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From Borat To Aladeen, Laughter Is Cohen's Goal

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There isn't much actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen won't do for a laugh.

Baron Cohen splashed his face with toilet water as Borat, the clueless TV reporter from Kazakhstan. He stripped in front of Congressman Ron Paul as Bruno, the gay Austrian fashion journalist.

If you watched red carpet coverage before this year's Academy Awards, you might have seen his character from the new film, The Dictator — Adm. Gen. Hafez Aladeen — accidentally spilling an urn full of fake ashes onto TV host Ryan Seacrest. Baron Cohen stayed in character.

"It's OK for you. Now if somebody ask you what you are wearing, you will say Kim Jong-Il," he told Seacrest.

Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin spoke with Baron Cohen about his "good old days" as Borat, Bruno and Ali G, as well as his latest persona.

The new comedy follows the leader of a fictional, oil-rich North African country on the verge of becoming a democracy. The story might seem inspired by the recent revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, but Baron Cohen says he and his writers actually started writing the script before the Arab Spring began.


Interview Highlights

On why he does comedy:

"The reason why I do all my comedy is to make my friends laugh — my childhood friends from England. And they are all as funny as me, in my opinion. They make me laugh hysterically ... When I started doing Ali G, I thought, 'No one is going to find this funny outside my group of friends.' That's been the surprise of my career: finding out that other people share a sense of humor with me."

On the death of Osama bin Laden:

"We were sitting in the writer's room extremely depressed. Navy SEAL Team Six had killed Osama bin Laden and one of our comedy bits. We were saying that Osama had been hiding in Gen. Aladeen's palace for the last 10 years, and he's the worst house guest ever. He's putting the wrong DVDs in the wrong DVD cases and he leaves a mess in the shower ... we had to change it by making it that they killed Osama bin Laden's double."

On whether there is a 'too soon' in his comedy:

"Not really. In regards to [Moammar Gadhafi] ... he was a dreadful mass murderer. So the sooner you can make jokes about him, the better. Part of the problem was that the Libyans weren't allowed to make any jokes about him while he was around. In these dictatorships, there's a censorship of comedy. There's a good reason why you've never really heard of any well-known North Korean comedians.

"I don't believe in just shocking the audience; the idea is really to be funny. You come at it from the perspective of this character — in this case, it's an extreme character ... and you have to be true to the character. And that allows you a plethora of comic targets. We're never trying to be offensive for the sake of being offensive."

On doing a scripted comedy vs. an improvised one:

"I do miss some of the adrenaline. It used to be scary doing the old shows and old movies, but it was fun. You're running away from the cops and sometimes the interviewees had guns on them. There was an excitement and you get addicted to the adrenaline, which is actually not a healthy thing."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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