Most clowns have a wide streak of sadism, but it’s tempting to think of Sacha Baron Cohen as a sadist with a wide streak of clownishness. In Borat (full title: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), Baron Cohen embodies a Kazakh television journalist—a character he created for his HBO series, Da Ali G Show—who embarks on a cross-country American odyssey in the hopes of learning the Westerners’ secrets of civilization. A beanpole with a black Stalin brush mustache and a look of genial befuddlement, Borat poses earnest questions to his subjects that betray his minuscule IQ, cultural backwardness, rampant libido, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. His clueless American interviewees-victims—actual people who think an actual Kazakh is actually quizzing them—do their best to tutor him in Our Ways, patiently explaining the etiquette of dating and dining, the underlying tenets of feminism, the fine points of law enforcement. When Borat, in his good-natured, upbeat way, says something grossly inappropriate about women or Jews, they attempt to overlook it: They understand that he’s from the Third World, that his grasp of our language and mores is shaky. We laugh at them for thinking that they are superior to him—for their noblesse oblige. We laugh at them when they let his outlandish interjections pass, and we laugh at them when they become visibly uptight. We laugh at them when they take offense, and we laugh at them when—like a group of frat-house slobs who give him a ride in their RV—they take no offense whatsoever. I stopped laughing when, at a formal southern dinner party with several older couples, Borat announced that two of the ladies would be considered very desirable in his country, then gestured to the plainer woman at the far end of the table and said, “Her, not so much.” As the preview audience roared, I put my head down; I didn’t want to see the face of that poor woman. And at that point, I guess, the joke was on me.
Underlying the above account is not a plea for a more civilized, courteous, or comfortable kind of comedy. Screw that. The comic imagination flowers on the dark-and-twisted end of the spectrum; in return for making you laugh, the artist has license to express rude truths in the rudest manner he or she can imagine. With her pipeline to the id of the solipsistic American female, Sarah Silverman generates breathtaking geysers of tastelessness. Television’s most trenchant satire is South Park. If you’re in the right, juvenile frame of mind, Jackass Number Two, a set of absurdly perilous stunts and practical jokes, can leave you exhausted from cackling and screaming simultaneously at a posse of overgrown 10-year-olds driven to push the boundaries of sense.
No, this is a cry of pain. As someone with an admittedly low tolerance for watching the humiliation of others—I find it hard to look at the faces of baseball players after they’ve struck out—I’m spending more and more time squirming, cringing, averting my eyes, and plugging my ears. It’s worse, obviously, when real people are getting burned—although on something like American Idol the contestants at least know what they’re in for. But even fictional works are becoming harder to endure. In both its British and American incarnations, The Office revolves around the relentless degradation of a cretinous middle manager who’s desperate to be liked. Its brilliant creator, Ricky Gervais, now plumbs the depths of his (apparent) self-hatred on Extras. Curb Your Enthusiasm requires you to identify with a man who shrinks might say has a narcissistic personality disorder, and whose sense of entitlement has a way of escalating the most casual negotiations of modern society into appalling confrontations. And we’re not talking about one scene per episode. It’s virtually every scene.
To understand what Baron Cohen is up to, it helps to consider the most notorious scenes in ‘Shoah.’
The squirm-und-drang genre has its forebears, among them Albert Brooks, but I would guess that it has caught on now because it’s grounded in a documentary (or mockumentary) aesthetic. As the jittery handheld camera has found a place in even the slickest commercial concoctions, audiences have developed an appetite for the sting of reality: real time, real pain. Not just liveness—live-wireness.
The Sultan of Squirm is surely Baron Cohen, a sublime caricaturist whose hairbreadth timing can make you gasp. As Ali G, whose black-rapper gesticulations border on Kabuki, he asks his (frequently right-wing) guests questions of such overbearing idiocy that he often shuts them down completely (a victory of sorts in this genre). But it’s his Borat who has the more righteously malicious agenda.
To understand what Baron Cohen’s Borat is up to in part, it helps to consider the most notorious scenes in Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour Holocaust documentary, Shoah, in which the director trains his camera on Polish peasants who lived near the Nazis’ most lethal concentration camps while they were in full swing. Under Lanzmann’s probing, these old men and women—some of them residing on property seized from the Jews—murmur that yes, it was a terrible thing, the exterminations. Just terrible. But of course, the Jews did bring it on themselves, didn’t they? I don’t know whether Baron Cohen saw Shoah, but Lanzmann’s gotcha journalism on untutored anti-Semites paved the way for what amounts to a (riotous) libel on Eastern Europe.
Baron Cohen grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, speaks fluent Hebrew, and came of age with the punks and then the rappers. Several years ago, he met a doctor in the south of Russia whom he described (on the DVD of Da Ali G Show’s first season) as unintentionally hilarious. Now he identifies with the anti-Semite aggressor for the purposes of travestying him. The film begins in a small town in Kazakhstan —incestuous, inbred, where the local rapist is regarded as a colorful eccentric (“naughty, naughty”) and every year the citizens have the “running of the Jew” in which the masked, demonic figure attempts to “get the money.” For the role, Baron Cohen didn’t use deodorant or wash his one ugly pale-blue suit—so when he got in close to his subjects, they had to contend with his stench along with his stupidity. And so Borat spares no one: not the interviewees, not the interviewer.
I loved Borat in small doses on the TV show—his deferential affect was a nice change of tune after Ali G’s belligerence. But except for a screamingly funny climax in which he attempts to kidnap Pamela Anderson (who reportedly wasn’t in on the joke), I found the Borat feature (directed by Larry Charles, who does similar duties on Curb Your Enthusiasm) depressing; and the paroxysms of the audience reinforced the feeling that I was watching a bearbaiting or pigsticking. Baron Cohen is such an inspired comic actor that it’s a little disappointing when he jumps so quickly, so eagerly to offend the people he interviews; it would be more fun, I think, if he gave them some room to maneuver. But then, of course, we wouldn’t squirm or cringe. And then comedy wouldn’t be evolving in the way it is now—to the point that it bleeds into horror.