Actor Sacha Baron Cohen Christ’s College, Cambridge. Last weekend in Los Angeles, a 38-year-old man from north London named Sacha Baron Cohen met a 37-year-old man from Detroit named Marshall Bruce Mathers III. Or, to put it another way, Bruno, a gay, Austrian TV presenter, dressed up as an angel and suspended from the rafters of the Gibson Amphitheatre, lowered his almost bare bottom on to the face of Eminem, the rap singer frequently accused of homophobia. Yet another description could be that two global entertainment stars staged a promotional stunt at the MTV awards.
In the multilayered world of Baron Cohen, in which one media mask conceals another, reality is a flexible concept. Yet whatever happened – and the precise degree of complicity between the two men remains a matter of speculation and dispute – the name of Bruno, the mockumentary about the camp Eurotrash fashionista, released next month, was suddenly thrust like a tongue-filled kiss on to the lips of the watching world. Baron Cohen had once again managed to subvert celebrity while maximising publicity.
If that sounds a little like having your cake and eating it, then that in many ways has been the formula of the Londoner’s extraordinary comic success. Bruno is the third in a sequence of characters that Sacha Cohen has created who test our latent attitudes to sensitive issues such as race, sexuality and cultural identity.
Not that Ali G, the wannabe gangsta from the West Staines Massiv, or Borat, the outlandish Kazakh broadcaster, were devised as sociological experiments. They’re both first and foremost fabulous comic inventions. But, along with Bruno, they have all ploughed the fertile ground that was temptingly fenced off by political correctness.
In the 1980s, alternative comedy grew out of a moral and ideological opposition to the vices of a previous generation of comics. It was anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic. Comedians, however, are drawn to no-go areas. How to mock the new pieties as well as the old prejudices? The answer for a new crop of comedians, including Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais and Baron Cohen, was to come up with characters who could say the unsayable. Thus a racist comment could be transformed into a comment on racism.
Baron Cohen went much further than the others by placing his fictional creations in real-life situations with real people who, unlike Eminem, were not in on the joke. The result was often hysterical comedy that worked on a number of different levels, from the crude to the complex. The basic joke is to have one of his characters say something inappropriate and see how celebrities or “civilians” respond. But it is seldom that simple.
For example, Ali G’s reference to “hanging with me bitches” may have been transparently sexist for demeaning women. But was it racist for ridiculing a certain strain of macho black culture? Or was it about racism? Was Ali G, as critics such as Jeanette Winterson suggested, little more than a postmodern version of The Black and White Minstrel Show? Does Baron Cohen play with stereotypes or reinforce them?
This debate has followed each of Baron Cohen’s creations. In the case of Borat, for which he won a Golden Globe, the Kazakh’s animated hatred of Jews was made palatable to liberal critics by the knowledge that Baron Cohen was Jewish. That didn’t do a lot to placate the Kazakh authorities.
“Borat essentially works as a tool,” Baron Cohen explained. “By himself being anti-semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice, whether it’s anti-semitism or an acceptance of anti-semitism.”
Baron Cohen has called his line of work a “self-defeating form” and Borat, like Ali G, is now retired, their obsolescence built into their success. Bruno, too, will soon hang up his jumpsuit. He is the last of the three characters behind which Baron Cohen has been effectively hiding for more than a decade. The release of the Bruno film, therefore, marks the end of an amazing chapter in the comic actor’s career that began in 1998 at the Paramount Comedy Channel.