Erran affectionately remembers family Shabbats for the improvisations he and Sacha composed at the piano. One of those songs developed into a skit “about a Hasidic guy wearing all these clothes making him schvitz [sweat]. Eventually he takes off his hat and coat, ends up in a swimming costume and converts to Christianity,” Erran recalls. The two brothers performed the risqué skit at several London comedy clubs and filmed it for BBC, but, says Erran, “they banned it, saying we insulted three religions in three minutes.”
Erran performed at Sacha’s bar mitzvah with a Moog synthesizer, and Sacha, who began his break-dancing career at 12, performed at his own and others’ bar mitzvahs. How did their parents feel about their children’s irreverent entertainment preferences? “I think they were very anti-authoritarian,” Erran says. “I think we were made to realize you don’t have to follow the pack and could do things differently. I think we’ve done that,” Erran says laughing.
Erran, Sacha, Simon and Ash attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, (nicknamed Habs), a prestigious private school on the outskirts of northwest London. Habs schoolmate and close collaborator Dan Mazer has described the school as “a factory of comedy.…It’s just cocky young Jews. And because we were too weak to fight each other, we compensated with verbal jousts.”
“I would say [Habs] was an exam factory and certainly it was quite cocky,” says Erran. “There was a slightly rebellious [atmosphere]; it was a very regimented, high-pressure kind of place and some reacted against that—it made for comedy.”
In his novel New Boy, based on his experiences at the school in the 1980s, Sacha’s schoolmate William Sutcliffe writes that when the Christian trustees relocated the school to the prosperous greenbelt suburbs of northwest London, they were surprised to find themselves presiding over an “exam greenhouse for nouveau-riche, second-generation immigrants,” including Jews. As late as the 1950s, the novel recounts, the school had a Jewish quota, and Jewish students were excused from the religious half of the morning assembly: “[I]t is said that after the hymns and prayers, the headmaster would stand and intone the words ‘LET IN THE JEWS!’” whereupon the Jewish boys would file in for announcements. New Boy is fiction, so it’s unclear if the quota at Habs actually existed, but similar schools had quotas, possibly as late as the 1970s, according to Todd M. Endelman’s book, The Jews of Britain, 1656 to 2000.
During their years at Habs, both Sacha and Erran belonged to the international socialist-Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror (Builders of Freedom), an organization dedicated to forging peace with Israel’s neighbors and strengthening Jewish culture. Sacha was a madrich, a youth leader. Erran recalls Habonim Dror both as a home for discussions about social injustice toward minority groups and as the venue for his rock band’s—Stinker Watson Goes Mullet Fishing—first big gig.
While not in school, the Baron Cohen brothers roamed the city. “Living in London… the whole world’s here,” says Erran. “I think that’s been an important part of what we do creatively; we were open to a lot of influences.” Erran remembers taking Sacha to see Afrika Bambaataa, the legendary South Bronx DJ who is often called the grandfather of hip hop. “We were probably the only white guys in the audience,” says Erran, whose inspirations range from Miriam Makeba and Arabic music diva Umm Kulthum to Kraftwerk, a German electronic music pioneer. The brothers’ interest in hip hop eventually evolved into break dancing—with Sacha and his pals dancing to music Erran supplied from his blaster. When not entertaining at bar mitzvahs, they performed on the pavement of the main square in Covent Garden, where musicians and street performers entertain shoppers and passersby.