomes clear that Borat will not meet the president, he tries unsuccessfully to give his 15-year-old daughter to Vice President Pence as a gift. He then settles for giving her to Rudy Giuliani, which ends in a now infamous scene in a hotel bedroom.
A True Musical Talent
Not just content with being a comedic genius, Baron Cohen is all a dab hand at both singing, writing music, and playing musical instruments.
“Musicals are my embarrassing passion; they bring me joy,” he has been quoted as saying. Some of his most prominent film roles outside of his own projects have been as Pirelli in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, and Thenardier in Tom Hooper’s Les Mis.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Young at Heart
Baron Cohen has been with his wife Isla Fisher for over 20 years, and the couple have three children together. As he has grown older, the comedian has shared his thoughts on ageing in interviews and public appearances. He often uses humour to address this inevitable aspect of life, joking about how his characters, such as Borat and Ali G, are getting older, and he sometimes wonders how they would adapt to the challenges of ageing.
In a more reflective vein, he has also emphasised the importance of staying true to oneself and continuing to take creative risks as one ages. He believes that comedy can remain relevant and powerful throughout one's life, as long as it evolves with the times.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Overcoming Controversies
Sacha Baron Cohen's brand of comedy is known for pushing boundaries, and it has not been without controversy. Some critics argue that his characters perpetuate stereotypes, while others question the ethics of his pranks on unsuspecting individuals.
One notable incident involved Baron Cohen being sued by individuals who appeared in Borat, claiming they were deceived and harmed during filming. However, the actor has defended his work as a form of satire and social commentary, highlighting the absurdity of certain beliefs and behaviours.
Baron Cohen himself has also been chased, nearly arrested and sued during his filmmaking process. While filming at a gun rights rally for the Borat sequel, he became afraid for his life, and it was then he decided to retire the undercover characters – or did he?
Sacha Baron Cohen Is Looking to the Future
So what’s next up for Baron Cohen? An Ali G revival, if you would believe it. Marking 25 years since the infamous spoof wannabe gangster made his debut on Channel 4, Cohen is said to be planning a new stand-up tour.
Watch this space.