On the Vaudeville of Sacha Baron Cohen

About a decade ago I did something that was for me unprecedented. A New York Times reporter called asking for comment on Sacha Baron Cohen from the perspective of vaudeville, and I demurred. Turned down the Times. I’d been reviewed and mentioned in the paper of record a few times, and even wrote for them on one occasion, but it’s not like I’m in there every day and can afford to discard opportunities. BUT…I had actually gone down the very same road before, fruitlessly. I’d done a pre-interview for a documentary once on the same topic, and the jist of my comments were “No! No he is not in the tradition of vaudeville in the slightest”. And there have been many occasions when similar things have come up — the reporter or editor asks a leading question, asking you to supply an expected “yes” answer. Adam Gopnick, in a 2002 New Yorker interview had asked if Andy Kaufman was vaudeville (I’d said no for many of the same reasons that I’d give for Cohen). And often I’m asked to compare things like late night talk shows, Saturday Night Live, Youtube, etc etc etc to vaudeville. And generally all I can think of is the ways in which they are unlike vaudeville, so I say, no, and the comments are excluded because they go against the preconceived grain of the article or film or whatever, and everybody’s time is wasted, most importantly mine.

Of course the smart p.r. move is to play along and express the truth in a way that serves the interviewer’s purposes. I have also been a p.r. man, and if I were my own client, that’s what I’d advise myself to do. But I am my own client, it’s just hard to have two brains at the same time. I swear if there were two of me, I’d be dangerous. Anyway, it’s like lawyers who represent themselves: fools for clients.

At any rate, today, according to internet sources, is National Immigrants Day, and Cohen’s birthday was a couple of weeks ago (b. 1971), and Halloween (day of masquerade and disguise) is in a few days, and Cohen just released a new Borat sequel, all of which combine to persuade me to tackle the very tall topic today. So Ima walk it back — a little.

First, though, why did I say Cohen’s work was NOT like vaudeville? The main glaring difference has to do with structure. In vaudeville, every act was evaluated, tracked, monitored, and approved by drudges who worked for the circuits. In other words, your routine was set, and the bosses had script approval. If you deviated, you were fired. There were some rare exceptions for certain artists, for example, the Marx Brothers, certain clowns, and acts that employed ringers or stooges, all had some leeway for improvisation. But it was NOT common in or characteristic of vaudeville overall. Now, you could say that it was characteristic of certain forms that FED into vaudeville, like commedia dell’arte, English music hall, parts of the minstrel show, and saloon variety, as well as burlesque. Perhaps I was making a mistake in being overly literal in my zeal to prosletyze about what vaudeville actually was, since even the small section of the public who have even heard of vaudeville tend to be vague on specifics I prefer to stress. But that’s one major point.

The other aspect of what Cohen does that is very unlike traditional vaudeville is its envelope-busting impropriety. I far from disapprove of this aspect of what he does, but it should be known that it is far more in the tradition of Rabelais, Swift, and Alfred Jarry than any vaudeville performer or even any BURLESQUE performer, historically speaking. It is only when you get to POST-burlesque performers of the raunchy likes of Lenny Bruce, Dusty Warren, Pearl Williams, and Rae Bourbon that you begin to approach what Cohen does in terms of talking about body parts, physical acts, and other verboten topics. In traditional show business, that kind of language and behavior would not only have gotten you fired, it would have gotten you banned and ostracized. Needless to say, bold political opinions were also frowned upon in vaudeville.

These are not minor differences. So what are the similarities?

Well, if you overly-identify “vaudeville” with “clown”, as countless are guilty of doing, then, yes, you can certainly posit Cohen within the clown tradition. In fact, not only CAN you do it, you SHOULD do it. He studied clown and bouffon with Philippe Gaulier, and it is the latter tradition especially that characterizes his work. I kind of burst with pride when I watch him work because it feels like one of “our own” (a Fringe guy!) has made it, and unlike many comedians with some clown background (e.g., Steve Martin, Robin Williams), he didn’t drop his origins as some sort of irrelevent embarrassment when he got to Hollywood — it remains the core bedrock of his work. And I’ll add this — his movies are in the tradition of the early films of Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin, many of which were semi-improvised in real locations on the spot. Many of the silent slapstick comedies of the 19-teens have people in the frame who are not actors, and don’t know that the stars are actors. And Cohen (and his sidekick in the latest film, the wonderful discovery Maria Bakalova) truly ARE great actors, not just hilarious slapstick comedians, but (like Chaplin) gifted emotional actors who can move you with the reality of their reactions. Anyway, at this point I can’t resist hooking you up with this clip from Cohen’s appearance on Kimmel a few days ago — it’s some of the best television I have ever seen, up there with some of the stuff Andy Kaufman did on Letterman 40 years ago. Kimmel gives him a long leash and lets him play for 15 full minutes (an eternity on television), and not a minute of it is wasted. That is some kinda brilliance on view. I also LOVE the symbolism of him playing that master of clown-improv-protest Abbie Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin’s new The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020). These are guys for whom the entire world is their stage. Again, though, that’s not vaudeville — it’s clown.

Cohen is also in the great Barnum hoax tradition, and has much in common with magicians, quick change artists, and the like. He creates amusing illusions for the entertainment of the public.

The other vaudevillian aspect of what Cohen does is more problematic, but it is why I chose Immigrants Day for this post. (Cohen lives in L.A. now, by the way. Is he a U.S. immigrant? Or just a long term resident like Chaplin? Dunno). But here’s the crux of it. A good deal of vaudeville comedy (and sometimes also the melodrama) was about ETHNIC STEREOTYPE. We know that Cohen is a great dialect comedian: in addition to the pseudo-Kazakh Borat, his characters also include the Cockney hip-hop Ali G., the gay Austrian Bruno, the Muslim dictator Aladeen, and sundry Israelis, Frenchmen, Italians etc. While Cohen himself is Jewish, and many of his targets are either people in power (his best “get” to date, deliciously, is Rudy Giuliani) or racists, sexists, antisemites, homophobes etc, almost every one of his famous characterizations is also offensive to people who don’t DESERVE to be offended. Seeing the Cambridge educated Cohen speaking in a Cockney-hip hop mash-up sometimes feels classist if not potentially racist at moments; seeing the straight Cohen portray the gay Bruno as a superficial fool also feels wrong; and now we come to the poor Kazakhs. It may seem just a random and abstract choice, representative of the entire former Soviet bloc at first. But the Kazakhs are neither random nor abstract — they are real people. So they rightly feel they are being misrepresented by the character of Borat. Did you know that Borat was originally presented as Albanian? My wife is Albanian. It ceases to be funny, because it’s so pointed, so specific, so ad hominem. And so senseless and avoidable. There is a time honored way to accomplish what he seeks to accomplish satirically — MAKE UP A FICTIONAL COUNTRY. Then you accomplish your goal, without the distracting arguments that undercut your own objectives (beyond hurting other people’s feelings). I can predict the counterargument — you can’t sting some people without a convincing cover, so it’s got to be real. But I’m dubious. Most of the people Cohen nabs (even “important” ones like Giuliani and Trump) have proven gullible and stupid enough to fall for anything if they’re sufficiently flattered.

Believe it or not, I have actually grappled with a similar situation. I had this monologue that I did over a period of nearly 20 years (notably in the 1998 NY Fringe Festival, where I got my first Times mentions). It was a relentless rant of faux hatred against Hunchbacks from Nebraska. Now obviously, this category of humanity was chosen completely at random, and designed to be absurd because it was obscure and unlikely. Why/how would anyone hate these groups? What reason could there be? It was a satire on racism. But guess who was offended? People from Nebraska. Yup! And a hunchback! Michael Leydon Campbell (a movie actor best known today for being part of Ed Burns’ stock company) and I both performed the monologue around town, and in both cases this same hunchbacked stage director accosted us and took us to task. Our attitude was, “but this is satire — we don’t mean YOU any harm! We weren’t thinking about you — we were thinking about an abstraction!” And…that’s something you could say about ALL stereotype in comedy. It is the presentation of a theoretical abstraction that harms (or offends) real people, whatever your intentions. Here’s a similar situation — people of small stature were offended by Randy Newman’s best known song “Short People”. The target was the haters. Didn’t matter. And furthermore the pratical result was that haters sang along. I was ten years old at the time — I can tell ya it was sung with malice on the playground. You think people aren’t making fun of Kazakhs as a result of Borat?

Anyway, readers of No Applause and this blog, or people simply familiar with the history of American entertainment know that racial, ethnic, and sexual stereotypes were a staple of vaudeville back in the day. If you tell me to lighten up about it, I’ll be delighted to light YOU up and reduce you to a cinder.

This has heretofore been an op-ed piece. I’ve neglected FACTS! Cohen first came to prominence with Da Ali G. Show (2000-2004), broadcast first on Britain’s Channel 4, and then HBO, as well as the 2002 movie Ali G. Indahouse. In addition to the main character, he also introduced Borat and Bruno on this program. With Larry Charles, one of the creative minds behind Seinfeld, he also made Borat (2006), Bruno (2009), and The Dictator (2012). With other directors he made Grimsby (2016) and the new Borat sequel. He directed his 2018 Showtime series Who Is America? himself.

Cohen has also had the opportunity to act in other people’s movies, such as Talladega Nights (2006) with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly; Tim Burton’s 2007 version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd; Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011); the 2012 film of Les Miserables. When he is not playing his own characters, I find Cohen oddly subdued and short of the mark. Like his hero Peter Sellers he has a way of disappearing into a role, and when you see him as himself, as in a television interview, he disappears almost completely. He is very much like a ventriloquist — it seems he MUST have a character, his own character, to speak through. And that too is another vaudeville inheritance, come to think of it.

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on comedy film and slapstick please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.