Howard Stern snagged an interview with Sacha Baron Cohen yesterday — not Borat, or Bruno, or Admiral General Aladeen, but the actual Sacha Baron Cohen. This in itself is supposedly headline-worthy: Baron Cohen’s dedication to staying in character is an enormous, essential ingredient of the comic’s shtick. Hell, even when he was invited to give Harvard’s Class Day speech in 2004, Baron Cohen performed the address as Ali G. During the Stern interview, the comedian made a point of noting that this was only “like, the third time” he had ever spoken publicly as himself.
In reality, though, Baron Cohen has done a lot more out-of-character interviews than he may remember. The Brit appeared sans fake facial hair on several talk shows and NPR in 2004, right before the second season of Da Ali G Show began airing on HBO. (He also did his first extended Howard Stern interview that same year.) Back then, Baron Cohen hadn’t yet become an international phenomenon; in most of his interviews, like this one with Jon Stewart, he focused on explaining what exactly happened on his show, as well as assuring audiences that its featured interview subjects weren’t in on the joke.
But even after Baron Cohen’s stateside fame skyrocketed, his out-of-character interviews didn’t become as rare as a fan might expect. Around the time of Borat‘s release in 2006, Baron Cohen spoke with Rolling Stone for a cover story touted as a singular peek behind the curtain of his characters. (The article seems to have disappeared from Rolling Stone‘s website, but it’s still accessible via the Internet Archive.) In 2007, Baron Cohen made a few more radio appearances (on Fresh Air and NPR’s Day to Day) and also spoke with the U.K.’s own Telegraph. And in 2009, the comic ditched his costumes once more to plug Bruno on Letterman. Baron Cohen hasn’t made many out-of-character appearances since — but he also hasn’t really had anything to promote in the past three years, besides Hugo (which he did support with interviews as himself).
Take a look at some of those interviews, and you’ll see that each one hypes itself as a rare, nearly unprecedented look at the real Baron Cohen — a shy man who’s incredibly reluctant to show his true face. But while in-character chats may outnumber artifice-free dialogues, it’s a little disingenuous to claim that Baron Cohen almost never drops his act when speaking to the press. His straightforward interviews are fascinating and illuminating — but they’re not exactly uncommon. And at a time when many outlets are wondering whether Baron Cohen’s act is growing stale — especially considering how many jokes he’s repeating during his in-character Dictator promotions — it might be wise for the media and Baron Cohen himself to stop painting the comic as some sort of mysterious hermit.
Baron Cohen joked yesterday that he may start only dropping his subterfuge while speaking with Stern. If that’s truly the case, then the shock jock will have the right to tout his Baron Cohen interviews as exceptional. But in the meantime, we should keep in mind that Baron Cohen isn’t all that unwilling to speak for himself — and maybe if he starts appearing out of character more, he’ll be able to regain a bit of the heat that’s faded since the Borat days.