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THESE ARE THE JOKES! David Brooks can’t recognize jokes. But he can tell us all about Borat: // link // print // previous // next //

THESE ARE THE JOKES: It would help if people who wrote about comedy could actually recognize jokes. In today’s discussion of the new hit film Borat, David Brooks makes this puzzling comment about Bill Maher:
BROOKS (11/16/06): Then there is the rise of culture-war comedians whose jokes heap scorn on the sorts of people who are guaranteed not to be in the audience. (''Megachurches,'' Bill Maher joked recently on HBO, ''are presided over by the same skeevy door-to-door Bible salesmen that we've always had, just in an age of better technology. But they're selling the same thing: fear.)
Note to David: That wasn’t a “joke!” Some of the things Maher says are jokes—but then again, some of them aren’t! We wouldn’t have made that “megachurch” statement ourselves—but we wouldn’t have thought it was a “joke” either. People who literally can’t tell the difference—well, aren’t we all partly Borat ourselves?

Indeed, the endless flight from The Borat Within seems to be driving much of the commentary on a film Brooks describes as “explosively funny.” We’ve been amazed by much that we’ve read—for example, by this odd complaint:
BROOKS: The genius of Sacha Baron Cohen's performance is his sycophantic reverence for his audience, his refusal to challenge the sacred cows of the educated bourgeoisie. During the movie, Borat ridicules Pentecostals, gun owners, car dealers, hicks, humorless feminists, the Southern gentry, Southern frat boys, and rodeo cowboys. A safer list it is impossible to imagine.
But when exactly did “humorless feminists” get off that list of sacred cows? And how does Borat ridicule “gun owners?” (We don’t recall that there were any.) Yes, Borat tries to buy a gun from a gun store owner—and after he makes weird remarks about Jews, the owner declines to sell him one. How was he—or “gun owners”—thereby ridiculed? Meanwhile, are “rodeo cowboys” ridiculed here? Our recollection may be faulty, but again, we don’t recall any. There is an exchange with a rodeo manager who makes a weird remark about gays. But how is that an assault on “rodeo cowboys?” David Brooks hears jokes where none have been told. He also hears a lot of ridicule that may only be in his head.

After all, is “the Southern gentry” ridiculed in Borat? Writing in the Los Angeles Times, another Borat—the one named “Joel Stein”—seemed to share that impression:
STEIN (11/14/06): In "Borat," the highest-grossing film in the country for the second week in a row, Cohen uses the friendly Central Asian to fool unsuspecting Americans into revealing their cultural ignorance (a Southern dinner host politely shows him that his feces go in the toilet, not in the bag he's presented her with)...
But how did that Southern dinner host “reveal her cultural ignorance” in her response to Borat’s confusion? Other observers have noted the extreme courtesy this person shows her unschooled guest. Stein seems to think that she reveals ignorance—but when does this revelation occur? Meanwhile, is the movie’s “car dealer” held up to ridicule, as Brooks alleges? We don’t remember that happening either. Something, though, seems to make Brooks and Stein feel that everyone is being ridiculed—even, one must suspect, they themselves. But then, Brooks can’t distinguish joke from straight statements. (Are we not all partly Borat?) Should it be surprising if such overwhelmed folk get defensive when wild, madcap joking begins—when the joking just won’t seem to end?

For ourselves, we had never seen HBO’s Al G Show when we went to Borat last week. Some of Kevin Drum’s commenters said the film is a letdown compared to that series; we have no way to judge. But we’ll add ourselves to the list of people who thought this was almost surely the funniest movie they had ever seen. No, we didn’t agree with every editing decision, and we didn’t think that every scene was pure boffo. But we also didn’t find ourselves burdened with a search for the film’s “lesson” or “point,” and we didn’t find ourselves thinking that Borat ridicules vast groups of people. What we did see was a brilliant performance by an astounding performer. No one gets ridiculed in the scene with the humor instructor—but we thought it was the best in the film.

One of Kevin’s pro-Borat commenters assures other readers that he “wasn't comparing Cohen to the ‘comedy greats.’” OK, then, here at THE HOWLER, we will. Midway through, we found ourselves thinking that this must be the way the Marx Brothers seemed to audiences back in the 1930s. We’ve never cared for the Brother ourselves. But the cosmic anarchy of their presentation did find its way to our mind.

OK—so what makes Borat so funny? Such things are generally hard to “explain.” Brooks believes that Borat ridicules average Americans—those who aren’t the educated bourgeosie. Outraged literalists on Kevin’s site insist that it ridicules backward third-worlders; they rise up, in high dudgeon, showing off their pure, clean minds. It doesn’t seem to occur to these folk that Borat might be about us, about them—that they might be wandering in a world they can’t quite grasp, not unlike the film’s hero. They cling to crabbed, formulaic explanations of their world—and to crabbed explanations of Borat. They think they know what the film is “about.” High dudgeon—and literalism—helps them avoid the realization that the film may be in some way “about” them.

Excuse us—we must be going. “[W]e enter a time when we can gather in large groups and look down at our mental, social and spiritual inferiors,” Brooks explains. Brooks, who can’t even spot a joke when Bill Maher tells one, doesn’t seem to know that such a group could conceivably include people like him. His cohort has played the fool for years. But when a new film seems to ridicule fools, he is perfectly sure of one thing. Quite clearly, it ain’t about him.

NOW THAT’S WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT: Borat can’t understand the U. S.—and Kevin’s irate commenters can’t understand Borat. In an update, Kevin links to Andrew Tobias, who offers this long explication of the hotel check-in scene. Background: The desk clerk in the movie happens to be a friend of Tobias. Although he isn’t “ridiculed” in the movie, he is (of course) outraged at the way he was treated. As a result, he’s able to send this e-mail to Tobias without seeing how hilarious it is:
E-MAIL FROM DESK CLERK IN BORAT: He had no advance reservation; he was a "walk in."

They were supposedly filming my walking tour of The Adolphus [a fancy Dallas hotel]. The director, in fact, said, "Does this kind of thing happen often?” He acted as though it was a complete surprise to him, too. The camera crew immediately followed the action (Borat's unceremonious eviction from the hotel), which was a dead giveaway that this was what they were really after. We started putting the pieces together when the crew were unresponsive to my calls to the location scout, after they went outside. The next day we pulled the security camera tapes to see what was going on outside and discovered that they had a production crew setting up Borat's "grand entrance." That's when we knew absolutely that we had been set up. I also called a friend at the Dallas Film Commission and she told me that she was certain that this had some connection to a man who had been spotted driving around Dallas in an ice-cream truck with a bear in the back of it. Of course—not knowing the plot—it all sounded completely absurd.
The wonderful humor of Borat continues as people send earnest e-mails like this one. The desk clerk’s friend “was certain that this had some connection to a man who had been spotted driving around Dallas in an ice-cream truck with a bear in the back of it.” Let’s face it—that passage is just sublime. But Tobias’ friend can’t hear that at all. And go ahead—just try to “explain” why it’s funny.

NOT THAT THERE’S ANY CONNECTION: Brooks’ cohort has played the fool for the past fifteen years. Bush is in the White House—we’re all in Iraq—thanks to their “mentally and spiritually inferior” performance. (Meanwhile, seven years after their War Against Gore, we overwhelmed liberals still refuse to discuss it!) Today, we learn that Brooks can’t even tell when Maher is joking. Not that there’s any connection, of course, but Rick Weiss tells us this in this morning’s Post:
WEISS (11/16/06): [R]esearchers [are] convinced they will soon know the entire DNA sequence of the closest cousin humans ever had.

Such a feat, deemed impossible even a few years ago, could tell a lot about what Neanderthals were like...

The newfound ability to reconstruct prehistoric DNA allows scientists to home in on the fraction of a percent of human DNA that will differ from that of Neanderthals, who went extinct 30,000 years ago.
Don’t tell Brooks, but his DNA “differs from that of Neanderthals” by “a fraction of a percent.” For the record, they couldn’t make out jokes real well either. According to scientists, they always thought the joke was on the band from one mountain pass over.

HORNADAY GETS IT RIGHT: We haven’t seen the critic who resists the urge to “explain” the “point” of Borat’s humor—to “explain” it by shrinking the comedy down to some small, highly literal target or message. But the Post’s Ann Hornaday wins a prize for penning this particular passage:
HORNADAY (11/3/06): [T]he most hilarious moments are the broadest: Borat's filthy malapropisms, his obsession with prostitutes and bodily functions, and the film's centerpiece, an agonizingly long naked fight scene between Borat and Azamat that makes a sumo wrestling match look like Anna Pavlova performing "Swan Lake." Filmed up close and personal to reveal every hairy inch of the two men, the scene pays coarse and finally rapturous homage to the courage of doing comedy without a net. When the two men—still nude, and one of them now brandishing a sex toy—invade what looks like a real-life mortgage brokers' conference, the sequence levitates from being a mere stunt to a vehicle of sheer catharsis.

Why two naked men cavorting in a ballroom full of people should be so transcendent is a mystery for the ages. Suffice it to say that Cohen—who wrote his Cambridge dissertation on the historic relationship between blacks and Jews in America—is one of the few artists smart, gifted and brave enough to continually raise the physical and political stakes and clear them.
We didn’t care for that scene ourselves (too easy). But exceptional comedy—which is so rare—is typically “a mystery for the ages.” (“Explain” Jack Benny. You can’t! It’s his tone.) Generally speaking, you can’t quite explain its “lesson” or “point”—unless you want to be Borat.

For some reason, Brooks thinks this film is about gun owners. David, a stranger in a strange land (like Borat; like us all), fails to see that the film concerns Borat himself—and that Borat is in many ways us. Why has Borat rung so many bells for so many viewers? Such processes are always “a mystery,” of course—a mystery to which certain folk take a hammer. But if Brooks want to “explain” this movie’s appeal, we’d suggest that he start looking there.