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The Tyranny Of Character: Will The Real Sacha Baron Cohen Please Stand Up?

Sacha Baron Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen in <em>The Dictator</em>.
Paramount Pictures
Sacha Baron Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen in The Dictator.

If you've had an eye on pop culture recently, chances are you've seen Admiral General Aladeen, the subject of Sacha Baron Cohen's upcoming movie The Dictator.

You might have seen him on this weekend's Saturday Night Live, trading quips with Seth Meyers (and prisoner Martin Scorsese!).

Perhaps you came across his recent interviews with Larry King, Matt Lauer and the New York Times.

Or maybe you caught his act on the red carpet at this year's Oscars, dumping fake cremains on an unimpressed-looking Ryan Seacrest.

One person you probably haven't seen during all of this is Sacha Baron Cohen. As with his previous blitzes for Brüno and Borat, the actor has made an aggressive point of doing publicity in character as much as possible.

That doesn't mean that Baron Cohen hasn't ever been interviewed as himself, but as evidenced by reports of resistance by a handful of media outlets like the BBC, he clearly prefers not to. And when he does, as he did on Fresh Air in 2009, that very fact might be the headline.

While that sort of thing certainly demonstrates the commitment with which Baron Cohen throws himself into his comedy — although did anyone who watched Borat ever think to themselves, "It's funny, but I wish he'd COMMIT more"? — it also imposes a subtle tyranny on anyone who tries to engage with him, either directly or simply watching at home. That might be a meta-riff on The Dictator, except for the fact that Baron Cohen's been doing it for years.

There's a fierce selfishness in play. It forces everybody who interviews him to become absorbed in whatever bit he's working on. When Lauer sits down with Aladeen on NBC, he essentially cedes control over Today to Baron Cohen for the duration. An interview with the actor qua actor would still be promotion for the movie, of course, but there's something off-putting about inviting someone into your house and then letting him call all of the shots. Lauer, like just about everyone who wants to get a segment on a potentially popular movie, is volunteering to be batted around by Baron Cohen, when an actual interview would be closer to the other way around.

Just compare Jon Stewart's sit-down with Baron Cohen back in 2004, before he started disappearing into his characters, with his interview with Borat two years later. In the first one, Stewart is talking comedy with a colleague, and the two have a happy give-and-take that reveals a little bit about how Baron Cohen works.

In the second video, Stewart doesn't have much to do and is entirely at Baron Cohen's mercy. It's awkward — Stewart, after all, constantly reminds us that he's a terrible actor — and not nearly as much fun, despite being a more dedicated comedy segment than the earlier interview.

The worst instance of this was this year's Oscars. Most people with a substantial role in a nominated movie would have attended in the spirit of supporting their film. But instead of celebrating Martin Scorsese's lovely Hugo like a normal actor, Baron Cohen opted to tromp around in character. And not even as the arch station inspector he played in the film, but as Aladeen. Rather than drawing attention to the work that was being honored that night, he apparently preferred to say, in a funny accent, "ME ME ME ME ME!"

(Scorsese, on the other hand, showed up to help Baron Cohen promote The Dictator on this weekend's Saturday Night Live. He did throw in a small plug for Hugo, but that was more than Baron Cohen did on the red carpet.)

What might be most irksome, however, is that for anyone actually interested in what Baron Cohen does, there's a way that appearing in public almost exclusively as his characters reveals his comic creations as less than meets the eye. Interviews with comedians often do an excellent job of shining lights on the roles they play and can reveal additional dimensions to their work that might not have seemed apparent at first.

Even when Robin Williams free-associates on Jay Leno's couch for six minutes or Steve Carell goes to The Daily Show and plays off the weirdness of being a former correspondent (either by pretending that Jon Stewart's still his boss or veering hard in the other direction and dramatically insisting on how far above his old show he really is), you can still get a sense of the processes that drive their comedy.

Baron Cohen would rather avoid all of that. Interested in finding out why, specifically, he thought it would be funny and/or fruitful to lampoon a quasi-Qaddafi strongman? Whether he thought that the events of the Arab Spring made it more relevant, or gave him second thoughts about the timing? Why he developed it as a scripted comedy instead of the semi-documentary approach of Borat and Bruno? How he compares these movies with non-proprietary projects like Hugo or Sweeney Todd? Well, tough. You're not going to learn, or at least you will have to work exceptionally hard for it.

Instead, you can dislike Borat, Bruno and Aladeen and not know a thing about Baron Cohen — and certainly not discover something that might make you think that there's more to them than you originally thought. He seems to be determined to convince us that there isn't anything more to them.

And by refusing to appear out of character except on frustratingly rare (and, as per the above, genuinely enlightening) occasions, he's not only right: He makes a convincing case that there isn't anything more to Baron Cohen, either.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Hirsh lives in the Boston area, where he indulges in the magic trinity of improv comedy, competitive adult four square and music journalism. He has won trophies for one of these, but refuses to say which.

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