THESE ARE THE JOKES! David Brooks cant recognize jokes. But he can tell us all about Borat: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2006
THESE ARE THE JOKES: It would help if people who wrote about comedy could actually recognize jokes. In todays 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 wasnt a joke! Some of the things Maher says are jokes—but then again, some of them arent! We wouldnt have made that megachurch statement ourselves—but we wouldnt have thought it was a joke either. People who literally cant tell the difference—well, arent 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. Weve been amazed by much that weve 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 dont 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 dont 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 Borats 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 movies car dealer held up to ridicule, as Brooks alleges? We dont 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 cant 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 wont seem to end?
For ourselves, we had never seen HBOs Al G Show when we went to Borat last week. Some of Kevin Drums commenters said the film is a letdown compared to that series; we have no way to judge. But well add ourselves to the list of people who thought this was almost surely the funniest movie they had ever seen. No, we didnt agree with every editing decision, and we didnt think that every scene was pure boffo. But we also didnt find ourselves burdened with a search for the films lesson or point, and we didnt 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 Kevins 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. Weve 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 arent the educated bourgeosie. Outraged literalists on Kevins site insist that it ridicules backward third-worlders; they rise up, in high dudgeon, showing off their pure, clean minds. It doesnt seem to occur to these folk that Borat might be about us, about them—that they might be wandering in a world they cant quite grasp, not unlike the films 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 cant even spot a joke when Bill Maher tells one, doesnt 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 aint about him.
NOW THATS WHAT WERE TALKING ABOUT: Borat cant understand the U. S.—and Kevins irate commenters cant 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 isnt ridiculed in the movie, he is (of course) outraged at the way he was treated. As a result, hes 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."The wonderful humor of Borat continues as people send earnest e-mails like this one. The desk clerks 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. Lets face it—that passage is just sublime. But Tobias friend cant hear that at all. And go ahead—just try to explain why its funny.
NOT THAT THERES ANY CONNECTION: Brooks cohort has played the fool for the past fifteen years. Bush is in the White House—were 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 cant even tell when Maher is joking. Not that theres any connection, of course, but Rick Weiss tells us this in this mornings Post:
WEISS (11/16/06): [R]esearchers [are] convinced they will soon know the entire DNA sequence of the closest cousin humans ever had.Dont tell Brooks, but his DNA differs from that of Neanderthals by a fraction of a percent. For the record, they couldnt 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 havent seen the critic who resists the urge to explain the point of Borats humor—to explain it by shrinking the comedy down to some small, highly literal target or message. But the Posts 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.We didnt 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 cant! Its his tone.) Generally speaking, you cant 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 movies appeal, wed suggest that he start looking there.