The birth of Ali G

How Sacha Baron Cohen got started

Sacha Baron Cohen has revealed that his brand of ‘undercover comedy’ came about after being teased on the street by a gang of skateboarders.

His original incarnation of Ali G was a self-contained character who presented straight-to-camera links without interacting with unsuspecting bystanders.

But it evolved about ten years ago when he was shooting one such segment in a London street.

‘I saw this group of skateboarders and the director gave me a little nod and I approached them and started interacting with them in character,’ he said.

‘To my surprise, they took me seriously. And when I was doing some terrible skateboarding tricks they were laughing me and mocking me.

‘Then after a couple of minutes I went back to my normal voice and said, “You know this is a character?” And they were really surprised. At which point I realised people would believe me when I did this character.

‘A tourist bus turned up and I jumped on it with the camera and commandeered it. Got dropped off. Went into a pub. Started breakdancing. The police were called…

‘Suddenly I realised there was never a question of whether I was actually the character or not, but there was this incredibly exciting form of comedy I was in the middle of.’

Cohen, who was giving a rare out-of-character interview with New York public radio station WHYY, added that there was ‘an added element of satire’ in what he did, especially as Borat.

‘One of the ultimate aims of documentaries was to make people feel so comfortable that they would forget the cameras were there and they would really say their true feelings,’ he said. ‘Here was a way, by creating a foreign character, where people would really explain what the genuinely felt about subjects but immediately – you wouldn’t have to leave a camera in the room for two months until they opened up.’

Baron Cohen said the fictional Kazakhstan reporter was influenced by a doctor he I met in Southern Russia at the age of 23. He first experimented with an early version of the character – who was originally Moldovian – on the streets of East London.

He said: ‘I was asking people what it meant to be Cockney. “What is a Lambeth Walk?” People were really explaining themselves. I discovered this was a brilliant mechanism that was naïve and simple and childlike and warm and loveable – but also this real tool to get people to expose themselves.’

Baron Cohen also spoke about his run-ins with the law while filming the Borat movie in the US.

‘There were 42 or 43 occasions when law enforcement agents came and stopped the scene,’ he said. ‘Whenever they stopped me I stayed in character because I never knew if it was something we could use in the movie.

‘But we had a rule that was I couldn’t get arrested because as I’m not a US citizen, it would essentially have meant that production would have stopped.

‘But along the way various people were arrested. Within the first week of filming, the line producer and the first AD [assistant director] got arrested and spent the night in jail. So there was always this constant fear of trying to get the scene and trying to get the comedy before the police showed up.’

But he said: ‘The success of the film has been a disaster. It’s totally destroyed any opportunity for me to make a film like this again, which is a shame. It’s going to be infinitely harder.

‘I’m going to have to start doing more scripted comedies.’

Click here for the full interview.

Published: 5 Jan 2007

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