General Aladeen of the People’s Republic of Wadiya loves New York. On Saturday night, the despot stopped by SNL’s Weekend Update to banter with Seth Meyers. This morning, he cheerfully threatened Matt Lauer’s family on the Today show. And just a few hours ago, the Supreme Leader, Chief Ophthalmologist, and excellent swimmer – he can even do the breaststroke! – stopped by Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria for a press conference with reporters from around the world.
Aladeen, of course, is the latest alter ego of Sacha Baron Cohen, a comedian who promotes his movies with in-character stunt appearances. And though Baron Cohen’s performance at today’s press event didn’t break new ground – the jokes were familiar for anyone who’s watched footage from The Dictator or read about Aladeen’s appearance at CinemaCon – his enthusiasm for playing his new character shined through.
Baron Cohen arrived in the hotel’s Empire Room fashionably late, preceded by a crowd of “subjects” hoisting fawning signs (sample text: “Say No to Democracy”) and flanked by a quartet of hot, stony-faced women wearing itty-bitty military uniforms and berets. After ribbing a guy who had shouted “sit down!” at another reporter – “You want me to sit down? Who is the f–ing dictator?” – the actor launched into his well-oiled routine: “Welcome, devils of the Zionist media, and death to the West! Today, I wish to highlight the plight of a terribly endangered group, the innocent victims of a global human tragedy: dictators.”
Baron Cohen’s general went on to decry the treatment of his authoritarian comrades, noting that their only crimes are embezzling money, oppressing their people, and “doing a tiny little bit of genocide.” Then Baron Cohen mourned a few of the dictators who have fallen in recent years: “Saddam, Kim Jong-il, Gadaffi, and Oprah.”
While western nations chew up our planet’s resources, he went on, despots are working to save the earth: “We conserve our land by burying thousands of opponents in single mass eco-graves.”
When Baron Cohen facetiously thanked the U.N. for “their brave inaction over Syria,” the crowd laughed uneasily. But most of the actor’s quips went over well – especially when he began taking pre-screened questions from the assembled journos. (Like any good dictator, Baron Cohen had his team read all queries beforehand; a select few were then invited to ask him just one question each. The gimmick worked with the event’s despotic theme, and also gave Baron Cohen time to prepare snappy answers.)
A reporter from Canada asked for Aladeen’s opinion on the American film industry, which gave Baron Cohen an opportunity to praise fantasy films like “Lord of the Rings and Schindler’s List.” As the conference went on, two dominant themes emerged: playful anti-Semitism, which has long been an integral part of Baron Cohen’s schtick, and playful sexism. Baron Cohen even asked one Israeli journalist to prove he was a Jew – and the journalist obliged by letting the actor get a peek at his undercarriage.
The actor also made reference to having done or wanting to do “sex activities” with several female reporters – most notably, a pretty journalist from E! The general pretended to be delighted by how many of the journalists assembled were women: Watching a woman working is “like putting a dog on roller skates,” he said, borrowing a quip from Jack Donaghy.
In between asking one short reporter if her legs had been chopped off and sharply ordering another to stop giggling, Baron Cohen had plenty of chances to flesh out his latest character. He revealed that Wadiya’s version of Two and a Half Men is one of his favorite guilty pleasures: “It used to be called Three Men, but one of them tried to steal a grapefruit. Also, I love the TV program 24. You have it here, but we play it backwards so it has a happy ending.” He spoke about his father and mother, who both died young (she in childbirth, via strangulation; he in a hunting accident, when he was hit by 97 stray bullets). He declared his support for Rick Santorum, despite the ex-presidential candidate’s “liberal views.”
And he made reference to his character’s dalliance with Megan Fox, a moment that’s teased in The Dictator’s trailer. That led to one of the most uncomfortable moments of the entire conference. The off-color joke Baron Cohen told revolved around the star’s unconfirmed pregnancy; according to the actor, Aladeen couldn’t be the hypothetical kid’s father because of the way he and Fox were intimate. Let’s leave it at that.
About half an hour after he waltzed into the Waldorf – and minutes after exhorting that Israeli journalist to pull down his pants – Baron Cohen ended the conference. In true Aladeenian fashion, his parting words were a cordial threat to those assembled: “Enjoy the prostitutes we brought in, or the boys, if you like, if you’re from Canada. And as long as you write good reviews, your families will be released.” Then the actor posed for a few parting shots before taking his leave – and, perhaps, trying to locate that comely E! reporter.
The Dictator hits theaters May 16.