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Has the Sacha Baron Cohen shtick jumped the shark?

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Has Sacha Baron Cohen finally exhausted the goodwill of audiences? When “The Ali G Show” made its debut on HBO in 2003 it was as if a meteor struck this planet from the comedic heavens above, alighting us all with the gift of laughter.

That was then, this is now. This week “The Dictator” was, quite frankly, smothered in box office competition by both “The Avengers” and “Battleship,” turning in a lackluster — but not entirely soul-destroying — third place performance in its debut. There could not possibly have been a better time to release such a movie. The Arab Spring is in full flower; dictators are universally reviled. Who among us doesn’t want to see a Quaddafi-ish autocratic ass-hat lampooned?

So — what went wrong? Putting things into proper perspective: bringing in $17.2 million in its first week is not the end of the world or Mr. Cohen’s career. Still, that number, while not fatal to a career trajectory, might just signal the end of Cohen’s pungent brand of reality-flavored satire. Aside from the disappointing, though again not fatal box office, the reviews were quite mixed (59% rating of top critics on Rotten Tomatoes).

What was most surprising, however, was the powerfully negative response from more established media resources, which, one would think, would be firmly Team Cohen. Isn’t Cohen the thinking person’s comedian? Foreign Policy’s Joshua E. Keating writes, in a post titled Is ‘The Dictator’ Racist: “Cohen clearly knows his politics (how many comedies include both extended masturbation jokes and references to Gazprom?), but it’s hard to get past the fact that most of the film’s comedy derives from a British actor playing a crude Arab stereotype.” And while, no, “The Dictator” is not racist, it is, at the very least, clichéd and even more than a little bit stale. And stale, in comedy, carries about it the stink of death. The film belongs in the same bargain bin as that seemingly endless stream of bad SNL skits turned into movies. Perhaps “The Dictator,” like the unburied and unsung “McGruber”, was best left to a five minute skit on the small screen.

Further, Sacha Baron Cohen did some of the more comedically prestigious rounds of the media gauntlet in advance of “The Dictator”’s release as … himself. Sacha being Sacha on the promotional tour is, quite frankly, pretty rare; it makes a statement. How better to garner media and blog buzz for a project than staging an elaborate satirical real time sketch. That has been, in the past, Sacha Baron Cohen’s modus operandi; he perfected the art of promoting his films. But in recent appearances on both Letterman and Howard Stern, two “smart” comedy shows, Cohen went on as himself and not in his gaudy General Aladeen get-up, signaling, perhaps, that the joke – to insiders, at least – no longer packs the same punch. You can’t really fake it to those in-the-know. As Chris Lee reported in The Daily Beast:

Out of respect for [Howard] Stern, who Baron Cohen says inspired him, the comedian spoke straightforwardly and un-ironically in his native British accent, absent the kinky weird beard associated with his Saddam Hussein–esque character, Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen, and spouting none of the faux despot’s characteristically sexist and racist gibberish. “I’ve never really done interviews as myself,” Cohen said. “This is like the third time in my life I’ve done an interview out of character.”

Is this a new beginning? “The Dictator” is also, stylistically if not thematically, an abrupt departure from Cohen’s comfort zone mixing reality with improv, a sort of Jackass-meets-Coltrane piece of satirical comedy that he appears to have invented. And while critics – including this one – found parts of “The Dictator” laugh out loud funny, the general consensus is that it is a thoroughly uneven movie. We are now jaded; the once brilliant comic invention has lost its charm, perhaps in the same way that M. Knight Shyamalan endings no longer fuck up our whole shit. We are all Shymalayan-ed out.

Finally, Sacha Baron Cohen’s next role will be in the Freddy Mercury biopic, which may mean ultimately that he is going the way of Jamie Foxx. The Jamie Foxx Path, which led the former stand-up comedian to an Oscar, provides a difficult route, an escape from the typecasting of comedy. Sacha Baron Cohen, an innovator, an independent voice, certainly deserves another chapter in his career. If there had been a Best Actor in a Comedy Oscar – as I have argued for in this blog – Cohen would have won it in 2007 for “Borat.” But it appears that the simpleton foreigner shtick has, abruptly, run its course. It was a good and lucrative run. That having been said, I cannot wait to see what he becomes in his next act.

What do you think of Sacha Baron Cohen? Let us know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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