Nov. 15, 2005 — -- Did you hear the one about the comic who so thoroughly offended a foreign country he could face legal action from its government?
Sacha Baron Cohen, star of the "Da Ali G Show," is doing his part to put Howard Stern's FCC battles into perspective. Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry is threatening to sue him for portraying the central Asian state in a "derogatory way." The 34-year-old British comic is under attack for "Borat Sagdiyev," a faux Kazakh TV personality he plays, who gleefully describes his countrymen as drunken sexual deviants.
Earlier this month, Cohen appeared as Borat to host the MTV Europe Music awards show in Lisbon, telling the audience that he arrived on an "Air Kazakh" aircraft, a propeller plane flown by a vodka-swilling pilot.
On his wildly popular HBO show, Cohen's Borat describes himself as the "sixth best known Kazakh in the world." He ruminates over "the terrible events of 7-11" and asks questions such as, "Is Disneyland part of the U.N.?"
"In the U.S. and A. they treat horses like we in Kazakhstan treat our women," he says in one episode. "They feed them two times a day. They have them sleep on straw in a small box. And for entertainment, they make them jump over fences while being whipped."
Kazakh officials have complained before about Cohen, as have other groups who see nothing funny about his spoofs, but this is the first time they have threatened to slap him with a lawsuit. It's unclear where and for what they'd sue him, and if they did, their chances of success would seem remote. But the threat clearly underscored their frustration.
"We do not rule out that Mr. Cohen is serving someone's political order designed to present Kazakhstan and its people in a derogatory way," Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashykbayev said Monday in a press conference.
"We reserve the right to any legal action to prevent new pranks of the kind."
Posing as Borat, Cohen has been successful in landing interviews with such luminaries as Newt Gingrich, Buzz Aldrin, Brent Scowcroft, Ralph Nader, Donald Trump and Sam Donaldson. While some of his guests have been good-natured about their appearances, a few have claimed they were misled. Others have complained that Cohen just goes way too far.
In January, Cohen's Borat drew the ire of several Jewish groups and Kazakhstan officials, after he led patrons of an Arizona bar in a song called "Throw the Jew Down the Well," which he declared was a popular ditty in his native land.
"It's not quite helpful to portray a country where 'Throw the Jew Down the Well' is a famous folk song," a Kazakhstan embassy spokesman, Roman Vassilenko, said in a statement.
In another instance, Cohen sang the national anthem at a Salem, Va., rodeo, posing as a Middle Eastern man wearing an American flag shirt and a cowboy hat. He mangled the words -- singing ''and your home in the grave" rather than "and the home of the brave" and called on President Bush to ''drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq.''
In July, Cohen's Borat character visited the 150-year-old Mississippi plantation of George Matthews Marshall, claiming to be making a documentary about Southern hospitality. Marshall says he was outraged when a worker brought refreshments and Borat said, "Ah, I see you still have slaves here."
At the meeting, Cohen was accompanied by a woman who groped him and made several unseemly gestures, the 75-year-old Marshall said. When Cohen was asked to leave, he remained in character, shouting from the doorway, "I do not understand your customs!''
"I was so shocked, I didn't know what to think," Marshall later told reporters. "I told him people here get paid for a living."
Marshall says he plans to sue if the interview is included in Cohen's new movie, "Borat," which is slated to be released later this year.
While Cohen has critics, the controversy hasn't stemmed his meteoric rise. The Cambridge University-educated comic cultivated his humor in Britain in the late 1990s, and since bringing his act to America, he's landed several plum roles, including his steady gig at HBO. He was featured earlier this year in the animated kids' film "Madagascar," and he and Will Ferrell are on the fast track to appear as race car drivers in an untitled NASCAR-themed comedy, with Cohen playing a gay French racer.
Cohen had hosted the MTV Europe awards show once before, but as Ali G -- his Jamaican British character -- rather than as Borat. His recent show confirmed that his barbed tongue knows no bounds.
When Madonna performed the opening number, he quipped, "It was very brave of MTV to start the show with a transvestite." Some viewers even believed momentarily that the part of Madonna was being played by a female impersonator.