A Comic Shoah?

A Conversation with Sacha Baron Cohen, Jay Roach, Ant Hines and Peter Baynham Following the screening of Borat at the Lobero, Friday, January 27

No one is hotter at this moment than Sacha Baron Cohen, the young British comedian whose irreverent Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was the surprise smash hit of 2006. The scene outside the Lobero Theatre for his appearance at the SBIFF was a little bit tense and definitely giddy, with the honors for most excited contingent being shared by the adolescent males in attendance and their moms, who know a nice Jewish boy with some talent when they see one. The entire thing was taped by Fox for inclusion on the upcoming Borat DVD, so come May you will be able to experience it for yourself. For those of you who haven’t got that much patience, here are a handful of summaries designed to let you know what he said. Funniest, Strangest

The strangest and perhaps most awkward moment of this panel occurred when Santa Barbara resident Bunny Bernhardt attempted to “Borat” Borat by pretending to be from Kazakhstan and presenting Sacha Baron Cohen with a bouquet of flowers, claiming that she and the other people of Kazakhstan would like it if he would “come home to Kazakhstan.” Cohen took this pretty well, going to the edge of the stage to accept the flowers and giving Bunny a peck on the cheek, but he was clearly wary of the potential that this could be a practical joke, or worse. When he sat back down and looked at the flowers he said “I though this would contain a gun or something.” Cohen was right to suspect the gesture—Bernhardt was playing a rather sweet but perhaps overly subtle practical joke.

The funniest answer of the day was when Ant Hines said that the biggest challenge on the project for director Larry Charles (of Seinfeld fame) was “finding weed in Mississippi.” Even Sacha Baron Cohen seemed to think this was too much candor. The Bear

Sacha Baron Cohen told a substantial anecdote that started out about the bear trainer and wound up being more about Johnny, the bear. The story began with an impression of the Scottish animal trainer who handled the twin bears who played the bear in Borat. According to IMDb, the animal trainer on Borat was Dana Dube, who is one of the oldest and best known animal trainers in Hollywood. Something tells me he does not sound like Groundskeeper Willy from The Simpsons, so maybe the Scottish animal trainer is the beginning of a new character. Cohen certainly milked that accent on Friday, describing the way he would say “Toootally fine. This bear is toootally fine to work.” Cohen went on to assert that shortly before a scene in which he was to work with the bear, the bear took the trainer’s head in its jaws while the trainer shouted “Johnny, stop that right now!” in a thick Scottish burr. None of this material was particularly fresh or hysterically funny, but the audience certainly appreciated the effort on Cohen’s part to do the accent and the character.

Next came the bit about the bear. Cohen claimed that there was originally a kind of epilogue scene to the naked fight in which Azamat is seated at the wheel of the ice cream van and Borat is fast asleep in the back, wearing his red pajamas and spooning with the bear. But, according to Cohen, the bear was not willing to take the spoon position and instead insisted on facing Borat and pawing at his crotch. Big laughs here from the joke-hungry audience, but—wait for it—Cohen has the last word on this development as he concludes the bit by muttering under his breath, “star fucker.” Immediately after which he makes eye contact with a woman in the front row and says, by way of follow up, “you know what I am talking about—you’ve been staring up my trouser leg all afternoon.” The Jewish Questions

In response to a question about things that did not make the final cut, producer Jay Roach tells the audience that the first version that he saw came in at five and a half hours, to which Cohen adds “it was intended as a comic version of Shoah,” referencing Frenchman Claude Lanzmann’s epic holocaust documentary. In a related note, Cohen also admitted that the language he speaks when Borat is supposedly speaking Kazakh language was in fact mostly Hebrew. Borat in Mexico

Asked about things that didn’t make it into the final version, everyone is in agreement that a sequence in which a passport and money-less Borat must re-enter the United States illegally from Mexico had some compelling material. One set-up in particular was described in detail. Borat has an accident in the van and the exhaust pipe breaks off. A desperate Borat takes the exhaust pipe and slings it over his shoulder, then puts on a towel for headgear before setting out on foot to cross the border into the United States. Meanwhile, stateside, the production team has gotten a group of armed Minutemen vigilantes to come out to the border on a pretext. As they stand there in the desert, chit-chatting about keeping the alien menace at bay, Borat appears in the distance, marching in their direction and, with his mustache, headgear, and exhaust pipe, looking a lot like an Arab carrying a rocket launcher. Hilarious stuff, that.

Baron Cohen agrees, but uses this border crossing incident as an example of what he refers to as his version of the experience of putting one’s head in a bear’s mouth. He claims that he did not know the Minutemen were armed until afterward, and that the only way he could in retrospect justify the risk he took was with the idea that the footage would be used in the film—which it was not. Very nice! Sacha Baron Cohen on Sacha Baron Cohen

Cohen had a bit of a struggle with Leonard Maltin, who did his best to fulfill the stereotype of an unimaginative American media clone in the Q and A. When pressed to admit that he was “brave,” or to reflect on his “courage,” Cohen called attention to the quite sensible and apparently heartfelt notion of commitment to the product. “When I am out there I am occupied with one thing, which is to make the scene the funniest it can be. And if what that takes is for me to do something risky, like letting Ken (Davitian, who plays Borat’s producer Azamat Bagatov) sit on my face while he’s naked, I’m going to do it, because the audience deserves to see the funniest things I can do.” Cohen went to tell the story of the shooting of the naked fight in great detail, clearly relishing the opportunity to rub our faces in it, as it were.

Cohen was particularly evasive when Maltin tried to get him to own up to having watched American films and television when he was younger, instead insisting sarcastically that “I had no knowledge of the United States until I was 18 years old. Someone showed me a big piece of paper with shapes on it, you know, ‘this is a map, and over here to the left is this place America,’ and I began to wonder what are these people like? Do they eat and sleep like we do? Do they speak English there?” Maltin finally got the message on this line of questioning, but in the process he also managed to elicit some genuine self-reflection on the part of Cohen, who allowed that his trip to the United States to study the involvement of Jews in the civil rights movement in the South was one beginning for the idea of the Borat movie.

Cohen was quick also to dismiss questions concerning his personal relationship with Pamela Anderson and the nature of her participation in Borat. He did so with deliberately irrelevant observations about the weather. The Ali G Rule

One point that Cohen made with some fervor was about a principle that he said was used to weed out certain kinds of guests on Da Ali G Show. “If someone looks like they are in on the joke, and they are kind of winking at Ali G as if to say, ‘Let’s pretend,’ then Ali G would get up and act like he had ‘a call on me celly.’” Then the director would step in and tell the person they could go because, “if the person is in on it, you know, it’s just not as funny. At least that’s what we determined on the set of Ali G,” said Cohen.

Peter Baynham added that “99 percent” of the people in Borat were not aware that Borat was not a real person. This prompted Ant Hines to remark that the lawsuit by the frat boys was, for him at least, a vindication. “All my friends, especially the writers, were saying that it was impossible that the frat boys were real, that no one would have said those things, and that we must have put them up to it. So, when they sued us, well, that showed them didn’t it? They can’t very well have been our plants if they are suing us, can they?” The Future

The Fox DVD of Borat for which the Question and Answer session was staged will be out in early May. Cohen disclaimed Bruno as his next project, saying that, although Bruno is still in the mix, he has other ideas that he might want to work on first. Overall the impression Sacha Baron Cohen left was of a cool, educated, thoughtful, and self-aware performer who knows that he may never be this hot again. He is on top right now and he knows it, and we were lucky to have him to ourselves for an afternoon, even if it meant keeping our cell phones in our pockets.

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