The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan
Upon graduation from Habs, Erran studied instruments at Guild Hall and completed a music degree at Goldsmiths, at the University of London. Sacha spent a gap year working on a kibbutz in the north of Israel, Rosh HaNikra. Once at Cambridge, he focused much of his attention on the stage. At the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club, Sacha acted in musicals including My Fair Lady, Biloxi Blues and Fiddler on the Roof, in which he played Tevye. His Habs buddy Dan Mazer introduced him to the university’s legendary Footlights Dramatic Club, which boasts alumni such as Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson.
Sacha began his acting career in earnest after finishing Cambridge in 1993. His first TV appearance was in 1995 on Britain’s Channel 4’s Jack and Jeremy’s Police 4, a spoof on a reality crime program. He then hosted a talk show for teenagers followed by a cable show, Pump TV, featuring straight interviews with local personalities, until a new opportunity surfaced.
This was the decade of “new lads” in Britain. Rejecting the sensitive New Age male archetype, “new lads” embraced macho pastimes such as public displays of drunkenness, soft porn stag parties and soccer fanaticism. Sophie Manham, who had been commissioned to make a segment about this new species for Channel 4, wanted to alternate the talking heads with short segments of an actor portraying a “new lad” in all his beer-drinking lasciviousness to lighten up the program. One of her researchers, William Sutcliffe, mentioned his school friend, Sacha.
“He could steal the show even then,” says Manham. “You could see Borat and Bruno already. He had a twinkle in the eye.” Sacha was “fearless,” according to Manham, coming up with portrayals of disgusting behavior such as attempting to light his fart with a cigarette lighter. In some clips, he tenderly strokes a soccer ball and leers over plastic molded breasts. Much like his Borat persona, he manages to both embody his character and condemn it, with a figurative wink to the audience. His performance helped him land a gig on London Weekend Television, where he developed the precursor to Ali G, a takeoff on the BBC radio hip-hop DJ Tim Westwood, who had become famous in Britain for his “wigger”—“white nigger”—style with a Jamaican accent and outrageous clothing.
Sacha would spend years “wallowing in cable TV hell,” in the words of one 2002 biographical documentary. “I gave myself five years to start earning money from being an actor, a comedian… If it didn’t work out, I was going to move on to something else, become a barrister or something,” he said in a 2006 Rolling Stone article. With only two months left in his five-year plan, the big break came. “I was sitting on a beach in Thailand. It was four years and 10 months since I’d graduated,” Sacha recalled. “And that’s when I got a call from my agent saying there’s this audition for The 11 O’Clock Show….I had been rejected so many times that I didn’t know if it was worth it.”
The 11 O’Clock Show, a thrice-weekly late night satirical program on Channel 4, premiered in 1998 and became enormously popular for its brand of “hoax journalism.” The targets were celebrities who usually had no idea they were submitting themselves to mock interviews by comedians posing as journalists. It was here that Sacha honed his character Ali G, who became so recognizable that the Queen Mother did an imitation of him. He also developed early versions of Bruno and Borat.