[Sacha] Baron Cohen is one of the few British Jews to venture successfully into the comedy of shock. It was somehow both shameful and predictable that when Lenny Bruce was invited to appear in London for the second time, in 1963, he had no chance to perform before he was taken to the airport, deported, and banned from ever disturbing the British peace again. More recently, the case for disturbance has been made by the novelist Howard Jacobson, who has insisted, both within and beyond his books, that comedy is not just enfeebled but put to sleep, like an unwanted animal, once it discards its right and duty to offend. That is certainly the spirit of “Borat,” which may lack all narrative shapeliness, but which offers comfort neither to Baron Cohen’s onscreen victims nor to his audience; it is as if he were outraged by the business of our being human—as if, in laying bare our follies, he were just quickening the process by which we already make fools of ourselves.
I always liked Sascha Baron Cohen’s Ali G character, who seemed to me to be less of a caricature of Black Britain than of hip-hop obsessed white boys trying very hard to seem like they come from “Yard.” But the first time I saw Borat, I cringed: That “throw the Jew down the well” segment in which his Kazakh bumpkin leads a Texan Country and Western crowd in a song with that as the chorus seemed to me a bad, bad joke — not bad taste humor, which I rather like, but a bad joke. Not only did his Texan audience seem to be rather innocently indulging him, it immediately struck me that he was painting an horrendously inaccurate picture of Kazakh attitudes — horrendous because, in the West, there is no charge quite as toxic as that of being an anti-Semite. And the reality is that Kazakhstan is one of the least anti-Semitic polities in the Muslim world today.
It seems to me that Karon is missing the point. Yes, Borat is playing on racial stereotypes, but isn’t that the idea? Making fun of Jews, intellectuals, Muslims and the like proves that many individuals are happy to go through life with little more than cursory knowledge of different cultures and peoples (in fact, sounds like many Middle East and Islamism “experts” since 9/11, who pollute our media on a daily basis.) It’s called satire (and could equally be applied to most mainstream columnists who hilariously pontificate on subjects over which they have read little more than a government/think-tank press release.)
Now, if Borat isn’t your style, how about Ali G interviewing Chomsky?