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Borat targets Trump, Ye and antisemitism at Kennedy Center Honors

Sacha Baron Cohen skit receives mixed response at ceremony for lifetime achievements in the arts

Sacha Baron Cohen attending the reception for the Kennedy Center honorees hosted by President Joe Biden at the White House

The British actor Sacha Baron Cohen reprised his character Borat and stole the show at the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in the US on Sunday night, targeting the former president Donald Trump, the rapper Kanye West, now known as Ye, and antisemitism.

President Joe Biden smiled broadly and his wife, Jill, was in fits of laughter as Cohen told risque jokes in the comical accent of the Kazakh television journalist Borat Sagdiyev.

“I know the president of US and A is here,” Borat said to an audience including politicians and celebrities during a segment celebrating the Irish rock group U2. “Where are you, Mr Trump?”

As the audience howled, Borat went on: “You don’t look so good. Where has your glorious big belly gone? And your pretty orange skin has become pale.” He then asked if the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, and the nerve agent novichok were responsible.

Borat, the star of two hit satirical films, added: ‘But I see you have a new wife. Wawawoooah! She is very erotic. I must look away before I get a Bono.”

President Joe Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, with Biden’s son, Hunter, and his wife, Melissa Cohen at the Kennedy Center

The comedian, who is Jewish, then turned his attention to antisemitism in the wake of Trump having dined at his Mar-a-Lago home with the Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes and Ye, who subsequently praised Adolf Hitler and was banned from Twitter for posting an image of a swastika.

Borat said: “Before I proceed, I will say I am very upset about the antisemitism in US and A. It not fair. Kazakhstan is No 1 Jew-crushing nation. Stop stealing our hobby. Stop the steal! Stop the steal!” Some guests burst into laughter while others sat in uncomfortable silence.

He continued: “Your Kanye, he tried to move to Kazakhstan and even changed his name to Kazakhstanye West. But we said: No, he too antisemitic, even for us.”

Borat proceeded to sing a short parody of U2’s song With or Without You with the lyrics changed to “With or without Jews”. He broke off and asked: “What’s the problem? They loved this at Mar-a-Lago. They chose Without Jews.”

The Bidens appeared to enjoy Baron Cohen’s routine but it also came as a shock in typically staid and buttoned up Washington. Asked by the Guardian what she thought of it, Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, said diplomatically: “I think I like U2,” while Roy Blunt, a Republican senator for Missouri, said: “Not much.”

Glenn Youngkin, the governor of Virginia, said: “I was surprised to see him,” and sped away without elaborating.

Along with U2, the actor George Clooney, the singer-songwriter Amy Grant, the singer Gladys Knight and the composer Tania León were celebrated at the 45th Kennedy Center Honors, the most prestigious honours for lifetime achievements in the arts. There was also an appearance from Sesame Street’s Big Bird.

Sesame Street character Big Bird and CBS anchor Major Garrett arriving for the 45th Kennedy Center Honors.

One audience member from the political world also received a standing ovation. Paul Pelosi, the husband of the House of Representatives speaker, Nancy Pelosi, used the weekend’s honors-related events to make his first public appearance since being attacked in October in their San Francisco home.

The Pelosis sat next to the vice-president, Kamala Harris, and her husband, Doug Emhoff, in a balcony. Paul Pelosi wore a black hat and a glove on his left hand.

The show highlighted the five artists’ work, and represented a return to pre-coronavirus norms. There was no requirement for testing to attend and few guests wore masks. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the president, was among the guests.

Clooney, a double Oscar winner, was also praised for his engagement in political causes and spoke to reporters after attending a White House reception.

George and Amal Clooney speaking to reporters at the gala.

Asked how he thought Biden’s presidency was going, Clooney replied: “Beautifully. I love him. He’s a kind man with great intentions and he has some incredible legislation which kind of gets overlooked and they’re not very good at bragging about right now. He’s done a really good job and I’m very proud to be a supporter.”

A follow-up question about whether Clooney, 61, would consider a career in politics prompted his wife, the barrister Amal Clooney, to smile and shake her head. The actor said in agreement: “Listen, we have a really nice life.”

In a celebration at the state department on Saturday, Clooney told guests: “I’ve been lucky enough to meet millions of people, every country, literally 125 countries, and they all, without exception, agree and they’ll come up to me and say specifically that, ‘You sucked as Batman’. It’s unified. We could solve world problems if we just all could agree on more than just that I suck as Batman.”

Julia Roberts wearing her George Clooney tribute dress.

At Sunday’s main event at the Kennedy Center, Julia Roberts, who has co-starred in several films with Clooney, wore a floor-length gown with framed images of him on it and called him a “Renaissance man”. The actors Don Cheadle, Matt Damon and Richard Kind also paid tribute, with Damon recalling how Clooney once stole the then-President Bill Clinton’s stationery and wrote notes to fellow actors on it.

But the one who moved Clooney to tears was his 88-year-old father, Nick, a journalist and TV anchorman. He recalled that he was hosting a TV show in 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. His family came into the green room. “Seven-year-old George had a large paper bag in his hand. I asked him what in the world was in the bag.

“Well, he went to the coffee table, he turned the bag upside down. Out poured all of his toy guns landing with a clack. He said: ‘Pop, I don’t want these any more. None of them. Never.’ Well, I tore up my speech. Nothing I would’ve written would have been nearly as eloquent as what George had just done and said.”

Nick Clooney said he was often asked what he wanted people to know about his son. “Well, here it is: George’s best and most important work is still ahead of him.”

Nick Clooney, the father of George, at the White House reception.

Knight, who has won seven Grammy awards, is famous for hit songs including I Heard It Through the Grapevine and Midnight Train to Georgia as the lead singer of the Pips, which became Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1962. Singers including Garth Brooks and Patti LaBelle performed some of Knight’s songs.

Kennedy Center honoree Gladys Knight on the red carpet

Grant rose to prominence as a contemporary Christian music singer who later crossed over to pop stardom, winning six Grammys. The singers Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile, CeCe Winans and BeBe Winans were among the artists who honored her.

Amy Grant at the White House reception.
Amy Grant at the White House reception. Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Cuban-born León is a conductor as well as a composer, whose orchestral piece Stride won the 2021 Pulitzer prize in Music. The jazz pianist Jason Moran, the singer Alicia Hall Moran and the cellist Sterling Elliott played one of her creations, Oh Yemanja.

Honoree Tania León arriving for the ceremony.
Honoree Tania León arriving for the ceremony. Photograph: Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

The final tribute of the evening was to U2, which, with members Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr, has won 22 Grammys. Eddie Vedder performed Elevation and One, while the Ukrainian singer Jamala joined Carlile and others to perform Walk On. The actor Sean Penn described U2 as “four scrappy Dublin punks” who were also “great musical poets of the ages”.

Other guests at the event included the transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, the senators Amy Klobuchar, Patrick Leahy, Joe Manchin and Mitt Romney, and representatives James Clyburn and Steny Hoyer, the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, and the British ambassador to the US, Dame Karen Pierce.

Honorees (L-R): U2 band members – Larry Mullen Jr, Adam Clayton, The Edge and Bono - George Clooney and Tania León inside the Kennedy Center.
Honorees (L-R): U2 band members – Larry Mullen Jr, Adam Clayton, The Edge and Bono – George Clooney and Tania León inside the Kennedy Center. Photograph: Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Deborah Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center, said: “This is probably the largest number of the administration and of Congress that we’ve ever had so that feels really great. People are ready to be back together fully and they want to see a good show.”

  1. More help for the wrong people.

    More Americans are suffering than any year in memory, many can’t afford to hear their homes, yet these ultra wealthy elites get together to pat each other on the back.

    Funny how Clooney plays a doctor, etc., but god forbid they ever honor someone that performs those jobs he plays.

    Whole thing just makes you want to puke in your suit.

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