Myron Cohen he's not, but Sacha Baron Cohen is pretty much the hottest thing in sketch comedy now. One reason is the question his shtick poses: What are we laughing at?
Fresh from British TV, Baron Cohen found his American niche on HBO in 2003 by playing a benighted hip-hopster named Ali G, the pretend host of a show aimed at educating youth. In that persona Baron Cohen landed interviews with some very important people, who had to suffer his grotesque malapropisms and gnarly sex talk, to the great amusement of the audience.
There were other characters on Da Ali G Show, including Borat Sagdiyev, a gross but gregarious "journalist" from Kazakhstan who snares hapless Americans in situations they can't escape, since they know they're being filmed. Camera manners compelled Southern ladies to tolerate Borat's toilet pronouncements and a town council to observe five minutes of fidgety silence in honor of an invented Kazakh massacre. Baron Cohen also got red-blooded barflies to sing along with his ersatz anthem, "Throw the Jew Down the Well."
Variations on these themes shape Baron Cohen's new film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. This flimsy mock doc, in the spirit of gross-out shows like Punk'd and Jackass, might have faded into dating-movie oblivion but for the vehement reaction of the Kazakh government. It didn't appreciate Borat's references to a national wine made from equine urine, or his observation that "America is strange country: Women can vote but horses cannot." By protesting, the Kazakhs gave Baron Cohen a place on US news pages. But there's more to this comic than politically incorrect creds.
Not too long ago, stand-up stars like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay went after women, gays and immigrants in a revanchist show of spleen, and it was boffo. But backlash entertainment has lost its sting--if only because it no longer represents a dissent from the orthodoxies of social politics. 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.
After all, who is the butt of his jokes: those Americans straining to be polite to a foreigner or the foreigner who appalls them by expressing primitive sentiments? Are the rich and famous who curdle at the stupidity of Ali G the objects of our laughter, or is it Ali G, who could be the ignorant son of immigrants? Baron Cohen's comedy rubs against fear and loathing of the Muslim Other. But what about those Jew jokes--why are they so funny? And why are some of the friendly Americans Borat encounters so willing to join in the fun?
Baron Cohen is a Cambridge-educated Jew with Iranian roots, and this combination of erudition and estrangement allows him to cast a philosophical aura over his insults. It's like watching a Catskills tummler (those Jewish comics whose job was to stir up the house with offense) through a Sartrean lens. You're left with the feeling that everyone enjoys the spectacle of bigotry, as long as it's couched in humor.
Depending on your sensitivity, you might conclude that this delight could become blood lust in the right circumstances, or you might leave the theater high on your biases. Fans of performers like Baron Cohen call them equal-opportunity offenders, but if the targets aren't on an equal footing with the audience, which side is the comic on?
Some neo-tummlers are asking this question in a truly ambitious way. Sarah Silverman, whose audacious film Jesus Is Magic is now on DVD, offers a richly observed meditation on the sadistic roots of mockery. Silverman rounds up the usual PC suspects, but she also insults Jews, and her ultimate intentions are conveyed by her persona: a terminally narcissistic Jewish American Princess. She uses a stereotype to evoke other stereotypes, forcing her audience to confront the guilty pleasure of shoving other people into these demeaning roles.
Comics like Silverman and Baron Cohen revive the strategy of Lenny Bruce: The jokes stick in your craw, if you let them. But their humor also plays in a conservative era that cherishes the sadistic gratification of bashing the vulnerable and the oppressed. It's the perfect comedy for an ideologically ambivalent time. Given that double message, much depends on how these jokers deal with their own identities. Silverman does that with a wink. "I'm just me," she burbles, "...white." But Baron Cohen can't afford such candor. His act depends on the pretense that he's transracial. Try watching him with the fact of his whiteness in mind and you can't really enjoy the show.
A dexterous delivery allows Baron Cohen to deny his race and class--which in turn allows his audience to do the same. This suspension of disbelief may free up the yuks, but the laughter is just as primitive as Borat's barbaric ways. And that's no joke.