Learning's of Comedy: Borat Receives a Memo, I respond
"Young people today get most of their news from Comedy shows. Comedy shows are moving closer to what serious news programming used to be and news is moving into the realm of entertainment." NPR -- Nov 13th 2006
Let me take this moment to invoke the early nineties and say, 'No shit Sherlock.' As a 'young person' I am thoroughly annoyed, as every young person must be, with this statement. Not because the statement is incorrect, or because this man pushes the envelope for the term fuddy-duddy, seeing as our country has been so conservatized since the early nineties, the radical creed could be more realistically appropriated into "Don't trust anyone under thirty .... except Buckminster Fuller" (some things never change), but at the tone of shock in this man's voice, and also the fact that a so called 'serious news show is just barely skimming the surface with commentary regarding a subject that that has been common knowledge to the general public for at least ten years, and presenting it as new and incisive which is exactly why "young people" are moving away from so called "serious newscasts."
That's right. When we want to know what's really up, which lobbyist groups are getting down with whom, and why, we don't go to CNN, or Fox, or A.B.C. We turn on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert at communications ... sorry I mean Comedy Central.
I've heard too many rambling, lame attempts by the not so laymen, to deconstruct this social phenomenon. But the reasoning behind it is actually pretty simple. It has something to do with what makes funny, funny.
The first element added when stirring the comedy pot is the same element the Pink Panther spun into hilarious, mysterious gold; the element of surprise. When the members of Monty Python stood in line at the infamous cheese shop, we laughed initially because we were surprised. It's a cheese shop. We expected at least a little cheese. What we got was a lot of camp.
The second element is, of course, that ever elusive, honesty. Bill hicks stood on stage and, as he lit a cigarette with a cocky smile, informed his audience that non-smokers die every day. Funny, because it was true, and yet it was the opposite of what the audience was used to hearing, “smokers die every day."
One of the most recent and in my opinion funniest pop culture examples both of these elements, surprise and honesty, being put into good use simultaneously is reflected in a joke that's been circulating the bar scene for about two years now. Have you heard it? It goes; "What the difference between Neal Armstrong and Michael Jackson?" Give up? The answer is; "Neil Armstrong walked on the moon .... and Michael Jackson... (long pause)... likes to fuck little boys."
Surprising, because you expected a play on the moon walk, and yes, I think, unfortunately, possibly, honest.
The "news casts" on Comedy Central hold to the comedian's creed of brutal honesty, perhaps with a slant, but the slant is one of personal esthetics, not one of political or corporate ties ... and surprise! Why are programs like the Daily Show surprising? Well, their style of news is surprising to Americans because we haven't been privy to even an accidental collision of news and honesty in decades. Unless you count the press release issued in 2003 where, in a suit filed against Fox by their reporters, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Fox News on the grounds that ‘it is not illegal to falsify news. I don’t (count it).
Incidentally when Fox reported that story, they slanted it this way. "The suit against Fox News for falsifying information has been dismissed." Short and bittersweet. Not surprising. Not honest. Not funny.
Since I am at a loss for a segway, let me just say I would like to radically shift gears here and turn my Freudian headlights upon that most elusive and debilitating of comedy forms, satire, and upon that most tiresome (as a) New Yorker columnist, George Saunders. George Saunders recently published an article entitled, '"Borat": The Memo" in the Shouts and Murmurs section of the New Yorker. This article caused me to shout initially and murmur under my breath all the way home. The article is written in the form of a tongue in cheek memo to what appears to be a member of the Borat staff putting together the new Borat DVD.
It begins; " ... have taken the liberty of suggesting some re-shoots: OPENING VILLAGE SECTION: How about a high-speed montage of the actual difficult, brutal lives of the villagers in Romania- the hours of debilitating toil, their oppression at the hands of their corporate government, premature loss of teeth, death of infants etc. ect.-"
How bout it? Mmm ... how bout, not. Why not? Simple. It wouldn't be funny. This sort of criticism is as ridiculous to me as posing the question, 'why didn't Dizzy Gillespie ever compose a classical Italian Aria?' Because, that's not where his talent lies. It would be totally inappropriate for the medium, and lastly sir, it's not what he was getting at, and as usual, you rich white liberals just didn't get what he did. That's right. I said it. It's a funny thing. Rich liberals won't get it.
I do not want this to be a totally manic enraged tirade against rich, white so-called liberals, so I'm going to go at it more slowly from this point on. Let's take a breath and look at what we have here, shall we? To begin, Borat is a piece of satire. To attack a work of satire for not being realistic is, in my opinion is, as Harlan Ellison spoke of attacking a work of fiction on the same pretext, 'as ridiculous as going fully armed with sword and shield into battle with a hot fudge Sunday.'
But we can try to see what it is made of and where some of those delicious to some, inedible to others, ingredients came from.
We have been exposed to satire for centuries, from the Victorian Minstrels, to Saturday night live, In living color; from the Smothers Brothers to Dave Chappell; From Burlesque to The Cocketts to the Yippies and on and on and on.
When Eddie Murphy said 'Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill all the white man!" Did we take him seriously? No. Well, most of us didn't. But there was something serious to it. Some surprise, because a black man was sticking his neck out and saying what so many white men had been allowed to say quite freely, of blacks, for centuries. And there was honesty too. He tapped into an unspoken sentiment and rage that was and still is very real within the minority culture , stemming from generations of acquiescence to the demands, and acceptance of the small seemingly meaningless reparations and gifts of their former(?) masters.
For many, those words, exaggerated though all the whites hoped they were, came as such a relief and honest surprise there was no choice but to laugh. Much of comedy is just an acknowledgment of the invisible weights on the shoulders of society, an acting out of displacing of those weights. Sometimes the act seems exaggerated. But one must acknowledge that to lift the entirety of such a weight all at once and fling it overboard would require a much exaggerated motion in reality. Would require, perhaps, the Kill Kill Killing of all the white man. How else could you be sure?
Given 'Krazy Kramer's' recent tirade and quick apology including my favorite line, "The insane thing about all this is, I'm not even a racist." Yes, Mr. Richards! That is the insane thing, I think, but not for the reasons you do, I'm sure. I may forgive your tirade, I suppose, since you did so hastily apologize. But I have not yet found it in me to forgive your naïve, mystified apology. That's another essay though. Let's get back to Eddie Murphy since he provides such shinning examples of satire as a mirror which is its first and foremost manifestation as a medium, and is also, I think, what Borat ultimately provided, which has everyone checking their asses and grimacing.
I think it must have been the late eighties on Saturday night live. Eddie Murphy puts on white face for a day and goes about his daily errands as a white man. In the first scene he enters a deli where a black man is making a purchase. Eddie, in white face, picks up a newspaper and waits patiently in line. The black man pays the clerk and exists. Eddie has his money ready. But when he attempts to pay the clerk, the clerk says to him, "What are you doing? He's gone. Just take it."
Brilliant. First of all, black man in white face turns the old prerogative of so many early comedians on its head. Surprising! At the same time it speaks directly to a socio-economic system that has politely kicked minorities in the face for years. Honest, if exaggerated. It's a funhouse mirror allowing us to glimpse an image of society from an 'other' perspective.
All of these skits took place in the company of other comedians and actors, pre-scripted, on live or sound stages.
Now we have entered into the reality television phase of our existence. Reality television is the new BOOM. Thus far we have followed families and superstars alike through the annals, and I do mean annals, of their lives. But it should not surprise us that comedians are now finding a niche in that medium. We have seen Candid Camera, and Women Behaving Badly- in essence kranks and funny accidents. But, with the exception of Andy Kaufman, we are have not seen incisive, comedic satire played out in reality settings.
Surprise! Enter Borat. It's not exactly reality television because he's not 'himself.' It is not traditional sketch comedy because the reactions of the 'real' public cannot be scripted.
I want to go back, for a minute to Mr. Richards and Eddie Murphy. I was having a drink last year with a rather opinionated friend of mine in a bar upstate. I was quoting some racist mother fucker or other and instead of saying nigger I injected, "the N- word.' My friends face dropped. "If I were white you'd just say nigger." He told me. "And I wish you would. Your politeness is more offensive than that word 'cause it's not real. Guess what? Niggers still exist and all these rich so-called liberals around here want to pretend like they don't, like they've gotten rid of the problem, so they don't use that word, but they think it. I'd rather everyone just said it, 'cause we're still here, and we're living among you and there's nothing you can do about it. Might as well acknowledge it."
Radical yes. Outrageous. No. Pretty logical actually. Honest, surprising. Somehow though, not really funny.
When I saw Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kasakhstan, my friends' words rang through my head. Here is a character who takes on the characteristics of the impoverished, the crude, the cruel and the American unknown, foreign, thereby forcing us to acknowledge the stereotypes we keep tucked under our sophisticated hats.
The startling thing to me about Borat is not his absurd stupidity and crudeness but the fact that no one he encounters throughout his extensive travels throughout this great country of ours, questions the validity of this obvious caricature. As soon as he says, "I am from Kazakhstan," you can see the expectation in the eyes of his unwitting victims. They, on some level, expect this behavior from a poor foreigner. If not they would surely see through the façade. Let me drive this idea home for you: My lover is Basque. We were at the flea market one day and I introduced her to an acquaintance of mine, a middle aged sophisticated New Yorker. They began talking and he asked her, in a sort of wavering suspicious tone if Basque was a very developed place. I answered with a straight face (meant as a joke), "Oh , her family still keeps a goat in the kitchen." He tried to mask his horror and nodded politely "Oh really?" He said.
No not really. Of course not really. But he really didn't know. So yes. Borat takes the horrible truths, and the stereotypes and exaggerates them for insulated Americans who don't know the difference. And that is the joke. He is as horrible and cruel, and crude as their vision of the world, possibly as the world is. It's honest and surprising and dare I say, funny.
The question, I believe, George Saunders meant to pose was, 'what good is all this crudeness, and brutal honesty and degrading satire doing?' Well, to find the answer to that one must look beyond the premise and into the actions of the character. "Where," Mr. Saunders writes, "are the gays insulted?" where is the scene where Borat "says something offensive to inner city black kids?" Yes, these scenes are not there, because Borat is not out to hold a fun house mirror up to minorities whose faces are already wrecked with the torment of struggle. There is also no scene where he actually goes into Kazakhstan and attacks an impoverished family with a dildo. It wouldn't be funny. There would be no hidden 'good.' It would just be absurd, senseless and cruel.
It is funny and I believe the most telling part of the film, if searching for integrity in the mania, when Borat visits the racist 'antique store' whose sign proclaims as he enters, "We retain the right to Secede." He pretends to be a racist mother fucker along with the racist mother fuckers who own the store, even though Cohen, is Jewish, Borat, his character is wildly anti-Semitic. They show him various Civil War relics and duck figurines. Suddenly Borat slips falls, catches himself and falls again and again and again, in a bit of physical humor that recalls Faulty Towers. He's not on a stage though. He really destroys nearly five hundred dollars worth of real civil war relics, costing some real racist motherfuckers a real shitload of dough. He pays them $120.00 and a ball of hair (which seems appropriate given the history of reparations) before exiting, the defeated, bumbling buffoon. That's how they, the racist motherfuckers, see him; a fellow racist bumbling buffoon. What the audience watching the film sees is a comedian taking part in a bit of anti-racist, grassroots direct action.
And for me, that is the good Borat does. Every 'bit' is a piece of direct action through comedy, which is what most good comedy and good art is anyway. To quote Skunk Ananzi (Black Lesbian! Shaved Head!) Yes it's fucking political! Everything is political! Yes it's fucking satirical! Everything is satirical! And in Borat’s case, horribly absurd. At times, he does go a little blue for my taste. But that's just my taste, and although I find it offensive I doe not wish to see blue comedy eradicated and wiped from the ass of the earth. Some people seem to like it. Shit is also shocking and honest. Especially at a high class southern dinner table, in the presence of the minister and his wife, (you'll have to watch the movie).
Back to old George Saunders because he did provide me with such an excellent scene by scene blue print of the antithesis of my deconstruction in his attempt to disarm the hot fudge Sunday that is Borat. He helps for what me give you better description of why I view this Borat as radical comedic activist. He writes of the Rodeo *why not add a scene focusing on a "particular couple who have complicated feelings about the war in Iraq" ... ? Perfect for comedy Mr. Saunders! And he could, I suppose conclude with a dramatic epilogue on the use of the image of the weeping willow in romantic literature. Hilarious! He continues, (after hitching a ride) *Borat ,perhaps "sits in the back seat of a car with kids, takes shit, then pretends to be humping the family dog and we see, from their reactions that they really are rednecks after all."
This scenario would be a little off for the comic stylings of Mr. Cohen but yes, George, he did show those dumb rednecks for what they are. He got an old cowboy on camera saying we should hang all the homosexuals and he got a crowded gymnasium to cheer at the image of George bush drinking the blood of the Muslim terrorists. He also disrupted the sanctity of southern etiquette and bombarded a corporate dinner with a gay sex/ wrestling rampage.
Not everything he did in the movie could be so easily viewed through the lens of political action as the incident in the civil war shop but, in my opinion and in the opinion of youth who are flocking to watch this movie, Cohen has taken on the role of a social commentator by transforming himself into an outrageous jester, holding court in the real lives of Americans. Americans who live unconscientious lives. Yes, why not take a shit in the back of the Nuclear families S.UV.? Why not uproot the monotony of the unconscientious, never objectors on their way to the mall to shop for sweetshop clothing and drive their gas guzzling S.U.V.'s paid for by their harmless day jobs at Bowing, or Monsanto or WallMart.
Why not write a point-by-point memo to them, sir? Not someone who makes his living dismantling the social mores of a society whose members have had no problem outsourcing their non-culture of superficiality, racism, anti-global globalization, hypocrisy, insulation, and proud to be an American the whole time, while shucking the world at large which they know nothing about. Not even enough to see this buffoon for what he really is; a caricature hiding behind a mirror, reflecting the perpetually perplexed and offended, begging the question, 'what did we do to deserve this image?'