Sacha Baron Cohen’s antics – good or bad?

He could be a far more effective comedian if he did do more humor about his Jewishness, his Israeli heritage and the often conflicting relationships between Jews and Arabs.

Sacha Baron Cohen in 'The Dictator'  costume 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sacha Baron Cohen in 'The Dictator' costume 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen is well known to both Israelis and Americans, though maybe in different ways. His maternal grandmother lives in Haifa and his mother was born in Israel, later marrying a Jewish businessman from Wales. He studied and performed at Habonim Dror, a Jewish Socialist-Zionist cultural youth movement one of the ideals of which is “tikkun olam,” or “fixing the world.”
Cohen has gone on to international fame portraying himself as unusual characters who interview unsuspecting people to bring out the irony, controversy and ridiculousness of the subjects.
On Sunday, he showed up on the Red Carpet at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles as his latest character, Admiral General Aladeen. “Aladeen” is the main character in Cohen’s latest film The Dictator, whose mission is to “risk his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.” Cohen’s character is clearly a satirical take on the dictators who have been thrust reluctantly into the spotlight by the Arab Spring sweeping through the Middle East and Arab World, slowly, steadily but with mixed results.
I’ve always been a little wary of Cohen. Some people (mainly those who hate me) love to point out that I’m a “comedian,” too. But I am not a professional comedian by any means.
I turned to comedy in the weeks after September 11, 2001, and the animosity it created, to help bridge the gap of understanding and relations between Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis. It hasn’t worked, unfortunately, though the comedy routine I’ve written which lampoons my Palestinian life with my Jewish wife and son has been a big hit at shows I’ve done from Israel to Palestine to Beirut, Dubai and Dublin.
Still, when I perform comedy, I try to be respectful.
And I have built my comedy on the idea that it is okay for people to lampoon, skewer and satirize their own ethnicity, religion, relations and beliefs. A lot of my comedy tears apart the stereotypes ascribed to Arabs and even to Jews, in the context of my Jewish-Arab marriage.
Cohen’s humor seems to diverge from that goal.
I would have thought that Cohen could have done a remarkable job satirizing the anomalies and contradictions of being Israeli and a Jew. Instead, he seems to make fun of other ethnic groups, rather than adding his own Jewishness into the mix. Much of what he does is hilarious. But critics point out that much racial humor is funny but often very inappropriate.
Here is what I mean.
It is inappropriate for white people to make jokes about black people, especially if those jokes are based on stereotypes. It is inappropriate for Christians to make stereotypical jokes about Jews and would be quickly denounced as anti-Semitic.
In his latest film, the name of the “dictator” he portrays is “Aladeen,” which some Arabs think is a twisted play on two Arab words for God, “Allah” and “Deen.” Others argue it’s just a distortion of the name of the Disney movie character “Aladdin.” No matter how he may explain it, he won’t make anyone happy, though the ayatollahs in Iran might still issue a fatwa against Cohen as “the Zionist infidel,” one of their most commonly used expressions! An example of my own comedy is when I tear apart stereotypes about Arabs: “Seventy-two Virgins? No way. Arabs read backwards, from right to left. It’s one virgin, and she’s 72. ...And we promise her to everyone...
and her name is Bob... she’s a trans-sexual, so give her a break. Please. Ya Rubbee!” Black people can make jokes about their own culture and even use the offensive “N-word.” The point is stereotypical humor is not racist when it is performed by the person who is being stereotyped or the comic who has close ties to the targeted ethnic or religious group.
During a discussion about Sacha Baron Cohen on my Chicago radio show, I asked listeners what they thought of his humor. Was it appropriate or was it based on racial stereotyping? Wouldn’t Cohen be better if he focused his sharp wit on himself and his own people rather than rip apart the stereotypes of others? The response was divided, of course. The debate continued on my Facebook page (rghanania) where many Arabs surprised me arguing they loved Cohen’s humor. Still, I think Cohen could do so much more than offend the public’s sensibilities by picking on easy targets like Arab-looking rap stars, Arab dictators and Kazakhstan peasants as he traipses through the West lampooning others.
“Do onto others as you would do unto yourself” is a loosely phrased rendition of a common biblical saying.
I think Cohen could be far more effective if he turned his comedic talents inwards and portrayed someone like Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or even right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman.
It’s probably unfair to describe Cohen’s humor as racist just because he focuses on easy stereotypes of others but not his own. I just think he could be a far more effective comedian if he did do more humor about his Jewishness, his Israeli heritage and the often conflicting relationships between Jews and Arabs.
It would have been far funnier and more appropriate than the dictator “Aladeen” walking down the Red Carpet in front of the former Kodak Theater and then dumping “ashes” on the tuxedo of Ryan Seacrest.
The writer is a Palestinian American columnist and radio talk show host.