Sacha Baron Cohen: Becoming Invisible

In reading this week’s chapter on laughter by Henri Bergson,[1] one particular idea stood out to me. Bergson states that the comic person ‘is invisible to himself while remaining visible to all the world.’[2]

The statement brought to mind the work of Sacha Baron Cohen, who I believe builds his humour on the basis of this concept. As a professional comedian, Cohen is certainly not invisible to himself. In fact, Cohen turns the above statement on its head in order to craft comedy by disguising himself in order to reveal the comedic traits of those he interacts with.

Take, for example, this clip from Cohen’s newest work, Who is America?[3] In it, Cohen poses as the Israeli caricature, Erran Morad, in order to convince republican senator Philip Van Cleave to advocate providing children as young as three with guns. In this instance, it is Van Cleave who embodies Bergson’s comic person. The gag is so funny because of how little self-awareness is being demonstrated, and Cohen adds to this comic presence through testing just how much he can get away with making the senator do. Which, as we can see, is a lot. While one could criticise Cohen’s techniques as comedic entrapment, his method remains simple and effective: In disguising himself, Cohen reveals the comedic fallibility of his targets to all the world without them even realizing it. As with Borat[4], the funniest elements of Who is America stem not from Cohen’s scripted actions but from unscripted reactions.

[1] Bergson, Henri. Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic. London: Macmillan, 1911 pp. 1-66

[2] Bergson, Henri. Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic. London: Macmillan, 1911 pp. 16-17

[3] Who is America?. “Episode 1.” S01E01. Directed by Sacha Baron Cohen.

Written by Sacha Baron Cohen. Showtime, July, 2018.

[4] Borat. Directed by Larry Charles. USA: 20th Century Fox. 2006

4 comments

  1. First, I couldn’t even believe what I was seeing (how on earth can a “figure of authority” advise children to use guns?!), but the job here done by Cohen is amazing, not only for exposing the ridiculous ideas of this man to the world, but also for making him, as you say, the butt of the joke. Great example to illustrate another way of seeing Bergson’s argument.

  2. Cohen is a great example of the invisible comedian. I think the main comedy of his work is what you allude to here in that he is obvious to us, often a brash caricature but to those he is sharing the screen with, they can’t see past his characterisation. To this extent, we are invited to laugh at both Cohen as the comedian but also those who have been fail to see his comedy.

  3. Great connection between Bergson’s argument and the invisible comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen. I had not seen his new series yet and that example from ‘Who is America?’ has shocked me and works well with Bergson. It could have been interesting to use the scene from ‘Borat’ when Cohen speaks to one of the head guys at the Rodeo and he is explicitly racist to him.

  4. I personally love Sacha Baron Cohen, and I truly thought the point of considering him “invisible” was very interesting. I think as audience when we watch his work, we know what to expect and in some ways he is so obviously himself. His comic work is only non-transparent in the moment. I also love this show and thought this was an excellent example of incorporating what the reading was getting at into a modern context.

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