You can call Sacha Baron Cohen a lot of things, including actor, writer, comedian, performance artist, and provocateur. But the three titles he’s usually referred to when recalling his most memorable moments are: Ali G, Borat, and Brüno. From BBC Two’s Comedy Nation in 1998 to the release of his film Brüno in 2009, Cohen set out to not just be funny but to provoke people into sometimes facing their latent fears and prejudices about homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and racism. Cohen retired those characters because they had become too well known, but he’s risen again with Showtime’s Who Is America?, which premieres Sunday, July 15. Before seeing what’s next, it’s worth a look back at the eleven key sketches from his earlier days.
Ali G and Donald Trump
Who Is America? may be as poignant as any other political comedy in the midst of Trump’s tenure as president, but 13 years before he was elected to office, the two met for an interview in Trump Tower for a segment on Da Ali G Show. Trump tells Ali G to make it quick before turning down his business pitch and leaving the interview after about a minute of air time. In 2012, Trump bragged that he walked out of the Ali G interviewer faster than any other person, to which Cohen responded that he was “the first person actually to realize that [Trump] is a dick.” (Not sure if that claim is accurate.) Cohen told James Corden in 2016 that the actual interview lasted about seven minutes, which he said is “long” for an interview with Ali G.
Brüno and Ron Paul
Perhaps the most memorable scene from 2009’s Brüno involves Cohen, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, and the privacy of a “hotel room.” Paul, who said that he was told at the time that he’d be speaking on Austrian economics, claims that he was in a normal studio before being moved to a room that was “fixed up as a bedroom” while the crew said they needed to fix a light. That’s where Cohen saw his opportunity to make a move on Paul, who quickly exited the situation; he later said his only regret in that moment was that he didn’t “sock [Brüno] in the nose.”
Borat talks to an etiquette coach
In a segment for Da Ali G Show, Borat meets with an etiquette coach in order to get a better understanding of how to properly interact with Americans in social situations. An “etiquette coach” would be a fun person to pair with pretty much any of Cohen’s characters, but Borat is certainly the first one who comes to mind as a mismatch for high-class southerners. Questions like “Do you like a porno?” get an uncomfortable laugh, while Borat explaining that his sister is a prostitute elicits a high-five from the gentleman to his right. Cohen repeated the bit for the movie Borat, resulting in a lawsuit from etiquette coach Cindy Streit, which was thrown out because she had signed a release.
Brüno and the “Terrorist”
Speaking of lawsuits: Perhaps more terrifying at the time than anything else, a segment from Brüno features Cohen in what he says is an interview with a leader of the Al-Aqsa Brigades, a terrorist organization according to several countries, including the United States. Brüno tells the “terrorist” that Osama bin Laden looks like a “dirty wizard or a homeless Santa,” to which Ayman Abu Aita allegedly responds “Get out! Get out now!” through a translator. Cohen repeated on Late Night With David Letterman that Abu Aita was a “real terrorist,” after which Abu Aita filed a $70 million lawsuit against Cohen, NBCUniversal, and Letterman. According to a report by Sky News, Abu Aita was jailed for two years by the Israelis for charges that were never proven, and he was ultimately released. He also says that he’s easy to get in contact with and that he doesn’t care about what people say about bin Laden. Either way, the segment is fascinating if real, or a display of Cohen’s talents of illusion for entertainment.
Ali G’s Animal Rights Roundtable
One of the funniest segments from HBO’s Da Ali G Show — and a concept that Cohen has basically dropped in the years since — were roundtable discussions with experts on various topics. In the very first episode, Cohen’s introduction to America, he invites four panelists to discuss animal rights, and I’ve been saying “Does you think it’s right that some animals have got human girlfriends?” at least once a week ever since. Seeing how people react to what they believe is perhaps the dumbest person they’ve ever met is part of what made the series instantly watchable and addictive.
Here he is basically doing the same segment for the U.K. version:
Cohen Breaks in Interview With Paul Wilmot
On its own, Brüno interviewing former Calvin Klein PR head Paul Wilmot is a hilarious segment from Da Ali G Show, but there’s a bit of a hidden gem that really makes it stand out from the rest of Cohen’s catalogue. Specifically, that he breaks character … slightly.
Cohen normally has an unhuman-like ability to withhold even a little smile, but there are times when even he can’t keep it all in. In this clip as Ali G, he’s almost unable to even say “It’s a hoverboard” as he tries to sell a skateboard without wheels as an invention.
Christo Explores BDSM
Before there was Borat, there was Christo, Cohen’s original iteration of a foreign journalist exploring other cultures. The only real difference, besides the fact that Cohen really fine-tuned the character by the time he started Da Ali G Show, is that Christo is from Albania, not Kazakhstan — despite that, the accent is basically the same for both characters, though Christo does have straight hair instead of classic curls.
Ali G Indahouse’s Laser Room Dance
Of everything Cohen did from the late 1990s to the late aughts, his first foray into the film world as a leading man will probably also go down as the least treasured. Not that Indahouse is a total failure, but it did likely shine a light on the fact that Cohen’s Ali G characters just work better in the real world instead of a fully fictional one. One of the things that does work is this silly-stupid dance sequence through a security room full of lasers, featuring a pre-Hobbit Martin Freeman as Ali G’s sidekick, Ricky C. The opening gangland sequence in L.A. is also a notable entry into Cohen’s catalogue.
Borat at Cambridge
Before Da Ali G Show debuted on HBO in 2003, it had a six-episode run in 2000 on Channel 4 in the U.K. Among the segments from those shows was a guide to Britain, which included Borat exploring the campus of Cambridge University. Because of the fact that it never aired in the U.S., this may not be among Borat’s most memorable clips, but besides being very funny, it also displays some of what makes Cohen’s characters special: He knew how to frustrate people and how to bring out the worst in others long before he was a well-known commodity in the U.S. It also shows how Cohen is aware that he too can be the butt of the joke, since he is an alumnus of Cambridge himself.
Ali G and Buzz Aldrin
Who is more American than Buzz Aldrin? Aldrin is a great example of how Cohen can have his fun and the guest can eat it too. Unlike many of Cohen’s video victims, Aldrin is a hero to millions and not a person that anyone wants to see humiliated, but it’s all in good fun as the joke that is highlighted is simply that Ali G is uneducated. It’s two sides of the spectrum from awareness to ignorance, and Aldrin placates Ali G without patronizing him. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, and toward the end of the interview, Aldrin says: “Things are funny, or comedic, because they mix the real with the absurd.” Cohen couldn’t have said it better himself.
Throw the Jew Down the Well
If anything from Da Ali G Show penetrated the cultural landscape prior to the release of 2006’s Borat, it was likely Cohen’s appearance as Borat in a Tucson bar in 2004. After an inauspicious minute of singing and guitar, just enough to get the crowd on board, Borat drops the line “And that problem is the Jew,” which eventually leads to the catchy hook: “Throw the Jew down the well!” Da Ali G Show spent most of that time showing the crowd, not Borat, because the song is not what’s funny; the reaction is the joke. Cohen has stated that Borat’s purpose was “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.” Does it mean that everyone in that bar was anti-Semitic? No. They may have just been singing along. It may have also been more clever editing and design by the production team. But it sure made for great television and paved the way for much more Borat and Cohen to come.