By Robert A. Saunders
Sacha Baron Cohen is up to his old tricks again—literally. The masterful comedian who brought us Da Ali G Show and Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is—much to his dismay—being recognized nearly everywhere he goes. Baron Cohen is currently filming his third motion picture based on one of his original characters. In this case, it is the flamboyant Austrian fashionista Bruno. The film, which carries the cumbrous working title Bruno: Delicious Journeys through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt, is being produced by Jay Roach of Austin Powers fame and is expected to be released early summer 2009. Unfortunately for Baron Cohen (who could safely count on his anonymity when making the Borat film), his global stardom has transformed Bruno into self-parody even before the movie has been released: a cruel turn of fate for a true satirist.
Throughout the past year, Bruno has been spotted in the Americas, Asia, and Europe, generating media coverage in each case. It began with sightings at the Wichita airport which were quickly posted to the Web, followed by much a publicized controversy over a gay wrestling match in the Ozarks. In Israel, his interview of Mossad agent and a Palestinian academic instantly made news around the world. In California, his abortive attempt to interview Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (a fellow Austrian, of sorts) attracted even more media attention. The scene created a strange post-modern simulacrum of the main stream media reporting on a faux journalist trying to report on a mass-mediated personality. In Milan, he stormed an Agatha Ruiz de la Prada fashion show before being escorted away by police, who soon recognized him as a world famous trickster. He then made headlines in Paris after disrupting English designer Stella McCartney’s show by sucking on a tampon among other things. While such media saturation makes one hell of a pre-release marketing campaign, it simultaneously deflates Baron Cohen’s singular form of humor.
This is not the first time that Baron Cohen has had to grapple with the bittersweet effects of over-exposure. After the initial season of Da Ali G Show, he was so well known in his native Britain that he had to take his show on the road to find new rubes to ridicule. Freed of the shackles of familiarity, he was able to entice amicable Southerners into anti-Semitic rants and provoke fatuous fashion designers to prescribe concentration camps for the poorly frocked. It was during those years that Baron Cohen (as Ali G) scored most high profile interviews, including Newt Gingrich, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Gore Vidal, and James Baker. Operating under the cover of an “educational program” for British youth, Baron Cohen’s cunning staff could rely on the insularity of Americans to guarantee both access and laughs. However, since the release of Borat—a film which grossed $260 million worldwide, the English mountebank is almost universally known across the Anglophone world (and well beyond it).
It is already becoming apparent that Baron Cohen’s social commentary cum guerilla comedy may not be able to withstand the fame he has single-handedly generated. Such a verdict was reinforced in October when Esquire named him as one of the “75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century,” but implied his once unique characters have already become a bit uninteresting. With the advent of globalized 24-hour news media transmitted via satellite TV, mobile phones, and personal computers, memes like Borat (and Ali G before him) are quickly injected into the cultural bloodstream of the world. An effective inversion of the dilemma faced by late 20th century anthropologists, Sacha Baron Cohen must go to ever more remote areas of the globe to interact with those who do not known him. These “field trips” ultimately detract from the original intent of Baron Cohen’s humor, which was to tell us about ourselves.
Unlike Ali G’s antics, which exposed a raw resentment to multicultural Britain, and Borat’s buffoonery, which exposed lingering racism and intolerance in the American South, Bruno will probably fail to break new ground. Surely, a few forced laughs will be gleaned from incontrovertible evidence of persistent homophobia in Arkansas, and we will smirk at the spoiled phantasmagoria of the contemporary catwalk fashion show—but to what end? Baron Cohen is inarguably a talented comedian and is already emerging as a bankable leading man (future roles include Sherlock Holmes and Abbie Hoffman), but there is a price to pay for such good fortune. Just as Aristophanes, Juventus, and Jonathan Swift learned in centuries past, fame and fortune blunt the rapier wit just as hunger and rejection sharpen it. However, it appears that Baron Cohen’s mass-mediated international recognition will wither his ability to speak truth to power long before the insidious lure of lucre saps his will to do so.
Robert A. Saunders is assistant professor of politics at the State University of New York at Farmingdale and is the author of The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen: Politics, Parody, and the Battle over Borat.