Sacha Baron Cohen is a one-trick pony.
And four years ago when the joke was on Bobby Rowe, he wasn’t laughing.
While most of the nation was gripped in Borat mania, laughing and imitating the boorish, faux-Kazak journalist with his idioms, “I like,” “Sexy time”, the producer of the rodeo in Salem, Va. was filled with shame.
Now Cohen has a new movie out, “Bruno”, which is atop the box office list, although fading. You can watch the trailer here. I almost ended up in his last movie.
Back on Jan. 7, 2005, I happened to be at a rodeo at the Salem Civic Center when Sacha Baron Cohen dropped in. I was standing right next to the camera for the 20-odd minutes it was rolling on the floor of the arena. At the time I was working for a small weekly newspaper in the Roanoke Valley.
When I pieced together what happened, I first worried that maybe I’d be in the movie. Then I wondered if I would look stupid. And now I feel guilty laughing at his antics.
For anybody who doesn’t remember what all the hubbub was about or for people who want an eye-witness account of how the scam works (and which “Bruno” likely employed), here’s what happened: A vaguely foreign looking man – he wore a polyester American flag-patterned shirt, cowboy hat and bushy mustache – awkwardly walked into the center of the civic center after the announcer said the man is new to America and loves this country. He spoke in a heavy accent and left out certain words when he spoke.
Introduced as Borat Sagdiyev from Kazakhstan, the nervous-looking man said he was going to sing the national anthem from his homeland. Instead he mumbled an almost incoherent introduction by saying, “May President Bush drinking the blood of all Iraqis,” and referred to, “Bush’s war of terror.” He then made up lyrics to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner that included “home in the grave.”
The crowd (myself included) was initially dumbfounded. Borat seemed foreign alright, but why was he defaming the US of A?
The scene has become part of Virginia and movie folklore and morphed like a game of journalistic telephone. But, despite what I later read in British media outlets, shots were not fired into the air, and Borat was not threatened with physical violence, as far as I could tell.
I do recall a man whom I later recognized as movie director Todd Phillips (“Road Trip”) manning the camera and panning back and forth between the crowd’s reaction and Borat’s stunt. By the end of the garbled song, the Civic Center rang with boos, and Borat looked confused and uncomfortable.
He then shuffled out of the rodeo ring and spoke on camera with Bobby and Lenore Rowe, the promoters of the event, near the stockades that held the mustangs and bulls.
Turns out, Borat was one of British actor / comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s alter egos, a misogynistic, anti-Semitic Kazak television journalist who wants to learn about America but ends up offending everybody he tries to interview.
In his new movie he plays a gay Austrian TV host named Bruno. While the character has changed, the essence of the humor hasn’t. Nor have the techniques by which he gets some of the footage. He and his production company fool potential guests and profit from their gaffes.
Lenore Rowe, Bobby’s wife who passed away last year, told me that night that she and her husband were contacted by a company purporting to be filming a documentary about a foreigner who loved America. They were ticked that he wanted to show his love of America in this most patriotic of regions and signed a legal release without reading the fine print.
And indeed, with official looking letterhead and legit-sounding production company, Cohen has bamboozled media savvy public figures like Newt Gingrich, former UN General and Egyptian Prime Minister Butros-Butros Gali and 60 Minutes pundit Andy Rooney.
Rowe recalls the night well. He said Borat asked him about gays and Muslims, and a Newsweek reporter who saw the film told him he made some rather uncouth statements.
“I’ll probably see it (the film) just to see how bad I did,” Rowe told me the week before “Borat” aired.
But even though Rowe’s comment looked — umm — not so good on screen with some xenophobic statements, Borat goaded his guests into such shocking miscues.
Would it be so wrong for a complete stranger to just let a foreign man who ruined the national anthem run his mouth just to end the ordeal?
The thing is, the film editing process can also make even the smallest slip-up seemed egregious.
Rowe after the incident, he was trying to keep his head high. He’s ashamed he was hosed (his word), but he said rodeo fans haven’t held it against him.
“Some people come up and say, ‘Hey, you made the big time.’ I’ve made the big time but not in the way I want it,” Rowe said.
Aaron Kremer is the BizSense editor. Please send news tips to [email protected]
“former Pakistani Prime Minister Butros-Butros Gali”
BUTROS-BUTROS GALI was NOT the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He was in fact the sixth Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) from January 1992 to January 1997.
I have always hated this guy’s comedy. He has no integrity. What he does in repugnant. I saw borat on a movie channell. It was akward to me not funny. But I always hate the akward moments in comedy. I guess
Personally, I think Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedic genius. Not to say his methods don’t suck sometimes, but how else can he get the genuine responses that he needs? His comedy might be tasteless and occasionally over-the-top, but it always exposes the underlying fears and prejudices in the people he interacts with. You don’t hear big uproars over Carlos Mencia and Chris Rock or any other similar comedians, but that’s because they make you laugh at yourself without exposing their audience. Cohen puts a face on ignorance, and that’s where the controversy comes from. If you’re upset because you… Read more »