How the 'Alice 2' Director Helped Discover Sacha Baron Cohen

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James Bobin

James Bobin was working on late-nineties U.K satirical news series 'The 11 O'Clock Show' when a tape from a young comedian arrived in the post.

While Alice Through the Looking Glass might not have set the box office alight quite like its predecessor, the return trip down the rabbit hole has seen critics highlight at least one standout new addition: Sacha Baron Cohen.

The Brit may seen the obvious choice to play the quirky, half-clock, half-human Time, but for director James Bobin he had some idea of Cohen's suitability long before Disney came knocking.

As it happens, Bobin actually helped first introduce the world to the comic giant.

Turning Time's hands back to 1998, Bobin was working on The 11 O'Clock Show, a late night British satirical series on Channel 4 that latest until 2000. While much of the faux-news comedy was set in a studio and fronted by a lineup of presenters (including pre-The Office and Pirates of the Caribbean fame Mackenzie Crook), among the young filmmaker's first tasks was to sift through video recordings that budding contributors submitted that could be inserted in later.

"Literally on day on the show I watched a tape of submissions and ideas, most of which were your obvious vox pops on the street kind of stuff," Bobin told this journalist several years ago while promoting the first Muppets film, his feature directorial debut. "But there was this one guy who gave us this brilliant thing which stood out by a million miles."

This guy was Baron Cohen in a very early version of his first famed comic creation, Ali G.

"He was dressed as a basketball player, there were no glasses or hat at that time, none of that stuff had come in, but he still had the same attitude. And he was talking to this guy who was the head of the London School of Economics, but talking about it in the most stupid way, like: 'If the economy is a nightclub, who is the DJ?' It was this brilliant idea of trying to use youth culture to explain stuff."

Together with Baron Cohen, Bobin helped develop the character of Ali G, whose awkward two-minute interviews towards the end of each 11 O'Clock Show episode, interviews with politicians, royal experts, art historians and other high-brow figures duped into believing they were taking part in a genuinely serious debate with a representative of the U.K.'s troubled youth (and not a 20-something Cambridge graduate), soon became its most popular element.

"I think a lot of the people he interviewed had never seen a young person for many years, so Sacha as Ali G was the embodiment of their nightmare of what young people were like today," admitted Bobin. "But it was that brilliant thing of whatever they did was going to be funny. If they patronized him it was funny, if they enjoyed it and bigged him up it was funny. And if they hated him it was funny. So it was a win, win, win scenario."

Bobin said that working on the Ali G segment, developing the back story about the character's awful family life and sexual exploits with his girlfriend that he would bring up in each interview, helped develop his skills as a writer. 

"We had no idea what it was going to be and how big was going to become, so we just made it up. And that's why if you watch it now, he's inconsistent about his family. Sometimes he's got kids, sometimes he hasn't. For me it was kind of like my school of writing, because it taught me about character development."

Such was the popularity of the Ali G segment (Baron Cohen was named GQ's comedian of the year for 1999) that in 2000 Channel 4 span it off into its own series, Da Ali G Show. Bobin would direct and write much of the show's three seasons, which also introduced the characters of Borat and Bruno. But when the feature films eventually came, he was already writing and directing Flight of the Conchords, so missed out.

"Each time they happened I was busy, but there was always some time that I could go and help out on set or go and produce for a bit," he said. "I worked on both Borat and Bruno, but in a very producery role."

From Conchords, Bobin was hired to reboot The Muppets in 2011 (Conchords star Bret McKenzie would win an Oscar for the song "Man or Muppet"). When it came to the 2014 follow up Muppets Most Wanted he dipped back into the pool of 11 O'Clock Show alumni for its lead, non-felt baddie: Ricky Gervais.

With Bobin now attached to take the helm of recently discussed Men in Black/21 Jump Street crossover MIB23, there shouldn't be any great surprise if Baron Cohen, or any of his other British comedy chums, find themselves given a role.