Sacha Baron Cohen is such a recognizable star, and his characters Borat, Bruno, and Ali G so popular, that it would be next to impossible for the actor to, at this point, launch his trademark shtick—unleashing nutty characters on unsuspecting targets, while we laugh at how they react to his tomfoolery—without being recognized.
But for those of us made positively giddy by that brand of comedy, there is now, thankfully, Mona Yousefi. Or, as you may soon know her as, the Female Borat.
Yousefi is a 31-year-old, you’re-no-doubt-going-to-see-a-lot-more-of-her comedian from England, and the creative mastermind behind the BBC 3 pilot Going Native, which is currently available in all its cringe-comedy glory on YouTube. In the show, Yousefi plays three starkly different foreign women who move to the U.K. and struggle to assimilate—or, as the Brits call it, “go native.” There’s Natascha, a Russian social climber who travels to England after the death of her millionaire husband. Then there’s Tallah, a Middle Eastern businesswoman with scant business sense, and finally Wakana, an over-enthusiastic Japanese YouTube star who is brought over to England with her father. As with Bruno and Borat, the three characters are filmed documentary-style interacting with (and pissing off) ordinary strangers.
So, essentially, Yousefi is picking up right where Sacha Baron Cohen left off. “I think it’s a good comparison … maybe,” Yousefi says, nervous to dare place herself on the same comedy plane as the actor. “Yeah,” she ponders the comparison, bashfully, again, before finally agreeing: “Yeah.”
But watch Going Native, and it becomes abundantly clear that the comparison is perfectly apt. Yousefi’s sketches find comedy in the same place where Cohen milked his laughs: the awkwardness that develops as the targets’ frustration grows, stopping just short of a Fred Flintstone–style meltdown, complete with steam blowing from their ears.
Furthermore, they’re hilarious.
Take Tallah, who greets a business-networking expert by telling him, in English strained through Farsi, that he “better fasten our seatbelts, we’re about to be propelled into metropolis of success.” He tries to coach her on how to give a proper introduction, but Yousefi—as Tallah—keeps purposely bungling it. First, she forgets to address him by name, then, on the redo, forgets to shake his hand. “Hand,” he reminds her. “Hello, hand,” she says. Later, she hosts an open call for inventors looking for investors, and blatantly steals their ideas.
Then there’s Wakana, who appears on a radio show and is innocently asked by the host if she has anyone she’d like to say hello to in Japan. “Big-uh shout-uh out to…” Wakana begins, before baffling the host by listing dozens of names, taking up the entire segment.
Finally, there’s vapid Natascha, who nearly drives a city worker to quit his job when, after being assigned to do community service because she’s accrued so many parking tickets, she keeps conning him into doing all the work, throwing a spoiled tantrum when water splashes onto her boots.
Each character is flawlessly believable as a real person—the Twitter feeds that Yousefi tweets from as the characters (@TallahBizness, @WakanaFukui, and NataschaUssr) regularly fool followers into thinking she’s not an actress. The ruse is all the more remarkable considering that Yousefi has almost no training as a performer.
Despite a promising start in her grade-school plays, Yousefi actually ended up studying law at university—landing at a criminal-law firm, sitting through criminal trials, visiting prisons ... the whole deal. As a diversion, she would film her wacky friends in her free time, eventually editing the footage into a comedy show that exaggerated their personalities for laughs. The rave response the end product received at a screening of pals convinced her to shop the footage as a pilot to networks. The one obstacle: she had no television-industry contacts.
Her intrepid solution: wrapping the tape in a colorful box, tying a helium balloon to it—“so it looked like something someone would want to open,” she explains—and marching into the Channel 4 offices to request a meeting with executives. After being chased out by the woman at reception, she climbed on boxes in the back of the building, knocked on the post-room window, and paid a worker there £10 to drop the tape on an executive’s desk. “I’m still friends with him now, actually,” she says of her tape mule.
A month later, the executive actually called her, and her show, Mayhem Makers, eventually aired as a one-off special on youth network E4. Yet despite the taste of comedy success, Yousefi continued working in an office—that is, until she was laid off. She took up the miserable chore of attending dodgy networking events, but out of that morass came the character of Tallah.
Excited by the idea, she shot a Borat-style teaser trailer in which she played Tallah (only after all her actor friends wouldn’t do it). After her agent shopped it around to various production companies, the most interested party, Hat Trick, requested that she create two other characters to sustain a pilot. Thus, Natascha, Wakana, and Going Native were born.
That she pulls off the sketches without breaking during filming and without her targets catching on is a testament to her dedication. From the night before she shoots a sketch throughout the entire day, she stays in character—dressing, talking, and even eating like them. “They each also have their own perfume,” Yousefi says. Tallah’s is so pungent “you can smell it three minutes before she enters a room,” while Wakana’s is “really sickeningly sweet” and Natascha wears one “with pheromones for her to trap her men.”
Nailing each character’s accent wasn’t effortless, either. She spent three weeks living with a Japanese friend in order to perfect Wakana’s way of speaking, “just studying her every movement, rehearsing her every intonation,” Yousefi remembers. “I did her head in.”
Currently, BBC3 is testing Going Native online as it preps to air the pilot on TV. If it does well, it will be picked up to series, something Yousefi, obviously, is keen for, as she has big plans for Tallah, Wakana, and Natascha. In a series version of Going Native, each character would receive sidekicks that help reveal more about what their warped worlds are like. “Tallah, for example, would never admit she’s a bad businesswoman,” Yousefi says. “But give her an intern and you’d get to see that as a fly on the wall.”
Just watch the Going Native pilot, and imagine the hilarious possibilities. Clearly, an entire series featuring Yousefi’s work would be, to quote Borat himself, “very nice.”