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Geoffrey Nunberg: 'The I's Don't Have It'

Counting words has become a popular new device in assessing political speech. The number of first-person singular pronouns in a speech can turn a modest public figure into a pompous politician. Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg suggests that counting words isn't very revealing unless we consider their context as well.


Other segments from the episode on November 17, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 17, 2009: Interview with Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles; Commentary on the use of first-person pronouns in political discourse.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Sacha Baron Cohen And Larry Charles Talk “Bruno”


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Usually if Sacha Baron Cohen grants an
interview, it's in character as Borat or Bruno. So we're really happy to be
able to present our second interview with Sacha Baron Cohen as himself.

The occasion is today's DVD release of his latest movie, "Bruno," and it has
lots of extras, including scenes that didn't make it into the film and a
commentary soundtrack by Cohen and the director of "Bruno," Larry Charles, who
is with us too. Charles also directed "Borat" and Bill Maher's film,

Like "Borat," Bruno is filmed as if it were a documentary. Bruno is an
Austrian, gay fashion journalist who is incredibly shallow but doesn't know it.
After he disrupts a fashion show and becomes persona non grata in the European
fashion world, he moves to L.A., where he intends to do anything it takes to
become a celebrity - anything - from making a sex tape to trying to negotiate
peace in the Middle East.

Along the way, he meets a lot of homophones – homophobes – some of whom have
guns. These are real people with real guns who don't know that Bruno is just a
character created by Sacha Baron Cohen. We'll get to how scary that was later.
Let's start with a scene from the beginning of the film.

(Soundbite of film, "Bruno")

Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN (Actor): (As Bruno) What's up? I'm Bruno.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: I live in Austria's coolest city, Vienna, no big deal, whatever.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COHEN: I am just host of "Funky Type," the most important TV fashion show
in any German-speaking country, apart from Germany.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COHEN: "Funky Type" is uber-influential. In fact, Austrian fashionistas
live their lives according to my in or out list. In: autism. Out: Chlamydia.

GROSS: Sacha Baron Cohen, Larry Charles, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love the
film, and it's a pleasure to talk with you. Sacha, how did you create Bruno,
and how did Bruno change for the movie?

Mr. COHEN: Bruno was probably the first character that I developed. He came
before Ali G and before Borat, and it was, I think it was 1996, and I knew that
I wanted to do a character in a real setting, and it was coming up to London
Fashion Week, and I'd been employed by a channel, a little cable channel in
England called the Paramount Comedy Channel, to do, you know, little three-
minute sections, and I wanted to do a character that would play in a real way
in London Fashion Week, and so I just came up with a fashion reporter who was

GROSS: And gay.

Mr. COHEN: And gay. Well…

GROSS: An important part of his character, yeah.

Mr. COHEN: Well, at the beginning he wasn't out as gay, and I did one fashion
show which was with this sort of Cockney designer who designed for all the sort
of English mafioso. So he designed for the Kray twins, and he made all the
suits for all the English mafia. And he was so macho that when I went there
that day and started interviewing him, you know, the whole theme of the
interview was: So tell me, why is your, why is you fashion so gay? And you
know, he got increasingly angry. You know, I'm not gay. I'm telling you, I'm
not gay. And I go, so tell me, you know, you and your husband, what, you just
think up these designs last thing at night?

And he got incredibly angry, and basically in this fashion show, it was
basically all the English mafia had turned up, and he had this short guy next
to him, who I remember, after I asked him about the sixth time whether he was
gay, grabbed me by my hair, pulled me down to his level and said I'm going to
shoot you if you don't shut up. And basically one of the other guys pulled me
aside and said this guy’s - he's the real deal and he's what's called a
shooter, at which point I became very scared, and I actually hid in a cupboard
until I managed to get out of there because they started looking for me in the
fashion show.

So that was a little introduction into the reactions of tough men to being
called gay. And I knew…

GROSS: So did this make you think, oh, I'm really onto something? If he's ready
to shoot me for this, this is a good bit.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, definitely, because I knew early on that – and I didn't really
have it with the other characters, where Borat was more lovable. You know, he
could say the most vicious, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist things, and people
would go, oh no, we don't say that. But with Bruno, they would get actively
angry, and so I knew that – it was exciting for me to perform and I knew it was
entertaining to watch. Well, that's up for debate, I suppose.

But as a result of that, I then took Bruno to a fascist concert, a skinhead
concert in London, and that was actually about a year after, and I'd already
done a little bit of Ali G, and I was with all these kind of British neo-Nazis
and sort of coming on to them, and you know, they have this tendency of taking
off their shirts and, you know, jumping around topless and sort of rubbing up
against each other, and it was very macho but essentially it was very
homoerotic, and obviously Bruno was kind of – you know, I had my shirt off and
was jumping around amongst them, and it actually got a little bit scary because
somebody recognized me, and word got around this fascist gathering that I was
there taking the mick, you know, I was there to, you know, as a joke, and so it
got – it got a little bit hairy in there.

GROSS: You're amazing. You just are constantly putting yourself into positions
of danger for your performances.

Mr. COHEN: Well, I prefer not to. I prefer not to, but you know, there's a
desire to do comedy that hasn't been done before. So you know, if it's - you
know, a lot of sort of real, dangerous situations haven't been done with a
comic character. So it adds another layer to the comedy, really.

GROSS: Larry Charles, during the course of filming "Bruno," did you ever say to
Sacha Baron Cohen, I'm sorry, that's going too far, we're not going to do it?

Mr. CHARLES: I don’t think I've ever said that, actually. I defer to Sacha on
these kind of issues. I mean, if he – if we can create a situation, an
environment, that he is safe enough to go out on these kind of limbs, that's
what we want to do with these movies. We want to push through limits. We want
to push the boundaries. We want to experiment and see how far we can go and how
much we can juxtapose very, very serious, dire, dreaded situations with the
humor and see if that works. So it's a constant experiment. But no, I never
want to pull back. Other people are asking me to pull back, but…

Mr. COHEN: With that said, we do have, you know, there's – when you make a
film, there's other people who you need permission from - you know, the studio,
lawyers, you know, production staff. You need your crew to join you, and for
example, there was – the final scene of the movie, which is a cage match, where
Bruno, you know, starts making out with his love interest in a real cage match
in Arkansas, we knew we wanted to do that, and the legal team – and we have a
big legal team who are, interestingly enough, based out in India, but are
experts in constitutional law – they said it's illegal for us to do it because
we knew that the crowd would probably riot if they saw two grown men start
kissing each other in a cage-fighting ring, and if you cross a state boundary
and provoke a riot, then that is a federal law. In fact, that's what the
Chicago Seven were sued for - were tried for, sorry.

So we had to, you know, we were told by the lawyers this is totally illegal,
and then we were told by our security advisor – and we interviewed a lot of
different people in this – that it's impossible to do that scene without, you
know, and come out, you know, not in a wheelchair, essentially, at the very

So we're constantly trying to figure out ways of, you know, comically achieving
the scene and also legally and practically achieving the scene.

GROSS: Let's talk about the cage fight, and this comes at the end of the film,
and you, Sacha Baron Cohen, you have created a character for the cage fight
called Straight Dave. First describe what you're wearing. Describe how you look
for this.

Mr. COHEN: Straight Dave, who – basically in the movie, Bruno, who's this gay
Austrian character, has a breakdown and reinvents himself as his own
antithesis. Straight Dave is this uber-macho, uber-straight guy who is
basically homophobic, and in this scene I'm wearing camouflage from head to
toe, including a kind of camo cowboy hat.

GROSS: Okay, so let's begin with the announcer announcing your entrance onto
the ring or the cage.

(Soundbite of film, "Bruno")

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #1: You guys ready to see a little ass-kicking tonight?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #1: Make some noise, everybody. Put your hands together and
make some noise. The host of the brand new TV show, “Straight Dave,”
(unintelligible). Give it up for Straight Dave!

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #1: Straight Dave. Straight Dave.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. COHEN: (As Straight Dave) Are you ready for some man-slamming action?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. COHEN (As Straight Dave): Who's ready for an old-fashioned

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. COHEN: (As Straight Dave) Are you 100 percent hetero like me?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. COHEN: (As Straight Dave) Who out there is proud to be straight?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. COHEN: (As Straight Dave) Let me hear you say it: Straight pride.

Unidentified People: Straight pride!

Mr. COHEN: (As Straight Dave) Straight pride.

Unidentified People: Straight pride!

Mr. COHEN: (As Straight Dave) I'm so straight that when I bought my house, the
first thing I did was brick up the back door.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. COHEN: (As Straight Dave) It's great to have an evening with straight
people. It's great not to have any fags here.

Unidentified Man #2: You're a faggot.

Mr. COHEN: (As Straight Dave) Who called me a faggot? Whoever called me a
faggot, come up here and I'll beat your ass. Who called Straight Dave a faggot?
Come up here.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: It's really such an amazing scene. The people in the audience seem
really out for blood, you know? They really want to see you fight, and then the
person you let in, who called you a faggot, is actually Bruno's boyfriend, who
left Bruno earlier in the movie. So they start off fighting and then end up
kissing and embracing and taking each other's clothes off, and the audience is
going wild watching these homosexual affections. I mean, they can't handle it.
They can't – they're just in pain. They're screaming. They're throwing things
at you, and what was it like for you?

Mr. COHEN: It was pretty incredible. I mean, I would say, unfortunately, we had
to do this two nights in a row because we did it the first night in a place
called Texarkana in Arkansas, which is famous for one thing, and that's pulling
an African-American man behind a truck until he passed away. So it was a pretty
rough place with a rough crowd, and I started doing that scene that first night
in Texarkana, and the crowd started booing, and I shouted as Straight Dave, I
go: And if you other fags have want to have, you know, what to be beaten up -
and this guy just ran at the cage and catapulted the cage, jumped into the
cage, and he was basically an ultimate fighter and was ready to beat me up.

So suddenly I'm face to face with this professional fighter, not knowing what
to do, and then people start throwing chairs in, and basically I had to sort of
run for my life.

So we drove overnight to Little Rock in Arkansas and arranged another cage
match that night, and that night we were ready to do it basically. It was – we
had a bit more success, which you see in the movie. But the moment, you know,
the crowd loved me as Straight Dave. I was their hero. You know, they were
totally behind me. I was giving out sort of cheap beers. I was saying, you
know, everything that they wanted to say about gay people. And then the moment
I kissed, you know, my love interest, who I'd been fighting and beating up,
there was just absolute silence in the crowd, absolute shock, and then serious
booing and then people throwing stuff and throwing eventually chairs, metal
chairs that I was trying to avoid while being on the floor.

But it was an amazing experience as an actor because, because of the energy
from 1,500 people in the crowd, and it was an energy of hatred - it actually
pushes you as a performer further into the character, and you really, you know,
you kind of believe the scene.

Obviously in the back of my mind I'm still going all the legal things that I
have to make sure that we don't do, like, you know, there were certain things
that the lawyers had said we could do. You know, you can lick a nipple but you
can't cup a buttock, you know, in Arkansas. So that was all going through my
mind as well, but it was invigorating, I mean terrifying as well, but you know,
an amazing experience.

GROSS: My guests are Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of the characters Ali G,
Borat and Bruno; and Larry Charles, who directed Cohen's films "Borat" and
"Bruno." Bruno was released today on DVD. More after a break. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry
Charles, and Sacha Baron Cohen, of course, is the star of "Bruno" and "Borat,"
the creator; and also, Larry Charles directed both of those films.

Now, Larry Charles, as the director of the film, where were you during the cage

Mr. CHARLES: I was right behind the curtain that you can't see with 11
monitors. We had 11 cameras. We shot it like a sporting event. So I was right
there behind the curtain, and again, trying to communicate with the cameramen,
with my AD. When the guy jumped over the thing, we had to sort of make a quick
decision to get Sacha out of there.

The second night, there was also a lot of threats, and we were promised that
the chairs wouldn't be able to be uncoupled and thrown into the ring, and the
chairs started flying, but I knew it was only our second – this was our second
chance to do this scene and probably our last chance to do the scene.

I'm conscious of Sacha and Gustaf's safety, of course, but we were promised
that nothing would happen beyond. So once the first chair came in, I thought,
well, now the security guys are going to crack down, and so I thought we might
be able to get to the end of the scene, and we did, fortunately.

GROSS: Who knew, in the auditorium or arena or wherever you were, who knew what
you were doing?

Mr. COHEN: There was one guy who knew, the guy who promoted the cage match.

Mr. CHARLES: The audience was completely unprepared. We had our own security
people who were sort of interspersed, and they were obviously conscious, and
our crew was conscious, but the audience themselves were completely unprepared.

GROSS: Did the security people do anything that was effective?

Mr. COHEN: No. I mean, the first night, you know, the security guys had, you
know, they'd guaranteed me no one would be able to scale the fence, and
somebody – you know, they said it would take somebody three minutes, and it
took somebody three seconds to jump over, so…

Mr. CHARLES: We're in a lot of situations where the security guys go, hey,
look, there's nothing we could do about this. You know, we're in that situation
a lot. It's like, oh, look, they have guns. Yeah, but we're 10 feet away. We
can't get there in time. So we've had problems with security not being with the
program sometimes.

Mr. COHEN: I mean that's – the problem with the security guard, it's more of a
psychological thing, because if somebody pulls out a gun at you, the security
guard has to be so close that it's kind of impossible for us to film like that.
So it's more for psychological comfort to have somebody there.

Mr. CHARLES: Even a quick punch, like in the hunter scene in "Bruno," Sacha was
both threatened with guns and with physical violence, and you're in a situation
where the security guys are behind the camera, Sacha's sitting next to the
hostile hunter. If that guy decides to whip around and punch him, there's
nothing a security guy can really do. So we have to accept the limits of our
protection also. I mean, that's part of the assessment of the risk.

GROSS: Yeah, and the hunter scene, the hunter scene you're talking about, you
know, Bruno is in a little hunting party, a party of hunters in the woods, and
he takes off his clothes and climbs into one of their tents. I mean, he does
everything to – knowing how homophobic they are, he does everything that could
possibly arouse their homophobia even further. So it was a very risky
situation, one of many risky situations.

Mr. COHEN: Well, that was (unintelligible) as well, in that we were told as
well that you can't go up to one of these hunters and ask them to hand over
their handguns. You know, it just wasn't deemed proper. And the funny thing
was, I was actually – in this scene I'm around the campfire and I'm talking to
the hunters, and I look up at the stars and I go: Wow, you know, look at all
the stars in the sky. It makes you think of all the hot guys out there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: And these hunters just went absolutely silent for about two minutes,
and then they got up and then got hold of their shotguns and then in full view
of us loaded their shotguns and clicked them shut. And you know, Larry spoke to
them and said, listen, you know, guys, can you put down your shotguns? Because
we knew that, you know, the next bit of the scene was we're all going to go to
sleep in our tents and I was going to go and try and get into one of the
hunter’s tents and try and make up all these excuses of going in the tent with
him. You know, there's a bear outside. I think it's best for all of us if we
just sleep together. And then eventually I would go naked and, you know, claim,
you know, there's a bear, just ate all my clothes. You know, he devoured
everything apart from these condoms. You know, shall I go in?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: And unfortunately they had these loaded guns, and…

Mr. CHARLES: A lot of them.

GROSS: You're crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Well, I remember lying in my tent, and you know, we had to – I had
to wait an hour until all the hunters were asleep because obviously these
scenes play in real time. So I was with these hunting guys for almost seven
hours and I'm lying there for an hour and I go, all right, now I'm going to
take off my clothes. It's freezing outside, which is obviously not very
flattering for the naked performer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: And there's a good chance I could have, you know, at least part of
me blown off. But I just, you know, and I was thinking, do I do this scene, you
know, weighing up the risks and the benefits. And then actually after a while
you just go, well, we're here, we've gone all this way, it's taken so long to
set up. You know, let's just do it.

GROSS: Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles will talk more about making
their movie "Bruno" in the second half of the show. "Bruno" was released today
on DVD. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Sacha Baron Cohen, the
creator of the characters Ali G, Borat and Bruno and Larry Charles, the
director of Cohen's films "Borat" and "Bruno."

"Bruno" was released today on DVD. Bruno is a gay Austrian fashion journalist
who's incredibly shallow and doesn’t know it. The movie is shot as if it were a
documentary. The people in the film are real people who think Bruno is a real
person, not just a character created by Cohen.

When we left off, we were talking about how Bruno went on a hunting trip in
Alabama with several guys who loaded their guns when Bruno got flirtatious. I
asked Larry Charles about getting these hunters to be in the film.

What kind of story did you give them when you...

Mr. CHARLES: It's a pretty simple story. I mean and he's...

GROSS: their permission to bring the cameras?

Mr. CHARLES: He's a style reporter from a different country, and you know how
people from different countries are, we know how those Europeans are and so be
patient with him. He's wants to learn about American culture.

GROSS: And did you give them that rap or was that somebody else?

Mr. CHARLES: Usually it's a series of conditioning that goes on. Sometimes it’s
somebody before me that broaches the subject and I might come in and talk to
them in more detail. I might introduce them to Bruno or Borat. Borat or Bruno
may actually have off camera conversations with them - and everything is
designed as cues to get them relaxed and accepting of this alternate reality.

GROSS: And do you feel either like a liar or like an actor when you tell them
something that's not the truth?

Mr. CHARLES: I feel like we are doing God's work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: I don’t know if I'd go that far, but, you know, we're trying to make
a funny film that...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. Let's get back to the doing God's work thing. Why feel

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why do feel like you’re doing God's work.

Mr. CHARLES: Well, we're not… First of all, we never force anyone to do
anything. Okay? We are tapping into people's ego, people's vanity, people’s
hubris. No one has ever - has their arm twisted or is manipulated, really, in
any way to say the things that they say. We hope that they will say provocative
funny things as a result of these conversations, but I don’t feel that we are
really deceiving.

We are presenting an alternate reality and we are playing in that alternate
reality within the rules of that alternate reality. We never say oh, it's not
Bruno. It's really Sacha Baron Cohen. It’s not Borat it’s really - we are
playing that reality until we get in our van and drive away. So as far as
they're concerned, it is totally real. So I don’t feel that it is a deception,
in a way, because then you have to define what reality is in the first place
and that's tough enough.

GROSS: Okay. But still, you’re not giving them the straight story.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. Listen, I mean I would say this, you know, we're trying to
make a funny film. That involves a little bit of fibbing. You know, it's
somebody pretending to be something. I'm pretending to be something, you know.

Mr. CHARLES: But they don’t know that. They don’t know that, though.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. Yes. It's true. But it's in the, you know, you’re trying to
make a funny film and it's that genre so I think it's acceptable, you know. And
at the end of the day, people want to be on camera; they want to be famous.
Which actually the whole film was tapping into...

Mr. CHARLES: Yeah.

Mr. COHEN: ...that desire to be famous and, you know, and actually, you know,
be televised or be on film.

GROSS: Now some of the people in the film, you’re putting them in impossible

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: there's a scene - you know, Bruno wants to be famous and he
figures well, if I make a sex tape that'll - a sex tape will make me famous.
That always gets people a lot of TV time. So he decides he needs to make a sex
and so he tries to interview Ron Paul, the former presidential candidate and
get to make a sex tape with him. So you’re doing what appears to be a kind of
straight forward interview in a hotel room and then what's the ruse that you
use to get him into the bedroom of this hotel suite?

Mr. COHEN: Well, we say, on camera, that the, you know, Bruno is trying to, you
know, he realizes to become famous he has to have sex with a celebrity, you
know, in the way that Paris Hilton did. So we say that the cameras - you know,
Bruno tells him oh, the camera's not working. Let's just go here in the next
room and relax for a little bit.

GROSS: And then you start coming on to him. You pop the champagne. You tell him
that you love to dance and then you put on some music and you start dancing.
And then you take off your pants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And you’re wearing this kind of like male G-string kind of thing. And
he's just like - first he tries to just read the newspaper and act like I don’t
really see this; this isn't happening. And then he can't not notice what you’re
doing anymore and let’s hear a - in fact, let's hear a clip from that scene.

(Soundbite of "Bruno")

Mr. COHEN: (as Bruno) Do you want some strawberries or maybe some ice...

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): No. I'm okay.

Mr. COHEN: (as Bruno) I'm going to light some candles if it's okay. It really
loosens you up. Has anyone ever told you you look like Enrique Iglesias?

Rep. PAUL: Mm.

Mr. COHEN: (as Bruno) Of course, not. You’re much cuter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: (as Bruno) I love music...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COHEN: (as Bruno) ...and dancing. I used to be a dancer.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COHEN: (as Bruno) Oh. You (unintelligible).

Rep. PAUL: Hey. Get out of here.

Mr. COHEN: (as Bruno) What?

Rep. PAUL: All right.

Mr. COHEN: (as Bruno) What's going on?

Rep. PAUL: This has ended. That guy's queerer than the blazes. He took his
clothes off. Let's get going. He's queer. He's crazy. He put - he hit on me. He
took his clothes off.

Mr. COHEN: (as Bruno) I couldn’t even stoop RuPaul. How will I become world

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's a really funny scene. But you know, really, seriously thinking
about it, like what options did Ron Paul have? He couldn’t very well stay in
the room while you’re stripping, you know? So what could he have done?

Mr. COHEN: Well listen, you know, a lot of this comedy is about putting people,
hopefully who are good targets, in uncomfortable situations. That's the
experiment. What does somebody as powerful as this, you know, somebody who's
standing to be the leader of the free world, how does he cope with a man
dancing in front of him, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: It shouldn’t be the biggest challenge in the world considering, you
know, if he would've got the job he would've been in the U.N. facing
Ahmadinejad or deciding whether to press the red button. You know, how does
this guy - is he going to be able to cope with it if he has a Austrian fashion
reporter dance provocatively in front of him in a hotel room? I mean
incidentally, on the DVD as well, we’ve got - we did the same scene with Tom
Ridge and John Bolton.

GROSS: Oh, and also Gary Bauer, the Christian activist.

Mr. CHARLES: Yeah.

Mr. COHEN: Yes.

GROSS: Yes. And why did you try out several different people - tell us why you
did it several different from the political world...

Mr. COHEN: Well, well...

GROSS: they reacted differently and why you chose Ron Paul in the end.

Mr. CHARLES: Keep in mind that again, this is one take filmmaking. So if we try
with Gary Bauer or John Bolton and it doesn’t quite work, it's very hard to
make that scene work in the movie then. And so we try to do it more than once
in different locations with different people, sometimes, if we can get those

And in this case, we did it a few times all in one day in Washington. We flew
to Washington from Los Angeles, shot this all in one day and then flew back -
these four different interviews. And ultimately, Ron Paul was the last and we
had refined the process through the four - the three times we had done it
previously. And so when Ron Paul came in it just wound up being the funniest
version of the scene. And he was also probably the most powerful person of all
the four people that we had.

GROSS: My guests are Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of the characters Ali G,
Borat and Bruno and Larry Charles who directed Cohen's films "Borat" and
"Bruno." "Bruno" was released today on DVD.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guests are Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry
Charles. And Sacha Baron Cohen, of course, is the star of "Bruno" and "Borat,"
the creator and so also Larry Charles directed both of those films.

"Bruno" is now out on DVD with lots and lots of extras, alternative scenes and
commentaries, interviews, lots of stuff.

How did it feel to be Bruno compared to being Borat? Like mentally, how did it

Mr. COHEN: It, you know, he's a lot less naive in many ways. You know, you do
kind of, when you’re in character for seven-eight hours at a time, you do
almost become the character. And you’re in this weird dual state where, for
example, with Borat, you know, he's so ignorant that he doesn’t know what a
chair is.

You know, what is this great machine? You know, that has a four legs?

It's chair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: You know, but on the other hand, I have to be technically
proficient. So occasionally I'm saying to the cameraman: please, two shot over
here. You know, if Larry's not in the room or whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: So you do actually semi become the guy in a way.

GROSS: You’ve called - and like in the commentary part of the new DVD version
of "Bruno" - you’ve called homophobia the last prejudice that you’re allowed to
have in many places. I would add to that, I’slamophobia(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You seem to be allowed to have that...

Mr. COHEN: Yes. Definitely.

GROSS: many places too. But...

Mr. COHEN: That's not global. That's not global, though. Homophobia is global.

Mr. CHARLES: Right. You could go...

GROSS: Right. That's true. That's true.

Mr. CHARLES: countries that are completely I’slamic and you'll still have
homophobia, so…

GROSS: Plenty of it I'm sure. Yeah.

Mr. CHARLES: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So did you become like hyper aware of homophobia while doing "Bruno?"

Mr. COHEN: Of course. There's no other way but to feel it, because you’re
feeling hatred every day. You know, bear in mind I've been through, you know,
I've gone undercover as Ali G, who's a wannabe gangster and you know, is
pretending to be black and actually some people think that he's black.

I've gone undercover as a foreigner, Borat, so you experience the attitudes
there. And I've gone undercover as a, you know, somebody who’s outwardly and
proud to be gay, and definitely the most extreme reactions you get are as
Bruno, you know, because there is an animosity and a fear, and occasionally a
hatred that can spill into violence of gay people.

GROSS: The way I see your film, there's a comic character Bruno, who's being
used by you to, in part, make fun of homophobia. But I know some people think
that the movie kind of generates homophobia because Bruno is such, in some
ways, stereotype character and has these kind of like crazy sex machines and
so, like, sexually obsessed. So how did you respond to the people who felt that
the film would make homophobia worse?

Mr. COHEN: There was a gay organization that came out and said this is bad for
gay people and this is going to increase homophobia. And it was interesting,
because when "Borat" came out, the Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation
League, came out and sad exactly the same thing. They said this is bad for
Jewish people, and by making these anti-Semitic comments you’re actually going
to increase anti-Semitism.

So I was aware that, just because an organization says something it doesn’t
necessarily have its community's interests at heart. Do I have the gay
community's interests at heart? I'd like to hope so. You know, I tried my best.
Maybe some gay people could say that it failed, but it was definitely well
intentioned. But with Bruno, the creation of Bruno, he has to be a physical
incarnation of the homophobe's worst nightmare. You know, he's got to be so
extreme that he couldn’t actually exist, but when he has to be encountering
people who are so prejudice that they believe that he is real. And so when
you’re in Arkansas with some homophobic hunters who are terrified that gay
people rape people and you know, come on to people, you want to present them
with their worst fear and see - present them with their nightmare and give them
the homophobic angst that is homophobia. And fears can turn into violence very
easily. So it's an interesting experience.

GROSS: One example of how you’re film kind of plays with homophobia, your
character at some point decides that you know, maybe he should try to become
straight. So he goes to a second stage gay converter and - why don’t you
explain what a second stage gay converter is.

Mr. COHEN: Well, there are people who if you are gay you can send them to
certain organizations to get converted or to get cured of this supposed illness
of homosexuality. And there are, you know, camps where you can learn how to be
straight and they're full of you know, gay guys who are pretending to be
straight and some of them become, you know, gay converters themselves. But the
scene after that actually I, Bruno, you know, is told that he has to be with
women and actually encounter women and socialize with them and potentially at
one point have sex with a woman. And there’s a scene of me at a swingers’
party. And I encounter this sort of extremely strong, six-foot-one woman with
huge, probably four-foot breasts, who tries to make love to me essentially.

GROSS: Well, and she whips you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: She – she is a dominatrix and she takes your belt and whips you with it.
And when I was watching the movie in the theater, I thought well, hopefully
that’s not really a real leather belt and the slapping sound we’re hearing,
hopefully that’s added sound effects because otherwise this is going to be
hurting a lot and apparently it did hurt a lot.

Mr. CHARLES: All real, all real, Terry. I mean, that was a scene that, again,
when we’re lucky and things are really clicking, the scenes take on a life of
their own beyond anything we could have imagined. And in that situation we were
very surprised. She started off being kind of gentle and temperate. And the
scene wasn’t really happening and she came outside the room, and I said look,
you have to go in there, you have to have sex with him or you’re not getting
paid essentially. And she went back in and she got much more aggressive and on
her own – of her own volition took that belt out and started hitting him and
we, you know, I was watching on the monitor and I couldn’t believe it myself.
But he’s being hit for real. And you could see the welts afterwards. And
ironically we were so obsessed with the whipping that we didn’t even think
about the window that he burst through, and he jumps out the window. We never
thought that, oh, well that window could break, he can get cuts. And, you know,
and he’s running naked through this broken glass and stuff like that. So, it’s
a very – very dangerous scene in its own way as well.

Mr. COHEN: I should say as a scene she doesn’t know she is in a scene. This
woman was just told listen, we’ve got this Austrian virgin here. He’s never had
sex with a woman before. You’ve got to have sex with him, you know.

Mr. CHARLES: He’s going to resist, you know, and you cannot allow him to
resist. You cannot allow him to say, no.

Mr. COHEN: And once I was in the room with her, I was actually a little bit
terrified because she is - I think she is physically – clearly physically
stronger than me, and armed with these huge stilettos.

Mr. CHARLES: And your belt.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, and my belt which actually really started burning. And, you
know, I’m there being hit thinking I should really stop the scene because this
is really painful now, but then in the back of my mind I’ve got this, you know,
I’ve got this duel thing going on, you know, part of me is going will this
could make, you know, good cinema.

Mr. CHARLES: Well, also I should say that we had a conversation in the van
before Sacha went into the scene. And he said look, stop the scene if it looks
like I’m going to have sex. And I said, okay, fine. But when he’s being
whipped, it didn’t look like he was going to have sex. So I didn’t think I had
to stop the scene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you think that you can still do films like that this where you’re a
character out in the world and people don’t realize that you’re a character,
that you’re acting, or is it (unintelligible) under the line?

Mr. COHEN: No, I don’t - I don’t think I can and - which is part of the reason
why I’m speaking to you, and why we’re both speaking to you, is that I think
basically it’s impossible to do now. It’s too well known as a genre, and it’s
just too hard to get people not to recognize me. And also I think I was lucky
as a performer in “Borat” and “Bruno” that I didn’t get permanently hurt. And…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: …I don’t really want to risk that anymore. I think we were lucky,
you know, you try everything you do to make sure that somebody doesn’t pull out
a gun, that somebody – that you don’t get permanently disabled but at some
point, you know, you are relying on luck. And, I think, we’ve been very lucky
where we’re thankful that we’ve been so lucky. But I think for that reason as
well I think it’s the end of the line for that kind of a movie. And so now the
challenge is doing films that are scripted where I don’t have to plan an escape

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: And where I don’t have to fear getting arrested.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. COHEN: I mean, I remember when I went on set for “Talladega Nights” with
Will Ferrell, I couldn’t believe - they took me to my trailer and I’d never had
a trailer before, you know. When we’re making “Borat” I was in a van and in the
van was the guy who did my makeup, the guy who was my, you know, did my
costumes and my co-writer. And suddenly I had a, you know, I had a trailer and
I could go and ask somebody to get me food and there was a TV in the trailer,
and there was no - there was no planning of escape routes or what we’d do if
the police turned up. There was none of the attention and it was just – it felt
like a holiday. I couldn’t believe this is actually how you make films.

GROSS: Well what you do – what you’ve done is acting as the equivalent of
extreme sports. It’s like extreme acting.

Mr. COHEN: Yep. It’s unpleasant...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: …for the most part. No, but listen, when it goes well, there’s
nothing like it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. COHEN: There’s not a - I cannot compare the experience of, you know, the
scene at the cage match of, you know, having that work successfully on a story
level and on a dramatic level and on a comic level and it’s pulling off a
scene. It’s, you know, a romantic combination to a romantic comedy in front of
1,500 people who want you dead and then coming off and knowing you’ve got the
scene. And it’s, you know, it’s gold. There’s nothing like that exhilaration.

GROSS: Larry Charles, Sacha Baron Cohen, thank you both so much for talking
with us.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you very much for having us on this program.

Mr. CHARLES: Thank you Terry, thank you.

GROSS: Sacha Baron Cohen created the characters Ali G, Borat and Bruno. Larry
Charles directed the films “Borat” and “Bruno.” “Bruno” was released today on
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Geoffrey Nunberg: “The I’s Don’t Have It”


Our linguist Geoff Nunberg, likes nothing more than going on the Internet and
counting words to make points about language. But he’s a little unsettled by
the way commentators have been using that technique to support their opinions
about everything from the House health care bill to the president’s

GEOFFREY NUNBERG: The Internet makes everybody a linguist, the same way it
turns us all into medical diagnosticians and tracers of lost persons. Counting
words has become a favorite way to track a trend, uncover a hidden meaning or
cut a long text down to size. So, when the House Democrats’ 1,900-page health
care bill was published, critics on all sides took the counting of its words,
whether that actually meant something or not.

A feminist group faulted the bill for containing only eight mentions of women,
which is true but then it doesn’t mention men even once. And opponents of the
bill try to distill it to its coercive essence by noting that the word shall
appeared in it over 3,000 times. As House Minority Leader John Boehner put it,
shall, that means you must do. And the New York Post said it showed that the
feds were telling people what to do on every page. But a shall-count in the
thousands isn’t out of line for a major bill from either side of the aisle. And
the vast majority of those shall’s spell out the obligations of the government
in the health plans, not the people.

In fact, shall gets a bad rap considering how crucial it is in safeguarding our
freedoms. Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. The right
to bare arms shall not be infringed. Nobody shall be deprived of life, liberty
or property without due process. Page for page, shall is three times as
frequent in the Constitution as in the House health care bill. Of course,
critics of the bill are still free to argue that it usurps our basic freedoms
and opens a new fast lane on the road to serfdom, but that isn’t something you
can prove just by counting helping verbs.

It’s that same craze for counting that moves commentators to tally first-person
pronouns when they want to demonstrate somebody’s narcissism. During the 2008
campaign, Frank Rich used that method to tag Hillary Clinton and John McCain as
pompous egomaniacs. And after Sarah Palin’s speech resigning the Alaska
governorship, the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan pointed to Palin’s
predilection for using I, and described her as self-referential to the point of

But nobody’s pronouns have come in for as much critical scrutiny as Barack
Obama’s. In Newsweek, Howard Fineman counted the pronouns in the president’s
U.N. speech and concluded that he is too impressed with his own aura. Other
columnists have sounded the same note. George Will said that Obama was
inordinately fond of the first-person-singular pronoun and described him as ego
tripping when he used those pronouns 26 times in his speech to the Olympic
Committee at Copenhagen.

But everybody uses those pronouns a lot. They account for around six percent of
our everyday conversation. The question is whether Obama uses them any more
than other politicians do. At the blog Language Log, the University of
Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman compared the transcripts of Obama’s press
conferences with those of his three presidential predecessors. It turned out
that Clinton and the two Bush’s all used first-person pronouns anywhere from 50
to 70 percent more often than Obama does. And Obama used the pronouns even less
frequently in the Copenhagen speech that Will saw as the peak of presidential

Stanley Fish took up the same motif in the New York Times. He counted the
first-person-singular pronouns in Obama’s speech on the General Motors
bankruptcy and announced that it signaled the emergence of an imperial I, in
contrast to the differential we’s and you’s that Obama had used in his
nomination acceptance speech and his victory speech in Grand Park. Of course,
you could argue that it’s natural for a politician to use we and you more often
in a speech thanking political supporters than in one explaining a policy
decision that he’s taking responsibility for.

But even so, Obama actually used those first-person pronouns less frequently in
the GM speech than he did in his speeches in Grand Park or at the Democratic
Convention. To Liberman, those misperceptions suggest that Will and Fish are
suffering from what psychologists call confirmation bias. If you’re convinced
that Obama is uppity or arrogant, you’re going to fix on every pronoun that
seems to confirm that opinion. But you can’t help thinking that there’s a
measure of projection here as well.

Will and Fish are neck and neck for the most immodest style in American prose.
And it’s not surprising that they would read Obama’s impenetrable self-
possession as the sign of a bristling ego. When you’re a narcissist, every
doorknob becomes a mirror. But the real error here isn’t in overestimating
Obama’s self-references - and, by the way, Palin doesn’t use I and me
disproportionately either. It’s in assuming that the raw frequency of those
pronouns says anything at all. True that association has a long history. In
fact, the word egotism originally referred just to the over use of I.

But the great majority of people’s self-references actually signal deference or
modesty, not conceit. They’re what psycholinguist Jamie Pennebaker calls
graceful I’s: I suppose, I see, I wonder if. Those are a far cry from the self-
assertive sledgehammer I’s at the other end of the scale: I feel your pain, I’m
the decider, make my day, punk.

I’d be the last person to disparage the usefulness of counting words. The
Internet and computational tools have transformed the way we do linguistics.
But the one thing we linguists know is that counting words isn’t very revealing
if you aren’t listening to them, too.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at
the University of California, Berkeley.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: You can download podcasts of out show on our Web site,
And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. I’m Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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