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Learning from Borat

When offensive and funny are the same thing.
 
 
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If you are a leftie with a sense of humor, you have probably heard about the dispute between the Kazakhstan government and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, star of the "Da Ali G Show."

On his show, Cohen, a Jewish Brit, plays a character named Borat, an anti-Semitic, horny and unrefined reporter from Kazakhstan who holds prank interviews with clueless Americans. His favorite targets are earnest politicians and rural folks. It's reality TV with a little deception thrown in to produce comedy.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, here is a great description of Borat's character from the New Yorker :

As Borat, Cohen has told a dating service that he is looking for a girl with "plow experience," persuaded a meeting of Oklahoma City officials to observe a ten-minute silence in memory of the (fictitious) Tishnik Massacre, and, most notably, led a country-and-Western bar in a sing-along of "In My Country There Is Problem," whose chorus goes: "Throw the Jew down the well / So my country can be free / You must grab him by his horns / Then we have a big party."

Last month, Kazakhstan's foreign ministry threatened to sue Cohen, and implied that Cohen may be part of a political maneuver to make the Kazakhstan look bad. Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashykbayev told reporters that, "We do not rule out that Mr. Cohen is serving someone's political order designed to present Kazakhstan and its people in a derogatory way."

The thing is, Cohen's pranks are supposed to be satirical. And they are much more of a commentary on Americans' reactions to Borat then about the culture of Kazakhstan, which it clearly does not reflect accurately.

Sometimes, Americans' reactions to Borat are heart-wrenchingly sweet and earnest. Some people are "painfully kind to him, even when he makes them stand silently for ten minutes or kisses them on the lips. One real estate agent even feigned a bowel movement to accomodate him," notes one Borat fan on the HBO message board.

At other times, the reactions to Borat are grotesquely racist and disturbing. For instance, in a show that never aired (but is in the DVD), Borat goes hunting with a couple men down South and asks whether they have a problem with Jews in their area. The men imply that it would be fun to hunt Jews, to which Borat (Cohen is actually an observant Jew) goes into the wilderness, undresses, and walks on hands and knees like an animal to allow himself to be hunted. The satire, though difficult to watch, unflinchingly points out the continuing problem of anti-Semitism in this country, and does it better than any legit interview could do.

Reactions to Borat are rare peeks into the American psyche, and both say much more about the Americans in the picture, than the citizens of Kazakhstan who are offended by the show. As one commenter on the HBO message board put it:

I think what a lot of people aren't realizing is that Sacha Baron Cohen is using these characters to comment on politics, the media, society, etc...

Have you ever noticed the things that Borat gets people to say and do? His comments about Jews are not made out of ignorance or because he feels that way. Look at how people react to this character and think about what that says about society as a whole.

Bruno [a gay character also played by Cohen] is very similar in that he gets people to admit openly to their prejudices, etc.

This is very interesting stuff and it's unfortunate that some people can't see beyond the surface of these characters and realize what is really being said."

Of course, I can understand why the Kazakhstan government is upset, but I think we Americans need to start paying attention to the subtler messages in comedy like this. Just like the Boondocks comic, which has been criticized for its use of the "N-word," or Comedy Central's "Colbert Report," which satirizes Fox news, or Carlos Mencia's "Mind of Mencia," which makes light of racism sort of by, well, being racist, these comedians are making political points every time they say something offensive.

As for another controversial comedian, Howard Stern -- who recently appeared on the O'Reilly Factor to publicize his new satellite radio show—I'm a torn between wanting to support for his rigorous defense of free speech and wanting to puke after watching his objectification of women. (Just a note: somehow Stern and O'Reilly are a great match, since they're both hugely obnoxious, loudmouthed, and stubborn. Actually fun to watch.)

I'd like to know what you AlterNet readers think: When is satirical humor useful, and when is it simply offensive? What do you think of comedians like Sacha Cohen or Carlos Mencia? Are they going too far? When is un-P.C. humor over the top?

Maria Luisa Tucker is a staff writer at AlterNet and associate editor of the Columbia Journal of American Studies.