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What a Character: The Inimitable Career of Sacha Baron Cohen

The man behind Borat is playing it straight in ‘The Spy,’ a new Netflix drama about Mossad agents. This might seem like a major departure, but then again, he has always aimed for the unexpected.

Ringer illustration

In 2011, the sitcom Community aired an episode called “Remedial Chaos Theory” and reintroduced an idea first described by Erwin Schrödinger, that separate versions of reality were taking place simultaneously; millions of histories paralleling each other, forever. In this episode, a character named Abed worries that he is stuck inside the worst of all these possible worlds, inside “the darkest timeline.” Community was eventually canceled, but the phrase stuck around, turning into a meme and guessing game. When, exactly, had we crossed into the darkest timeline? Brexit? When Trump beat Hillary? When Antonio Brown mangled his foot in a cryotherapy accident? It is still impossible to say.

But maybe the inciting moment occurred in February 2019, when Rami Malek won the Best Actor Oscar for his work playing the teeth of late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. No disrespect to Malek—he is a talented actor, and his performance in Bohemian Rhapsody is the most humane and coherent part of the film. Yet I sulked as the nice young man collected his award; as I realized that perhaps we were living in the darkest timeline after all, and had been since the comic and actor Sacha Baron Cohen dropped out of his passion project, a less-sanctimonious and less-sanitized and actually good version of Freddie Mercury’s story, in 2013. Somewhere, in some unknown alternate universe, Cohen was accepting the Academy Award, his first, and embarking on the next era of his career.

Cohen is finally starring in his first lead dramatic acting role this fall, in the Netflix series The Spy, a le Carre–style thriller in which he plays a Mossad agent undercover in Syria. The version of Cohen we see in The Spy is unprecedented: He looks dour and formidable and stripped of the ridiculousness he usually bakes into his full-body performances. The series is a deviation for Cohen, a serious detour from a path paved with pranks and fart jokes. But the swerviness of the choice is what makes it, and him, so appealing—after all, since he broke into the pop culture mainstream in the early aughts, Cohen’s best work has relied on the element of surprise.

“A joke is something which carves a surprising new neural pathway in the brain. This explains why a joke we’ve heard before is not likely to make us laugh,” University of Edinburgh history professor Iaian Lauchlan wrote in 2010. “It also explains why a joke needs to follow certain familiar patterns, to lull us into a false sense of security, before the surprise punch line.”

This is a sort of theorizing that Cohen, so often cited as a brainy comedian, would likely endorse. “Often the joke is that you’re heading in one direction and at the last moment, you head the other way,” Cohen told podcaster Matt Wilstein earlier this summer, as he explained his mission to pull laughs from the valley between what we expect and what we get. “This is sounding fucking boring, isn’t it,” Cohen fretted to Wilstein a moment after musing about why he’ll go over each individual second of a film to make small adjustments so that his jokes are framed just so to provoke maximum surprised giggles. “You thought it was going to be all dicks and what’s been up my bottom!”

Of course, the mashup of bathroom humor with startling and meticulously plotted social interactions has long scaffolded Cohen’s career. Nearly every profile or interview Cohen has ever sat for highlights his Cambridge education, advancing the image of the wise man who plays the fool. Cohen has worked this angle since the early 2000s, when he unleashed his initial menagerie of idiot personae on Channel 4’s The 11 O’Clock Show and its spinoff, Da Ali G Show. This stable included the chavtastic goof Ali G, the fame-obsessed fashionista Brüno, and the boorish Kazakh journalist Borat, and through them, Cohen introduced a hybridized, brash genre of comedy that felt like opening a window on a bracing winter day during the early Bush years.

It was good timing; audiences had been primed by the popularity of MTV’s Jackass and The Tom Green Show, where tall men used awkward and confrontational interactions with the public as their comedic material. Cohen combined this flavor of trickster performance art with characters fine-tuned to reveal the true opinions of the people unfortunate enough to interact with them. In doing so, he offered his audience something that felt new: a prank show in which the prank was his own Mephistophelean presence. He’d convince people to speak with him by dangling the promise of media exposure, then test their patience until they bristled at the ignorance of Cohen’s character—or, worse, until they indulged it and revealed their own misshapen beliefs and prejudices.

In 2006, the release of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan turned Cohen into a star for his portrayal of the titular bumbling bundle of xenophobic stereotypes about Eastern Europeans. In the movie, Borat road-trips around the U.S. interacting with real people, who feed off his gleeful anti-Semitism, misogyny, and general cruelty in unsettling, risible ways. Part of the film’s appeal is in the basic audacity of Cohen’s performance, a full-body middle finger at authorities. When I saw it as an angsty high schooler, I found the contempt that undergirded the film to be incredibly refreshing. There was none of the tenderness of Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush impressions on SNL, or the smarminess of Bill Maher. And while Borat was cartoonish, he smashed into the real world in a way that South Park (which was equally as vicious) did not, showcasing the actual responses that real Americans had to the caricature in their midst, including politicians like Alan Keyes and Bob Barr.

Cohen had studied under the French clown Philippe Gaulier, as did actors Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter. Gaulier teaches his students about a bouffon, a hypocrisy-revealing jester, and Cohen is a true bouffon, with spikes around his neck instead of Bozo frills. Cohen’s brand of humor, with its prank- and confrontation-based satire and aim to expose its subjects as ridiculous, malicious, or both, is not cuddly. The slapstick gross-out sequences in his work, such as the fight scene in Borat between the bumbling Kazakh journalist and his beloved/reviled manager, Azamat, is somehow the least-cringey sequence in the film—pure (naked) horseplay. It’s miles away from the gooey-hearted vulgarity and loose improvisation of the Apatow school of comedy, which is an especially American strain of entertainment. Instead, Cohen is crude but controlled, with a bite beneath the buffoonery. His characters are tools and weapons—goofy, but intended to wound their target.

After the success of Borat, Cohen faced a problem: people knew his tricks, and knew his face. His follow-up, 2009’s Brüno, used another character originally debuted on Da Ali G Show—the very European, extremely gay wannabe-celebrity Brüno. While Brüno was a modest commercial success (it opened no. 1 at the box office, but on a weak weekend), it suffers in comparison with its predecessor, borrowing heavily from the Borat playbook (they have nearly the same plot) with diminishing returns. His scripted follow-ups were middling: The Dictator is a decently entertaining fish-out-of-water slapstick, but as far as lampooning dictators in vulgar comedy is concerned, 2014’s The Interview is weirder, braver, and funnier. And unlike the rest of Cohen’s uneven but frequently brilliant catalog, 2016’s The Brothers Grimsby commits the sin of being boring. The goopy spy spoof is a completely serviceable airplane flick, but it is far more reminiscent of the movies Adam Sandler has made during his Netflix tenure than the ballsy Borat. Cohen was perilously close to exhausting his bag of tricks, as his capacity for novelty seemed nearly tapped out.

But then in 2018, Cohen surprise-dropped a limited series on Showtime called Who Is America?, a troubling, sour, wildly uneven prank show that contained several flabbergasting scenes of real-life political players revealing exactly how awful they were after prodding from a prosthetics-clad Cohen. The apex of the series came when Cohen, disguised as a square-faced Israeli counterterrorism officer, cajoled former members of Congress to endorse giving guns to toddlers and training them to kill. The series proved that Cohen still had the ability to coax horror and humor from this type of performance, but it also showcased how much harder it is now to really puncture a culture this dysfunctional. In another era, Who Is America? might have detonated its way into the news cycle, as it showed Dick Cheney blithely signing waterboard jugs and former representative Joe Walsh advocating for arming literal children. As it stands, however, it may be the best case for Cohen taking this particular moment to step back from his trickster schtick and try a different path to pathos.

Sacha Baron Cohen took roles in other films throughout his career in character-pranking, to mostly warm reception. The same year Borat came out, he played French Formula One champion Jean Girard in Talladega Nights, another accented foreigner role meant to highlight American idiocy, and one that remains marvelously funny. His specialty in live-action seems to be singing antagonists; he’s a rival barber in the 2007 adaptation of Sweeney Todd, and the venal Monsieur Thénardier in the 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables. He has also performed voice roles in Madagascar and Hugo.

For the most part, however, Cohen’s film career outside of his own productions has been primarily defined by failed projects. A Tina Fey script called Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill was meant to star Cohen in a true story about a Hasidic man who becomes a punk frontman, but the project never went anywhere. And in addition to his doomed turn as Freddie Mercury, Cohen was also slated to play countercultural leader Abbie Hoffman in a project called The Trial of the Chicago 7, based on an Aaron Sorkin script and originally developed with Steven Spielberg as director. But the project stalled during the Writer’s Guild strike in 2007, and Spielberg dropped it. Directors like Paul Greengrass and Ben Stiller subsequently showed interest, but the project has languished for years.

The Spy is Cohen’s first traditional, scripted television show, and his first fully dramatic role. Instead of playing the heel, he’s the hero, as the sincere, quiet, steely Eli Cohen, who goes undercover in Damascus for Mossad. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Cohen said he felt “compelled” to participate in the series after his father died, as he had followed the story of the real-life Eli Cohen, on whom the series is based. Watching the series, there are themes that make Cohen’s kinship with the material apparent. The Spy follows a man who must hide inside a persona and balance his task of tricking people with his empathy toward them. Cohen’s performance is understated and tender, good enough that when he wears a thick mustache when he goes undercover, you’re too busy worrying about his character’s fate to realize he’s basically dressed as Borat again.

If The Spy helps Cohen establish himself as a dramatic actor, it may smooth the path for an extra-warm reception to his portrayal of another real-life political fighter, Abbie Hoffman—after a long lull, it looks like The Trial of the Chicago 7 will happen, after all. The film reportedly found new financing, and Sorkin is set to direct with Cohen still attached, along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella, Mark Rylance, and Succession’s Jeremy Strong.

Sacha Baron Cohen has popped in and out of Hollywood and U.S. consciousness for nearly 20 years. He lasted longer as a provocateur than any of his contemporaries—when was the last time anyone heard from Johnny Knoxville?—and helped inspire guerilla comic acts like Nathan for You, Nathan Fielder’s exceptional satire of startup culture. (Fielder, appropriately, was on the writing staff for Who Is America?) He may have several more chapters left in his story as a satirist, but for now, it is time for another unexpected swing. After tricking people for years, the most creative and rewarding option at the moment may be to come at Hollywood straight-on—to use those hard edges and that mischievous streak from within the system.