Sacha Baron Cohen’s Partner in Crime Seizes the Spotlight

·18 min read
Alberto Pezzali-Pool/Getty
Alberto Pezzali-Pool/Getty

Behind every great comedian, there’s a great writer. For Sacha Baron Cohen, that man is Dan Mazer.

The two met way back in primary school, at the Harberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Elstree, a tiny village in Hertfordshire, England; performed in stand-up shows whilst attending Cambridge; began collaborating together professionally on The 11 O’Clock Show, a late-night comedy satire modeled after The Daily Show; and continued their creative partnership on Da Ali G Show, the Borat films, Brüno, and Who Is America?, earning three Emmy nods and two Oscar nominations along the way.

“We were just commenting last week how we’ve been working together for 23 years and are still enjoying it,” says Mazer. “What a crazy journey, from a school in Elstree to the Oscars.”

After years serving as a writer, producer, and director on various projects with his old pal, Mazer has a pair of anticipated projects all his own. First is The Exchange, a heartwarming new film (out July 30) directed by Mazer and written by The Simpsons’ Tim Long. It centers on Tim (Ed Oxenbould), a geeky high school teen in a small Canadian town who takes on a gregarious foreign exchange student from France, Stéphane (Avan Jogia). Stéphane helps the reticent Tim come out of his shell, while the pair force the closed-minded community to confront its prejudice—namely Gary (Justin Hartley), the school’s odious soccer coach who despises Stéphane because he’s “an Arab.”

“The fear of the outsider is the first refuge of a scared, conservative society,” explains Mazer. “It’s a timeless theme that’s very depressing.”

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And next for Mazer is the Home Alone reboot, out later this year on Disney+. Boasting an all-star cast, including Jojo Rabbit’s Archie Yates, Rob Delaney, Ellie Kemper, Kenan Thompson, and a cameo from Macaulay Culkin, reprising his role as Kevin McCallister, Mazer says it’s a “clever reimagining” of the original that’s focused more on the adults breaking into the home (Delaney and Kemper) than the child defending it (Yates).

In a wide-ranging chat, I spoke with Mazer about his comedy journey—and the prank so disturbing that he and Sacha Baron Cohen had to hand over their footage to the FBI.

I’m sorry for your team’s recent loss in the Euro final.

[Laughs] Thank you very much. I appreciate your sympathy. I’m still reeling. It hit me very hard. But I’m going to grow and be a stronger person as a result.

I was pulling for you guys. I’ve been rooting against the Italian team ever since Zidane had to headbutt that guy for saying terrible stuff to him on the pitch—and there’s a nod to that headbutt in The Exchange.

The Zidane headbutt! You’re right—an absolute nod to it. I grew up in a relatively small town in slightly more suburban England, and the script resonated with me because I felt I had a very similar childhood experience to Tim Long, where I was slightly the outsider for having weird music taste, reading books, and watching David Lynch films while everyone else was watching Porky’s or Revenge of the Nerds. Whether it’s England, or small-town Canada, or small-town America, I think the themes are pretty universal. I had a French exchange partner myself, and had previously toyed with doing an exchange comedy myself.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Tim (Ed Oxenbould) and Stéphane (Avan Jogia) in <em>The Exchange</em></p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Quiver Distribution</div>

Tim (Ed Oxenbould) and Stéphane (Avan Jogia) in The Exchange

Quiver Distribution

It is a heartwarming film and also a far cry from the way exchange students were portrayed in ’80s and ’90s teen comedies, which tended to treat them as caricatures.

That’s what I loved about the film as well. I think the themes—and its message—are more important now than ever. It’s weird that we’re still asking the same questions and facing the same dilemmas as we did in the ’80s, and society hasn’t really moved on when it comes to the way we treat strangers, outsiders, immigration, all that sort of stuff. The themes that I tried to examine in the stuff that I’ve done with Sacha also funnels through to this, because there is a beauty in using comedy to highlight issues. Laugh first, think second, but go home still thinking.

I grew up with films like American Pie, and it’s hard to even fathom now, but the finale of that film consists of a group of American teenage boys secretly broadcasting the female foreign exchange student undressing and masturbating to the entire community. That was played for laughs.

Right. It’s “the funny foreigner.” The stuff we’ve done with Borat definitely plays with the perception of what a “foreigner” is. That’s part of the satire of Bruno—people see him with his accent and funny suit and behave differently because they think he’s a rube from another country. That feeds through to what I love about The Exchange, albeit in a more grounded and authentic way.

Stephane is also of Arab descent, and there’s a scene where he’s bullied by some white students who tape his face over a newspaper clipping of a terrorist. It reminded me a bit of the atmosphere in post-9/11 America, where anyone Arab-looking was ruthlessly bullied.

I remember we were shooting Borat in 2005 or 2006, and there’s a bit in the film where Sacha has a mustache and realtively dark skin, and the guy who’s running the rodeo tells him to shave his mustache. First he goes, “You’re Muslim?” and Sacha in character goes, “No.” So then he says, “If you’re gonna get on in this country, you’ve gotta shave that mustache because people are gonna think you’re a Muslim, and we don’t like Muslims around here.” That’s an extraordinary thing to say to a guy who isn’t a Muslim and just is walking around with a mustache. I think that was a very common reaction post-9/11.

You mentioned the rodeo sequence in Borat, and I heard that director Todd Phillips quit after that sequence. Just walked off the set.

He did. Yeah. Almost immediately.

Why did he quit after shooting that sequence? Was he offended?

No. I shouldn’t really go into it, but… it just wasn’t necessarily the best fit. It was nothing related to the rodeo, Todd and Sacha were just not the best creative fit for each other.

I read that you met Sacha at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School when you were both quite young.

Yes. I was 11, and he was the year above me at school, so we weren’t best friends or anything, but always knew each other. He was a large presence even then. Everybody knew about Sacha. We moved in similar circles, and then went to university at the same time and became friendly at university, hung out a bit more, and when we got out of university stayed friends. He was running stand-up clubs and I would do these stand-up spots, as well as writing, and it evolved where I was working on a show called The 11 O’Clock Show, which was sort of like The Daily Show, and he started working on it. We started working together on Ali G segments, and writing and producing those, and we didn’t stop after that point. We were just commenting last week how we’ve been working together for 23 years and are still enjoying it. What a crazy journey, from a school in Elstree to the Oscars.

Twenty-three years. That’s incredible. You mentioned that you were more like the character of Tim in The Exchange, and that Sacha was “a large presence.” I’m curious what you two were like as kids in boys’ school.

[Laughs] Sacha, to his great credit, has not changed since he was 11 years old. He’s always been the life of the party and the center of attention, and instead of the school playground being his forum it’s the world, and the Oscars. I definitely wasn’t a shrinking violet. I was lively and loquacious and garrulous and all those sorts of things, and I performed and did stand-up. He’s definitely more extroverted than I was. Certainly now. We were too afraid of authority to do anything too dangerous and prank-y. Our idea of a prank is, my best friend to this very day is a guy called Chris, and I just remember going round and what I’d do every morning is write on every whiteboard and blackboard, “I love Depeche Mode,” and sign it “Chris Little.” He didn’t even like Depeche Mode, and he would constantly get in trouble for it every day. He knew I was doing it but couldn’t prove it.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Amazon</div>

I really enjoyed Who Is America? And it was just in the news that a judge tossed Roy Moore’s $95 million defamation suit against Sacha and the show.

[Laughs] Exactly. For that amazing reputation he was trying to protect. Nobody ever thought anything bad of him until he came along!

$95 million. Talk about an inflated sense of self-worth.

[Laughs] Who knew that Roy Moore had an inflated sense of self-worth? Who Is America? was bloody great.

I thought the character of Israeli military expert Erran Morad, in particular, was just brilliant. It was such a clever play on America’s fealty to Israel.

That’s why Roy Moore essentially agreed to the interview. I think he wanted to be a friend of Israel, and so he decided to follow through with our request because thought it would reflect well on his loyalty to the Israeli government.

There was a Who Is America? bit that I heard you had to cut related to Harvey Weinstein. You were apparently doing a sketch with a concierge in Las Vegas and asked him about molesting children, and Sacha had coaxed a semi-confession from the guy about how to cover up pedophilia, and you cut it from the show because you all found it to be too disturbing.

Oh yes, it was much too dark. The story went that we were at this suite in Las Vegas—the same suite we interviewed O.J. in—and found this Las Vegas fixer. The Gio character said that he’d gotten in trouble the night before with a young boy, and could this guy clean it up for him and make sure nobody found out—and at the same time, asked him if there were any other young boys that he knew of, specifying that “around bar mitzvah age would be perfect.” And he went on to go, “Well, yeah, what would you like? How young? What’s the oldest you’d go? What’s the youngest you’d go? How can I sort it out for you?” It was mind-blowingly dark, and certainly not side-splittingly funny, and consequently as a result we felt it was too dark to put in this TV show. But it’s amazing that this world exists and that we could expose it in some way, and ultimately, we passed on all the details to the FBI and told them what was going on. As an actual crime hadn’t been committed by him, there was nothing that they could do.

Was that the only time that you and Sacha had done an interview that was so fucked up that you had to pass information on to the FBI?

Definitely to pass on information to the FBI. We’ve had other disturbing interviews where you think, “This is too dark and revolting to put on air.” I remember doing an interview with Ali G and David Duke back in the day. We thought it was a steal and that we were going to expose him, but the thing with David Duke is: you’re not exposing anything because he’s not shy about his opinions of how “Jews are inferior” and “white people and non-white people shouldn’t mate because of eugenics and skull sizes” and disgusting things like that. We didn’t put it out, because it was too reprehensible to give him the platform.

When we were doing the interview—and we usually try to keep the room empty, because advisers would step in and try to stop it—what I would have to do is, if there were PR people or an assistant there, is distract them by talking to them. David Duke brought his head of press, who holds similar views, and for the two-hour-long interview, I had to sit with his PR person and distract him, and in order to do so I had to pretend to be a card-carrying racist. He would be talking about “filthy Jews controlling the media” and I would have to be like, “The Jews are the worst!” in order to keep the conversation going and keep them on our side. It was the most skin-crawling two hours of my life, dealing with this revolting individual. I remember being in the car afterwards and both of us feeling dirty about the whole exercise. We couldn’t even broadcast it and we’d been in the company of monsters.

It’s always interesting to me how these white supremacists tend to look more like David Duke than, say, Chris Hemsworth.

[Laughs] That’s true. I think it speaks to a bigger thing where it’s often a reaction to people who don’t have the best outlook on life, and if you’re born a winner and you look gorgeous, you usually don’t need hate to justify your own existence.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Sacha Baron Cohen (as Ali G) and Olivia Wilde speak onstage during the 88th Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on February 28, 2016, in Hollywood, California. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Kevin Winter/Getty</div>

Sacha Baron Cohen (as Ali G) and Olivia Wilde speak onstage during the 88th Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on February 28, 2016, in Hollywood, California.

Kevin Winter/Getty

Could you talk about the genesis of the Ali G character? And do you think Ali G could even be on the air today?

I’m not sure broadcasters would be brave enough to put Ali G on air today if we’d invented him today. I think that’s probably true. There are too many red flags and controversies and difficulties associated with that for anybody to be brave enough to do that. But the inspiration behind it is still as prevalent and timely today as it was when we created it in the late ’90s. There are Ali Gs that exist all over the world, and it’s a funny comedy character. It’s still as relevant, and funny, and lively, and stupid, and watchable as it ever was. We always loved writing for Ali G, and above all else, he’s just a sort of idiot. And it’s fun writing for idiots.

As a head writer on The Ali G Show were you the one who was tasked with hiring a very young Seth Rogen? What was he… a teenager back then?

Yeah! He was a little bit older than that, but it was Seth and Evan [Goldberg]. We hired both of them together for the HBO show, and they’d come on the road with us and share a room with each other—because they didn’t want to use too much of our budget, and we didn’t want to use too much of our budget paying for them. They were great, and even then, palpably brilliant, disruptive, radical, and brilliant. And on Brüno, we wrote with Jonah Hill for ages. He came on in the writers’ room for us. That’s something not that many people know about, but he was very funny and super clever.

And there was of course the infamous Trump prank on The Ali G Show. Trump tried to claim that he caught on to the ruse quick and walked right out of the interview, whereas Sacha claimed it was BS and that he’d sat there for seven minutes.

It was more than that, actually. He sat there and tolerated it. He’s an impatient man, so 10 minutes of his time is a bit like two hours of somebody else’s time. He definitely sat there and fell for it. It wasn’t the best bit we’ve ever done, but he definitely bought it. The ice-cream glove!

Trump has seemed to harbor a grudge toward Sacha and you guys ever since. I remember when Sacha was dressed as The Dictator and poured ashes on Ryan Seacrest while walking the Oscars’ red carpet, Trump made a Vine video from his desk whining about how much of a “lowlife” Sacha was for the prank.

Almost more than anybody I’ve ever witnessed, he’s clearly a man devoid of any sort of sense of humor or self-referential anything. To me, the weirdest thing is that Donald Trump was the subject of a Comedy Central Roast. Not even HBO! The president of America went on a Comedy Central Roast, let comedians go on these diatribes about him, and three years later he was president of America. That is such an extraordinary cultural moment that’s been passed over. I can’t quite comprehend it.

Oh, I remember that roast. My favorite joke from it was probably by Anthony Jeselnik, who told Trump, “The only difference between you and Michael Douglas from the movie Wall Street is that nobody is going to be sad when you get cancer.”

[Laughs] I could listen to Anthony Jeselnik all day. His one-liners kill.

I also wanted to talk to you about Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, because it came out months into the pandemic—October 2020—and people really needed it. Did you buy Rudy Giuliani’s excuse of tucking in his shirt?

[Laughs] He seemed to really be enjoying tucking in his shirt is all I would say. He was very diligent to make sure it was absolutely tucked in, making sure that there was no chance of that shirt ever coming out. He wasn’t the brightest legal brain of Trump’s regime, and it wasn’t exactly the greatest alibi ever created. No, he was not tucking.

I’m curious what it’s like to write on a project like Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. With something like the Giuliani sequence, are you sort of framing the scenario?

It’s really interesting writing those things, because it’s a mixture of the creative and the logistical. It’s like planning a bank robbery—but making the bank robbery hilarious and entertaining. Not only do we have to work out whether we can make a really funny scene—in terms of the lines, the comedy, and how it fits into the narrative—but we also have to figure out how we’re going to do this. So, it’s two distinct halves of the brain that we’re using that combine to create this scene. That’s the amazing challenge, and it’s slightly underestimated as well.

I write with Sacha and write ordinary scripted narrative comedy films as well, and it’s insane the amount of effort you put into writing a scene for an “orthodox” movie. You’ll do 20 drafts of it, spend two days filming it with 40 different setups, lighting, camera, costumes, and then go edit it. We have to do it in one take with one camera—sometimes two cameras—with at least one person in the scene who doesn’t know they’re in the scene, and we have to make it as satisfying creatively as a scene in any other movie. When you add to that that it’s someone of the stature of Rudy Giuliani that you have to get on his own, in the middle of a pandemic, and make sure he doesn’t suspect anything, it’s just an absolute tightrope. You’ve put so much into it, you only have one shot at it, and you know it has to be brilliant.

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And you’re directing the new Home Alone reboot, which is exciting.

This will be put in the pantheon of 1 and 2 rather than 3, 4, 5 and 6 as far as its scale, ambition, and hopefully, enjoyment.

How will yours stand apart from the OG Christopher Columbus/John Hughes version?

But this film is more about the people breaking in than it is about the kids defending. We have Ellie Kemper and Rob Delaney playing the parents, who are essentially fulfilling the role of the Wet Bandits, although we’re rooting for what they want to do. So, it was a very clever reimagining of the concept by the two brilliant writers, Mikey [Day] and Streeter [Seidell], who are two of the head writers on SNL. I approached it with a degree of skepticism when they first put it my way, but the script is brilliant, fresh, and a totally new perspective, and I just fell in love with it.

What’s next after Home Alone? I see you have a few projects up on the IMDb, although I know the IMDb lies.

I’m still finishing up Home Alone, and then I really don’t know. I know I want to stay being funny and making comedies, and the world of the R-rated comedy is fast-diminishing and disappearing but it’s the world I love, and most of my favorite movies are in that genre, so I would hate to see it disappear and would love to keep that going somehow.

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