Yesterday at lunch with the awesome Pied Piper and an accomplished, pioneering writer whose anonymity we shall preserve, Piper turned to me and said, “You saw Borat and didn‘t blog about it?” And I shrugged sheepishly into my chopped salad and did my best to explain that I’m having a bit of a crisis with my response to comedy. It’s true.
Much to the somewhat indulgent amusement of my family, I laugh at the lamest of jokes. But my thinking side is increasingly uncomfortable at the influx of comics who made it because they trashed on their own ethnicity. Suddenly it's okay--no really, okay--to make ethnic and racist jokes again. As the song goes, "Everyone's a little Racist Sometimes." So Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Dave Chappelle, and Jeff Foxworthy make malicious jokes about Black, Jewish, and "Redneck" people; I find that troublesome. I can handle Margaret Cho and Russell Peters who mock ethnic culture rather than ethnic race (Make sense?). As for the rest, I’m fairly sure that the subtext is that comics secretly ethnic stereotype everyone although some bizarre sense of cultural correctness or essentialism allows them to broadcast only mockery of “their own.”. Either cultural correctness or comic selectivity--Jeff Foxworthy for all his proud Southern Redneck-ism cannot make anti African American jokes--because what would be funny about that?
Which is why Sacha Baron Cohen or “AliG” as I have called him for the last five or so years--ever since I watched my first couple of episodes on BBC’s Channel Four, too dim-witted for too long to figure out that Ali, Borat, and Bruno were Sacha meme--is my favorite comic. Because Cohen doesn’t say stupid things, he just asks stupid questions and any resulting humor is the consequence of the interviewee’s own idiocy and bigotry. And also, Cohen muddles both ethnic race and ethnic culture--AliG fancies himself a RudeBoy (you’d call it gangsta this side of the puddle) and seems to believe that he is Black, frequently accusing his uncooperative guests of “racialism;” Borat’s vociferous anti-Semitism is directly contrary to Cohen’s own reportedly orthodox Judaic upbringing.
So what in the name of sweet baby Krishna is my problem now? I have to say somewhat meekly--and at the risk of sounding like a hipster-in-the-manger whose favorite indie label has gone mainstream--that Cohen was okay as a small, inside joke. The huge Twentieth Century Fox spectacle of Borat morphs what was once funny into cruelty because what was once merely a silly prank is now a hugely profitable deception. When Borat is no longer the little guy, it‘s harder to excuse his lapses of decency. When he’s no longer the little guy, the fulcrum of honesty seesawing between power and sympathy shifts from the pompous interviewee who is essentially being true to himself to the fraudulent player-interviewer egging him on. Even the gag about being a Kazakhstani reporter seems maliciously opportunistic, because we know that Cohen wouldn't dare impersonate a bumbling Russian or German with impunity. Borat has to be coded as a token white person to gain the kinds of access he does, but he is simultaneously an inept parody of the voice--and presence--of a people with minimal to none-at-all influence in the Western world. When even NPR begins to josh about Borat being a better representative of Kazakhstan than President Nursultan Nazarbayev--Oy! Cohen, we have a problem.
P.S. Also the movie wasn’t as funny as the show. Cohen’s team imported a (weak) plotline, which, methinks, was unnecessary. Borat is essentially Jackass with ideas. And I don’t remember Jackass pushing plot.