One of the surest signs you've become a successful comedian is that a lot of people absolutely can't stand your shtick. When you're starting out in standup or as a performer, you're desperate to get noticed, but you also have the time to hone your act and experiment and figure out your unique thing, the thing that'll make you stand out. And then maybe you get popular because of that unique thing, and soon enough people come to expect it, and the thing isn't unique anymore. That's why Steve Martin abandoned standup at the height of his popularity. That's why Jerry Seinfeld gave up Seinfeld even though its ratings were great. They didn't want to stick around to see what would happen once people got tired of their faces.
Which brings us to Sacha Baron Cohen. It's not that he isn't funny anymore—The Dictator, despite the horrible marketing campaign behind it, is actually decent—but there's no comedian working right now whose shtick feels more tired and obvious. Listen, all comedians have their shtick—Will Ferrell plays loutish blowhards, Kristen Wiig does the goofy faces, Jeff Dunham is a hack—but Baron Cohen's long ago reached that ugly, toxic stage where you know it so well that your immediate reaction is to resist it. This seemed to happen very fast.
When Baron Cohen put out Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan in 2006, it was the first time that a large portion of the American audience had heard his name, but he'd been building toward that moment for years. In 2000, he started Da Ali G Show, which featured his alter ego Ali G. The highlights of the show were the interviews he did with politicians and celebrities who found themselves sitting down with this small-minded, rap-crazy boor and having to act like it was all perfectly normal. And so you got bits like this, where Ali G asked Andy Rooney if journalists ever print the news a few days early, just because it's something important like an election. Rooney wasn't pleased:
Before there was a Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, these bits satirized the arrant stupidity of celebrity interviews. They offered a fascinating litmus test: How would famous people respond to someone so disconnected from the celebrity fluff machine? There was this sense of danger to it. Even more than on the Daily Show segments in which straight-faced correspondents question newsmakers, Da Ali G Show got a lot of its laughs from just how far Ali G (not to mention Borat and, eventually, Bruno) could try his guests' patience. And if they got annoyed, it would be really funny, exposing their true nature beneath the manicured public persona.
Borat pushed the format forward, as Borat wandered the U.S. to make a documentary about this country he so admired. But its best moments stuck to Baron Cohen's real talent, which was to confront unsuspecting people in character and watch them make fools of themselves. Many objected to Baron Cohen's Candid Camera-style stunt—and plenty of folks in the movie tried to sue him—but there was no mistaking the comedian's objective, which was to satirize America's worst tendencies. Whether it was moronic frat guys or religious fundamentalists, Borat's targets represented the extremes of the country, which had only gotten more extreme after 9/11. You could argue that Baron Cohen wasn't being fair, that he was picking on the helpless, but the film stands as a scathing time capsule of the U.S. during the Bush years: violent, angry, defensive. Borat wasn't just funny—it also seemed "true" in a way that even most documentaries don't seem true.
The movie was a massive hit and even earned Baron Cohen a Golden Globe. But it also painted him into a corner he's yet to get out of. If you're the guy who goes in disguise to fool people, how long until everybody's on to you? That's part of the reason why Bruno was about half as good as Borat: It followed the same formula that we all knew. And like lots of successful comedians, he was now stuck having to outdo himself, which meant amping up everything—including the gotcha interviews. But moments like this with Ron Paul didn't do anything to prove that Paul was somehow a jerk or a homophobe. Mostly, it just showed how desperate Baron Cohen was to prove that he was still "edgy":
You could sense the tide turning on Baron Cohen, or at least the one who stars as outrageous weirdos. (He's played only slightly more conventional characters in movies like Hugo or Sweeney Todd.) That process now seems complete with The Dictator. The central conceit of the film is funny—making a comedy where the main character is a bloody dictator—but for months we've had to endure arguably one of the worst marketing campaigns in recent history. There have been dumb fake press releases from the movie's fictional country of Wadiya, phony Oscar controversies about whether Baron Cohen could walk the red carpet as his character, Admiral General Aladeen, and then painfully unfunny in-character interviews with the likes of The Daily Show. The campaign has been one long reminder that we're all tired of Baron Cohen. The "edgy" bits, the elaborately constructed characters, the satiric takedowns of political correctness: Like the tagline for Bruno said, Borat was so 2006.
That's why it's all the more shocking that The Dictator isn't horrible at all. In fact, it's pretty funny. But it's also sorta sad: Knowing that he has to switch things up, Baron Cohen didn't make this new movie as a fake documentary with staged interviews. Instead, The Dictator is pretty much like a lot of other comedies with poop jokes and penis gags and "surprise" celebrity cameos. Near the end of the film, Baron Cohen goes for his latest critique of American culture—we're more like Aladeen than we'd care to admit—but it's not explosively funny like it used to be. There's no sense of true provocation, of a guy fearlessly speaking truth to power. Mostly, he's just going for some self-righteous clapter. Baron Cohen still has his moments, but he's just another comedian now, hitting the same old marks.
Seinfeld was once asked why he decided to retire Seinfeld while it was still on top. He recalled that near the end of the show's run he had a meeting with the people who ran Seinfeld in which they showed him a ratings chart with a line climbing upward. "Look, the ratings are still going up," they told him encouragingly. Seinfeld's response was, "I don't want to know where that line ends—because the only way to know is when you go past it."
Baron Cohen knows where that line ends. Now he's got to figure out what to do next.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.