Important Stuff: On The Bush-Era Satire of Sacha Baron Cohen

Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat (2006)
20th Century Fox

Who exactly should we blame for our national clusterfuck? 

One of the more interesting options, as suggested by British documentarian Adam Curtis, would be Patti Smith. In 2016’s HyperNormalisation,1 Curtis argues that Smith and her peers, disillusioned by the failed promises of the ‘60s, kickstarted a cultural shift with seismic consequences.

[Artists] didn’t try and change [the world]. They just experienced it. They believed that instead of trying to change the world outside, the new radicals should try and change what’s inside people’s head. The way to do this was through self-expression, not collective action…But…by detaching themselves and retreating into an ironic coolness, a whole generation was beginning to lose touch with the reality of power.

I find myself thinking about this quite often. Sure, Curtis paints with an incredibly broad brush—but as the decline of the American empire speeds up, I understand his inclination to point fingers at the coolly detached. In its worst form, irony affords artists all the possibility of free speech with none of its burden. There’s an inherent safety net to ironic expression. An opportunity to offload societal critique onto others without suggesting any actual change. Curtis goes on to blame this artistic form of back-seat driving for the rise of political authoritarianism (ahem, Trump) and capitalist hegemony (ahem, everything else).

Even if you think it’s overkill to blame the bulk of our societal ills on ironic expression, there’s no denying how fucking annoyingly mainstream shitty irony has become. Everyone from Internet reply guys to elected officials seem to think they’re Tim and Eric. As a result, more people than ever seem to bank on skirting any accountability for their own words by letting any potential critics know that they’re, of course, “just joking.”2

All to say, if Patti Smith started our current fire, satirist Sacha Baron Cohen spent the early-to-mid aughts pouring out tankers of gasoline to keep it going. Baron Cohen has always had a complicated, meta-textual relationship with irony. His trailblazing satirical work observes the ugliness of the United States populace while refusing to offer any solutions. Few 21st-century artists have employed irony more effectively—or possibly recklessly—than Baron Cohen, a true shitstarter whose early work revels in the idea of making a point (or better yet, making fun) as a form of activism in itself. 

In Baron Cohen’s George W. Bush-era entertainment3 (specifically, 2003-2004’s Da Ali G Show and 2006’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), his characters—the idiotic, appropriative, wannabe rapper/television host Ali G; flamboyant fashion reporter/extremely gay stereotype Brüno; and vulgar Kazakhi journalist Borat—interact with, although it might be more appropriate to say impose upon, real-life subjects who believe they’re communicating in earnest with a real person. In most cases, these real-life interactions revolve around Baron Cohen’s characters violating social norms, playing dumb, and espousing a sexist/racist/homophobic/anti-Semitic worldview in hopes of revealing his target’s own prejudices and capacity for hate speech. 

In essence, Baron Cohen’s work hinges on employing ironic hate speech through unironic mouth pieces and letting the audience discern between disingenuous and sincere displays of intolerance. It’s convoluted by design. It’s “just joking” stretched to its limits, excused under the banner of making “important” cultural commentary. 

My favorite Da Ali G Show gags are the decidedly “unimportant” bits. If the series were stripped of its more pointed moments, leaving only Borat struggling to walk on a treadmill and Ali G failing to understand the difference between veterans and veterinarians (much to the dismay of an incredibly frustrated Vietnam veteran who works as a veterinarian), I’d still easily rank it among the five best comedy series of the 21st century. 

Personally, I don’t believe effective comedy needs societal or critical purpose to work, although it certainly helps. While good comedy always gets laughs, getting laughs doesn’t necessarily mean something is good comedy. This is especially true when a joke marginalizes or makes someone else the butt of the joke. Given that almost every other Sacha Baron Cohen bit hinges on one of his characters, outsiders themselves, marginalizing others, it’s Baron Cohen’s responsibility to prove intent in his irony.

Sacha Baron Cohen, as Ali G, interviews Donald Trump

As a comedian, Baron Cohen knows this. It’s why Borat works so well. In one scene, Borat is the butt of the joke, idiotically brandishing a cross and throwing dollar bills at literal cockroaches to escape a bed-and-breakfast run by a kind, elderly Jewish couple. In the next, three drunk, white frat boys are the mark, as they lament how much easier it is to be a minority in America to the foreign Borat. As cringe-inducing as watching Sacha Baron Cohen’s work can be, there’s no denying he knows which of the real-life folks he meets are worthy of derision and which just make for quality foils to his characters’ antics.

Da Ali G Show and Borat are undeniably effective from a comedy perspective, but are they actually important4 works of social critique? I’ve yet to find the definitive criteria for elevating a comedy from “hilarious” to “important.” Even knowing what Baron Cohen is trying to say with his comedy, the question remains—what effect does his work really have?

 

Sometime after Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s personal history became an essential element of his work. Unfortunately, Baron Cohen’s reluctance to conduct out-of-character interviews at the height of his fame led to a glut of articles hitting the same points.5 The repetition turned facts into something of folklore:

  • He studied the comedic art of bouffon under the tutelage of expert French clown Philippe Gaulier!
  • Baron Cohen is the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor!
  • While studying at Cambridge, he wrote a graduate thesis examining the role of the Jewish community in the American civil rights movement!
  • He’s a devoutly religious Jew! So much so he avoids working on the Shabbos.
  • He’s fluent in Hebrew! While in character as the anti-Semitic Borat, Baron Cohen ironically speaks a slangy hybrid of Hebrew and Polish instead of the actual Kazakhi language.

Baron Cohen’s story became as ubiquitous as Borat’s catchphrases.6 Obviously, the details are meant to inform what drew Baron Cohen to his particularly vicious line of satire. In retrospect, I suspect diehard fans, such as myself, constantly pointed to Baron Cohen’s own story in an effort to prove we laugh for the right reasons. We tell ourselves it’s fine to laugh at stereotypes and bigotry because it’s being delivered by a Cambridge-educated intellectual. Baron Cohen’s own story reinforces an assigned “importance” onto his particular satire.

Sacha Baron Cohen in 'Borat' (2006) | 20th Century Fox

His schtick thrives on the presumption that viewers will be shocked if they hear how people really talk when they believe they’re in safe spaces. Yes, it’s mortifying to hear a self-proclaimed “Mississippi gentleman” casually tell Borat life was more convenient for white folks when slavery existed. But what change is Baron Cohen really proposing by putting this scene on-screen? The best answer I can surmise (and most critics seem to point towards) is that Americans stop feigning ignorance to the bigotry of their compatriots. This seems like a lot of work for a point that now, in 2020, feels beyond obvious. 

Is it possible, however, that as Baron Cohen’s audience ballooned from a niche group of premium cable subscribers to millions, his work introduced and normalized hate speech and bigotry for a crowd that couldn’t be bothered to parse through his deliberately muddled, ironic sensibilities? What if Baron Cohen’s work is in fact important, but for far more nefarious reasons than “enlightened” audiences believe it to be? 

I’m Jewish. When I was 17, my (goyim) best friend introduced me to their (goyim) friend as “the Jew.” The friend of a friend came from the small, wildly conservative town of Albion, New York. They let me know I was the first Jew they’d ever met before asking if they could see my “horns.” I laughed and tilted my head over, saying they’d have to dig through my mop of hair to find them.

It’s one of those unsettling moments that feels completely innocuous in real time. As an adult, I occasionally play it over in my head. I still don’t quite understand why I indulged a complete stranger’s anti-Semitism. Especially since I thought I was one of the enlightened, overly-educated ones as a teen. The kind of person who can laugh at comedic irony and call out honest-to-Hashem hate. 

I don’t know if there’s a lesson here but it feels relevant. Maybe sometimes we laugh because we don’t want to acknowledge the horrible truth right in front of us? Laughing’s usually easier than trying to teach someone a lesson. 

Nothing is more crucial to enjoying Da Ali G Show and Borat than a strong sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority. This isn’t a good or bad thing. Just fact. 

Viewing Baron Cohen’s work must be an absolutely interminable experience for anyone weighed down by empathy. Even worse for anyone with enough self-awareness to realize how hard it is to stay true to their own beliefs in the face of a complete troll (not that I think this kind of person actually exists).

Amazon

Take, for example, the Brüno segment “Fashion Polizen.” A fashion designer named Randy and stylist named James are tasked with critiquing various celebrities’ red carpet looks as part of Brüno’s fake Austrian TV show. After each guest gives their take, Brüno leans in as if the cameras are off. Brüno speaks quietly, asking Randy and James to fundamentally alter their opinions for entertainment purposes. “The whole nice thing just doesn’t work,” Brüno says. Without hesitation the panelists sell out their actual beliefs for more air time. They follow Brüno’s lead to extreme ends, with James going so far as to agree that Peter Jackson’s outfit qualifies him as a “fashion terrorist” responsible for a “mini-9/11.”  Mind you, this was in 2003. When Brüno gets to a picture of Paris Hilton, James goes off. “This is disgusting,” he sneers for the cameras. “Who’d want to fuck that?” Brüno leans in and uncomfortably informs the panel that the channel they’re filming for “is part owned by the Hilton group.” Brüno suggests they retake it from the top. Shown the photo again, James changes his tune. “Here’s a star,” he says without a trace of sarcasm. “This is how every girl on the red carpet should dress.”

Keep in mind, this is one of the lighter Da Ali G Show segments. Still, the viewer’s enjoyment depends on their confidence that they’d never end up in this situation—confidence they’re smarter than Randy and James. That even under the pressure of an authority figure or powerful corporation, they would never say something they don’t believe.

The most memorable Borat segments crank this dynamic up to 11. We’re encouraged to laugh from our ivory towers at the bar patrons singing along to “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” and at the rodeo crowd who applaud Borat’s wish that America “destroy [Iraq] so that for the next thousand years not even a single lizard will survive in their desert.” We don’t believe this shit, so we’d never fall for it. Furthermore, we presume everyone getting duped by these ridiculous characters must be revealing their truest selves for the camera.

Herein lies the deep, detached cynicism of Sacha Baron Cohen’s work. He anticipates his audience’s smugness and reviles them for it. That’s why he never brings segments around to any sort of teachable moment in his Bush-era work. Baron Cohen implies a belief that all of us, not just his on camera marks, are susceptible to the banality of evil. Instead of trying to empathize or teach the misinformed, we laugh at them and bask in our own moral superiority. Baron Cohen plays three-dimensional chess. His satire is so drenched in irony that it borders on nihilistic. We don’t recognize how susceptible and blind we are to the instruments of power, so instead Baron Cohen opts to just have his own laugh at all of our expenses. Action is no longer possible, so he just watches the world burn.

          

While writing this piece, Sacha Baron Cohen released a sequel to Borat, entitled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Of course, another Baron Cohen project coming out before the election wasn’t a complete surprise after some footage from an alt-right rally in Washington went viral in late June. 

It was, however, surprising to see the return of Borat Sagdiyev in 2020. Not only because Baron Cohen claimed to have “retired” the character, but also because most of his Bush-era comedic contemporaries seem to have established so much distance from their work of the same era. Stephen Colbert dropped his satiric persona entirely to engage with more earnest political commentary. Dave Chappelle adapted the role of elder comedy statesman after famously quitting his sketch show when an interaction with an audience member made him question the role of his own work in reinforcing stereotypes.7 Having now seen Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, it’s apparent that, although Baron Cohen clearly did not care to completely ease off the ironic gas, he, similar to Chappelle, had a reckoning with the intent of his work. 

After nearly a whole term of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, Baron Cohen no longer seems willing to leave the responsibility of parsing through irony to find the message to his audience. It’s a far heavier-handed affair than anything from the Dubya years. Ultimately, Baron Cohen loudly proclaims the importance of his work in possibly the least subtle segment of his entire career. Borat wraps up the film touring his Kazakhi village with daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova), allowing Baron Cohen to clearly, for the first time in his career, state the intended target of his satire: American conservatives. In short order, Borat awkwardly espouses “woke” ideology (“The patriarchy can goes to hell”) and proclaims “that greatest threat to Kazakhstan is no longer the Jew. It is in fact the Yankee,” over B-roll of a Trump 2020 rally. The “Running of the Jew” sequence from the first Borat is replaced by the “Running of the American,” featuring a papier-mâché “Karen” in an “All Lives Matter” shirt who shoots a papier-mâché Dr. Fauci with an AK-47. As if it weren’t laid on thick enough, the film ends with a title card reading “Now Vote.”  It is, as the kids say, “cringe.”

Still, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a mostly funny movie that, with one glaring exception (a rehash of the “Throw the Jew Down the Well” bit with new lyrics),8 attempts to weed out anyone laughing for the wrong reasons. Unlike Baron Cohen’s previous work, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm revels in its own assumed importance, and Baron Cohen doesn’t seem fully resigned to ironic detachment. I’m unsure if this is for the better or worse. In many ways, it feels like offering to make a beer run after the cops break up the party. A nice gesture coming a bit too late.

There’s a cruel irony in my semi-dissatisfaction with Sacha Baron Cohen’s semi-embrace of sincerity in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. I practically spent the first 2000 words here condemning the borderline nihilistic worldview and ironic sensibility of Baron Cohen’s earlier work for irreparably damaging the national discourse. But this years-too-late course correction rings equally insincere to me. I can’t help but feel like Baron Cohen is more worried about clearing his own conscience than honestly reflecting on the legacy of his own work.      

The 2020 election was repeatedly framed as a choice between decency and degeneracy. An opportunity to, ever so slightly, unfuck our country by voting for what most understand to be the responsible choice—in some sense, choosing a return to sincerity over ironic detachment. It’s a sentiment that’s almost as beautiful as it is hopelessly idealistic. I think pure, uncut sincerity disappeared with the promise of the 1960s.  The “decency” and “sincerity” we’ve been beckoned to uphold is more a disavowal of fascist ideology than anything else. Sincerity exists as little more than a marketing keyword in 2020.

Patti Smith and the new radicals retreated into irony as a coping mechanism after the counterculture fizzled out. Adam Curtis blames them for inspiring a generation to lose touch with reality, but what should they have done instead of creating art? Chase windmills? Would a more focused youth movement have been better equipped to dismantle an American political establishment that, beginning with Nixon, became hellbent on implementing voodoo economics, promoting isolationist foreign policy and peddling American disinformation? Seems unlikely.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s work is built on the legacy of Smith and the new radicals, responding to political turmoil with spitballs from the back of the class. It cranked the detachment and cynicism up to 11 without sacrificing the virtue of self-perseverance. This approach emboldened Baron Cohen to reflect the hate he saw in the world through the prism of his characters. Sometimes he revealed others’ capacity for kindness and patience.9 In many cases, he uncovered how deep-seeded prejudice can render someone incapable of seeing the bigger picture.10 

While there’s certainly danger in comedic irony desensitizing audiences to the actual prevalence of hate and bigotry, it also offers audiences a crucial look at America’s perpetually astonishing bullshittery. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bush-era work may not call its viewers to action, but it forces them to look deep into the soul of this country. It gives us a glimpse into what exists right under the surface of “decency.” I’m not sure retreating into irony is the most productive means of resistance, but it’s proven our most sustainable means of coping with a nightmarish reality.

  1. The whole documentary—which recounts the past 45+ years of social history through a lens as deeply cynical as it is engaging—is available here!
  2. Sound familiar?
  3. Baron Cohen also released a scripted Ali G film, Ali G Indahouse, during this era. It’s a largely forgettable film that feels like little more than Baron Cohen figuring out how to work his sketch characters in larger narratives. Baron Cohen also released a Brüno film in 2009—the first year of the Obama administration—which, in my retrospective opinion, falls victim to the decade’s trend of gay panic comedy as much as it intends to rebuke it.
  4. Nobody would deny Airplane! is a great comedy, but as of now, neither Leslie Nielsen nor writer-directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker have been honored by the Anti-Defamation League, as Baron Cohen has.
  5. Many of which are being re-retread in the press surrounding Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
  6. And that’s saying something. Consider the fact that well over 150 people spent their own money on this, an off-brand shirt that says, “Borat Voice My Wife.” Bonkers!
  7. The (overly simplified) story goes that while airing a sketch entitled Black Pixies for his in-studio audience, Chappelle became uncomfortable when a white man laughed “particularly long and loud” at Chappelle acting out stereotypes in Blackface. Chappelle took an early vacation to Africa and never returned to the show. How much Chappelle’s own recent work reinforces stereotypes/misconceptions about the LGBTQ+ community is worthy of its own discussion.
  8. The scene, which leaked in June, features Borat encouraging a crowd of Three Percenters—a hate group that’s been denounced by the Southern Poverty Law Center—to sing along to lyrics including, “Obama, what we gonna do? Inject him with the Wuhan Flu” and “WHO, what we gonna do? Chop ‘em up like the Saudis do.” This isn’t commentary on the banality of evil. It’s riling up self-avowed racists and anti-Semites by employing their own hatred. It’s difficult to find any importance, much less comedic irony, in the scene. Especially when you consider setting up the stunt apparently involved production funding equipment used for other facets of the event.
  9. Ali G’s interview with former United Nations Secretary General Boutrous Boutrous Ghali could be the most heartening, hilarious Baron Cohen’s ever done.
  10. My absolute favorite Brüno segment