IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Baron Cohen fools all the people all the time

The problem for Baron Cohen is that after the cultural and box office sensation that was “Borat,” and now with “Bruno,” it might be a lot harder to round up the unsuspecting.
/ Source: contributor

First in “Borat” and now with “Bruno,” Sacha Baron Cohen has created his own genre. It’s a zany and outrageous hybrid of scripted and improvisational humor that could be called “Imposterisational Comedy.” In the formula, the lead actor purports to be someone else, a real-life filmmaker and visitor from another land who recruits unsuspecting folks to play along.

The problem for Baron Cohen in any future projects, however, is that after the cultural and box office sensation that was “Borat,” and now with “Bruno” — which opens July 10 — promising similar response, it might be a lot harder to round up the unsuspecting.

“I don’t think he can come back a whole bunch of times with crazy new characters,” said Jeff Giles, executive editor in charge of movie coverage for Entertainment Weekly, “because it’ll get boring for him and the audience.”

But boredom is just one obstacle. There is also the mundane but intensely important element of paperwork. Everybody who has been duped in a “Borat” or a “Bruno” really wasn’t duped, because he or she signed an ironclad release beforehand that absolves the filmmakers and anyone else associated with the production and distribution of the film of any legal action. Yet now that two major releases featuring Baron Cohen characters will have been unleashed upon a laugh-hungry global audience, people asked to sign releases in the future may actually read them closely before doing so. And that might make it much more difficult for Baron Cohen and his cohorts to pull off more comedic chicanery.

“He can’t do this forever, but I think he knows that,” Giles explained. “My question is who does he want to be? What kind of entertainer does he want to be? Does he want to be a hardcore performance artist, or an over-the-top goofball? My sense is that he’s too smart to be an over-the-top goofball.”

Baron Cohen has been plying his trade since the mid ’90s, but broke through in the U.S. with HBO’s “Da Ali G Show” series in 2000. That was the launching pad for the Borat and Bruno characters. The series itself spawned the “imposterisational” approach.

That brand of comedy relies on a potent form of chutzpah. Few rewards in life come without risk, and that is especially true in the fine art of cracking people up. The comedians who take big chances often suffer massive flops — but they also can reap huge payoffs.

Stephen Colbert, who performed a similar function as a correspondent (although without the wacky foreign characterization) on “The Daily Show” before getting his own show, “The Colbert Report,” on Comedy Central, said “I have a lot of respect” for Baron Cohen and explained that a comic has to do what excites him in the pursuit of laughs.

“If it makes you laugh,” Colbert said, “it’s valuable as comedy. You have to do things that strike at your passion. Taking risks sometimes energizes you and keeps you going. You have to respond to the world’s response to you. Then you get into a relationship with the audience.”

How long can Baron Cohen keep at it?In “Borat” and “Bruno” it is the reaction of the outside world — in the guises of the naïve and the downright clueless — that creates a raucous response in audiences. But for how long? After “Bruno,” will potential targets for Baron Cohen’s interactive humor turn and run away when they see him coming? Filming of one key sequence in “Bruno” involving the military had to be cut short because somebody recognized Baron Cohen.

Wayne Federman, head monologue writer for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and a veteran standup comedian, said it’s doubtful Baron Cohen can keep up the same schtick, but then again, Baron Cohen is talented enough to be able to reinvent himself if need be.

“This is a tough one,” he said. “It’s so speculative. It looks like it’s run its course, but who really knows — especially if he creates a new character.”

There is also the possibility that Baron Cohen may take a break from the “Borat” and “Bruno” style of humor and apply his talents elsewhere. “He’s done the acting thing,” Giles said, “so that might interest him. He has already appeared in ‘Sweeney Todd’ and he worked with Will Ferrell in ‘Talladega Nights.’

“He can clearly act. He’s clearly funny outside of his own movies. So we’ll find out how much he wants to be an actor rather than a performance artist.”

Baron Cohen’s strength may be that he wears many hats, and not just the ones sported by Borat and Bruno. “He’s half Michael Moore, and half kind of over-the-top raunchy comedy that tries to build and build and shock and shock,” Giles said. “The combination feels fresh and different than anything out there, especially in the summer when there is nothing except sequels and prequels.

“The mix of social commentary and potty humor really makes things fly.”

Whether it’s “Borat” or “Bruno” or something else entirely in a completely different package, as long as it’s funny, there will be a place for Baron Cohen’s next effort, noted Sam Reich, president of original content for

“I think Sacha Baron Cohen is a genius,” Reich said, “and could continue to do this for as long as he likes. I can also see how he might be tempted to transition into a more traditional form of comedy, and I would encourage him not to. It’s so difficult to find a completely original comedy format, and he’s done it. Continuing to fool people is just part of the craft.”

At the very least, Baron Cohen may have to scour the earth a little more extensively to find folks still oblivious enough to play along.

Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to