Heralded by 30-some cheering “supporters” carrying flags and signs with phrases such as, “Say No to Democracy,” “I Heart Dictatorships,” and “Save Aladeen,” Sacha Baron Cohen entered the Empire Ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria on Monday to promote his movie The Dictator (which opens May 16) in character as Admiral General Aladeen. He was accompanied by a dozen allegedly virgin female guards, carrying what appeared to be fake machine guns. Of course, this being a fake press conference, let’s just assume everything else about it was fake — even the questions, which for the most part had to be cleared in advance and were printed on a sheet held by moderator Danny Boushebel, who called on eighteen preapproved media outlets from among the 250 domestic and international journalists present.
Prior to opening the floor to questions, Aladeen welcomed “the devils of the Zionist media,” as well as “journalists and their prostitutes” (that would be the female members of the press). Those who asked questions (and who were in on the joke, calling him “supreme leader,” “your Excellency,” and so forth) were derided for being short, female, and/or Jewish — sometimes, for all three. Aladeen teased one female reporter, claiming he must have had sex with her because she looked familiar. (“I was memorable,” she tried to joke along. “No, you were not,” he said.) Aladeen asked for a show of hands to see how many Jewish reporters were in the room — quite a few — and he asked one male journo from Israel to “prove it,” i.e., reveal his circumcised penis. (From where we stood, it looked like he actually did.) In return for the opportunity to be mocked, the reporters were allowed to ask penetrating questions such as these:
“I’d like to know what the dictator thinks of the American film industry. Is it quite different from what you have at home?”
“Who are your favorite dictators?”
“What are your pop-culture guilty pleasures?”
“Which presidential candidate would you endorse?”
“You’ve been with so many celebrities. Who’s the one who got away?”
“What did you think of The Hunger Games and will you do that in your country?”
“Are you a more dangerous dictator than Adolf Hitler was, and if so, how?” (This from a German reporter.)
“Would you like to invade us?”
In response, kind of, Aladeen said that he likes our fantasy films, “such as Lord of the Rings and Schindler’s List.” His favorite film ever is the 1963 Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination; his favorite dictators include Muammar Qaddafi, Kim Jong-Il, Hugo Chávez, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; he likes watching 24 backwards “so it has a happy ending.” He also said that Mitt Romney “has the makings of a great dictator,” and that there’s no point in bringing a real-life Hunger Games to Wadiya since North Korea was already doing it. In a touching moment, he said that being discussed in the same breath as Hitler choked him up: “I feel like I’ve finally made it.”
Those who did not play by Aladeen’s rules were cheerfully threatened: The dictator told Ben Lyons from Extra that he had Lyons’s mother in custody. He also requested the names of any critics and their routes to and from work. And then he took credit for the deaths of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur (“How dare he order me what to do with my hands!” he said, referring to the song “Throw Your Hands Up”).
Despite all the fakery, there were also some real targets in Baron Cohen’s sights, like Bashar al-Assad of Syria (his new doubles tennis partner) and the U.N. (for “their brave inaction over Syria — thirteen months and still no Security Council resolution!”). There was a ritual jab at capital punishment (“What we call genocide in my country is called the judicial system in Texas”), and there were wisecracks about censorship (“Nobody is a bigger fan of state-sponsored censorship than me, but the BBC goes too far”) and political correctness ("You can’t say anything in this country!”).
Aladeen’s mission statement at the start of the press conference was that he wished to highlight the plight of dictators worldwide, who he felt were the victims of bad press “for trying to do a tiny little bit of genocide.” Of course, the real point was getting the actor some advance publicity for his new movie. But would this work? Or is Cohen’s schtick getting old? In the sense that he rustled up a few real laughs, it worked well: For instance, when Aladeen mourned tyrants who had fallen, he included Oprah in the mix. Other targets included Lindsay Lohan, Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, and Mel Gibson. These moments were genuinely funny. However, an awful lot of Baron Cohen’s in-character jokes were recycled from previous televised interviews, including lines about checking the virginity of his female guards as well as dumping “the ashes of Kim Jong-Il” on Ryan Seacrest. So the question becomes: Are rehashed jokes enough to help Cohen sell The Dictator? The admiral-general must be hoping so.