Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Standing in the Path of the Bandwagon

I'll preface this by saying that I consider myself something of a comedy geek, and beyond that, it's almost impossible that I would fail to find something funny simply because it's offensive. I've obsessively hit all the major milestones, from Monty Python to The Simpsons to Mr. Show to Arrested Development and lots in between. I spend too much time searching for this stuff. But I've seen several clips of Borat on YouTube and elsewhere, and I just don't understand the raging appeal. In fact, I sort of can't imagine sitting through a feature-length movie. I understand what's supposed to be clever about it, and it's not that it makes me uncomfortable; it's just that I don't find asking a stranger to urgently use his bathroom funny, much less some kind of incisive commentary about the stranger. I also don't think there's anything revelatory about discovering that certain drunken frat guys will say misogynistic and racist things.

The whole thing seems to operate on two levels, both of which seem silly (and not in the good way) -- the scatological level, and the "pretending to act shocked at human behavior" level. Poo! And oh -- Borat has opened my eyes to the dark heart of people!

To me, making philosophical fools of yourself and others for laughs isn't all that different from inflicting physical harm on yourself, like the Jackass crew does, and not many people are analyzing what deeper lessons their antics teach us about the world. Not that it can't be occasionally funny, but in both cases it's mostly a feat of bravery, a kind of comic Fear Factor.

Christopher Hitchens has this to say on Slate today:
I knew this would happen. I pick up my copy of the New Statesman, London's leftist weekly, to find a review of Borat, bannered on the table of contents as "Sacha Baron Cohen's exposure of crass Americana" and on the review page itself with, "The Kazakh ace reporter uncovers uncomfortable truths about the US."

Oh, come on. Among the "cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan" is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse. At a formal dinner in Birmingham, Ala., the guests discuss Borat while he's out of the room—-filling a bag with ordure in order to bring it back to the table, as it happens-—and agree what a nice young American he might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another (and remember, it's "Americana" that is "crass"). ... The arrival of a mountainous black hooker does admittedly put an end to the evening, but if a swarthy stranger had pulled any of the foregoing at a liberal dinner party in England, I wouldn't give much for his chances.
And since almost nothing is less entertaining than dissecting comedy, I'll shut up now. Meanwhile, the kids over at Gawker are celebrating a recent Borat beat-down.


Anonymous PW said...

You have reinforced my motherly pride.
This piece is right on. The fact that
Americans will pay money to see such
crap is appalling...and frightening.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't mean to disagree with your mom, but I think Borat is funny. I never really thought it was supposed to be revealing about Americans (or anyone else). They're the straight men. They're just there to provide set-ups and reaction shots. The real comedy is in watching what uncomfortable thing Borat will say.

Borat (and Ali G) started in Great Britain. See, e.g., this:


He had the exact same schtick there. I understand that Borat became too famous in England to pull this stuff off anymore, so he was forced to come to America.

If the Borat stuff is "about" anything, it's about the humor of uncomfortable social situations. (See, e.g., the British version of "The Office"). It's about the lengths we'll go to accept and accomodate cultural differences. You can get away with anything if you just say it with a foreign accent and look sincere.

And that's the genius of Borat. He's taken the hidden camera concept of Candid Camera, Punk'd, and (to a lesser extent) the Jamie Kennedy Experiment, and he's managed to bring the camera out of hiding. And furthermore, he's able to push it even farther by speaking with a foreign accent.

I'm sure some people think he's trying to make fun of Americans by revealing the anti-Semites, sexists, and morons in their midsts. But to those people, I'd point out that Borat did the same thing at Cambridge:


-- Comish

2:21 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Respect the mom, Comish.

But no, really, I agree with you. I think the problem is that the media has run with the idea that this is somehow supposed to be a deep commentary on America in particular. But I know the British origins of the show (and that Cambridge clip, which actually IS brilliant -- because getting people like that to reveal biases is much more revelatory than getting rubes to do the same). I like Ali G; some of "his" interviews are hilarious. Anyway, I think I fall somewhere between you and Mrs. Williams. As much as I'd like to accept her motherly pride in this case, I don't think we're coming from the same place in our criticism. I laugh on occasion at Borat; I think I just got fed up with the level of praise being thrown around. Maybe, as always, Anthony Lane is right when he writes, "Somewhere inside the sound and fury that have shrouded this project is a short, gross, and very funny series of sketches, lightly knotted together into a modern picaresque.

11:20 PM  
Anonymous PW said...

Motherly pride rescinded (at least in
this instance)....no further comment.

9:27 AM  
Blogger ko said...

I had no desire to see the movie- but went and laughed my ass off- especially the first ten minutes, which is important obviously in getting people like me (skeptics) to get comfortable and enjoy the ride.
I don't disagree with your diatribe, I just think it doesn't actually relate to the movie- once you see it, you will be able to argue with me...I look forward to it

oh and by the way, Jackass is funny. Don't analyze it! laugh!

9:31 PM  

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