Cultural Learnings for Make Benefit Glorious Comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen

Strolling along the Thames last summer, I did something unusual for me: I paused to check out some street performers and stayed for the whole show. Two young men were performing in a series sponsored by the Royal National Theater, and though their act was mostly wordless clowning, I stood transfixed by their skills. First they would single out someone and imitate his stance or gait (passing joggers were a specialty). Then, while the crowd was roaring with laughter, they would back away from their target, making elaborate gestures of apology but also blame, toward each other ("He did it, not me") and toward the crowd ("They made us do it"). And invariably the victim would relent, playing the good sport to general applause.

Street comedians have operated this way since time immemorial - with reason. They must ruffle a few feathers in order to tickle the crowd's funny bone, but they must also know exactly how much feather-ruffling the traffic will bear. Great comedians ruffle deeply, almost to the point of pain, and provoke correspondingly deep, almost painful laughter. Yet the emphasis is on "almost." As Aristotle noted in the Poetics, "the laughable is an error or disgrace that does not involve pain or destruction." The line between funny and hurtful is fine but definitive.

The chief feather-ruffler in the world today is Sacha Baron Cohen, the 35-year-old British comedian best known for his hit film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Baron Cohen plays Borat Sagdiyev, a clueless, feckless, tasteless TV reporter from "Kazakhstan" (no resemblance to the real country), who visits New York to make a documentary about America, but after seeing Pamela Anderson on Baywatch, embarks on a cross-country journey to Los Angeles to meet the sexy star. The character's purpose is straightforward: to seize Anderson and "make a romantic liquid explosion on her stomach." The comedian's purpose is more devious: to find ripe targets for his special brand of hit-and-run comedy.

That's hit-and-run, not street comedy. Unlike the performers on the South Bank, Baron Cohen is merciless. His other comic persona, Ali G, the white British hip-hop wannabe host of HBO's Da Ali G Show, specializes in ambushing prominent people. A recent article in Rolling Stone described the process: "The interview requests come from a fake British production company ... And until just before the cameras roll, the interviewee is under the impression that the clean-cut, well-dressed director is going to do the interview, and that the baggy-clothed, wraparound-shades-wearing character carrying equipment is just part of the crew."

Confronted with the bizarre-looking, patois-speaking Ali G, a few guests (Pat Buchanan, INS chief James Ziegler) keep their cool. But most (Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Ralph Nader) totally lose it when Ali G asks one of his incredibly dumb questions - to astronaut Buzz Aldrin: "Wot's it like, walkin' on da sun?"- then interrupts the reply with a blue streak of vulgarity. When a guest bristles, Ali G does likewise, demanding to know, against all visible evidence, "Why da aggro, geezer? Is it coz I black?" And woe to the good sport: the more cheerfully a guest plays along, the more gleefully Ali G slays him.

Borat's targets are not celebrities, but the process was similar. First, they were invited to participate in a news documentary for Belarus TV (one unknown country being much like another). Then they signed a release, indemnifying Baron Cohen against any claim of "false light (allegedly false or misleading portrayal of Participant)" or "fraud (alleged deception or surprise about the Film)." And finally they bared their unwary good nature to Borat's swift "gotcha."

Don't get me wrong. Both Ali G and Borat can be wildly funny - for example, when Borat bops up to strangers in midtown Manhattan, kissing the men on both cheeks and crowing, "Hi! I Borat! I new in town! I want be your friend!" Some curse, some flee, some - like the passengers in the subway car where Borat's suitcase opens and live chickens flutter out - just laugh. As far as I know, none of these New Yorkers has filed a lawsuit. The lawsuits (about a dozen) have come from remoter places, such as Helena, Alabama (about which more below), and, at the extreme, Glod, the Roma (gypsy) village in Romania whose residents mugged for the camera as Borat's benighted kith and kin. This is not just because New Yorkers are more used to bizarre behavior. It's also because the farther Baron Cohen went into darkest America, the harder he worked at outing the savages.

David Brooks has criticized Baron Cohen for "snobbery"; others have defended his bold exposure of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. He did turn up some unsightly prejudices: a trio of drunken frat boys make puerile comments about women and minorities; a rodeo manager in Tennessee advises Borat to shave off his mustache so he won't look Muslim, then jokingly agrees that homosexuals should be persecuted. But the question is, compared to what? Would a road trip through the Middle East, or any other part of the world yield a bigger crop of tolerance? Granted, Borat finds reinforcements for his caricatured bigotry. But most of the Americans he meets put up with all sorts of nonsense from this weird foreigner, doubtless because they assume (based on their history) that he is just another immigrant seeking to become "Americanized."

Surely this is the real message of the much discussed episode in which a group of genteel white folk in Helena, Alabama, host Borat in their dining club, only to have him (in his fractured English) call a "retired" man a "retard," insult a minister's wife for being less attractive than two other women, and return to the table after a trip to the bathroom brandishing a plastic bag full of his own feces (which prompts a patient lesson on how to use the toilet). The last straw is when Borat telephones for a hooker, and when one arrives, introduces her as his guest. The pair are summarily ejected, and because the hooker is black, the scene is widely cited as evidence of racism. Give me a break. Or as Ali G might say, Wot is yooz bangin' on about?

Lawsuits and controversy are good publicity, of course. But Baron Cohen's turbo-boosted fame presents a more daunting challenge. In January he sold his next "mockumentary," Bruno, to Universal Studios for $42.5 million. Bruno is his third comic persona, a flamingly gay fashion reporter for Austrian TV, who gives new meaning to the term "air head." So this new project promises to stimulate the chattering-blogging classes: Is he really homophobic, or is he outing the homophobes? Post your comments below. But how on earth is Baron Cohen going to pull off another round of hit-and-run comedy? Of the potential marks most likely to see him coming, surely gay fashionistas top the list.

Thus the super-star comedian faces the same problem as the humble street comedian: how do you make fun of others when you're outnumbered - and surrounded? It's nice to prattle on about comedy being anarchic and unbounded, but it almost never is, because like all things human, comedy is social - and political. This is not to saddle it with social or political "messages." The only way comedy can deliver a message is negatively, through satire. In his excellent book, Redeeming Laughter, Peter Berger finds "satirical elements" - aggressive impulses, glints of malice - in all forms of comedy. But only in satire, which he defines as "the comic used in attacks that are part of an agenda," are these elements "welded together into the shaping of a weapon."

Here arises the vexed topic of anti-Semitism, an obsession in Borat. Borat's fellow villagers are depicted not only as whores, abortionists, animal rapists, and assorted cretins, but also as anti-Semites cheering at their annual "Running of the Jew," a Pamplona-style event with papier-maché effigies of Jews instead of bulls. In a bed-and-breakfast in the American South, Borat and his producer panic when they learn that the meek proprietors are Jewish. And the joke is on the dim-witted gun dealer who, when asked by Borat, "What is the best gun to defend from a Jew?", blandly recommends a .45. An observant Jew whose mother comes from Israel, who lived on a kibbutz, and who wrote his Cambridge history thesis about the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement, Baron Cohen rarely plays "gotcha" with his co-religionists (or with African Americans). As he explained in a recent interview, "Borat essentially works as a tool. By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice."

Very high-minded, I'm sure. There's a lot of anti-Semitism in the world today; why shouldn't a gifted comedian satirize it? I can think of no good reason except a practical one: Baron Cohen's anti-anti-Semitic jokes are not very funny. And, in a curious way, they are not very Jewish. If he'd written a thesis about the role of Jews in American humor, then perhaps he would have learned that the best ethnic comedy is that in which people laugh as hard at themselves as they do at others.

This lesson comes from vaudeville, the popular theater that flourished between the end of the Civil War and the Depression. Vaudeville was big business, with impresarios booking acts in New York and sending them out on the national "circuit." To stay in the black, they had to "keep it clean." But that didn't make vaudeville timid or safe. Quite the opposite: it was rife with irreverent humor about the dominant social reality of the time: immigration. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, America absorbed 33 million newcomers from Europe, as well as 200,000 from China. The latter were subject to racist legal sanctions, as were blacks and Indians. But several European groups, especially Irish, Slavs, and Jews, also met with prejudice, both from the mainstream and from one another. So vaudeville traded in heavy-handed stereotypes: the drunken, belligerent Irishman; the volatile, irresponsible Italian; the stodgy, thick German; the clever, grasping Jew.

Yet this is precisely where the Jews made their mark. As Berger notes, turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants to America brought with them a sophisticated comic culture, rooted in the Yiddish-speaking shtetls of Eastern Europe and, after emancipation, refined in the coffeehouses of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna. Two qualities made this culture an excellent fit for America: first, it did not need to be "kept clean" because it contained "almost no scatology and remarkably little sexuality"; and second, it was already capable of reaching beyond the group. Writing about the coffeehouse culture, Berger notes that "insiders and outsiders were no longer identified only in terms of ethnicity and religion." Then he adds: "It was in America that large numbers of gentiles have been drawn into the magic world of Jewish humor."

Vaudevillians were not social workers, needless to say. They were fierce competitors, vying for dollars and applause. But as noted by Edward Rothstein, a critic for the New York Times, their rough-and-tumble yielded a rare social alchemy:

"Irish, German and Yiddish accents were part of the patois of vaudevillian comedy, the mangled sentences echoing the increasingly familiar immigrant sounds of cities like New York. Oddly, though, these exaggerations were not generally an occasion for bigotry or hostility. There was an element of celebration in the mockery, partly because the actors were often themselves from these groups. Even stranger, ethnic actors would adopt alien ethnic identities for the sake of the comedy, making the artifice even more apparent. Blacks appeared as Chinese, Jews as Irish. It was as if, by some unspoken agreement, marginal groups had joined forces in displaying, to each other, the comic absurdity of their position."

This distinctive style of ethnic humor shaped radio, Hollywood movies, and TV - right into the 1970s, when, remarkably, it dominated Saturday Night Live. In the '70s America was beginning to experience another great wave of immigration, and the topic pervaded that legendary NBC show from the premier segment, which opened with a sketch about an ESL instructor (Michael O'Donoghue) teaching an immigrant (John Belushi) the ever-so-useful English sentence, "I want to feed your fingertips to the wolverines." When the instructor keeled over with a heart attack, the docile pupil did the same. Immigration also drove such running gags as the terminally uncool "wild and crazy guys" from Eastern Europe; the limited-menu diner ("Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, Pepsi, Pepsi"); Belushi's Samurai hotel clerk; Gilda Radner's linguistically perplexed Emily Litella (reportedly based on a Puerto Rican custodian in Rockefeller Center); and Don Novello's tactless Father Guido Sarducci. With a stretch, one might also include those poorly assimilated aliens, the Coneheads ("We are from France"). In this respect, Saturday Night Live was pure vaudeville.

Baron Cohen has never said so, but Borat's obvious predecessor is Latka Gravas, the befuddled "Foreign Man" created by Andy Kaufman and showcased on Saturday Night Live and the ABC sitcom, Taxi. Because these shows were network, not cable, Kaufman had to "keep it clean" - and he apparently chafed at that. But significantly, Kaufman seems not to have chafed at making Latka's country of origin entirely fictional - an island in the Caspian Sea called Caspiar. On the contrary, having invented Lakta's quaint customs and peculiar beliefs out of whole cloth, Kaufman could riff on them all the more cleverly.

Why couldn't Baron Cohen do this? Along with a great many Kazakh bloggers, I've been wondering why Borat used the name of a real country but then refused to satirize it outright, offering instead a hilarious but safe caricature of rural life in Soviet Russia. (Full disclosure: I laughed so hard at the Kazakh national anthem played at the end, they almost had to carry me out of the theater. It begins, "Kazakhtstan, greatest country in the world / All other countries are run by little girls.") Could it be that Baron Cohen itched to stick it to Muslims for being anti-Semitic but did not itch to share the fate of Salman Rushdie or (worse) Theo van Gogh, so he decided to pick on a majority-Muslim country that (in his own words) "no one had heard anything about"? Borat is full of in-jokes, not least its use of Hebrew as a stand-in for Kazakh. But the biggest in-joke of all may be its bait-and-switch treatment of Kazakhstan.

A friend of mine, a Central Asian expert, worries that Borat's "portrayal of Kazakhs as ignorant, misogynist, prejudiced fools" might "feed existing prejudices against backward natives, especially Muslim ones." I told him to chill: in America, the vast majority of Borat fans can't even pronounce Kazakhstan, much less find it on a map. And they learned nothing about its religious demographics from Borat. According to the film, the state religion is anti-Semitism, and then, after Borat's return, a form of Christianity in which peasants stick pitchforks into a sorry-looking compatriot on a cross. In the entire film, there's only one reference to Islam, and that's when the rodeo manager asks Borat if he is Muslim. The cryptic reply: "No, I am Kazakh. I follow the hawk."

Actually, from an American perspective, Baron Cohen is less vaudevillian than minstrel. I refer, of course, to the blackface entertainment that preceded vaudeville in the 19th century. Performed by whites before the Civil War and largely by blacks afterward, minstrelsy featured grotesque costumes (blacks and whites alike smeared their faces with burnt cork); sexual and scatological humor (depending on the audience); and stock figures (Jim Crow and Zip Coon) who were "low" in both senses: in status, because as slaves they had no hope of upward mobility, and in moral character, because (like all caste societies) the slave South operated on the presumption that virtue resided at the top and vice at the bottom.

Baron Cohen's comic personae do not wear burnt cork, but there's plenty of it in their speech, dress, and general ineptitude. His use of slapstick and obscenity both to ridicule himself and to explode the pretensions of the hoity-toity resembles not just minstrelsy but also the Old Comedy of ancient Athens, which grew out of the komos, a ritual practiced on festival occasions by family, religious, and military groups for the purpose of settling scores with rival groups and prominent figures. Speaking as a college professor, it's always a pleasure to watch the language of Aristophanes curl the hair of undergraduates. Which is, of course, its function: to reveal the unsightly and disgraceful side of human nature, and to demonstrate that the high and mighty are not immune.

But here's a point worth pondering: Old Comedy was the product of a small society with fixed status levels and a shared moral code, performed as part of a public religious ritual, the annual festival of Dionysus. Its obscenity may shock genteel Americans, but according to classicist Jeffrey Henderson, "the comic poets did not ... enjoy complete license to say anything they pleased." As for the performance setting, that was a live issue for Aristotle, who argued in the Politics that the most abusive and slanderous comedy should be placed off limits to women, youth, and others considered incapable of resisting its presumed negative effects.

No such limits are possible on the distribution of Baron Cohen's performances, needless to say. Now that Borat is on DVD, it is available in every nook, cranny, and media platform on the planet. This has not escaped the artist's notice, I am sure. But as he adjusts to the fact that his global celebrity is going to put a kink in his hit-and-run M.O., perhaps he should consider a different path. Classic gross-out comedy works well when performed by servants and slaves at the expense of their social "betters." But it is less appealing when performed by elite-educated pranksters at the expense of ordinary citizens. Immigrant New York was never a level playing field, to be sure. But it is arguable that the equal-opportunity insult humor of the great vaudevillians helped to keep it from becoming a war zone. And it is worth remembering, in this era of resurgent anti-Semitism, that they did so with a heavy Jewish accent.

This article originally appeared in the Claremont Review of Books

April 28, 2007 2:35 PM | | Comments (0)

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