In the episode we spent some time discussing Sacha Baron Cohen's humor of duping people (I don't know whether he does this in his current movie, which sounds like it has more scripted elements), which I generally think is great, while Dylan and Seth found it hard to sit through given the duping of the innocent.
This scene from his TV show is pretty typical:
Watch on YouTube.
So we have the innocent bystanders, but they are clearly not the butt of the joke; the Borat character is the clown, but clearly a lot of the humor comes out of the interaction of this character and "the real world," i.e. people who aren't in on the joke. (His Ali G film which didn't feature any of this wasn't nearly as funny.)
I don't think this is a simple matter of ridiculing the bystanders, and I'm reminded of the "kids react" series on YouTube, where yes, the people's reactions are in some sense the point, but it's the reaction to a specific absurdity that matters. With Cohen, it's certainly a test of the dignity and credulity of the bystander: a really astute person just wouldn't keep going along with this (so it's a mild form of the Milgram experiment). These people all know they're being filmed, and that their reactions will be observed, so if they betray how horrible they are (as did the guys who sued Cohen), that's their fault, right? On the other hand, this article by artist Linda Stein describes the process of deception, and what seems more important to Stein, the selective editing that according to her "makes the 'figures' in his art — his interviewees — look foolish, so that he looks superior." (My suspicion is more that they chose the funniest clips to include, period, not the ones putting forth some agenda.)
Putting aside the moral question, is it funny? I think so. Apart from the "fish out of water" individual jokes, to me this is effective exactly because embarrassment is a live issue, meaning that humor is our way of dealing with things that make us uncomfortable. Over-the-top violence can be funny in a movie, but our relation to that is clearly different: death is the great and horrible border to our whole existence, so of course that's going to be touchy, and we can use humor to deal with it. Embarrassment, is something we're only one pratfall away from, and (as Bergson would point out) is of course inherently mild, so it's of course different to laugh at someone in a candid camera situation who's been told he has cancer (but doesn't really!) than to laugh at someone who has to be embarrassed by talking to someone who's embarrassing himself. What is uncomfortable about this kind of humor to many (and sometimes I just have to shut it off and leave the room to cool down for a while too) is not the presence of the bystanders, but just how foolish the fool's situation is, so for instance, I recall having the same reaction to "I Love Lucy" reruns.
What makes a Borat routine effective or not, if you can tolerate that general kind of humor, is just the quality of the individual jokes, the timing, and yes, some people's reactions are funnier than others.
To me it seems like there is a very obvious political agenda that motivates each of his characters in different ways, and the reason we should look past the embarrassment Sasha Cohen brings about for particular individuals, is that the widely shared regressive beliefs these people hold which he is poking fun at are a much more embarrassing measure of the collective consciousness exhibited by humanity altogether.
“These people all know they’re being filmed, and that their reactions will be observed, so if they betray how horrible they are (as did the guys who sued Cohen), that’s their fault, right? ”
Also, because they think only people in Kazakstan will see the footage, they are more loose with their words and behaviour. A great example of this is the episode where Borat visits a Texan ranch. The owner lets loose some pretty obvious anti-Semitic remarks, and I suspect he does this because he believes Americans won’t watch the tape. There are many other examples like this, and they are, I think, the real point to Cohen’s shtick. He shows that when people do not think they will be observed by anyone that matters, they will show their true natures. When you are by yourself you are truly yourself. And apparently there are a lot of racist/homophobic people in America. Then again, did we really need Sacha Baron Cohen to show this?
Mark Linsenmayer says
The premise involves a political point, but each of the characters also just serves as a forum to be able to serve up a few fruitful kinds of jokes. So, for Ali G, much of it is “how can I say something that sounds unbelievably dumb?” which is a gold mine (…20+ years of Homer Simpson demonstrating that), and for Borat, it’s “how can I say something that sounds unbelievably ignorant?” With the new film, the Dictator, it’s partly “how can I say something that sounds unbelievably mean?” …and it’s good, then, that that movie is scripted, so he’s not really cussing out real people.