The Joke is On Us

Satire is the sign of the times. With truth a casualty of war, the populace north and south of the border is desperate for a reality check. When mainstream media admits it vacated its constitutional role to ensure informed citizenry and instead parrots White House Press briefings, it’s no wonder we turn in desperation to satire. Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Rick Mercer, The Simpsons, South Park all set a high standard for delivering some of the most biting political commentary to be found in mainstream media. Colbert deserves the award for biggest cohones of the year for his unbelievable keynote to the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner, while Dubya sat three seats away:

“Let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works: the president makes decisions. He’s the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell-check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know–fiction!”

Now that’s satire-and brilliant deployment of irony: saying one thing and meaning another. Using his Bush-loving (“I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares”) ingenious persona (which parodies Bill O’Reilly of FOX) Colbert is able to make audiences laugh-even the stuffed ties and Hollywood babes at this Dinner-while roasting the Bush administration and the media.

But why is Borat getting classed as political satire? The “man who invented Borat is a courageous political satirist … Borat makes you laugh but Baron Cohen forced you to think” (J. Hoberman City Pages Minneapolis Nov 1 p45).

“The brilliance of “Borat” is that its comedy is as pitiless as its social satire, and as brainy.” The International Herald Tribune, Manohla Dargis, Nov 2)

Then there’s Claudia Puig in USA Today “shockingly hilarious satire … Cohen’s genius lies in his ease with provocative material. What ends up on the screen feels almost revolutionary, even subversive.” (Nov 3)

Sadly, Borat has lowered the quality of satire from five-star political savvy to slapstick that traffics in audacious racism and sexism without biting that hand that feeds. Don’t get me wrong, I love to laugh-especially at razor sharp political satire that shows the world’s absurdities. I tolerate cringe moments watching Jon Stewart (“I felt Condi up the other nite”) and Colbert who also resort to sexist jokes and toilet humor, because at least one finds a consistent satirical bite that demands accountability from media and Washington. Political satirists speak truth to power.

In contrast, What exactly are Borat audiences laughing at? When Sasha Boren Cohen appeared on The Daily Show a few nights ago, Stewart should have asked the real Cohen to stand up and offer some answers. Instead, Borat (apparently Cohen is too “publicly shy” to grant any press interviews) discovers Stewart is a Jew, asks where his horns are and begins backing off stage.

Granted people are laughing at different things. Certainly screwed up American cultural politics are a worthy target. But Cohen is not able to expose these vulnerabilities without himself engaging in performances that traffic in atrocious jokes. As a result, the film sets us audiences to laugh not only at the admittedly complex aspects of Borat but at straightforward racist and sexist material. Fat jokes? Come on. While Cohen deserves credit as comedian who has some political dimension in his performance, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan cannot be classed with the top-notch political satire that has flourished in the wake of post-9/11 media muzzling. Is Cohen profiting from the deadly political and social ethnic tensions? $8.9 million already at this box office, and his next movie already contracted at $42 million. The fact that Cohen is devoutly Jewish does not let him off the hook. The fact that he performs equal opportunity humor, taking punches at everyone, doesn’t change the fact that he has stooped to the low common denominator of rude and audacious transgression of every possible social more. Sometimes his rude and audacious comedy reveals American racism, often trafficking in stereotypes himself, and often using toilet humor-a mockumentary that relies on candid camera suckers who for some reason signed a release.

Why are critics so quick to call this “political comedy”? If ever there was a time for savvy political humor to raise the sophistication of awareness about Middle Eastern cultural and ethnic tensions-gee, now would be a good time. Will the real Cohen please stand up and explain what must be a complicated answer to how anti-Semitism, racism and hating women is the best vehicle for his cultural comedy? I’m not convinced the guffawing audiences are thinking new thoughts that critics claim. What insight is gained while laughing at drunk frat boys solemnly wish slavery would return? Or laughing at “the Running of the Jew” holiday? “But people get that, it’s absurd and over the top!” So what? Once you get the joke “Americans are over the top,” where’s the savvy cultural commentary? The only moment in the film that can readily be called satire (as opposed to slapstick spoof that uses candid camera to make people look idiotic and reveal sad realities) is when Borat, dressed in an American flag shirt, wades into a rodeo ring and shouts out his support for the “War of Terror”, and “hopes Bush will drink the blood of every Iraqi man woman and child”. There is great irony in this candid moment with the Rodeo audience trying to grasp his meaning, for once in the 90 minutes.

In the Saturday Globe and Mail (November 4) Camilla Gibb concludes that Borat is getting away with this because we “need this provocation,” that such “freedom of expression” is the “sign of democracy.” While by no means advocating censorship of the film, am I alone in my hope for a higher level of democratic debate?

I am not shocked by Borat but by the dozens of international reviews reporting that people are laughing for 90 minutes without asking why. The bottom lime is that Cohen, Larry Charles, marketing staff and god knows how many corporate interests, has figured out a multi-million dollar, lowest-common denominator pleasure that rakes in millions. Just don’t call it politically courageous satire.

MEGAN BOLER is an associate professor at the University of Toronto conducting a three-year funded study of political multimedia, satire, and digital dissent. She can be reached at: mboler@oise.utoronto.ca


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