There isn't much actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen won't do for a laugh.
Baron Cohen splashed his face with toilet water as Borat, the clueless TV reporter from Kazakhstan. He stripped in front of Congressman Ron Paul as Bruno, the gay Austrian fashion journalist.
If you watched red carpet coverage before this year's Academy Awards, you might have seen his character from the new film, The Dictator — Adm. Gen. Hafez Aladeen — accidentally spilling an urn full of fake ashes onto TV host Ryan Seacrest. Baron Cohen stayed in character.
"It's OK for you. Now if somebody ask you what you are wearing, you will say Kim Jong-Il," he told Seacrest.
Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin spoke with Baron Cohen about his "good old days" as Borat, Bruno and Ali G, as well as his latest persona.
The new comedy follows the leader of a fictional, oil-rich North African country on the verge of becoming a democracy. The story might seem inspired by the recent revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, but Baron Cohen says he and his writers actually started writing the script before the Arab Spring began.
On why he does comedy:
"The reason why I do all my comedy is to make my friends laugh — my childhood friends from England. And they are all as funny as me, in my opinion. They make me laugh hysterically ... When I started doing Ali G, I thought, 'No one is going to find this funny outside my group of friends.' That's been the surprise of my career: finding out that other people share a sense of humor with me."
On the death of Osama bin Laden:
"We were sitting in the writer's room extremely depressed. Navy SEAL Team Six had killed Osama bin Laden and one of our comedy bits. We were saying that Osama had been hiding in Gen. Aladeen's palace for the last 10 years, and he's the worst house guest ever. He's putting the wrong DVDs in the wrong DVD cases and he leaves a mess in the shower ... we had to change it by making it that they killed Osama bin Laden's double."
On whether there is a 'too soon' in his comedy:
"Not really. In regards to [Moammar Gadhafi] ... he was a dreadful mass murderer. So the sooner you can make jokes about him, the better. Part of the problem was that the Libyans weren't allowed to make any jokes about him while he was around. In these dictatorships, there's a censorship of comedy. There's a good reason why you've never really heard of any well-known North Korean comedians.
"I don't believe in just shocking the audience; the idea is really to be funny. You come at it from the perspective of this character — in this case, it's an extreme character ... and you have to be true to the character. And that allows you a plethora of comic targets. We're never trying to be offensive for the sake of being offensive."
On doing a scripted comedy vs. an improvised one:
"I do miss some of the adrenaline. It used to be scary doing the old shows and old movies, but it was fun. You're running away from the cops and sometimes the interviewees had guns on them. There was an excitement and you get addicted to the adrenaline, which is actually not a healthy thing."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. There is not much Sacha Baron Cohen won't do for a laugh.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BORAT")
SACHA BARON COHEN: (as Borat) (Foreign language spoken). My name is Borat.
MARTIN: He has splashed his face with toilet water as Borat, the clueless TV reporter from Kazakhstan.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, 'BORAT")
BARON COHEN: Dancing - I used to be a dancer.
MARTIN: Partially disrobed in front of Congressman Ron Paul as Bruno, the flamboyant Austrian fashion journalist.
(SOUNDBITE OF ACADEMY AWARDS TV PRE-SHOW)
RYAN SEACREST: May I ask you, who are you wearing?
BARON COHEN: (as the Dictator) Who am I wearing? I'm wearing John Galliano.
MARTIN: And if you watched red carpet coverage before this year's Academy Awards, you may remember him as the Dictator, General Aladeen, who spilled an urn full of fake ashes onto TV host Ryan Seacrest.
(SOUNDBITE OF ACADEMY AWARDS TV PRE-SHOW)
BARON COHEN: (as the Dictator) It's OK for you. Now, if somebody ask you what you are wearing, you will say Kim Jong Il.
Going to the Academy Awards as General Aladeen reminded me of the good old days of doing my old stuff.
MARTIN: I recently spoke with Sacha Baron Cohen - out of character - about his good old days as Borat, Bruno and Ali G, and his latest character General Aladeen in the new film "The Dictator." The comedy follows the leader of a fictional oil-rich North African country on the verge of democracy. The story may seem inspired by the recent civil unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, but Sacha Baron Cohen says he and his co-writers actually started writing the film script before the Arab Spring began.
BARON COHEN: And suddenly, you know, there were demonstrations in Egypt and in Tunisia. And then, Colonel Gadhafi was in the news. You know, people would ask me, wait a minute, what happened? Did Colonel Gadhafi get hold of your script because he's acting it out. And when Osama bin Laden was killed, we were sitting in the writer's room extremely depressed. Navy SEAL Team 6 had killed Osama bin Laden and one of our comedy bits because we were saying, you know, Osama bin Laden's been hiding in the dictator's palace, in General Aladeen's palace for the last 10 years and he's the worst house guest ever, you know. He would never leave. Last year for his birthday, I brought him luggage, luggage. You know, and he's, you know, he's putting the wrong DVDs in the wrong DVD cases and he, you know, leaves a mess in the shower. You know, if you want to know the true meaning of terrorism, go to the toilet after Osama bin Laden. You know, so...
MARTIN: Well, that stayed in the film.
BARON COHEN: Yes. Well, we had to change it by making it - we came up with this idea that they killed Osama bin Laden's double. You know, and so everything is about, you know, they never really killed him in Pakistan.
MARTIN: Is there such a thing for you as too soon - too soon to touch a particular subject and turn it into comedy, something like the ouster and death of a Libyan dictator?
BARON COHEN: Not really. I mean, in regards to him, I mean, listen, he was a dreadful mass murderer. So, you know, the sooner you can make jokes about him the better. I mean, you know, part of the problem was the Libyans weren't allowed to make any jokes about him when he was around. In these dictatorships, there is a censorship of comedy. You know, there's a good reason why you've never really heard of any well-known North Korean comedians; well, apart from Kim Jong Il. You know, I don't think so. I don't think so. But they're, you know, if there's any joke, I don't believe in just shocking the audience. You know, the idea is really to be funny and, you know, you come at it from the perspective of this character. In this case, it's an extreme character. You know, he's a torturer, he's a misogynist, a homophobe, an anti-Semite, an anti-Zionist, a hater of the West, a hater of democracy. He's a narcissist, thinks he's a demi-god, he's ultimately deluded. So, from each of those aspects, you have to kind of be true to the character. And that allows you a plethora of comic targets. So, we're never trying to be offensive for the sake of being offensive. We're trying to think about what comic situations would actually happen if somebody like that was working in a vegan health food store in Brooklyn.
MARTIN: So, this film though is a pretty significant departure from Borat or Bruno. I mean, in those films you're in character and you're kind of riffing off of real people and their reactions to you. And this is different. This is a straight-up scripted narrative comedy.
BARON COHEN: Well, it's a hybrid in that, yes, it does not involve anyone who's unsuspecting. There's no, you know, what we can term real people in this. There are actors, but there is a lot of improvisation.
MARTIN: Do you enjoy it as much?
BARON COHEN: Yes. You know, I do miss some of the adrenaline of, you know, it used to be scary doing the old shows and the old movies. But it was fun. You know, you're running away from the cops and, you know, obviously the interview where he sometimes had guns on them and, you know, there was an excitement and you get addicted to the adrenaline, which is actually not a healthy thing.
MARTIN: Is it fair to say you miss those characters? I mean, you can't go back to them. They're done, right, because the jig is up. People know.
BARON COHEN: Yes, I do miss them. I do miss them. I mean, I end up, you know, living the character. So, with Borat, you know, I ended up growing the mustache, you know, not wearing deodorant, you know, being in character for often, you know, 12, 14 hours a day.
MARTIN: And you were happy that way?
BARON COHEN: Yes, you know, it's bizarre, and listen, I'm obviously quite a peculiar guy to be able to do that. But, yeah, I love all the characters, you know, so, you know, I miss Borat, I miss Ali G. This is quite a bizarre thing to say isn't it, you know, because they don't actually exist. But I missed playing them.
MARTIN: Who in your life cracks you up? Are you the funniest person in your immediate family and circle of friends, or is there someone who quietly outshines you in that dynamic?
BARON COHEN: Listen, the reason why I do all my comedy is to make my friends laugh, my childhood friends from England. And they are all as funny as me, in my opinion.
MARTIN: Are they?
BARON COHEN: They make me laugh hysterically, yeah. And my humor, you know, that's why when I started doing Ali G, I thought no one is going to find this funny outside of my group of friends. So, that's been the surprise of my career, finding out that other people share a sense of humor with me.
MARTIN: Do you still use your friends as a comic barometer? Do you still call them and care what they think? What if they tell you they don't like something?
BARON COHEN: Well, they have done that in the past. I mean, I remember showing "The Ali G Show" to a friend of mine, Lawrence, in England. It was the first "Ali G Show" in America. I said I want to show you this before I put it out in America, and he fell asleep within 20 minutes. And so, I was a little...
MARTIN: Twenty minutes?
BARON COHEN: ...I was a little bit worried. But, yeah, they generally like the stuff. You know, then they're very honest if they don't. Everyone around me in England is extremely honest.
MARTIN: Does your ego bruise easily?
BARON COHEN: Not really. I appreciate honesty. I appreciate honesty. And also I know, listen, as a performer some of the stuff you do will be good and some of the stuff you do will be bad. And the stuff you do that's bad is really useful 'cause then you can, you know, we call it in the style of acting I learned, you call it the flop. It's important to have the flop for you then to work out how to do the counter to that.
MARTIN: So, you know I'm going to ask: what's your flop?
BARON COHEN: What's my flop? You know, in Borat. There was a whole chunk of the movie set in Mexico that was terrible, dreadful. You know, and we played it out and no one laughed. And you think to yourself, wait a minute, how did I even do that? What was going on in my head? But luckily, we go and we try and, you know, amend the movie and, you know, get away with it. And so far, you know, I feel we kind of got away with that.
MARTIN: Sacha Baron Cohen. He joined us from our New York studios. His latest film is called "The Dictator." Sacha, thank you.
BARON COHEN: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.