Yes, It's Funny, but What Are You Laughing At?


Because I live in the U.S. rather than Russia, last night I had the opportunity to see Borat, which I highly recommend. In addition to making me laugh so hard I couldn't breathe (the look on former Georgia congressman Bob Barr's face during his brief encounter with Sacha Baron Cohen's Kazakh alter ego is by itself worth the price of admission), it made me sympathize a bit (a teeny-weeny bit) with the Anti-Defamation League's concern that people confronted by the outrageous anti-Semitism of Borat and his compatriots might not get the joke.

During the Running of the Jew, a traditional festival in Cohen's version of Kazakhstan, the townspeople chase a giant papier-mache figure that looks like a Nazi (or Arab) caricature of a Jew down the street. The Jew is followed by the Jewess, who lays a huge Jew egg that the children of the village attack with gusto, smashing it to bits. It's pretty damned funny, but I couldn't help wondering if the rest of the audience at the theater in Dallas was laughing at it for the same reasons I was. Another scene that I'm sure upset the ADL, in which Borat and his producer throw dollar bills at cockroaches they think are Jews in disguise, did not trigger the same concern because they're clearly the butt of the joke. A nice touch that most of the audience probably did miss: When the ridiculously anti-Semitic Borat speaks what is ostensibly Kazakh, he is actually speaking Hebrew.

What the ADL misses, I think, is that part of Cohen's talent is to amuse and discomfit his audience at the same time. Sometimes you laugh because you're so uncomfortable. I still have reservations about his mistreatment of perfectly nice people whose patience he tests with Borat's boorish and disgusting behavior, but it produces some undeniably hilarious moments.  Many of his targets, who include misogynists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and anti-Muslim bigots, deserve  to be goaded and mocked, and their comments tend to make you uncomfortable in a different way. 

Whatever your view of Cohen, there's no denying that he's a brave man—brave enough to kiss randomly chosen men on the New York subway (the traditional Kazakh greeting, supposedly); to sing the Kazakh national anthem to the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner (with suspiciously rhyming English lyrics that boast of Kazakhstan's superiority to all countries, especially in the quality of its potassium) at a rodeo; and to inform a group of uptight feminists that a leading Kazakh scientist has demonstrated that women's brains are about the size of a squirrel's. I'm not sure which feat was the most dangerous.

Addendum: A few commenters and at least one blogger (Stephan Kinsella at seem to think I meant to imply that Dallas is rife with anti-Semites and/or idiots. I did not. My reaction, which may reflect my own paranoia more than the attitudes of other moviegoers, would have been the same anywhere, North or South, where the audience consisted mainly of non-Jews—in other words, pretty much anywhere outside of Israel and certain parts of New York. For what it's worth, I encountered a lot more anti-Semitism (and racism) growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania that I have in the South—including a year in South Carolina and five years in Virginia (albeit the D.C.-adjacent part) as well as my so-far brief sojourn in Texas.