Memorable Sacha Baron Cohen moments, from Borat’s mankini to the Ryan Seacrest ash dumping
British comedian’s over-the-top characters and their outrageous acts have delighted and appalled audiences for over two decades. As he affronts a fresh batch of gullible public figures, we recall some of his best/worst stunts
Based on complaints from former US Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, Sacha Baron Cohen is definitely up to his old tricks: playing jokes on unsuspecting public figures who didn’t do their due diligence before agreeing to meet him on camera for Who Is America?, his first new TV series since HBO’s Da Ali G Show ended in 2004.
After the revelation that his latest victims are gun-rights activists Philip Van Cleave and Larry Pratt, we remember some of his most memorable misadventures from the past two decades.
2000: Ali G critiques Madonna’s chest
In 2000, Cohen was mostly unknown to American audiences when Madonna – then at the beginning of her faux-British period – tapped him to play her limousine driver in the video for her song Music after watching his Ali G, Innit special, in which he played a British chav of indeterminate ethnicity who spoke in a Jamaican patois.
“Is you Madonna?” Ali G asks after she taps on his car window.
Taking in her white fur coat, cowboy hat, heaps of gold jewellery and plunging neckline, he observes, “Your [boobs] look less big than they do on the telly but I still definitely would.”
“You wish,” scoffs the pop diva. (To which Ali G said, “I would actually.”)
2004: Ali G gives advice to Harvard grads
Cohen did his entire speech to Harvard’s Class of 2004 in character as cultural appropriation poster boy Ali G.
“As I stand here looking at all of you on your first day of university,” he said on the day before their graduation, “me thinks of all the things me can offer you: wisdom, experience … But most importantly, 22 ounces of the finest Moroccan chronic. Well, that is if the Ex-Lax works.”
He then addressed students from various disciplines from across the university.
“Some of you ’ere will have been studying medicine,” he noted. “Remember, doctors is well powerful people. You can give life. You can cure disease. And you can ask to see a woman’s [genitals] without getting slapped.”
To the future lawyers of the class, he said: “You would know, without even having to think about it, how to get someone off a charge of possession. And if any of you do, [come see me in] Room 204 at the Best Western.”
2006: Borat scars our retinas with his neon-green mankini
Gay Austrian fashion reporter Brüno may have been Cohen’s most flamboyantly dressed character, but the most memorable fashion moment belongs to Borat Sagdiyev.
The chauvinistic Kazakh journalist was the first character from Da Ali G Show to get a stand-alone film, the satirical travelogue Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. During the press tour, the mustachioed reporter occasionally ditched his standard grey suit in favour of a highlighter-green mankini that, once seen, could never be unseen.
Worse still, Borat fans around the world went out and got their own mankinis, parading them around beaches, pool decks, the Hong Kong Sevens and even the Tour de France.
2006: Jean Girard and Ricky Bobby make out at the finish line in Talladega Nights
In Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, Cohen played Jean Girard, an openly gay French Formula One driver who moves to the Nascar circuit, giving homophobic driver Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) fits.
First, he breaks Ricky’s arm because he refuses to say “I like crèpes,” then he ousts the injured American as the top driver for Dennit Racing. Chastened, Ricky moves back home and works his way back up the leader board.
When the rivals meet again at Talladega Speedway, another driver causes a massive wreck that leaves only them unscathed. They then wreck their own racing cars while trying to outmanoeuvre each other and race on foot to the finish line. After Bobby crosses the line first, Girard offers his hand in gracious defeat.
“Reeky Boeby,” he says in his thick accent, “by defeating me, you have set me free.”
The American brushes away his hand, stating: “I will never shake your hand but I will give you this.” Then he takes Girard in his arms and begins kissing him to the tune of Pat Benatar’s We Belong Together.
2009: Cohen barely escapes a riot at an Arkansas MMA fight in Brüno
In his quest to became “über-famous” in his 2009 stand-alone movie, Brüno went to nine countries in 18 days, which he claimed was “more than any Austrian since 1941”. But the movie’s final scene, which took place at an MMA event in the US state of Arkansas, made him more infamous than famous.
Cohen came out looking like a Ted Nugent doppelgänger who led the crowd in a chant of “Straight pride!” So they weren’t quite prepared for what came next: he and his wrestling opponent began kissing passionately, undressing and fondling each other. The audience revolted and even threw a metal folding chair at them, just missing injuring both.
2012: General Aladeen dumps ashes on Ryan Seacrest during the Emmys red carpet
Cohen walked the 2012 Emmys red carpet in character as Admiral General Aladeen, his Middle East autocrat character from The Dictator, which came out that spring.
“Hello and death to the West,” he told Ryan Seacrest, noting that attending the Emmys allowed him to bring his “dear friend and doubles tennis partner”, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il (who died in December 2011) – in an urn. “It was his dream to attend the Oscars, to be sprinkled over the red carpet and Halle Berry’s chest.”
Then, while trying to look at the bottom of the urn, he “accidentally” dumped the ashes all over Seacrest’s tuxedo.
“Now if someone asks you who you are wearing, you will say, ‘Kim Jong-il!’ ” he told Seacrest as security guards hauled him away.