Scott Hardie | November 6, 2006
Anyone make comment for appreciate Borat film? Or you like maybe for disparage a little, yes?

Personally, I haven't seen the movie and probably won't. Sasha Baron Cohen isn't far removed from Andy Kaufman, who I loathe, because both men ultimately make the audience the butt of their jokes. There's an arrogance in the material, a hostility towards anyone who would laugh at it. Take for instance the Jewish jokes: Baron Cohen himself is proudly Jewish, but when in character as Borat he makes frequent disparaging (albeit ridiculous) comments about Jews, as if baiting people to laugh and expose their prejudices, so that they can realize how ugly their beliefs are. I'm all for good satire ("Melvin Gibsons" deserves all he gets), but aiming it directly at the audience just makes it unfunny to me. I've heard it said that drama is best seen from a floor seat because you want the heroes to loom larger than life, and comedy is best seen from a balcony seat because you need to look down on the characters in order to laugh at them. No matter how ridiculous Baron Cohen's characters are, the joke is never truly on them; his comedy looks down on you from the balcony and laughs.

There are many other angles on the film, of course – no pun intended. What do you think?

Dave Mitzman | November 8, 2006
I thought the movie was absolutely terrific. I went in being a fan of Da Ali G Show and knew exactly what I was getting. The character of Borat is used to point out the fact that our society is still so insanely racist but he does it in a way that makes us laugh and makes the bigots out to be complete morons. There were parts of this movie that I was laughing so hard I couldn't breathe. I also don't think that you can compare Cohen to Kaufman. Kaufman used everyone (including the audience) as part of the joke and generally leaving everyone in a daze come the punchline (remember when he was a professional wrestler who would only fight women?). Cohen isn't using the audience in this manner at all. At no point is the audience part of the joke, we're in on it (pretty much everyone going in knows that Borat is a creation of Cohen). Also, some of the scenes in his movie are staged so some of his "subjects" are very willing participants.

So as far as what you say, with the comedy looking down on us, I don't think that's the case at all. The comedy looks down on the people he profiles in his movies (generally politicians and old southern racists) to prove a point.

Kris Weberg | November 8, 2006
I can see why Scott argues for what he does: I tend to think, for example, that Cohen's Ali G. character might well be the sort of hostile humor he's describing. That said, Borat seems to me to be a more targeted character, one whose combination of "foreigness," naivete, and prejudice allows him to maneuver genuinely bigoted and awfui people into discomforting self-revelation. "Ali G." goads and pushes by playing into his targets' expectations that a young man who likes rap could be that ignorant and clownish; "Borat" simply induces his targets to produce rope, tie nooses, and hang themselves with their own words.

But I am a bit curious as to the second part of Scott's criticism: the notion that Cohen makes the audience the butt of the joke.

I disagree: Cohen's method is to portray himself as so outrageously ignorant or prejudiced that his targets make fools of themselves by agreeing or going along with him. If you're not bigoted and ignorant enough to mistake Borat for a real Eastern European or out-of-touch enough to think Ali G. is a real rapper/hip-hop fan, you can't become the butt of his joke. If you're not an anti-Semite, Borat's not going to catch you singing 'Throw the Jew Down the Well" on camera.

More to the point of the critique, isn't Cohen's audience "in" on the joke in a way that Kaufman's audiences never were? Kaufman went on stage to do comedy and delivered something else for his own amusement, never ever breaking character even when people confused the "stage Kaufman" with the real man. Cohen only takes on those who accept his quite clearly false personae for real people, and who volunteer themselves for an interview with Borat et. al. More to the point, Cohen, unlike Kaufman, doesn't use Borat in an attempt to behave viciously to his targets. Kaufman insulted women to their faces, called wrestling fans idiots to their faces, and so forth, all to get a response.

I can't see how being invited to laugh along with Cohen constitutes hostility to the audience.

Tony Peters | November 9, 2006
you know when I saw all the hoopla about Borat I had no idea wtf it was all about and neither it turns out did most of the guys I work with. Admitedly we can get a bit distracted, at present 80% of my office is scattered accross the globe in Bahrain, Spain, Panama, Diego Garcia and Norfolk Va at the moment. But 4 days ago all but 3 of us were in front of a computer watching Borat trailers and trying to figure out why it was funny. It's like Jackass with a plot and no stunts...

Scott Hardie | November 16, 2006
I guess I think of Borat that way because I know people who want to see the movie and aren't in on the joke: They want to laugh at the funny foreigner with the cow in his bedroom. I might not be one of them, but I easily could be if I were culturally out of touch. It seems to me that one of Cohen's satirical subjects is anyone who would show up to laugh at Borat, and tricking the audience like that is taboo for me. Hate one of us and you could hate any of us.

Kris Weberg | November 16, 2006
I maintain that there's a difference between laughing at Borat because he's a silly character, and laughing at him in the belief that foreigners are inherently silly or disgusting. The former is fine and dandy. The latter is the result of something that has less to do with intelligence or joke-targeting than with prejudice and xenophobia.

Again: how, exactly, can someone in an audience be the butt of the Borat joke unless that someone really does think foreigners are stupid and disgusting? And if someone does think that, how is it Sacha Baron Cohen's fault that someone bears an insupportable prejudice deserving of derision?

Anna Gregoline | November 16, 2006
and laughing at him in the belief that foreigners are inherently silly or disgusting.

Sadly, I think this is why the movie is so popular in America. Because it's soooo cool to hate people that fall neatly into bigots ideas of "terrorists."

Jackie Mason | November 16, 2006
[hidden by author request]

Denise Sawicki | November 16, 2006
I haven't seen Borat but I wonder if people similarly find a couple of my favorite shows offensive for voicing stereotypes... like The Office (either version) or Alan Partridge. Both have characters that will try to be politically correct and fail miserably, to comic effect... an example, from Gareth in the British version of the Office:

"My dad, for example, he's not as cosmopolitan or as educated as me and it can be embarrasing you know. He doesn't understand all the new trendy words - like he'll say 'poofs' instead of 'gays', 'birds' instead of 'women', 'darkies' instead of 'coloureds'."

Scott Hardie | November 18, 2006
Kris, it's not Baron Cohen's fault that people want to laugh at stupid foreigner stereotypes, and those people are deserving of contempt. For me, it's a question about the fundamental nature of the film and the audience: It is supposed to be a one-sided relationship, in which we observe the characters in ways they can't observe themselves, and we pass judgment on them. Here's a film that reverses the relationship and holds some members of its audience in contempt. There are plenty of satires that criticize via portrayal, but they're not made for their targets; off the top of my head, American Beauty is not made for the plastic suburbanites it skewers, but the rest of us to feel superior to plastic suburbanites. While I salute Baron Cohen for finding a taboo yet unbroken, his chosen transgression is one I find so improper that it cancels any interest I would have in seeing his work. That's just me with a stick up my ass, but hey, I don't expect anybody else to see it that way.

Kris Weberg | November 20, 2006
But again, why is it unethical to hold contemptible persons in contempt? And how, under the ethical standards you're proposing, is ethical satire -- satire being the genre that borrows the voice and mannerisms of its targeted practice or group -- possible?

Steve Dunn | November 21, 2006
Borat is not about stupid foreigner stereotypes.

All his characters from Da Ali G show have the same routine. It's about exposing the ignorance, superficiality and indifference of people who think, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that these characters are real people.

You can't be taken in by Ali G unless, to some extent, you assume British hip hop kids are depraved and mind-numbingly stupid. You can't be taken in by Borat unless you are indifferent to outrageous anti-Semitism. You can't be taken in my Bruno unless you are superficial and self-important.

I haven't seen the movie, but note that in Da Ali G show, some of these characters' "victims" actually acquit themselves quite well. Not everyone is shown to be ignorant and prejudiced. I think there's a touching side of the Borat and Ali G segments, insofar as some of the regular Americans are respectful and accepting of unfamiliar cultures. On the other hand, it's not difficult to cajole a bar full of people to sing "Throw The Jew Down The Well." This is the sort of stark and surprising reality it's important to know, but you'll never discover by asking. Like other great comedians, Borat educates as well as entertains.

Kris Weberg | December 4, 2006
From Sacha Baron Cohen's Rolling Stone interview:

"I was surprised because I always had faith in the audience that they would realize that this was a fictitious country (sic) and the mere purpose of it (the film) was to allow people to bring out their own prejudices. The reason we chose Kazakhstan was because it was a country that no one had ever heard anything about, so we could essentially play on stereotypes they might have about this ex-Soviet backwater. The joke is not on Kazakhstan. I think the joke is on people who can believe that the Kazakhstan that I describe can exist - who believe that there's a country where homosexuals wear blue hats and women live in cages."

I'm not posting this to change opinions, just to get Cohen's own opinion on record.

Scott Hardie | December 4, 2006
It's all good, Kris. I think the four of us here who have stated interpretations of Baron Cohen's comedic intentions (you, me, Dave, and Steve) are in general agreement with his quote. We only differ on fine points such as which bigots he's truly satirizing (those beside him or those in the audience) and whether he's too transgressive to be funny.


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