Sacha Baron Cohen spoke to Howard Stern Tuesday morning, not as Borat or Bruno or The Dictator, but as an even more elusive character: Sacha Baron Cohen.
The British comedian famously refuses to do interviews out of character, even going so far as appearing at this year’s Academy awards as The Dictator—and spilling an urn full of ashes (flour, actually) on a spooked Ryan Seacrest.
Monday night he marched onstage at The Daily Show decked out as The Dictator for an interview with Jon Stewart—even with a guy who gets the joke he refused to appear as himself.
But for Stern, he shed his shtick. He was just Sacha. My guess is Howard either refused or simply wasn’t interested in interviewing Baron Cohen in character. In Howard’s world, nothing is more shocking and surprising and funny than honesty—and you can’t get that behind a fake beard and makeup.
The interview on Sirius XM was comedy legend. “Two tall hairy Jews,” as Baron Cohen described them, bantering at 100 mph about their careers, their comedy, and for one segment—which I managed to record below—on being Jewish.
“You’re an Orthodox Jew,” Howard asks Baron Cohen at one point in the conversation.
And they were off. I’m burying the lede here, but during their exchange Baron Cohen acknowledged that many of the creative choices in The Dictator and Borat were designed to mock anti-semitism, and show the utter hypocrisy at work when the Arab world singles out Israel and Zionism for criticism.
The Arab Spring, said Baron Cohen, reveals the flimsiness of that lie.
“All these dictators blame everything on the Zionists,” said Baron Cohen, “it’s a great scapegoat. Now, young people are saying the reason we’re not happy is we’re living in these dictatorships. There’s a guy who’s a trillion-aire who’s sleeping with models and actresses, and we’re here without any rights being persecuted.”
“Yeah,” Howard agreed, “Forget the Jews. They’re not our problem. The problem is our dictator is killing us.”
Baron Cohen revealed one way he made this point: his character in The Dictator speaks Hebrew. So, by the way, did Borat. Howard asked Baron Cohen how it was that he was fluent in Hebrew, and Baron Cohen said his mother is Israeli—in fact, his grandmother,m at age 97, still teaches fitness classes in Israel.
Two more parts of their conversation struck me. One was the difference in their Jewish identity. Both men married non-Jewish women, and Stern couldn’t quite understand why Baron Cohen’s wife converted to Judaism. He also assumed that Baron Cohen satirized anti-semitism in Borat and The Dictator because he faced it as a kid.
But Baron Cohen said he never experienced anti-Semitism. As the son of an Israeli, and a generation younger than Stern, he has none of the love-hate relationship with his faith that is so prevalent in men like Stern, Woody Allen, Larry David. The children of traumatized immigrants passed Judaism on as something heavy and dark, a bitter pill, and most often their children spit it out. Stern used to love to tell listeners that he was only half-Jewish.
He wished. But for Baron-Cohen’s generation, assimilation, fear, rejection were replaced by pride, acceptance, even joy. They could see Judaism as a viable spiritual path, without the personal baggage of anti-semitism and the Holocaust.
Yes, listen to the interview, you’ll see what I mean.
The other was just how much of a role model stern was for Baron Cohen.
“I’ve been watching your career for 20 years,” he told Stern.
If you’ve heard the interviews Stern has done over the past year with Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and others, they all same much the same thing. A generation of ambitious, funny, comedians grew up listening to Stern, and were inspired by his courage and honesty—and crudeness.
As Baron Cohen said, “This is a guy who’s got balls.”
You can hear the Jewy part of the interview here:
Click here to read a penetrating op-ed by Sacha Baron Cohen’s cousin Simon Baron Cohen on the reasons killers target children. It’s not funny, no. But boy that Baron Cohen family is bright.