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Sacha Baron Cohen’s Controversial Comedy History: From ‘Borat’ and ‘The Brothers Grimsby,’ to ‘Ali G’ and ‘Brüno’

Sacha Baron Cohen has never shied away from making people uncomfortable with his comedy — which has earned him plenty of criticism for the better part of two decades.

Rebel Wilson became the latest to speak out about Baron Cohen, 52, saying the actor has been attempting to halt publication of her upcoming memoir Rebel Rising,  in which she calls him an “asshole” after their time working together on the 2016 movie The Brothers Grimsby.

“I will not be bullied or silenced with high priced lawyer or PR crisis managers. The ‘asshole’ that I am talking about in ONE CHAPTER of my book is Sasha [sic] Baron Cohen,” Wilson, 44, wrote via Instagram Story on Monday, March 25.

Via his rep, Baron Cohen denied Wilson’s allegations in a statement to Us Weekly, which read, “While we appreciate the importance of speaking out, these demonstrably false claims are directly contradicted by extensive detailed evidence, including contemporaneous documents, film footage and eyewitness accounts from those present before, during and after the production of The Brothers Grimsby.”

Sacha Baron Cohen Controversial Comedy History
Toni Anne Barson Archive/WireImage; Cover Images (2)

Here’s a deep dive into the various scandals and controversies involving Baron Cohen:

Da Ali G Show

Baron Cohen was first introduced to most audiences on Da Ali G Show, a sketch comedy series created by Baron Cohen that debuted on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in 2000. The second and third seasons of the show also aired on HBO in the U.S.

On the show, Baron Cohen played a variety of characters, including the titular Ali G. The character professed to be a streetwise connoisseur of British hip-hop, speaking with a distinguishable accent while interviewing unsuspecting subjects.

The character didn’t sit well with some Black comedians, including Curtis Walker, who found Ali G “quite offensive.”

“I don’t like the idea of a white guy playing a black guy anyway,” Walker said in 2000, according to the BBC, “and when he is playing to a stupid stereotype it is even worse.”

Borat’s Song “In My Country There Is Problem” 

Da Ali G Show also introduced the character of Borat Sagdiyev, the Kazakh journalist with whom most audiences most closely associate Baron Cohen.

Before Borat made his big screen debut in 2006, Baron Cohen debuted the character on Da Ali G Show. Known for making misogynistic and antisemitic comments, Borat often landed Baron Cohen in hot water.

During a 2004 episode of the show, Borat performed a song called “In My Country There Is Problem.” Baron Cohen, who is Jewish, sang: “Throw the Jew down the well / So my country can be free / You must grab him by his horns / Then we have a big party.”

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In response, the Anti-Defamation League wrote a letter expressing their concerns about the song.

“While we understand this scene was an attempt to show how easily a group of ordinary people can be encouraged to join in an antisemitic chorus,” the letter read, “we are concerned that the irony may have been lost on some of your audience … in attempting to expose bigotry and prejudice you also bear a responsibility to be sensitive.”

In response a spokesperson for HBO said, “Through his alter-egos, he delivers an obvious satire that exposes people’s ignorance and prejudice in much the way All in the Family did years ago.”

Borat Movie Dupes Interview Subjects 

Borat became a cultural phenomenon with the release of the feature film Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan in 2006, which earned Baron Cohen a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.

Of course, controversy also followed.

Multiple individuals featured in the mockumentary, which followed Borat’s trip to the United States, sued the producers of the movie and said they were lied to about what they were participating in.

All of the cases were eventually dismissed.

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Dharma Arthur, a news producer for ABC affiliate WAPT in Jackson, Mississippi, said she lost her job after being duped by Baron Cohen and allowing Borat to appear on their broadcast.

“Because of him, my boss lost faith in my abilities and second-guessed everything I did thereafter,” Arthur wrote in a letter to Newsweek. “How upsetting that a man who leaves so much harm in his path is applauded as a comedic genius.”

Before the release of the film, the Anti-Defamation League released a statement saying that, while the film is understood to be a parody, “some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.”

Borat vs. Jessica Simpson

During an appearance at the 2006 MTV Movie Awards dressed as Borat, Baron Cohen made a joke about Jessica Simpson’s “camel toe.”

The joke did not go over well, but the comedian doubled down during an interview shortly after with GQ.

“I do not know why Mrs. Simpson’s was upset by my speeches,” Baron Cohen said, as Borat. “I was extreme complimentary about her movie The Lords [Dukes] of Hazzard and commented that in it she had a beautiful mouth, which I could see through her denim shorts.”

Brüno Film Accused of Homophobia

Baron Cohen also brought one of his Da Ali G Show characters to the screen in 2009.

In Brüno, Baron Cohen plays gay Austrian fashion reporter Brüno Gehard, who travels to the United States in an attempt to become a celebrity in the States.

The flamboyant performance by Baron Cohen, who is straight, did not sit well with some activist groups.

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“Clearly, the filmmakers wanted to use satire to highlight and challenge homophobia,” GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) said in a statement. “But their film also reinforces troubling attitudes about gay people in ways that run counter to the intentions of the filmmakers.”

The statement continued, “The movie repeatedly builds entire scenes around stock stereotypes and situations that make gay people and families the butt of crude jokes. I can’t help but think of all the teenage kids already getting bullied, beat up and ridiculed for being — or for being thought to be — gay. For these kids, this movie will give their tormentors one more word in the anti-gay lexicon of slurs: Bruno.”

Borat Sequel Triggers Lawsuit From Holocaust Survivor

The creators of the 2020 sequel Borat Subsequent Moviefilm were sued for fraud after including an interview with Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans.

Evans died before the movie was released, but her family brought the lawsuit alleging she did not consent to being featured.

The lawsuit was later dismissed and the movie was dedicated in her honor.

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