The Pain of Borat

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Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat at the Toronto Film Festival

Sacha Baron Cohen (right) as Borat, at the Toronto Film Festival [bloombloom / Flickr]

Jon wants us to take a look at the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. None of us has seen Borat, but we know him as a character from Da Ali G Show, and we know this: he makes us squirm. He’s hard to watch. He interviews very real people and gets them to say — quite casually — very ugly things.

We explained the character of Borat to Mary in the story meeting this morning and she said “Oh. Like All in the Family.” Well, yes. Kind of. Archie Bunker was a lout but he was lovable and — somewhere near the end of each episode — he was kind. Borat, a fictional Kazakh journalist played by the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, is merciless.

Critics and audiences already love the movie — critics slavishly — so we’re looking at Borat, and at Stephen Colbert’s appearance in front of the White House Press Club dinner, and at the painful silences that Ricky Gervais built into the BBC show The Office, and we’re asking why in 2006 the most effective comedians make us squirm. What is it about comedy — or politics or the world — that makes us want discomfort and awkwardness with our laughter?

Mal Sharpe

Member of the comedy duo Coyle & Sharpe

On sale now: Coyle And Sharpe: These Two Men Are Impostors

Jesse Thorn

Host, The Sound of Young America

Sketch Comedian, Prank the Dean

Thanks to emmettoconnell for suggesting Jesse Thorn

Robert Thompson

Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications

Founding Director, Center for the Study of Popular Television, Syracuse University

Extra Credit Reading

Judy Rosen, Borat Owes Me 97 Dollars, Slate Magazine, November 3, 2006: “Borat revives the dialect comedy that thrived during the first decades of the last century, when American popular culture functioned as a kind of psychic clearinghouse for anxieties about the millions of new European immigrants and black Southern migrants flooding into the nation’s big cities.”

John Rogers, Why Tell the Jokes?, Kung Fu Money, May 2, 2006: “If his sin was incivility, then what the audience/bookers were looking for wasn’t comedy. Comedy is by its nature uncivil. Comedy is, in both linguistic structure and overall psychological impact, hostile. Sometimes overtly, often not. But there is no such thing as a joke structured like: “You know what makes me happy? Yeah, that same thing that makes everybody else happy. (sigh)” There is no laugh there.”

David Edelstein, Borat: The New Wave of Squirm Comedy, New York Magazine, November 6, 2006: “I stopped laughing when, at a formal southern dinner party with several older couples, Borat announced that two of the ladies would be considered very desirable in his country, then gestured to the plainer woman at the far end of the table and said, “Her, not so much.” As the preview audience roared, I put my head down; I didn’t want to see the face of that poor woman. And at that point, I guess, the joke was on me.”

(via emmettoconnell)Jesse Thorne, The Impostors, The Sound of Young America, August 26, 2006: “This week on The Sound of Young America, a special show dedicated to The Impostors, Coyle & Sharpe.”

Richard Goldstein, The Tao of Borat, The Nation, November 2, 2006: “There’s a new comedy in which the ambiguities of laughter are explored and the connections between mockery and sadism are revealed. If you examine your response to Borat, you’ll have to face some dicey truths about the joy of bigotry.”

Joel Stein, Borat Make Funny Joke on Idiot Americans! High-Five!, Time Magazine, October 29, 2006: “Ali G played on people’s ability to think that young people are so different from them they wouldn’t recognize absolute stupidity and the fact that they were being made fun of,” says Andrew Newman, a writer and producer on The 11 o’Clock Show. “And now Borat does the same thing but with countries they haven’t heard much about.”

Josh Rottenberg, Beyond the Cringe, Entertainment Weekly, November 16, 2006: “Even Stephen Colbert does his Bill O’Reilly-ish shtick with a twinkle in his eye, and both guests and viewers are in on the gag. Baron Cohen, by contrast, allows his subjects and his audience no comforting recourse to ironic detachment, giving his social commentary a unique gut-punching immediacy.”

Stephanie Zacharek, Borat, Salon.com, November 3, 2006: “But “Borat” is not a guilt-free pleasure. We can laugh at Cohen’s unwitting marks, because they’re not us. But really, we’re just lucky that we weren’t in his line of fire.”

Sean R. Roberts, Borat and Kazakhstan: The Political Psychology of the Relationship, The Roberts Report on Central Asia and Kazakhstan, October 22, 2006: “The character of Borat is not about Kazakhstan per se. He is about that time in history after the U.S.S.R. fell and when its newly independent successor states were first engaging the world after decades of isolation. In other words, Borat is a satire of the former Soviet Union (FSU) of the early 1990s, Kazakhstan included.”

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  • awesome!

  • mynocturama

    I wrote this in the pitch a show thread in response to the Borat and extreme confrontational satire suggestion, so I’ll just cut and paste a bit first:

    My head didn’t explode, but my facial muscles cramped up from the mix of laughter and gaping awe. It reached a point where the laughter started to have a physiological effect, maybe involving extreme fluctuations in oxygen levels.

    And perhaps the Borat effect can be described as follows. Sacha Baron Cohen, performing a foreign incarnation of misogyny, anti-semitism, and racism, comes to America and, as though by magnetic attraction, finds people who match or flat out out-do him point by point. Borat laughs inappropriately, you might almost say innocently, not knowing any better, at a group of feminists. Then he finds an abominable group of real life southern California frat boys, with privileged access to the best that higher education offers, and they make Borat seem comparatively harmless. Borat, the faux embodiment of supposed third world, benighted xenophobia, comes to the heartland and finds people with access to modern weaponry capable of actually carrying out their own versions of the final solution.

    This is of course not to say that the majority of people in middle America hold these views. But Baron Cohen, as the seemingly impossible, unreal Borat, goes out and finds the real life counterparts.

    And there’s also the endearing, almost adorable quality with both Borat and Stephen Colbert. They say atrocious things, yet the humanity and pure indignant glee of the performers shine through the performance.

    Looking forward to the show.

  • mynocturama

    I ought to have added:

    Baron Cohen, as the seemingly impossible, unreal Borat, goes out and finds the real life counterparts- proving they actually exist.

  • mynocturama

    OK, important correction: a friend just informed me that the frat boys were in fact from University of South Carolina (USC), not University of Southern California (USC). Sorry if I offended any Trojans. Should have looked into the acronyms.

  • I always wish that I had grown up in the hey day of Andy Kaufman and the great Tony Clifton.. both of which had fantastic capacities for challenging audiences and making them uncomfortable and keeping them constantly off balance. Cohen does this, Borat does this, and although I was only a child in the Kaufman era, Im excited that perhaps this generation has someone using the same very unique and indeed provocative style of comedy.

  • I’m very uncomfortable with the use of humor with a victim. A real life victim. The bigger difference between Archie Bunker and Borat is that Archie Bunker was on a completely fictional show with all fictional characters.

    It’s hard enough to take humor with a victim and justify that it serves a purpose when it’s completely fiction. When a fictional character dupes real people, I can’t see the postive side of it. Those who have been duped are now on the defensive and those who laugh at them are simply assuming, “That’s not me.” It reinforces there disrespect for the people they are laughing at. I doubt that it will lead to any real self-reflection. It simply promotes cruelty.

    I have been thinking about whether there is a justifiable place for humor with a victim. But it is much like being the pacificist that ponders whether there is a justifiable context for violence. A conversation we were having on another thread. Somehow, this has clarified for me that violence is never useful, be it with humor or a gun.

  • mynocturama

    What victims are you referring to in the Borat film? Have you seen it? He’s exposing the bullies and taking them to task. That, to me, is the main thrust of his comedy.

  • I think Sacha Cohen is very funny. I like the idea of a Jewish man pretending to be both Muslim and Black (in the form of a high-yellow, low-class, lower-class hoodlum, wearing the garb of an anti-establishment hip-hop generation). Maybe the next comedian that our tv/movie/media industry will promote is a sword toting Sikh, or grown-up African-American crack-baby playing a straight-laced, Euro-American Jew who goes Hannity or O’Reilly on Latino street gangs – telling them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or preaches the joys of working for slave wages to Mexican janitors in Chicago, or exposes ills of union organizing to folks who formerly worked in the American airline and movie industries. Yes when I see Herschel Goldberg in blackface, I am sure that the producers and advertisers will know they have a winner.

  • Even if they are bullies, they did not ask be the butt of his jokes. Whenever a joke gets its laugh at the expense of another’s dignity, that person is the ‘victim’ of the joke. If you want to confront someone about their offensive behavior, it is best to speak the truth plainly. Otherwise, what are you trying to achieve? Humiliating another person is another form of bullying. Yippee, you can out-bully the bully.

    Perhaps this will give you a sense of what I mean:

    http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/review/2006/11/03/borat/index.html

    I read this days ago. And while I don’t always like her writing, this piece prompted me to revisit the subject of humor with a victim.

  • mynocturama

    There’s also the fact, hard to admit perhaps, that what comedians like Baron Cohen offer, among other things, is relief from the constraints of “political correctness”, or moral and ethical strictures more generally, that good and reasonable people are happy and willing to subscribe to in the course of everyday life. Stephen Colbert, performing as Stephen Colbert, at once indicts and delights in anti-intellectualism and social irresponsibility, offering momentary relief from conscience and thought, while ridiculing those who proudly espouse those views in actual political life.

    I put “political correctness” in quotes since the term itself is dubious, often employed as a negative tag by enemies of tolerance and equality. But there is a certain attitude, let’s call it political correctness for convenience, that purports to deal with problems by, in effect, pretending they don’t exist, by speaking as though they don’t exist. And the figure of Borat offers an explosive means of confronting the fact that things like racism and misogyny and xenophobia still live and thrive. And also, maybe, sadly, the fact, or fear, that, on a large-scale, there really isn’t much that can be done about it. The most we can do, what we’re left with, is to laugh.

  • I don’t disagree with the relief factor of laughing. It would be cleaner if he chose to create an entire fictional cast, however, and not target unsuspecting real people. Using someone as a prop for your joke is mean-spirited. Continuing to laugh once you realize this is even more so.

  • mynocturama

    “Cleaner”, maybe, but less funny. Who ever said comedy has to be clean? Or art in general? I’m sorry if I sound crass, but transgression is a lifeline of cultural expression. And, whatever else it may be, the Borat movie is wild and vital and new. And, dare I say, worth the cost of our complicity in the cruelty.

  • rahbuhbuh

    One of my favorite Saturday Nigh Live skits growing up was Eddie Murphy playing a white man and reaping the benefits, shot with a combination of staged and guerilla New York scenes. It was so softly racist and hilarious, but the commentary was still obvious to me as a boy.

    Baron Cohen: I am more disturbed by some published reviews than the film. They take the tone “well, we smart liberal New Englanders understand and appreciate the humor, but will Middle America get it?” It’s fine for entertainment to frame and push that hay-seed stereotype for comedic value, but the press should not further it, doing more damage. The distribution was sorely limited, so we won’t know the answer to their question.

    Colbert: He mentioned in an interview that he does not allow his children to see his own show, afraid of them thinking their father to be disingenuous. He does not want them questioning whether he means “I love you.” Colbert will forwarn some guests (maybe all?), introducing himself to Richard Dawkins “you do know I play a complete idiot?” in the green room before interviewing him.

    At least Sacha Baron Cohen’s infantile sex and fart jokes have a jab to them, unlike the Farrely brothers or National Lampoon drawing a portion of the same crowd to their purely infantile sex and fart jokes.

  • I think this is a great idea for a show. The inevitable maxim to keep in mind: Mel Brooks’ “Tragedy is when I get a splinter. Comedy is when you fall in a manhole and die.” It’s always funnier to see people we don’t like make fools of themselves than it is to see people we identify with.

    Note, however, that the American version of The Office, while popular, is not as popular as Two and a Half Men, The New Adventures of Old Christine, America’s Funniest Home Videos, or even My Name Is Earl (which is great, but hardly painful in the same way). So while painful comedy may be a trend, it’s not the dominant mode of comedy. (Another example: Last year’s The Break-Up, which blended painful recognition with familiar romantic-comedy trappings, didn’t set the box office on fire.)

  • I think we’ll have to agree to disagree, mynocturama. For me, if I don’t want meanness and self-interest to dominate human society, I can’t engage it. Much left be entertained by it.

    I get that it makes you laugh. Were I to watch, i would likely find myself laughing. (Although, I never found the Three Stooges to be funny at all.) I laughed, along with my father, at Abbot and Costello when I was young. But as time went on, I didn’t find it funny. I thought the Abbot character was simply mean and usurous and not a friend at all to the Costello character. Why is that entertaining?

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I laugh a lot. I love being silly. I make fun of myself quite a bit and find a lot in life to be amusing. But I don’t find it amusing to belittle or afflict pain on someone. I am baffled at how we wonder what it will take to make the world a place of peace when we find it funny to disparage someone else.

  • loganpoppy

    Another idea here is the idea of “cringe comedy” — comedy that makes us cringe simply because our “protagonist” is such an oaf – the key text here seems to be “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — the following link is interesting

    http://jot.communication.utexas.edu/flow/?jot=view&id=1046

    Anyways, I like the idea and will listen when you post it!

  • kevinjbowman

    I wonder if Borat is not another avenue to achieving the same goals as last year’s movie hit “Crash” Is he not using humor to make the same points. Each segment of American society is exploited at it’s most extreme form. To a point that was the same goal “Crash” wanted to portray. Each character was both the exploiter and the exploited in different scenarios, and not one character or set of characters was innocent. Cohen takes the “bullies” who prove to be the most heinous forms of our own judgments and prejudices and exposes them to scrutiny under the veil of humor. In the end, his audience cringes as it laughs because it sees elements of personal weaknesses.

  • metolius8

    Borat? *Yawn*

  • plnelson

    ” What is it about comedy — or politics or the world — that makes us want discomfort and awkwardness with our laughter? ”

    Who says we ‘want’ discomfort and awkwardness? Or perhaps I should ask, “who do you mean by ‘us’ “?

    In a nation of 300 million people if a group the size of the population of Massachusetts expressed a preference for a certain pastime or form of entertainment you could, on the one hand, say it’s a ‘large’ number (more than the population of Norway, more than the population of New Zealand, etc) , but on the other hand it would still be in the statistical noise in the US by the standards of most newspaper polls.

    I think it’s nuts to pay good money to be entertained by being made uncomfortable. You can just turn on the news for free if that’s how you like to get your kicks.

  • plnelson

    “but transgression is a lifeline of cultural expression.”

    Who says?

    During the 20th century artists and other self-styled academic arbiters of such things went to great lengths to convince the public that good art had to be transgressive. The major result of this is that most modern art is disdained by the public.

    The history of art does not support the notion that transgressivity is essential to great art, or artistic progress. Not that some great art has not BEEN transgressive, but that its transgressivity is not what made it great. Plenty of the most original and style-changing works of art in history were new, refreshing, and different, without being transgressive (e.g., Beethoven’s 3rd or 9th Symphonies). Paintings of the Italian Renaissance and the plays of Shakespeare were not widely rgarded as transgressive at the time, although the odd nobleman might occasionally take offense.

    People who think that you NEED to be offensive or transgressive or to trouble your audience to advance art have been sold a bill of goods by academic art establishment.

  • wyth

    There’s some points about irony that are being missed here.

    First, Allison: No, these bullies didn’t ask to be the butt of his jokes. Do the victims of bullies ask for that fate? And who stands up for them when they’re powerless to stand up for themselves? Unless you’re capable of being as powerful a bully back, you need to find some way to overturn the dynamic. That’s in large part what this is all about; overturning the dynamic in a way that exposes social obnoxiousness by turning that obnoxiousness inside-out. And if they didn’t ask for it, screw ’em. Their victims didn’t ask for it either. That’s justice.

    On Crash: Can’t go with your there, at all. Crash was a film that exploited soft liberal guilt through simple stock stereotypes, poorly at that, and insults its audience by pawning off that exploitation as social exploration. Inside Job out-Crashed Crash by showing complex motives and multifaceted people. Baron-Cohen isn’t doing anything with stock stereotypes; he presents something as a seeming stock type, but is constantly making it more complicated through the performance. Borat is supposed to be a small-minded bigot with next to no worldly experience out there in the world; Ail-G is supposed to be a wannabe gangsta with limited imagination. But in the performance, through the interaction with Baron-Cohen’s subjects, those stock types are used to expose the unexpected (and it’s those unconscious slips that really tell the truth). The stereotypes that interacted in Crash did little more than reinforce the stereotypes in a “can’t we all just get along” kind of way, while Baron-Cohen is again taking those things and turning them inside out.

    If anything, Baron-Cohen and Colbert have a spiritual godfather in Jonathan Swift; they’re all people who realize that there are some sincerely twisted elements of human behavior and psychology that we refuse to reveal to ourselves, and straightforward confrontation gets you nowhere. So rather than holding up a mirror to society, they take you through that looking glass and unsettle the audience in a way that discomforts you as well as the subject of the gag. We laugh precisely because its uncomfortable — it’s like laughing at a funeral. But because you in the audience is emotionally shoved out of their comfort zone when watching one of their bits (or reading about the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms), it strikes deeper and leaves an impression. The gags hang in the memory; you can’t walk away and ignore those moments like you can a Tim Allen movie. It’s part of the reason Dave Chappelle was wildly successful, and Carlos Mencia a pale imitation of what Chappelle did. (And why Chappelle called it a day when he feared the intended interpretation wasn’t happening.)

    But that’s the way effective irony works. Irony’s that gap between presentation and understanding. When we’re watching an ironic bit, we like to think that we’re outside that gap, that we’re not the ones being exposed. But watching Baron-Cohen and Colbert, we find that we may have felt some of the same sentiments that are being displayed as obnoxious, or we live and work among people who do, and we accept it or ignore it, often in the name of tolerance. And we find ourselves becoming uncomfortable as well. It’s this ambush brand of vicious irony that exposes the limits and problems of our own soft tolerance that just sits there without comment. If 90% of the population made bullies and bigots and haters feel bullied and hated every time they expressed those views, Baron-Cohen and Colbert probably wouldn’t exist.

  • wyth

    Sorry, that goofy line above should have read “But because the audience is emotionally shoved out of their comfort zone.” Ooops. Maybe if I was one of those well-educated New England liberals I wouldn’t make such easy mistakes.

  • webgremlin

    Comedians are able to popularize glaring societial problems by making them accessible and funny. Of course there will be butts of a joke; no social commentary, comedic or otherwise, is without them. After a nipple-tweaker of a campaign season on top of the oppressive 24/7 news blitz on the depravity of the US citizenry, from the princes to the paupers, it is refreshing to have a chance to sit back and laugh at ourselves for a couple hours from an outsider’s perspective before going back to working on and within these issues we see. Problems you can laugh at seem easier to overcome.

  • “Their victims didn’t ask for it either. That’s justice.”

    It’s not justice. It’s stooping to their tactics and accomplishing nothing at all except feeling a moment of power over someone. It doesn’t change a thing and it perpetuates the power play dynamic that has to be removed to get bullying to stop.

  • “If 90% of the population made bullies and bigots and haters feel bullied and hated every time they expressed those views, Baron-Cohen and Colbert probably wouldn’t exist.”

    Again, I disagree. The solution is not to make someone else feel bullied or hated. Again, why perpetuate those things.

    The solution is to show that the bullying is useless by not allowing it to influence you, and that there is a better way. We’ve been dealing with a bully in my daughter’s class. It’s been a community effort to embrace his strength and commanding presence while consistently letting him know that meanness is not acceptable. It’s done through a lot of talking about feelings and motivations and desires and alternative methods of achieving those desires. And it’s working. But never once did any of the adults advocate that the other children make him feel ‘bullied’ or ‘hated’ or ‘ostracized’. As a matter of fact, we could have lobbied to have him removed from the class, but decided that we would rather the kids learn to work with him. They’ve done a fantastic job and gained a lot of understanding about what drives people to dysfunctional behavior.

  • bmo

    What is it about comedy — or politics or the world — that makes us want discomfort and awkwardness with our laughter?

    I don’t know. I sat in an audience with about four hundred other people and not too many were feeling awkward and none were in discomfort watching Borat. It’s a thinking man’s Jackass. I’m not sure why this deserves all the pseudopsychoanalysis. It’s funny. It’s satire. Perhaps the question should be: Boart – or Colbert or Chappelle or Stern – makes me uncomfortable: am I without a sense of humor?

    As well, there’s been much emphasis on the butt of jokes and victimology here. Keep in mind this is a heavily scripted film. Although the ‘pranks’ are the backbone of the film, the two funniest scenes (at least judging by the laughter I witnessed and was part of) are completely contrived set pieces.

    I’m kinda lining up with a few of the commentors here who are very politely saying: lighten up.

    The larger question here I think pertains to that which has been pawned off on us as comedy over the last twenty years. Comedy has become a commodity, in film and television, especially in America. (see wyth on Tim Allen). Safe, respectable, conservative. Like journalism, a palliative, comfort-giving.

    But comedy by its very nature is subversive and radical. Or should be. That any of us is uncomfortable with comedy speaks more to a sense of loss, exposes an unwarranted seriousness about who we are or think we are, and confirms our inability to experience the darker side of joy.

  • One of the UK’s most famous film critics Mark Kermode on BBC Radio Five Live reviewed Borat last week. He didn’t hate it but was quite uncomfortable with some bits of it, and his review are always worth a listen: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/aod/fivelive_aod.shtml?fivelive/kermode031106 this link should work but maybe only until tomorrow when they do the next film reviews. Alternatively you can download it through iTunes but they don’t seem to offer older shows, so again it might not be available after tomorrow.

    His comments on Borat are probably applicable across the laugh/squirm school of comedy that is based on real people misinterpreting a situation.

  • wyth

    Allison,

    By that logic, if a “bully” beats someone to a pulp in a bar and gets charged with battery, then the people charging that person with battery are stooping to the level of a power play dynamic. If that’s the case, so be it. I’ll take that power play to avoid further busted noses.

    But there is no institutional structures in place to respond to less severe bullying. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away — see the Swiftboating of John Kerry, and the press folding to Rumsfeld for five years straight, not questioning things like the extent of how twisted the definition of torture had become.

    As for your daughter’s bully, I’d be outraged if Borat conned a child into a joke without letting that child on to the joke. That’s the difference: a child isn’t emotionally developed to the point where they always know the difference between what’s acceptable and what isn’t, but we can and should expect that from adults. Especially when adults take advantage of their power to prey on weaker people. While talking about feelings and motivations may work after a few weeks or months or years with someone like a David Frum (who recently said some insulting things to Howard Zinn, accusing him of having an immature understanding of the nature of war — explain that one to me), a quick moment of comic jujitsu can be an effective splash of cold water. That’s what this is all about. And I would expect an adult is emotionally balanced enough to deal with it. If the adult isn’t, then there’s other problems there that need a lot more attention than talking about his feelings. That’s why John McCain and Joe Scarborogh will appear on Stewart and Colbert, but they’d never get Bush or anyone from his inner circle.

  • Sir Otto

    Too much toilet stuff. Is that funny? Jerry Lewis said that when comedy is desperate it goes to the toilet. Solid and liquid excrement I don’t think is funny. Farting maybe. Dangerfield used gas effectively for a laugh. There were some good belly laughs, but I don’t think enough to overcome the uncomfortableness, especially with my nephew and mother-in-law sittng next to me. Funny to me is Rodney, Lord Buckley, Pryor, self-effacing.

  • mynocturama

    plnelson- I never said “you NEED to be offensive or transgressive.” That’s why I wrote that it’s “a” lifeline, not “the” lifeline. And I intended the term in a looser, ordinary sense, vs. the cultural/critical theory use. I agree that it’s one of those terms too facilely bandied about in the academy.

    wyth- was going to bring in Swift, but you beat me to it. Colbert has referred to him explicitly at least once. It would take a woeful lack of irony, you might even say hipness, to decry A Modest Proposal as cruel or offensive.

    But that’s the written word, and Baron Cohen’s made a film with real people, nonactors. That said, aside from a few throwaways where he meets and greets people in the street and subway, the main setpieces involve Baron Cohen, as Borat, acting as a magnet for their own worst tendencies. Essentially he’s setting up the conditions to let them expose themselves. There’s the element of trickery, sure, but these people know there’s a camera on them. And as wyth said, they’re adults, responsible for their own self-presentation.

    Also, allison, there’s an obvious distinction between cultural artifacts and actual, direct interpersonal relations. The quality of the impact is inherently different. And wyth’s made the point of dealing with children vs. adults.

    OK, don’t want to belabor this (too late I guess), and I hope I’m not being hopelessly broad, but I think this discussion can be described in terms of the relationship between idealism and realism, hope for a better state of affairs and hard truths about the behavior of human beings. I’d like to think of myself as an idealist, as someone with ideals, but there is the danger, in a certain kind of idealism, of denying or failing to recognize certain facts and patterns of human nature.

    Allison, you wrote longingly, movingly, of “what it will take to make the world a place of peace.” Something to strive for, certainly, but one ought not kid oneself into believing it will actually take place, and one ought not be too shocked or surprised when it doesn’t, or when the whole project fails miserably. My view of ideals is that they are, in a way, not of this world, and most likely never will be. An ideal is a star to steer by. I doubt it’ll ever be a place to go and reside in. The laughter induced by Borat, and sometimes it seems you can almost see Baron Cohen laughing too behind the act, is partly the dark cackle at well-intentioned but literal-minded beliefs in human perfectibility.

  • Ok, my last post on the subject, as I am obviously in the minority in my disdain for humor with a real, not fictional, victim.

    Here is a link to a news piece that talks about how the people used in Borat were manipulated. So the true nature of these people is not actually depicted. It undermines his point if he forces through his acting or editing a specific response that the person would not normally have had. Most of us can be manipulated into exposing the worst in ourselves. We all have our dark sides. It’s not about being an adult vs a child. It’s about being treated as though we’re less than and worthy of nothing more than being the butt of a nation’s joke. It’s one thing if friends did it to you out of love. But a mere stranger doing it to make money at the expense of your dignity is egregious.

    http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,14931-2443601,00.html

    And, by the way, I didn’t say that I expected peace to happen. Still, it would be best if we approached everything as though we might be able to make it happen. Especially in a forum of discussion and exploration which is removed from action and allows the distance of reflection that we might take back with us into the world as an inspiration. If, even in discussion, we can’t agree that humor with a victim is probably not conducive to anything constructive, then we will most certainly feel justified in pursuing it further.

    Mynocturama, you say “aside from a few throwaways”. People don’t feel like “throwaways.” Perhaps the real lesson about American Culture that is taught to us in Borat is that Americans think people they don’t know are just “throwaways.” It certainly explains a lot about our international behavior.

  • rahbuhbuh

    Entrenching or tearing down stereotypes as entertainment: Wyth mentioned ‘Inside Man’ outdoing ‘Crash.’ I wonder how relevant Spike Lee’s (‘Inside Man’ director) ‘Bamboozled’ is to the discussion? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0215545/ Plot: Contemporary black entertainers begrudgingly revive historically accurate stereotypes performing in blackface on a new hit comedy show.

    It’s a much more effective mirror on some disgraceful American views than ‘Borat’ or ‘Colbert Report.’ There was no slapstick spoonful of sugar to ease the cringing. So, it didn’t reach nearly as many people as HBO and Comedy Central. Lee’s short wordless slideshow of actual mammy, jigaboo, Jolson, Steppin Fetchit, sambo, and pickaninny antique chachkas made me squirm more than all of ‘Borat.’

  • mynocturama

    I meant “throwaways” as minor scenes in the movie, relative to the main focal setpieces. In other words, I was talking about the relation of the film’s parts to its whole. I wasn’t referring to the people themselves. It was a neutral comment on the comparative importance of, and time devoted to, some scenes vs. others.

  • inkgod

    Sir Otto says: “Solid and liquid excrement I don’t think is funny. Farting maybe.”

    Haha! Now THAT was funny!

    Anyway, where the Borat movie really shines is showing social contrasts with such stark reality; he receives a warm reception from some “gangstas” in the hood off MLK and participants of a gay pride parade and many cold, volatile reactions from “civilized” people in New York and middle America. He turns stereotypes on their heads and baits conservatives with like-minded politically incorrect talk to uncover their ignorance and put it in full sunlight. No, this is not just toliet humor.

    I welcome the discomfort and awkwardness that comes with Borat’s humor because with it comes the satisfaction that the Democrats have had it right all along.

  • Jon

    I think wyth (Nov 8, 8:43 pm) nailed it: Sacha Baron Cohen’s “visit” to the U.S.A. represents satire that has roots all the way back to Jonathan Swift, who, nearly 300 years ago, used his fictional traveler Lemuel Gulliver to visit a variety of civilizations where the inhabitants lacked all means of decency and humanity. Even man’s questionable behaviours with respect to four-legged creatures, having an important place in Gulliver’s Travels, carries over to Borat’s Travels.

    Rather than focus on the “pain” of Borat, I’d rather see the program focus on the historical continuity of Cohen with other great societal parodists throughout our history, as well as on the sequallae of such efforts.

  • Mr. Cohen is just a bigot who, given the circumstances of history, gets rich at the expense of the “silly negroes.” Now he deals with the Jewish question by adopting the persona of another non-European/non-Jew.

    Ha, Ha, Ha.

    What will he do next? Maybe he can pretend to be a bigoted Jew who openly makes fun of wogs.

    Oh wait, been there, done that.

    Maybe he can make a comdey about little girls in sweatshops in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Honduras, or Los Angeles. Cohen can play a Korean overseer who beats, exploits, and rapes 12-15 year-olds, all the while visiting with Americans from the Chamber of Commerce who lobby Congress to ensure FREE trade. That would be really funny.

  • howardpark

    Borat seems to me more about clever movie promotion than anything else. I guess it is like Colbert.

  • nother

    Take a chill pill john jones – the play is the thing.

    Sacha Baron Cohen’s art is in the tradition of “The Theater of the absurd.”

    From Wikepedia: “This genre of theatre achieved popularity when World War II highlighted the essential precariousness of human life.” The theater of Borat highlights the precariousness of our current lives, especially the hollow hegemony of American life.

    In the third act of Hamlet, Shakespeare uses a play within a play as the devise for Hamlet to discover the truth about his father’s death. Sacha Cohen injects the theater of Borat into the theater of our everyday lives, essentially using a play within a play to reflect uncomfortable truths about ourselves. To swallow this theory you have to grant me that our social reality is a play.

    “All the world’s a stage

    And all the men and women merely players

    They have their exits and their entrances

    And one man in his time plays many parts”

    -From Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”

    In this perpetual production, we move with masks across the stage trying hard to speak our lines seamlessly. Cohen’s character Borat steps into our play, trips up the scrip, and throws Pollack paint on the narrative.

    “For some must watch, while some must sleep:

    So runs the world away.”

    -Hamlet

    Cohen’s play could be called “Borat bursts our bubble.”

  • inkgod

    “Maybe he can make a comdey about little girls in sweatshops in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Honduras, or Los Angeles.”

    They already made that, it was a Lifetime made-for-TV film called “The Kathie Lee Gifford Story.”

    “Cohen can play an overseer who beats, exploits, and rapes 12-15 year-olds, all the while visiting with Americans from the Chamber of Commerce who lobby Congress”

    They’re working on that one, it’s called “The Mark Foley Story.” Should be out next year.

  • rc21

    To inkgod: Actually I dont believe Foley did any of the things you are insinuating ”The Gerry Studds story” would be closer to your idea.

  • plnelson

    “

    ‘Their victims didn’t ask for it either. That’s justice.’

    It’s not justice. It’s stooping to their tactics and accomplishing nothing at all except feeling a moment of power over someone. It doesn’t change a thing and it perpetuates the power play dynamic that has to be removed to get bullying to stop.”

    It may be worse than that – it may fraud and deception. Two members of the Chi Psi fraternity in South Carolina who appeared in the movie, are suing 20th Century Fox claiming, among other things, that they were told the movie was a documentary and was not going to shown in the US.

    I’m a photographer and work with models for art projects. Many of my projects involve body-painting or nudity and I’m careful to get a legally-valid model release for everyone who appears on my website. Releases are serious legal documents and if they are obtained under fraudulent conditions it’s a serious matter. It’s easy to make fun of frat boys but if their claims have any merit Borat and his production company might not get the last laugh.

  • rc21

    To plnelson ; I havent seen the movie but what your describing is basically some of the same tactics Michael Moore uses in his films. He duped a young Massachusetts soldier in his latest movie on Iraq.

  • Borat is a prank, a gag, a joke. It is NOT a documentary. Get over it and all the nagging legalism and mock ethical seriousness. You do not need to consult a lawyer before you live your life. You do not need permission to have fun. You are not a meat puppet.

    Cohen is getting one over on some fairly low level lame brains. Everyday, all of us – we bright people (cough) – have one put over on us. By elected officials, corporations, advertisers – the bullshit artists. And we say squat. We debate the finer points and miss widely on the big picture.

    Think of the ‘types’ he’s going after here. A humor coach, a Hummer salesmen, a local TV news show, an etiquette/manners tutor, a group of self-described feminists, frat boys – there’s a consistency here: everyone is involved in ‘lifestyle’ prescription and/or perception control. These ‘victims’ are only victimizers themselves, playing on the insecurities and weaknesses of others. Sociopaths. And getting paid for it.

    The base. Stop feeling sorry for them. Frat boys suing for humiliation and metal anguish? Give me a break. A TV producer complaining about being fired? Maybe she should look at the quality of the people she was working for, dismissing her for doing her job – booking freaks – and thank Borat for releasing her from her contract with the devil.

    Which all fits very nicely and logically into Cohen’s premise: “racism feeds on dumb conformity as much as rabid bigotry.” Nice!

  • plnelson

    “To plnelson ; I havent seen the movie but what your describing is basically some of the same tactics Michael Moore uses in his films. He duped a young Massachusetts soldier in his latest movie on Iraq.”

    I haven’t seen Moore or Borat, but tactics like that are potentially actionable because if you misrepresent something to get somone to sign a contract (e.g., a release) then legally that’s fraud. The other thing is that the release normally states IN WRITING the purpose of use of the signer’s image, likeness, or whatever. If I have a model sign a release for, let’s say, fine-art and gallery shows only, I cannot turn around and sell the image to an advertsing agency or stock photo agency, or I can get sued. On the other hand, if my release says I can use it for anything I want including altering it or deriving other work from it, the model has no recourse.

    Keep in mind, that if Moore claims his movies are documentaries or some other form of journalism, this situation is very different from Borat. Journalists, no matter how slanted or vitriolic, are far more protected than commercial producers.

  • plnelson

    “Frat boys suing for humiliation and metal anguish? Give me a break.”

    No, you’re wrong. These legal protections exist for everybody. I prefer to live in a society where drunken frat boys and sleazy car salesmen have the same rights as everyone else.

    I don’t recall ever being defrauded by a public official. I’ve been lied to plenty of times by public officials (e.g., Bush) but since I never fell for those lies I can’t claim I was actually defrauded out of anything.

  • nother

    I’m curious as to how many people with strong opinions about Borat’s actions, have never seen him an action.

    Cohen’s motif is to expose our inclination to judge others as the “other.” We lazily rest on stereotypes and Cohen uses Borat to call us on it. If an informed person ran into Borat on the street, they would view him not as a Muslim but as a mentally challenged individual. All too often though people take his outrageous behavior as the true behavior of a Muslim because they don’t know any different. This ignorance breeds fear and is at the root of much of the conflict we live with today.

    Cohen uses the same motif to challenge the Muslim stereotypes of Jews. By making fun of our inclination toward stereotypes he shines a light on our ignorance – our collective ignorance.

  • “By that logic, if a “bully” beats someone to a pulp in a bar and gets charged with battery, then the people charging that person with battery are stooping to the level of a power play dynamic. If that’s the case, so be it. I’ll take that power play to avoid further busted noses.”

    Not if the people charing that person aren’t beating him just because his victims were victims. Making someone account for their destructive behaviors and telling that person what is unacceptable and protecting the safety of others is very, very different that tricking them into being publicly humiliated for the sake of a dollar and a national laugh. The motivations are a self-serving battering, not a community service correction.

  • “I meant “throwaways” as minor scenes in the movie, relative to the main focal setpieces. In other words, I was talking about the relation of the film’s parts to its whole. I wasn’t referring to the people themselves. It was a neutral comment on the comparative importance of, and time devoted to, some scenes vs. others.”

    What’s the matter? Don’t like your words being used out of context? Can’t you take a joke?”

  • mynocturama

    “What’s the matter? Don’t like your words being used out of context? Can’t you take a joke?”

    So, what you’re saying is, like Baron Cohen, you were actually attempting a joke? You were only giving the appearance of having completely failed to comprehend the way I was using a word? If you’re implying a parallel with Baron Cohen, with you the arch manipulator, consciously forming and performing a piece of humor, and me the butt of the joke, it’s obvious, to me at least, that the comparison falls apart. For you in fact weren’t trying to take my words out of context: you flat out misunderstood them with the context fully available to you.

  • aido c

    Firstly I must say, I enjoyed this film, I laughed so hard I thought I had hurt myself, in fact I did not think I was capable of laughter like this anymore, not since a long time ago.

    That said, I would like to take up this bullying theme. Bullying traditionally is when that schoolyard bully pushes you and takes your lunch money. There is physical and mental damage here, loss of dignity and person and self. The bottom line is that the victim has no power to resist, and they cannot reciprocate. It’s not about the money, but the loss of control over your own destiny.

    In this world of politically correctness (& litigation) Comedy allows you to say something without actually saying it. And it is power, if you disagree, I say two words: Jon Stewart. That man is doing as much to end the war in Iraq as all the students who demonstrated against the Vietnam one. Bravo Jon.

    Sure Borat put an awkward spotlight on some of the more unsavoury aspects of American culture, and it was funny, and many of the individuals will find remedy through the courts. But how is Kazakhstan to make good the damage to its image? Will there not be loss of tourism, foreign investment?

    So the question that remains open, the question of reciprocation, is…..

    Can a Kazakhstani comedian gain access to all the same media outlets and parody the Jewish faith, England, Israel, American customs or foreign policy with the same freedom?

  • No, you’re wrong.

    Pinelson, I’ve never been wrong in my life. And I’m not wrong now. In fact I’ve never been less wrong. I’m hurt by your words. Humiliated. I’m calling my lawyer.

    These legal protections exist for everybody. I prefer to live in a society where drunken frat boys and sleazy car salesmen have the same rights as everyone else.

    You are my hero, Pinelson. You’ve nailed it. Yes, these boobs have every right to look the boob, just like the rest of us. I’m glad you’ve come around to seeing things my way.

    I don’t recall ever being defrauded by a public official. I’ve been lied to plenty of times by public officials (e.g., Bush) but since I never fell for those lies I can’t claim I was actually defrauded out of anything.

    Try googling “cheney haliburton war profiteers”. That’s just a guess by the way. I’m assuming you pay taxes.

  • plnelson

    “Try googling “cheney haliburton war profiteers”. That’s just a guess by the way. I’m assuming you pay taxes.”

    That’s not fraud, it’s robbery. Fraud is when it’s done by deceipt and misrepresentation. But the whole war-profiteering/haliburton/Cheney/Iraq thing is done out in the open. If someone points a gun at you and takes your wallet they haven’t defrauded you just because you didn’t have the power to stop them.

    We knew the minute that Vheney, at al, started talking about invadi9ng Iraq that we were going to get ripped off, so we can’t claim fraud. But conning drunken frat boys is still a con-job, and they have the same rights NOT to get conned as anyone else.

  • hurley

    The Pain of Borat might include Borat recently having been beat up in New York City:

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/6/story.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=10410655

  • seltzer

    I think it’s rather disturbing that I haven’t seen any mention of Borat’s portrayal of Kazakhstan in this entire thread. Sure, the character skewers some unsuspecting Americans by inviting them to express themselves on camera. But no one comes out looking worse than the people of Kazakhstan. In Borat’s imagination, citizens of what is in reality the world’s eighth-largest nation are backward peasants for whom incest, rape, and bestiality are perfectly normal recreational activities. I can’t blame the Kazakh government for trying to fight Borat with a PR offensive, though I doubt it will do anything but create more publicity for the film. All of this said, I found Borat to be as shockingly funny as any film I’ve seen in years. I wish Sacha Baron Cohen had fictionalized Borat’s country of origin, but I can’t deny either the ultimate success of his comedy or the sharpness of his satire.

  • Never mind the Kazahks, seltzer, pinelson will be happy to learn that the Roma of Glod are liking to sue Borat.

    http://today.reuters.com/news/articlenews.aspx?type=oddlyEnoughNews&storyid=2006-11-14T161407Z_01_N14269075_RTRUKOC_0_US-ROMANIA-BORAT.xml&src=rss

  • mynocturama, hate to break it to you, but I completely understood your words. I purposely misused them. Common practice in politics, bad journalism and humor.

    It was nearly impossible to misunderstand what you intended.

  • aido c

    Seltzer,

    correction me fellow Paddy, Kazakhstan was the whole point of my comment

  • seltzer

    aido c,

    I stand corrected. Good for you for making the point first, though I’m glad to raise it again. I think it’s one of the more problematic aspects of the debate: Is it “appropriate” (I wince using that term) to laugh with Cohen at backward Americans while he’s simultaneously destroying the Kazakh reputation?

  • nother

    Seltzer, I’ve heard your argument from others. I would submit that Cohen is exploring new territory with his satire and true satire can be shocking when we first see it. Part of us feels, this MUST be wrong on some level, right? Cohen’s comedy is built on irony and with respect to Kazakhstan; I feel you are missing the irony. Cohen is no more representing the true people of Kazakhstan with his depictions than he is representing true Jews with his depiction of them as cockroaches in the film.

    His depiction of these people goes to the heart of his art. Cohen exposes our base ignorance by making us laugh at it’s absurdity.

  • Geez, give Kazakhs some credit. Link

    More than Americans and Kazakhs I think perhaps this film or its aftershock is serving to ridicule self-reflexive liberals (and I use that term in its least pejorative sense) more than anyone else.

    h/t to comment here

  • Jon

    To go back again to a comparison with Jonathan Swift: Swift satirizes the society and humanity (or lack thereof) from his time through the device of Gulliver encountering a variety of fictional characters whose negative or positive traits allow the reader to peek below our surface veneer. Cohen has similar goals, but uses different techniques. Cohen satirizes our culture therough the device of Borat encountering a variety of real-life characters whose behavior delivers perspectives about us that again peek below the external surface. Both are humorous, and, yes, both can be painful–particularly in each instance for those most readily identifiable as the target of the gibe. Welcome to satire.

  • Jon

    A scene in Borat that particularly caught my attention was his visit to a local television station. Borat’s disruptive interview with a news anchor was the less interesting of what occurred at that venue. What I found far more interesting was his subsequent disruption of the weather man’s gig. At least for me, this scene hillariously shot a big arrow through the pretentiousness of this now-hallowed segment of our television newscasts. Borat forced the weather man off of his inflated pedestal, to join the ranks of everyman, caught up more in the humor of the moment than in pontification about the grand forces of nature. Here was an example of Cohen skewering not an individual, but rather a quite stereotyped, yet perhaps expendible, aspect of our communal life.

  • plnelson

    “Here was an example of Cohen skewering not an individual, but rather a quite stereotyped, yet perhaps expendible, aspect of our communal life.”

    But it’s a set-up people do to themselves – it’s like a Passion Play or taking part in a Civil War reenactor battle – the whole concept, including your part in it, is a formula.

    Look: First you build up TV news and weather, then you take glee in Borat’s knocking it down! This is stupid. Why build it up in the first place? Here’s why – because if you didn’t then Borat’s antics wouldn’t be amusing. But I don’t even watch TV – I don’t need Borat to knock it off its pedastel.

    It’s just like the recent election – First the American public supported this stupid invasion of Iraq, then they take glee in kicking out its advocates! Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of people are dead just so the Americans can get themselves all worked up into a patriotic froth about invading another country and then all worked up in a patriotic froth again, about exercising their democratic right to punish their leaders. I guess that’s show-biz!

  • Douglas Young

    Don’t forget Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” David rivals Ricky Gervais for his skill at drawing out that awkward, uncomfortable moment.

  • I just heard this on my way to work listening to the Sound of Young America podcast (hows that for a shout out?). The SoYA and another Borat related internet place are fighting for a Borat Oscar. The film critic for the Chicago Tribune makes a good case for at least the best documentary.

    Does anyone else’s eyes hurt when they think about the possibility of one movie winning for best actor and documentary?

  • If Coyle and Sharpe are grandads to Cohen and other ‘comedy conmen’ you might want to have a quick look at kissing cousins The Yes Men

    Their most recent bullying and misrepresentation

  • From what I’ve heard Borat reminds me of the old Steve Martin Saturday Night Live Wild & Crazy Guy skits. I’ve only heard short cuts of Borat but I’ll get the movie when it comes to my local video store. I think one role of Comedy is cultural correction by expose. That’s why the Mudhead Kachinas of the Hopi were considered sacred. They could get away with making fun of very important people as a form of social leveling. Even Martin Luther King Jr had (apparently) a wicked sense of humor. I was doing some research on him and discovered that somewhere there is a FBI tape of King impersonating JFK and making righeous fun of him. Perhaps there was some competition there between the two notorious womanisers – while I may not approve of their behavior – I would give anything to hear that! And I’m sure however biting it may be it was well deserved. I do agree that there can be a point where ridicule is too cruel to be benificial to anyone. But, like I said when that stupid tasteless Dutch cartoon resulted in murderous riots, there is an old saying in my culture… F**k um if they can’t take a joke.

  • Brian Moffatt…. YES!! I LOVE the YES Men… Good point!

  • nother

    Speaking of Dostoevsky –

    Richard Pevear, in the introduction to his translation of “Demons” (along with Larissa Volokhonsky) writes that Dostoevsky’s book can be seen as a great parody of the times he lived in.

    “It may be said that this world is in a very serious state of parody (demons always want to be taken seriously). Dostoevsky unmasks this serious parodic condition by means of comic parody, that is, by reinserting it in the great tradition of irreverent laughter”

    I am not comparing Cohen to Dostoevsky; I’m comparing our need for irreverent laughter in the face of parodic conditions.

    And oh, how the parody is pervasive. Last night I winced through the Fox “news” show “Hannity and Hapless.” Benjamin Netanyahu was the guest, speaking over the caption “Iranian Holocaust?” Sean (endured one too many wedgies in the locker room) Hannity yelled that Ahmadinejad was as bad as Hitler and America was becoming as weak as Europe for not using force in Iran. Netanyahu chided America for not attacking Iran now; in fact, he said we should have attacked them already. Netanyahu- sounding like a yahoo – said (with a straight face) that it takes tough leaders to use preemptive tactics. All the while, the liberal guy on the show stared sullenly down at his desk, wondering, I assume, how many creams Hannity wanted in his coffee.

    I submit two more pieces of parody:

    A. John McCain is talking about MORE troops in Iraq (playing politics I’m sure) and not talking of troops in Sudan, a place with acknowledged genocide.

    B. Trent Lott – nuff said!

  • nother

    Btw, I love the drama of Cohen’s short skits but taken together they do not add up to a great “feature movie.” An overarching narrative is lacking and after an hour and a half you more than get the point.

  • nother

    Peggy Sue, with all due respect, I would have to differ with you on the Dutch cartoon situation. Those cartoons lacked the irony of Borat. You may not have been offended but they were not directed towards you. What if during the 60’s civil rights era, newspapers from white regions published cartoons of MLK depicted as Muhammad was depicted (esp. after MLK was murdered). I’m not sure African Americans would have seen the irony and I assume your response would not have been “F**k um if they can’t take a joke.”

    Again, I differ with you with much respect Peggysue – it’s just my fumble opinion. 🙂

  • mynocturama

    I think this discussion would have been better served if some of the participants had actually seen the thing under discussion, had actually experienced the phenomenon itself, and all the strange ways it works on your nerve endings. Instead, in the absence of the visceral experience of the thing itself, what we’re left with is arid sanctimony.

  • chilton1

    I have not seen this film (yet) – but I am intensely fascinated with this kind of comedy.

    Recent TV shows such as The Office, Extras, Reno 911 work because they come after (hopefully? -is it over- tell me it is over) a huge reality TV fad – I take this as a fight back – a writers revenge

    However, these comedies do have older roots -like my favourite De Niro character Rupert Pupkin in Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” –but they are new because they have a new context.

    Reality TV works because of accidental irony and cringe factor and that we identify with the characters/victims, but cannot quite believe they would expose themselves so – then we remember the dosh involved.

    These newer shows work because of nuance and creativity and they parody reality TV as much as anything else.

    The Script is back just more subtle than before

  • chilton1

    P.S.

    emmettoconnell – you highlight what I love about this stuff – \

    “Does anyone else’s eyes hurt when they think about the possibility of one movie winning for best actor and documentary?”

    reality and fiction merge

  • nother

    Peggysue, now that I think about it, you might have been being satirical with your comment about the cartoons – I’m a little slow sometimes.

  • nother

    I know those Dutch cartoons were not funny and that they were in the absolute worst of taste. I just think murderous riots were an over reaction to a cartoon. You are right though, I know that situation is much more complex and the cartoons just served as a spark on an already enflamed situation. I’m not saying I have any admiration for those particular cartoonists.

    I’m sure MLK and the civil rights movement were subject to bad racist cartoons in the 60s but I think it is more important to focus on the real issues of injustice than to over react to some cartoonist’s poor taste. And of course MLKs murder was no joke.

    Your criticsm is well recieved. I picked a very poor example of someone not being able to take a joke. Cruel or offensive jokes are best ignored in my opinion.

  • nother, the phrase “F**k um if they can’t take a joke” really is a common cultural saying around here and perhaps rolls off my tongue (or computer) too cavalierly at times.

  • mynocturama

    And let me just say that not everybody in the film comes across as crass or foolish. That’s because a lot depends on how they themselves respond. You can think of the whole thing as an experiment, with Borat the wild indeterminate variable introduced into the conditions. There’s a driving instructor who, while definitely exasperated, comes across finally as a bit gruff but kind. Borat approaches a lady at her garage sale as a gypsy selling her wares. She seems bemused, for sure, but remains more or less polite and even keeled. So what you might call the differential reactions of the various subjects makes for an interesting spectrum. To ridicule everyone involved is not the overriding intent, it seems to me. I think the main aim is simply to see what happens, under the pressure of Borat’s bizarre, unpredictable, provocative presence.

  • In one clip from the Borat movie Borat is wearing the exact same American flag shirt that Abbie Hoffman got arrested for wearing (Roy Rogers wore the same shirt with impunity) and Borat says “We support your war of terror.” Changing that one word, (although supposedly unknowingly) turns a huge hypocracy into a squirmy truth. That’s the genius of it.

    There is a lot of sexism being exposed by Borat too. Its funny to me not because as a feminist I appreciate sexism but because he is throwing some air and light onto issues that usually stay under the surface.

    And the chicken in the suitcase on the bus was hilarious (when it comes to animal cruelty, a bus has got to be better than a chicken factory)

  • webgremlin

    In a world of reality TV is this not the next logical step?

  • chilton1

    The Return Of The Real: The Final Chapter

  • ErikW

    Here’s a thought experiment: What if Borat was a real person, and not a character? Still funny? Maybe, but I think perhaps not as much–maybe even angering. How much of the comedy is derived from being “in on the joke” and being entertained by Cohen’s recognition of social boundaries and then his choice of methods to bulldoze those boundaries?

  • jazzman

    mynocturama says: Instead, in the absence of the visceral experience of the thing itself, what we’re left with is arid sanctimony.

    and also

    I think the main aim is simply to see what happens, under the pressure of Borat’s bizarre, unpredictable, provocative presence.

    The visceral experience is vicarious for anyone who has not been subjected to the Borat experience 1st hand and one’s tingling viscera is unnecessary to know that SBC’s “pressure” is putting people thru changes (albeit willing – perhaps more in retrospect) for personal gain and his own as well as many others’ cynical amusement.

    If you believe that commenting seriously on the motives of SBC and his admirers amounts to arid sanctimony then that is your opinion which is perhaps on a par with his.

  • jazzman

    SBC may wish one to believe (and may even have fooled himself into believing) that the raison d’etre for his character/caricature and mockumentary is to expose the baser, xenophobic, and bigoted nature of humans who comport with his cynical stereotypical vision by sticking it to whomever cooperates (those who don’t cooperate or fit his jaundiced view make dull movie fare and are victims of the cutting room floor.)

    This tack is obviously successful as demonstrated by the not only the ticket sales but by the majority here. The tactics employed to achieve his putative ends, however, are rooted in egoism (I’m cleverer than my marks), power (I have the upper hand in our transactions), and consequentialism (the ends justify my means.) The added benefit due to the tried and true chestnuts of adolescent humor (juvenile excretory and sexual vulgarities) and the lack of empathy (I can laugh at the misfortunes of others because I’m not they – by luck or superiority) and the laughs to hide one’s discomfort practically guarantee a boffo blockbuster. This is a successful but LESS THAN IDEAL methodology to generate laughs and income by intentionally messing with actual persons.

    Even if the intent were edification of audience and participants such “lessons” likely reinforce prejudices of those who “don’t get the satire” and those who do understand the intent should ken the difference between abstract and concrete ridicule. (peggysue/nother) BTW satire is a literary and dramatic device aimed at a sophisticated audience – not a direct affront to particular individuals which is intended aggressively no matter how innocuous. Irony is that normally peaceful people don’t realize or ignore the difference.

    If cognizant, rather than unsuspecting, actors were performing the “Borat drama” verbatim with all its nuances it would be satire however juvenile. Larry David and Ricky Gervais et al make us laugh and safely cringe at their antics because they play familiar stereotypes. The difference is that they satirize the abstract stereotype rather than call out actual people as Andy Kauffman did which could be construed as assault in certain cases.

  • I asked a friend whose wife is Kazakh if it’s happy days. Response: “Past few days have been tough. If she ever sees SBC in the flesh he’s dead.”

  • jazzman

    Allison says: I have been thinking about whether there is a justifiable place for humor with a victim.

    It’s not that the participants in these “reality” vignettes are “victims” per se; they chose to cooperate with SBC in creating the drama. It’s the methods and attitude that uses people as comic fodder, sees them as unsophisticated “rubes”, or seeks advantage over them by dint of superior intellect (‘cause like the dog, he can and SBC is very bright) and intends to humiliate “marks” for ego and profit. Even if one believes the recipients of such petard hoisting deserve their comeuppance, it is NOT ideal to be the aggressor in the mutual drama. When a person acts in an obnoxiously aggressive manner vis a vis others, it often engenders a violent response to which “Borat” can attest. Allison, your pacifism and empathy for the victimized in general is laudable and I agree with your assessment that ”Using someone as a prop for your joke is mean-spirited. Continuing to laugh once you realize this is even more so.” and commend your posts on this subject.

    Peace,

    Jazzman

  • Sir Otto

    Didn’t Steve Martin do this on Sat Night live 30 yrs ago?

  • Sir Otto

    Wild and Crazy guy.

  • Hey all! It was a pleasure to be on the show… I’ll try to stick around for a bit if anyone wants to talk further.

    I encourage anyone intruiged by the conversations about comedy to check out my show, which is at http://www.maximumfun.org

    This show, for example, deals with some intruiging theories on Kaufman’s relationship with the American Dream:

    http://media.libsyn.com/media/tsoya/tsoya021806.mp3

    It also features a great convo with the guy who I think most reflects the spirit of Kaufman in 21st century comedy, a comic named Neil Hamburger.

  • Allison — I would argue that no one in SBC’s work is a victim unless they make themselves one.

    And, frankly, it would be tough to find much comedy that doesn’t have a victim.

  • Two series that are ESSENTIAL to understanding Borat (and to being a person worth knowing):

    BrassEye

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Brass-Eye-Michael-Cumming/dp/B000066NT9/sr=11-1/qid=1163726241/ref=sr_11_1/203-9387015-4979969

    (that’s a region-free DVD, meaning you can play it in American DVD players)

    Alan Partridge:

    http://www.amazon.com/Knowing-Me-You-Alan-Partridge/dp/B0009RQRF6/sr=8-2/qid=1163726359/ref=pd_bbs_2/002-7081482-4199213?ie=UTF8&s=dvd

    And “The Day Today”, which is currently not available on US DVD (but can be found on the internet if you know where to look 😉 )

  • jazzman

    JesseThorn says: And, frankly, it would be tough to find much comedy that doesn’t have a victim.

    If the victims are fictitious as in most TV, film, or radio bits I agree, but when the “victims” (whom I also agree make themselves one) are real, live, persons who are put thru changes by encounters with disingenuous “comedians” such as Borat or Kaufmann or Alan Funt or Don Rickles and suffer in whatever degree from that experience – no matter that they were willing participants (by dint of release signing) and the fact they engaged in the process doesn’t justify that process. Very little comedy relies on live experiment for its laughs – most doesn’t. So it really becomes about the comedians ego in besting the mark for putative “entertainment”

  • “Jazzman”… putting “things” in “quotes” doesn’t make your argument stronger. No matter what you think of them, Cohen, Kaufman, Funt and Rickles are all comedians. Well, maybe not Funt, but you get the picture.

    If you think the comedy of Borat is about “besting the mark,” then you simply haven’t seen Borat, or perhaps you have, and can’t understand it.

  • You know, “you can’t understand” is often the response of those who don’t want to consider that someone else has a valid perspective. It’s condescending and it belies your presumption that your perspective cannot be challenged.

    We are all buffoons at times. Have aspects of ourselves that we may not like. We are not as enlightened as we would imagine ourselves. We can easily be judged by others. Which is what everyone who laughs at the real people caught in Cohen’s web are doing: judging others to be worthy of national/international humiliation. Which is not one any of them signed up for. It is a huge distinction.

    It can be humor when fictional characters are involved. It can lift a group up by reflecting a low common denominator that we which to rise above. This is what made the Archie Bunker character brilliant. No one wants to be like Archie once they realize how the rest of the world perceives that behavior. But when a real person becomes the target of everybody’s national self-loathing it is not funny.

    It’s not that I don’t understand. It’s not the kind of society I want to keep. I find this thread very disheartening. It doesn’t bode well for what we can expect in US culture. We love being smug and self-righteous and assuming that we have the right to deem others unworthy of civility. (The guards at Abu Graib were laughing in much the same way as those who laugh with Cohen.) The popularity of Cohen’s work tells me just how sad to be. The brilliance of it is not what it reveals about his marks, but what it reveals about the spirit of the viewers. The fact that the very idea that it is mean-spirited can’t even be brooked here, a place where we are supposedly pursuing intellectual exploration, is extremely disappointing.

    You can find good-hearted humor with your friends and family. Laughing at yourself is probably the best. A laugh shared with a loved one when you both have a moment of realizing how absurd you are is priceless. Laughing at someone is only hurtful. It perpetuates hurtfulness and does not serve any of us well.

    Is anyone who is laughing also self-reflecting? Or is it just those other people that deserve such disdain? Other than Cohen’s bank account, what has been improved by this film?

    Thank you for chiming in, jazzman. It’s nice to know there is at least one other person willing to consider the destructiveness of this kind of humor.

  • chilton1

    the destructiveness in humour maybe what is best about humour

  • inkgod

    allison said: “It’s not the kind of society I want to keep.”

    Good luck in communist China.

  • rc21

    Allison do you feel that way about all the people who make fun of Bush. The hateful jokes and nasty humor put out by so many on the left would fall under your thoughts on bullying. That is all Air America basically does with their program.

    Different strokes for different folks. It is a free country. No one is forced to watch Borat. I haven’t made up my mind yet on him some things i’ve seen by him are funny some are not. Everyone has different tastes.Just like any other form of art or entertainment.

    I do agree with you on some of your points.Humor that makes fun of others is a cheap way to get a laugh and it does ferment bullying. But no one has a right to not be offended nor should they. People need to be thicker skinned and act like adults. People need to stop looking for ways to be victimized

  • ErikW

    This was a great show–the guests were very in tune with and added great insight into the underlying dynamics of the phenomena of Borat, et al. If anyone cares, my current thoughts on this are: I think Borat is an extension of the reality tv appeal, in that it voyeuristically observes “real people” (i.e., people who are operating within their everyday social roles) placed in situations which have been manipulated, in this case to be rich in humorous/discomforting/humiliating (depending on your perspective) potential. Your reaction probably depends on your empathy for the participants and their resulting reactions. I would suggest that a healthy sense of humor is one that can find the “correct” reaction, but that is probably a topic for another show. What does comedic taste say, if anything, about a society?

  • Allison — the world is often a dark place. Let’s have some fun while we’re here.

    Again, SBC’s victims are only victims when they make themselves victims. The frat boys slip easily into sexism, and they deserve to be satirized for it.

    Those who show kindness are merely straight men for Borat’s insanity. They come off exceptionally well. Christopher brought up the example of the driving instructor — he comes off as a great guy in the film, and it’s hilarious because of Borat, not because Borat is taking the instructor down.

    “Is anyone who is laughing also self-reflecting? Or is it just those other people that deserve such disdain? Other than Cohen’s bank account, what has been improved by this film?”

    Of course people are self-reflecting! I don’t think that any film released in the last ten years has prompted this level of national discussion about racism, religious bias, and sexism! I just spent forty minutes on a national public radio program (not to be confused with an NPR program) talking about it.

    Again, SBC’s comedy is simply *not* about “besting the mark” as Jazzman put it. It’s about something else entirely. Alan Funt’s comedy is about “besting the mark.” It’s very clear that Jazzman is either unfamiliar with SBC’s ouevre, or he watched the film with a very closed mind.

  • jazzman

    JesseThorn says: “Jazzman”… putting “things” in “quotes” doesn’t make your argument stronger… If you think the comedy of Borat is about “besting the mark,” then you simply haven’t seen Borat, or perhaps you have, and can’t understand it.

    My quotes weren’t to strengthen my argument which stands on its own. The quotes were to separate the so called comedians whose humor is derived from interactions with actual unsuspecting persons i.e., marks Anytime there is hidden agenda in an interpersonal situation to gain something from another (in this case comedy) there is an imbalance of power and intent making the recipient of the agenda the mark.

    Humor is a debatable concept which is product of each of our imaginations. As the arbiter of my opinion, I reserve the label “comedian” for those whose humor doesn’t rely on interpersonal reaction. You say No matter what you think of them, Cohen, Kaufman, Funt and Rickles are all comedians that’s only by your definition and certainly true for you and others who share your opinion; I say they aren’t by mine which is just as true for me and those who share my opinion. The ad populum fallacy does not confer an absolute imprimatur as to what constitutes a comedian nor does arbitrary classification.

    Your assertions and implication that I can’t understand the “comedy” of SBC and your belief that I use quotes to strengthen my argument does nothing to support your position.

  • ErikW

    ad populum! -SNAP!-

    arksmay akemay emselvesthay…

    (pardon my declensions, it’s been awhile…)

  • hurley

    Great show, one of the best I’ve heard. Most discussions of humor leaden as.. discussions of humor, but yours struck the right analytical-anecdotal balance (thanks for the intro to Coyle & Sharpe). I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I have seen early clips on Youtube and can’t get enough of them. Anyone here able to correlate the decline in GNP with the number of Borat hits on YouTube? I’ve introduced him to several brilliant people in my part of the world, and by my reckoning they’re due to be fired any day now.

    No chance to read through the comments, but scanning them I begin to get the gist. One element in Borat’s success no one seems to have pointed out is the obvious one: SBC’s physical comic genius, to me reminiscent of Chaplin, Keaton, and others. For all his excesses, he manages to do more the less he does. See the wine-tasting scene, and others. Not to mention the unwashed suit, a surreal refinement on a gross imposture. What next? Scratch & Sniff Borat?

  • jazzman

    rc21 says: The hateful jokes and nasty humor [about Bush] put out by so many on the left would fall under your thoughts on bullying. That is all Air America basically does with their program.

    Criticizing a public personality informally or in the media is not bullying it is voicing an opinion. Roasting a person while they are present is on or over the line depending of the relationship of the roaster to the roastee. Abusing anyone or Bush to his face, verbally or worse is bullying.

  • jazzman

    JesseThorn says: Allison — the world is often a dark place. Let’s have some fun while we’re here. At the expense of whomever we deem deserving of our insinuations into their personal space.

    The frat boys slip easily into sexism, and they deserve to be satirized for it.

    This is not satire, it is staging a venue under false pretenses to attempt to expose peoples’ biases. Satire is the abstract presentation of analogous situations in a neutral environment – taking the bias to task – not exposing the actual person harboring biases. You judge that they deserve it and so they do by your lights but again you are only the arbiter for yourself and that doesn’t excuse the fact that what you call humor is at others expense.

    Those who show kindness are merely straight men for Borat’s insanity. They come off exceptionally well. Kind people are merely kind and will always come off well – let that be an object lesson.

    Of course people are self-reflecting! I don’t think that any film released in the last ten years has prompted this level of national discussion about racism, religious bias, and sexism

    You are correct that prompting discussions about “negative” biases (the quotes signify that biases may or may not be negative) has the potential for “positive” outcome. This demonstrates that less than ideal actions can stimulate “improvement” but it is still “the end justifies the means” consequentialism. If most people were self reflecting and acted according to the principles of Absolute Morality, the mentioned biases would be harder to find. I don’t credit SBC for altruistically attempting to affect peoples’ biases, if a positive outcome is the result of this drama, it is due to unintended consequences.

    It’s very clear that Jazzman is either unfamiliar with SBC’s ouevre, or he watched the film with a very closed mind

    I am quite familiar (which breeds contempt) with his oeuvre i.e., Ali G, Bruno, and Borat from HBO and was amused until I figured out that his audience didn’t realize that he was putting them on. The 1st time I saw it, I believed that Ali G’s show was an elaborately staged event with people aware that this was a spoof. I soon saw that had the “guests” realized the nature of the event none of them would have participated. They were Ali G’s “marks” no matter what how your protests to the contrary and Borat’s “marks” are only more numerous and less famous. I wouldn’t pay to watch SBC in a theater and am unlikely to watch when it is on HBO. As for my closed mind, it’s shut to violations of other’s innate rights.

    Peace,

    Jazzman

  • jazzman

    ErikW ”real people”…placed in situations which have been manipulated, in this case to be rich in humorous/discomforting/humiliating (depending on your perspective) potential.

    Not only the situation, but also “real people” are manipulated thru dishonesty by the person with the upper hand which is a violation of their personal rights.

    I would suggest that a healthy sense of humor is one that can find the “correct” reaction,

    Who defines the “correct” reaction? Correct in your eyes and healthy in your opinion as it is with all value judgments. There is no moral correctness in value judgments – only beliefs about right and wrong.

    What does comedic taste say, if anything, about a society?

    It says volumes about peoples motivations and character. De gustibus non est disputandum (seeing as you are fond of Latin albeit of the porcine variety) If it is taste and not schadenfreude – feel good humor due to the misfortunes of actual people rather than the conceptual let’s say these misfortunes occurred hypothetically and present it as comedy then it is a question of taste. When it is not hypothetical then comedic taste has overtones of meanness and lack of empathy and reflects callousness in the strata of society that finds such things amusing.

    BTW Marks do not make themselves, it take 2 to tango and requires an imbalance of power as in the confidence trickster and the mark. Once engaged the mark bears responsibility for his/her part in the action but without the initiator there is no mark.

  • ErikW

    Perhaps someday I, too, can visit Planet Jazzman, where people don’t interact directly out of fear of invading each other’s personal space and perhaps giving one party “secret powers” over the other, and where people “communicate” only indirectly using metaphors steeped in pretentious language, (perhaps via puppet shows?).

    And, since I no longer want to be boring any remaining lurkers with this rapidly drying exchange of opinion, I am going to sign off here. Good evening.

    (Frankly, now I’m starting to suspect that “jazzman” is just a baiting arguebot and it is I who am the “mark”. Damn! This blogversation better not appear in Borat 2: Cultural Learning On the Internets For Make Benefit Glorious Site of Radio Open Source)

  • jazzman

    ErikW If my language seems pretentious, I write as I speak and that is I. Is correct English pretentious? So be it, I was an English major in college and am not pretending to be something I’m not nor am I a baiter. I’m absolutely serious and I believe consistent in my posts at ROS and use metaphor as a literary device infrequently as I do not wish to be misconstrued as to my position.

    Let me prepare you for your prospective tour of Planet Jazzman:

    On Planet Jazzman, Consciousness, Energy and Matter are manifestations of each other and interchangeable. There is no religion, supernatural entities, or fear; people are peace loving and do not feel the need to dishonestly trick others for their amusement or profit.

    People take responsibility for what ever situation in which they find themselves and ideally live by the following code: ABSOLUTE MORALITY

    1) Do Respect and Honor ALL Life/Nature. EVERYTHING in the universe has purpose, meaning, and an innate right to exist. (No need to invoke God or Evolution)

    2) Do EMPATHIZE with others in all transactions. Consider the effect of your actions vis a vis others. Don’t take advantage of people via trickery or superior intellect. This is the root of the Golden Rule – no vengeful tit for tat.

    3) Do not kill more than is needed for physical sustenance. I believe that most people would agree that the deprivation of life for gluttony is less than ideal and should be discouraged.

    4) Do not commit violence on yourself or others, life, or the environment. Violence is a result of unexpressed pent up aggression, fostered by a sense of powerlessness to attain desires by the incompetent, ignorant or impatient and NEVER justified.

    5) Do not attempt to attain an IDEAL by violating any of the above propositions. The “All of the above” Meta-rule – IDEAL ENDS NEVER JUSTIFY LESS THAN IDEAL MEANS.

    Peace to ALL – this is my last post until at least the week after Thanksgiving.

    Jazzman

  • rc21

    To Jazzman: Agreed Criticizing is not bullying, I’m refering to mean spirited jokes. Such as the ones made about Bushes intelligence or lack there-of. His mispronunciation of words. his silly comparison to Hitler.etc.. By the way the same things can be said about Clinton and the various sex jokes that always popup. No pun intended. Would this not fit allisons definition of bullying?

  • I only wish that no-one felt so disenfranchised that they can’t make or take a joke. Obviously this isn’t so and there are many raw nerves out there. Still, of all the cultural correctives available I’ll take humor.

  • “On Planet Jazzman, Consciousness, Energy and Matter are manifestations of each other and interchangeable.”

    Jazzman! I see you are capable of humor!

  • chilton1

    how can i put this without offending…?

    many Americans seem to have had an irony bypass

    this thread has got rather serious of late considering it’s intentions

  • media slave driver

    While listening to the podcast I must say I’m waiting very anxiously to hear the someone bring up the brilliant MTV2 show Wonder Showzen and specifically the puppet “Clarence” as a prime example. I’ve seen and heard all of the references and comparisons the panel has made- The Office – Colbert – Andy Kauffman etc. and all have their moments but to not acknowledge Wonder Showzen is to miss the what I believe Borat is trying to emulate as a contemporary that continues to push this “cringe humor” boundary. I’ve been overwhelmed by Clarence’s creative annoyance which makes Borat’s charm just funny but boorish by comparison.

    I just felt compelled to pass this on as people still don’t seem to know about Wonder Showzen while Borat has exploded. Maybe everyone is not ready for Wondershozen yet as it can be beyond “cringe” but isn’t that what Borat really wants?

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