While discussing (through Bergson's book) how humor works in us, we had a couple of forays into related off-topics. The first was the question of laughter and delight. My contention was that the laughter of delight may be related, but is not the same thing as a reaction to something being funny. The second was the question of something not being funny or laughable. We considered this in a couple of ways, particularly by discussing Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat and the possibility of doing a rape joke (see a recent NYTimes article). (Note that there is a whole category of men raping men jokes, typically a version of prison-rape, that are a tried and true category of rape-joke.) I'm going to focus on this second case here and take up the question of delight later.
Key to why so much of Cohen's work isn't funny is his drawing the audience into being the willing manipulators and humiliators of his victims. Now it is clear that much of humor comes from the humiliation of others, the poking fun at their mis-steps, misfortunes, and peccadilloes. That we find pleasure in such things and that we find it funny is interesting in itself. It's surely partly power -- we take pleasure from winning. It's surely partly schadenfreude -- we take pleasure from other people losing. Both are part of our ability to have ambitions and goals, to want to accomplish anything. If we didn't get pleasure from accomplishments (winning broadly speaking), we wouldn't have ambitions at all.
Put this way, it makes clear that the funny is ethical. There is a spectrum of taking pleasure from winning along which we travel from wholesome pleasure in victory to corrosive mean-spiritedness. Similarly with schadenfreude. While I laugh at my kid (or myself) when his ice cream falls off the cone into his lap, we also have the bully who finds pleasure and humor in the deep humiliation of another while his is forced to lick the bottom of his boot. So, it's not that it isn't possible for a person to find the humiliation present in a movie like Borat funny. It's that finding such scenes funny amounts to having a mis-tuned sense of humor, at least according to the person who contends that it isn't funny. This possibility of mis-tuning points to a deep ethical dimension to humor which humor clearly relies upon. Without the explicit and implicit ethical conventions of human relation, most of Borat wouldn't have the possibility of being funny (or not funny). My contention is that much of this sort of movie isn't funny because the level of humiliation and mean-spirited manipulation is too high, including the humiliation, manipulation, and contempt for the audience itself.
Consider an example. In one scene Borat is in a rich person's house and he tries to get the wife to agree to help him wipe his ass as he pretends to be "so backward" as to not know how to use a toilet and so forth. I can imagine something like this as funny in retrospect between two sincerely engaged players -- a kind of looking back at the absurdity of the situation and the awkward collision of worlds and one person's ignorance of convention (our convention) and the other's uncertain attempts to educate that person. One might argue that this is exactly why the scene is funny. As viewers we have that distance and we can look at the absurdity of the situation and find it funny. That would work if both actors could reasonably be considered sincere actors, but they are not. She is sincerely engaged and he isn't. Indeed, he is adroitly manipulating the situation so as to, step by step, maximally humiliate her. The fact that he is this secret bully and has brought us in on his bullying is what makes it not funny.
Now, it is often clear that S.B.C. has a political agenda underlying his candid-camera humor (or he is simply utilizing his attuned understanding of convention to shoot political ducks in a pond). Such humor often has the explicit intention of humiliating the victim for political reasons, though that humiliation will frequently have nothing to do with politics explicitly, but rather with that individual's mis-steps. This is par for the course. We routinely go after those in power and laugh at their everyday mistakes. Consider the repeated showings of Gerald Ford tripping as he steps off the gangway onto the tarmac and the concurrent depictions on SNL. So, let's look at it this way. The scene with the ass-wiping wife is funny because she's a rich conservative lady. This presumably layers privilege and advantage on her such that Borat's humiliation of her is a) successful political pot-shoting of the knocking-the-successful-down-because-they-lord-it-over-us variety, that is, it is a version of schadenfreude and b) inoculated against the charge of stepping over the line because somehow she deserves this humiliation; she's implicitly guilty of some list of crimes and therefore her humiliation is punishment for those crimes and our witnessing that humiliation is our satisfaction. Now, consider what if she were a twelve--year-old girl on her way home from school? A homeless man whom Borat gets to wipe his ass for the $1.50 to buy a cup of coffee? A person with a colostomy on their way home from the hospital?
Now, if we were to have a scene depicting these three examples in which all the participants were actors fulfilling a role, might we not manage to strain a laugh? Maybe, though I expect that laughing at such a scene would really be meta-laughing, that is, laughing at the fact of the scene itself being so far from good taste and laughing at that juxtaposition itself. This is, however, very different from the contents of the scene causing the laughter. However, try rolling in the circumstance of each victim being a sincere participant and the ass just being an Ass and playing them. It crosses the line both in the act itself of humiliating someone and (if watched as a film) roping audience into being the bully himself. So, it's not funny.