By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Sacha Baron Cohen’s safe humor

I haven’t seen “Borat” yet, so I endorse David Brooks’ New York Times column (sub. req.) today with some hesitation. But based on everything I know about the movie, it strikes me that Brooks gets this just right:

The genius of Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance is his sycophantic reverence for his audience, his refusal to challenge the sacred cows of the educated bourgeoisie. During the movie, Borat ridicules Pentecostals, gun owners, car dealers, hicks, humorless feminists, the Southern gentry, Southern frat boys, and rodeo cowboys. A safer list it is impossible to imagine.

Cohen understands that when you are telling socially insecure audiences they are superior to their fellow citizens there is no need to be subtle. He also understands that any hint of actually questioning the cultural suppositions of his ticket-buyers — say by ridiculing the pretensions of somebody at a Starbucks or a Whole Foods Market — would fatally mar the self-congratulatory aura of the enterprise.

I like a cheap laugh as much as anyone, so I’m looking forward to seeing “Borat.” But I’ll be thinking about Brooks at least a little bit.

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  1. Anonymous

    But on the Ali G show Borat questions the most basic of women’s rights.

  2. Mike from Norwell

    Hey Dan:I’ll give you a little clue here about “subscription required” and all it takes is your public library card. A little more effort for sure, but a great endaround the walls of the NYT…

  3. Scott Allen Miller

    Jagshemash!The cable show that spawned Borat zings just about everyone through one character of his or another. Ali G chilling with the environmentalist tree warriors in the Pacific Northwest was just classic. The chai drinkers would probably squirm watching Borat’s new age dance class experience and his attempts at dating, too.Being so self-centered as we are in America, we overlook who are really being sent up the most: Muslims. While Borat never claims to be a Muslim, he comes from a country that is as predominantly Muslim as Ireland is Catholic. When you take the character in that context, his attitudes about women, Jews, politics, etc are even more, uh, interesting.Chinque!

  4. Anonymous

    Supposedly, Brooks’s bread winner is conservative opinion writing. I wouldn’t seek him even for that, let alone movie reviews or interpreting social anything.All Brooks is talking about in the excerpt you cite is that Cohen is so brave he goes into his target’s nest and provokes them with ‘ridicule’ and gets away with it.Actually that kind of misunderstands Cohen’s aim here. His is a further goal. Coehn seeks to disarm his guests and make them feel at ease and throw at them something sinister and gauge how his audience is reacting. Is it sliding by? Is it registering with these ‘dimwits’? Are they peeved or upset at the overt bigotry or are they complacent or even worse, complicit? Just laughing it off, right??Is that bigotted statment actually somehow to a degree a reflection of what they hold inside and wouldn’t say it in a normal situation and now that it has come out in a “harmless” moment, no red flags were raised.”Jacka$$” TV pranks in MTV or VH1 or whatever other idiotic network is ridicule. Cohen’s stuff goes further for sure.This is one of the rarest articles where he is speaking out character:Speaking to Neil Strauss, A pretty revealing exchange.A provocative cover to with it too:All the way, Two things I think are not addressed enough:1- We are all giggling about the jokes. But what kind of discussion are we really having about this undercurrent of bigotry gently being uncovered. No media pieces are done about the fact that people when presumably not being watched are complicit in aspects long thought gone.2- People are worried about it fueling antisemitism here. I think the bigger threat is in former Soviet republics and other slavic lands, where there are actuall overt and often violent antisemitic acts and where the social awareness we enjoy here lacks and the media and governments are often blaze about such acts, if not gleeful. So to my eyes, this is putting Jewish communities in those kind of countries more at risk than in the West. That is not being discussed enough and I don’t think Mr Cohen himself in hindsight really grasps or addresses this secondary risk to his Box Office success.N.

  5. Bill Baar

    It was a cruel movie. My wife and I walked out about a third of the way through it. Check Chalice Chick for thoughts on it.

  6. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: Well aware that the Times, the Globe, the Herald and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette are available through most public libraries around here. No way to provide a link, though, since not everyone uses the same library, and not everyone has a library card.N.: Brooks’ “bread winner” is social criticism. He’s very good at it — far better than he is at conservative opinion-mongering. You should check out his book “Bobos in Paradise.”

  7. MeTheSheeple

    This story on the Romanian village is very interesting reading. I don’t know that I would’ve laughed so hard at the movie if I had read this before.

  8. Mike from Norwell

    Hey Dan:I’m sure you’re aware (but maybe not other posters), you can get significant access to historical databases at your public library, including newspapers, periodicals, etc. However what I was really getting at was many library systems also provide access to these same databases from your home computer. Kind of makes it worthwhile to get a library card for sure. Anyone out there should check out their library’s website to see what is offered; you might be pleasantly surprised (especially if you’re trying to find an article more than 30 days old, which even if you are a subscriber to the newspaper’s website, say the Globe, WSJ or NYT, you generally have to pay around 3 bucks an article to access through the newspaper’s website archives).Surprised no posting yet on Dice-Kay, BTW.

  9. Anonymous

    Gag me with a spoon, Dan. David Brooks is as dumb as every other conservative, and his Bobo crap is as stereotypical as anything else he criticizes. I remember awhile back when some reporter in Pennsylvania, I believe, took one of his endless “stop picking on hicks and rednecks, they’re better Americans than fancy rich people” columns–something about an expensive meal or something. And it’s funny you mention Brooks–the Incomprable One nailed him for the same column. I’m with Bob on this one.

  10. Anonymous

    I have not seen “Borat” yet, either. However, my wife is the Director of International Programs at a local college with some Kazakh students. My co-worker lived there (twice) for over a year (she just graduated from a different college). Judging from what they feel and what they’re hearing…few people from Kazakhstan are happy about “Borat”. Many people are very, very pissed.And I’d argue they’re justified. Sacha Baron Cohen can talk all he wants about how he made a completely unbelievable character…and that people are dumb for thinking that’s how real Kazakhs are. The reality is that it’s been repeatedly shown that there is nothing so dumb and unbelieveable, that some people won’t still believe it’s true. Christ, how many people still think Iraq was involved with 9/11?? Admittedly, I think a movie like “Borat” may ultimately do more good than harm by ripping off the lid on how racist America still really is. But Baron Cohen shouldn’t be allowed to hide from the fact that he really f**ked over a lot of people in the process. Something tells me that if another comic played a ridiculously stereotypical Jew that had as many nasty allusions as his Borat character does…Baron Cohen would be high pissed.

  11. Anonymous

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m wondering how different this is from vaudeville actors donning blackface in minstrel shows. Here we have a British man, who already lampoons Arabs on Da Ali G show, now adopting the manner of a native of a former Soviet republic. At least Yakov Smirnoff was actually from the Soviet Union.

  12. Anonymous

    As expected, a trouble-rousing Scotto has to bring it back to a group he despises and uses to make money everyday.Very classy, Scott-nutto. You are a failed and a horrible talk show host, who is still employed simply by default due to lack of available talent. Ratings are in the dumps and you are a worse bore than ever.Why do you feel the need to take needless shots and embolden a perception about your company it has already cemented??This is in the same wavelength with that ‘enlightened bright’ bulb called Jackson. Only a sad and depleted roster from a radio station that has been proven worng so many times and is obviously pandering to a minority of voters in this state/area, can give airtime to such …what’s the word ….big……naaaah…mor….nahhh How about unamerican frauds and subversives?RKO is on its way to being a more profitable station, ie a second outlet for sports programming. Resources were already limited for WRKO in favor of its more popular sportstalker sibling. Now with the news cut and new contracts, it is on its way to being even less relevant in the news talk area, save for the popular and more listenable Carr.WRKO is not alone. The town’s other fasc…errr…boisterous talker is in the dumps and the new mutli-million dollar buyback contract from the Empire State there is no more than a ratings whimper and an exposed failure/fraud on many facets.It ain’t working, folks. Get a mirror!N.

  13. mike_b1

    Aaron, I don’t see any difference between Cohen’s riff on folks from Kazakh and the roles of literally hundreds of actors and entertainers — that’s what I’d call him — over the years. In a recent movie, Will Ferrell plays on stereotypes as a hick race car driver; years ago, Eddie Murphy played a wealthy and semi-oblivious African prince who “hobknobs” with Queens denizens (also stereotyped) in “Coming to America.” What’s the difference, other than Cohen had to to a degree “invent” the stereotype? And moreover, why is that wrong?Yes, some people will be offended. You addressed it in your latter comment: Some people believe anything. Sorry — society can’t help them. In the end, it is just a movie (and a funny one).

  14. Anonymous

    Mike,I find myself agreeing with your comments. As I mentioned, I haven’t seen the movie, and I should have mentioned that I do plan to see it. I think I, rather imperfectly, was trying to point to something about the uncomfortable, decidedly politically incorrect nature of comedy. When it comes down to it, if something makes you laugh, it’s funny — it really is that simple. However, for years people routinely laughed at black-faced actors and their racist Rufus-and-Rastus sketches; I guess that means they were funny, or they were then. Similarly, on a recent Chris Rock HBO special, Rock riffs on why black athletes are superior to white ones. His explanation? The identical explanation — essentially, white slavemasters breeding bigger and stronger slaves — that got Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder fired from his sports analyst position on CBS more than 20 years ago. Americans called for Snyder’s head, but are now laughing out loud at Rock. Guess it’s all in the delivery.

  15. Anonymous

    There is so muched to be milked if someone were to ridicule the Whole Foods crowd. They are easibly the most obnoxious group around. Will someone please get on the case!!

  16. Stealth

    The people who had drinks thrown in the faces by Andy Kaufmann probably didn’t think it was funny either, but it still was.

  17. mike_b1

    What Michael Richards did the other night, on the other hand, was beyond the pale (get it?).

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