Four or five years ago, a talk-show producer in London phoned me about a program he was working on for the British equivalent of MTV. The program aimed to present a light introduction to public affairs for the eighteen-to-nineteen-year-old set, and for this purpose the production team was coming to the U.S. to interview an array of American policy experts. He asked if I was willing to appear.
On the appointed date, I was whisked by limousine to a downtown Washington studio where makeup was applied and I was offered a seat in the “green room” to await my turn on the set. Minutes passed. I grew impatient, and stepped out to find the producer. Apologizing, he explained that the interviews were being filmed consecutively, they had fallen behind schedule, but the host would soon come to have a word with me. I returned to my vigil.
A minute later the door opened and a strange character appeared, his tall frame draped in some kind of yellow garment that looked like a slicker, a tight cap pulled down on his skull above a pair of reddish wrap-around sunglasses. He sported a thin Van Dyke beard and a thick chain of jewelry around his neck. Raising a fist adorned with rings on every finger, and evidently waiting for me to do likewise, he uttered something that sounded like “Respect.” I offered my hand.
At once he let loose a stream of words in an odd patois of British street slang and mangled grammar in which personal pronouns were always used in the wrong case and verb forms never matched their predicates, the whole delivered in a Jamaican-tinged accent. I could make out most of the words individually, but the phrases into which they were strung seemed impenetrable. Then he vanished.
Dumbfounded, I struggled to make sense of the scene. On American radio, the shock jock Howard Stern has a few regulars on his program who are or who are meant to be amusingly defective. Could British TV have gone a step farther, inventing a form of sick comedy with an impaired host? I tracked down the producer and put to him my question about the tall man in the slicker. “Is he retarded?” The producer pondered, then replied: “He’s not the sharpest pencil in the box. But retarded—no.”
Having chewed on this for a few minutes, I decided that I wanted out. The staff, evidently eager to avoid any ruckus, instantly fetched a taxi, pressed more cash into my hand than the ride home would cost, and sent me off with soothing apologies. It was not until a year later that, turning on my TV, I discovered that my green-room retard was, as he would have put it, “nun uvva den” the eponymous host of Da Ali G Show. With a sinking heart, I realized that I had blown my chance for fame, albeit fame earned by means of a good-sized dollop of humiliation.
As everyone now knows, Ali G is a persona of the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, whose Da Ali G Show ran for two uproarious years on HBO. As a self-identified avatar of popular youth culture, British-style, his shtick was to interview celebrities, as well as lesser-know authorities like me, on subjects of ostensible interest to teenaged British viewers. The trick depended on none of the subjects being in on the joke, which suggests that all of the segments (there were twelve episodes in all) must have been filmed before any of them was aired.
Of course, far from being retarded, the character Ali G possesses an abundance of street smarts and cunning. His mind, however, appears to have been entirely untouched by any trace of education, setting up a cultural divide that always proves unbridgeable and usually leaves his guests sputtering.
Interviewing the former American astronaut Buzz Aldrin, for example, Ali introduces him as the man who walked on the moon with “Louie Armstrong,” asks Aldrin whether he is not “upset that Michael Jackson got all the credit for inventing the moonwalk,” and inquires whether people will ever walk on the sun. “No, it’s too hot,” replies Aldrin. “I mean in winter,” corrects Ali patiently.
Another American guest, a representative of the Drug Enforcement Agency, warns youngsters of the dangers of substance abuse. Speaking of hashish, he explains that it “slows your ability to learn . . . your brain just really slows down.” Ali: “And are there any negative effects?” When the agent remarks that drugs seized by the agency are incinerated, Ali is perplexed: “Why aren’t they given to charity?”
Still another guest is General Brent Scowcroft. Asked whether the U.S. should “nuke Canada,” he explains that America has no quarrel with that country. But that is the just the point, Ali rejoins. “The amazing thing would be the element of surprise: them would never expect it.” Turning to other weapons of mass destruction, he asks: “Did they ever catch the people who sent Tampax through the mail?” When Scowcroft suggests that he must mean anthrax, not Tampax, Ali brushes him aside: “They is different brand names, like pavement and sidewalk.” And so it goes.
In addition to lightning wit and a fecund imagination, Ali G draws his comedic power from Baron Cohen’s remarkable ability to stay in character, an effect reinforced with every facial expression, hand gesture, and physical movement. The same is true of the two other characters whom Baron Cohen impersonated on Da Ali G Show: Bruno and Borat. Like Ali, each of these two is equipped not only with his own accent, quirky wardrobe, hairdo, and facial hair but also with a distinctive gait and repertory of fully developed gestures that stop just short of the excess at which they would become camp.
The mincing, blond-streaked Bruno, lisping slightly through his German accent, is a correspondent for “Austrian Gay Television” who specializes mostly in fashion. Here the humor depends less on repartee, as with Ali, and more on the character’s breathtaking chutzpah. In an episode shot at a real fashion show, for example, Bruno not only elicits the most embarrassingly self-important comments from designers and their hangers-on but talks his way onto the runway amid a line of males modeling underwear and, clad in the same decorated jockey shorts and tank top as the others, prances and pirouettes to the astonished bewilderment of the crowd.
Borat is something else again: a visitor to America from Kazakhstan and, by now, probably the most famous foreign tourist since Tocqueville. As with Ali G, the scaffold of the humor is provided by the chasm between cultures, but the distinction is drawn not so much according to age and class as according to nationality, or rather the contrast between developed and undeveloped countries. Thus, trying in one episode to land a job in America, Borat cites his experience in his home country as a “gypsy catcher” and “animal puller.” (The latter trade, he explains to a credulous counselor at an employment agency, entails yanking on a male animal’s member until it makes a “liquid explosion” for use in producing more animals.) In another episode, attempting to buy a house, he listens as a realtor shows him a master bed wide enough to accommodate “you and your wife.” “Why you do not put her to her cage?” inquires Borat. When the realtor, ever helpful, replies, “We don’t cage them over here,” Borat comes back: “But then they will run away.”
Which brings us to Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the movie that has now thrust Baron Cohen to the top of the entertainment world. The weekend Borat opened, it topped the charts and drew extraordinary encomiums from critics. The Boston Globe called it “by a long shot the funniest film of the year.” The reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune said it was “unquestionably . . . the funniest film I have ever seen.” John Podhoretz in the Weekly Standard judged it “one of the four or five funniest movies ever made.”
The instant success of Borat no doubt owed something to the assistance unintentionally supplied by the government of Kazakhstan. Just before its release, the president of that country arrived in Washington for a state visit with the man whom Borat invariably refers to as “Premier Bush,” and was reported to be planning to voice his displeasure at Baron Cohen’s antics. For its part, the Kazakh embassy called a press conference to refute what it was sure would be the movie’s misrepresentations; with presumably the same end in view, a four-page ad was taken out in the New York Times to extol the country’s modernity.
Baron Cohen seized upon all this to call a press conference of his own, in which, in his persona as Borat, he accused the Kazakh embassy spokesman of being an “Uzbek imposter” and denounced the ad in the Times for its “disgusting fabrications” that women and minorities enjoy equality in Kazakhstan. If Uzbekistan did not cease such provocations, he warned, Kazakhstan would attack “with our catapults.”
As for the movie itself, it is every bit as hilarious as the critics claim. It is also stitched together by the flimsiest of plots. After arriving in America, Borat finds himself, after some side-splitting missteps, ensconced in a cheap hotel room watching a rerun of the television series Baywatch. In the blink of an eye he falls hopelessly in love with its voluptuous star Pamela Anderson. Abandoning the supposed purpose of his trip—that is, to “make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan”—he sets off at once for Hollywood to bring her back to his homeland as his bride. What follows is a series of set pieces, similar to those on Da Ali G Show, in which Borat encounters America and America encounters Borat. Rarely have two parties so perfectly or so sublimely misunderstood each other—but this has to be seen to be believed.
In addition to praise, Borat has also been greeted by a blizzard of criticism, most of it devoted to parsing the deeper meaning and possibly deleterious consequences of Baron Cohen’s satire. Some have objected to the supposed cruelty of the ridicule. It is true that all of the foils for Borat’s jokes—hotel clerks, a driving instructor, drunken frat boys, a humor coach, a rodeo owner—are unwitting volunteers, which is no doubt why Baron Cohen’s humor at their expense has been denounced as “sadistic.” According to press accounts, some of his “victims” are lining up to sue him.
I find this overdrawn. The humor in Borat has none of the raw abusiveness of, for instance, Don Rickles, or even the cruelty of The Three Stooges, for whom pokes in the eye and clops on the head were supposed to be funny. There is, to be sure, ridicule aplenty, but the one who is made to look most ridiculous is Borat himself. As with Ali G, his “victims” are not so much the butts of the joke as inadvertent straight men for his own discombobulated way of looking at the world. If anything, it is Borat’s Kazakhstan that is made to look ridiculous—a point to which I will shortly return.
A different criticism has been leveled by the New York Times columnist David Brooks and endorsed by Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post—namely, that Baron Cohen’s humor is a form of too-easy snobbishness. As Brooks puts it, “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.”
This misses the mark on several counts. First of all, Brooks’s list, which notably includes feminists, is not so safe. Second, Baron Cohen also ridicules blacks, which is about as unsafe as you can get (after some black youngsters show him how to wear his pants hanging low, for instance, Borat gets into all kinds of trouble by going around with his underwear exposed). Third, as I have already noted, the joke is often on Borat himself. Finally, the main target of the satire lies elsewhere, and is again not so safe. It is the world represented by Borat himself, which is not really Kazakhstan but the third world in general and the excruciatingly respectful attitude that our own world, represented by the Americans whom Borat encounters, maintains toward it.
As the movie makes wholly explicit, the differences between those two worlds are in fact all too real. They consist not only in disparities of wealth but also in something less readily mentioned: namely, the respective quality of social norms, especially as these are evidenced in the treatment of Borat’s two favorite topics, women and minorities.
As if to confirm the accuracy of Baron Cohen’s darts in this direction, two Kazakh doctoral candidates currently studying at U.S. universities gave an interview to the Chicago Tribune in an effort to correct the false impressions of their homeland conveyed by the movie. Asked whether Kazakhs do sometimes kidnap brides, a feat Borat attempts with Pamela Anderson, one replied: “Yes, it still happens occasionally in our country—[but] mostly in the south, never in the north.” Besides, he added, it only happens “if a boy likes a girl and he and his family do not have enough money to pay the bride price.” Oh, well, in that case . . .
This raises another subject of concern to the critics. In ridiculing such sensibilities and practices, Baron Cohen makes relentless use of the rhetoric of anti-Semitism. The character Borat is deliriously frightened of Jews, and of the menace they supposedly portend. They are never far from his mind, and his store of knowledge about them includes every possible anti-Semitic canard. These he articulates with no special venom, merely as the received wisdom of one who has grown up in a village where, we are told, the big annual event is the “running of the Jew.”
Given that Baron Cohen is himself a Jew, and is reported to maintain some degree of religious observance, this has become the most controversial motif of his film. A statement by the Anti–Defamation League expressed concern that “the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.” By contrast, others have applauded Baron Cohen for delivering what they see as an effective slap at anti-Semites or, indeed, as laying bare the anti-Semitism that may be lying just beneath the surface of ordinary American life.
The evidence most often offered for this latter interpretation is less from the movie itself than from a ruse that Borat pulled on Da Ali G Show and that has subsequently become famous. There, passing himself off as a Kazakh folk singer, he got himself booked for a guest appearance at a Tucson, Arizona night club specializing in country-and-western music. Once onstage, he sang a supposed Kazakh song with the refrain:
Throw the Jew down the well,
So my country can be free.
You must grab him by his horns,
Then we’ll have a big par-tee.
The tune was catchy, and many in the audience followed Borat’s urgings to sing along with him.
What to make of these conflicting takes? At first I thought the ADL’s complaint absurd. Anyone who fails to realize the satiric purpose of Borat’s Jew-baiting must be as retarded as I once took Ali G to be. On second thought I am not so sure. It does seem possible that the license Baron Cohen has claimed for himself could open space for other comics to make jokes in which it is less clear who exactly is the butt, the anti-Semite or the Jew.
On the other hand, the argument that Borat strikes a blow against an already existing anti-Semitism among Americans leaves me cold. Today’s anti-Semitism is rooted in hatred of Israel and in contempt for Diaspora Jews who support Israel. The old, superstitious belief that Jews sprout horns or poison wells—the focus of Baron Cohen’s satire—no longer cuts deep, and certainly not in this country.
Then what about the patrons of the Arizona bar who join Borat in singing “Throw the Jew down the well”? Baron Cohen himself, in an interview, has suggested that they are guilty either of “anti-Semitism or [of] an acceptance of anti-Semitism.” I don’t buy this, either. People go out for a drink, get a little lubricated, and in comes a fellow the likes of whom they have never seen from a place they have scarcely heard of. He starts to sing a song with an easy melody and goofy, pejorative lyrics. Some (not all) join in. Why infer from this that they are thereby exposing some true, hidden animus against Jews?
If Baron Cohen himself infers it, that may be because he comes from the United Kingdom, where open hostility to Jews is now common. But America, as Charles Krauthammer writes, is “the most welcoming, religiously tolerant, philo-Semitic country in the world.” If, moreover, American anti-Semitism is so well hidden that it requires a Borat to ferret it out, why on earth would anyone wish to bring it to the surface to have its face slapped? In any case, the preoccupation with Borat’s preoccupation with the Jews has obscured another aspect of Baron Cohen’s routine. While American Christians are the best friends of the Jews, the Muslim world is rife with hostility toward them. “Ali,” as in Ali G, is a Muslim name. Kazakhstan is historically a Muslim country, although Soviet policies of Russification reduced the percentage of Muslims to no more than half. We live in a time when throwing Jews, or the Jewish state of Israel, “down the well” has gained the status of official Islamist policy. Is it wise for a Jewish comic to be tiptoeing so close to mockery of Muslim characters?
Baron Cohen’s comedy will no doubt evolve as fame forces him to move on from his one gimmick of playing off the unwary. As it does, I hope he will develop a more thoughtful sense of the relationship of his Jewishness to his art. In the meantime, and however foolish it would have made me look, I continue to regret that I passed up the opportunity to be a momentary foil for one of the great comic geniuses of our time.