Borat and Offensive Comedy

Posted in Side Topics at 12:30 am by Stephen

I saw Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan a while back and I have to agree with the consensus (surprisingly this is one of the best reviewed films of the year) that it’s the funniest movie in recent memory. It’s also one of the most offensive, a flick that gets its humor from both scatalogical and social jokes, trying to offend us every way it can. So what is it about comedy and outrageousness that makes them work so well?

Almost all of my favorite comedies push boundaries of some kind. This isn’t really recent, either; screwball comedy, a genre from the 1930s and ’40s, assaulted many of the cultural taboos of the time. Those movies overwhelmingly treat the institution of marriage as a topic for satire (notice how many of them make light of divorce or busted engagements, things that were much more respected in those decades than today) and many of the great screwball comedies walked right up to the line of allowable sexual innuendo of the day.

One of my personal favorite comedies, which isn’t quite screwball, is Dr. Strangelove (1964), which turned nuclear holocaust into a gag. It doesn’t seem so daring now, but coming just a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the height of the red scare, it was an insane idea for a comedy. Hollywood made really dark comedies in the ’70s and raunchy sex comedies in the ’80s and a variety of both in the ’90s.

Of course there are plenty of funny movies that aren’t at all offensive or edgy, but I think certainly pushing boundaries is a vital element of humor. With Borat, there is outrageous and scatalogical humor that offends sensibilities, but also a thin layer of social commentary that may well upset some people. I actually think the movie as social satire is a bit overblown — while there are certainly scenes that portray some Americans as being racist, the majority of the movie’s humor comes from the craziness of the main character more than the reactions of people to him. I think a lot of critics are jumping on board the social satire ship to justify why they find an otherwise crude and crass movie so funny and entertaining.

But that’s sort of a side note. Why is it that we find offense so funny? If you don’t ever find humor that offends you funny, what do you find funny?

For me, a lot of great humor blindsides me. Jokes work best when we don’t anticipate them, and one thing we don’t anticipate is for people to just violate social norms at every opportunity. When jokes go really far, there is also a sort of incredulity that’s funny. You just can’t believe that the filmmakers are doing what they’re doing, and that is intrinsically funny.


  1. wintermute (157) said,

    November 16, 2006 at 2:48 pm

    Borat’s history put me off seeing the movie, though I might change my mind now that the reviews are out there.

    In short Sacha Baron-Cohen created the character of Ali G, with with pretty much the sole intent of seeing how people react when faced with the most ignorant and offensive “yoof TV” presenter imaginable. And, in some cases (the guy he interviewed about how to join the Army comes to mind) you can see the exact moment that they realise that this is a wind up. Some people bent over backwards to appear “hip” and “with it”. And some really tore into him (Tony Benn, Heinz Wolffe) for casually referring to women as “bitches”, for example. And all of these were really very funny. Some of the best comic interviews ever.

    And then came season 2. And everyone knew who Ali G was, so it turned into a soft-soap interview set, where everyone knew what was going on, so there wasn’t any room for comedy (see his interview with Mohammed al-Fayid for a classically tepid example). There was a side trip to America, which worked reasonably well, but I don’t think anything from that was quite up to the standards he set with his initial season. So he created the character of Borat to fill in the gaps where the funny was supposed to be.

    But while Ali G was a very clever idea excellently executed (to begin with, at least), Borat was fart jokes. And don’t get me wrong, I like fart jokes as much as the next person (unless the next person is Dave, of course), but it just wasn’t as clever, or as meaningful.

    The Ali G movie was also pretty bad, as the character was created as a cypher to conduct the most inane and pointless interviews imaginable, and putting him into a 2-hour character-driven plot was a step in the wrong direction, IMHO.

    So I didn’t think Borat had enough material to fill a 5-minute segment, let alone an entire movie. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s as good as I’m hearing.

    As an aside, I saw The Aristocrats the other day, and I was quite impressed. I’ve never thought the joke itself is all that funny, but when you get a hundred (or so they claim) comedians to talk about how they tell it gets pretty funny. Also, you can’t go wrong with a few thousand references to child molestation, rape, coprophagia and what-have-you. So I suppose that counts towards me liking the Borat movie, too.

  2. Sam (405) said,

    November 16, 2006 at 4:05 pm

    I think pushing the boundaries of taste is entirely unnecessary, but it’s a cheap way for talentless writers to come up with something people with laugh at. The formula is the same: get a guy who behaves offensively, then make him offend some important stuffed shirt. Done. But, come on, that’s a pretty retarded form of humor.

    There *are* offensive comedies that are *also* funny. I liked “There’s Something About Mary.” But that film not *only* pushed the boundaries of taste, it had absolutely perfect comic timing, and frankly neither of what I consider the two funniest scenes were the one everybody remembers for being so shockingly crass.

    I refer to the very screwball comedies you do, of the 30s and 40s. Yes, they flouted the boundaries of taste at the time. But does anyone, even the staunchest of conservatives, think they push the least little boundary today? Yet they’re still as funny today as they were when they were released. To this day, I think a lot of them are still some of the funniest movies ever made, and I’m far from alone in that opinion. If the offensiveness wears off and the humor doesn’t, how can the humor be dependent on pushing the boundaries?

    I think pushing the boundaries be the start of a promising premise. You start out with, ok, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are going to be gangsters that dress up as women to escape the mob. Or you start out with, ok, this Kazakhstani is going to unwittingly stay politically incorrect things to people. That’s your *premise*, and it’s a premise that gives you a place to build funny things upon. But the premise doesn’t inherently make it funny, and you don’t need a boundary-pushing premise to *be* funny.

    Yes, I liked “There’s Something About Mary,” but I honestly think far less of its humor was inherently tied to its crassness than many might say. And there are reams and reams and reams of other crass comedies out there that are just garbage. I just don’t see a causal relationship here.

  3. Nyperold (116) said,

    November 16, 2006 at 7:13 pm

    And if there’s one thing you don’t expect, it’s a music montage of nuclear explosions set to “We’ll Meet Again”. :)

  4. Stephen (221) said,

    November 16, 2006 at 11:11 pm

    Sam: While you’re far from alone in thinking movies from the ’30s and ’40s are hilarious, you’re hardly in the majority, either. You could release The Lady Eve into theaters today and I guarantee modern audiences just wouldn’t quite go for it.

    Comedy is just so tied to our culture, which is why I think most of the great foreign films we think of are dramas. The modern comedy that can cross national borders is rare indeed.

    Sam, I think you’re just in tune enough with the culture of the ’30s and ’40s (in part from having seen a ton of movies from that period) that it works for you. Like I said, I love screwball too, but for me a lot of the jokes come from being aware of what was risque then. The seduction scene on the boat in “Some Like It Hot” is hilarious in part because of how dirty it seems compared to other ’50s films.

    Now, of course you *also* need good comic timing. I didn’t mean to imply that pushing the boundaries of current taste is the end of comedy, but I think it helps a lot in setting up the right sort of atmosphere.

    And, like I said in my post, I think there are some jokes that work almost entirely because of the “Did they just do that?” factor. The hair gel in “Mary” is a great example of that kind of gag. It’s funny because it’s shocking, and there’s something about being really surprised that makes us laugh.

  5. Stephen (221) said,

    November 16, 2006 at 11:15 pm

    wim: I’ve only seen the American version of “Da Ali G Show” but I actually found the Borat sequences to be the funniest. I avoided the Ali G movie like the plague because obviously the character wasn’t going to work in a feature film, and I had very low expectations for Borat before the reviews came in, but it works.

    I was actually a little disappointed with The Aristocrats. I agree that the various tellings of the joke aren’t actually that funny, but definitely the stories about the joke are funny. Though Bob Saget’s and Gilbert Gottfried’s versions were both hysterical.

  6. Sam (405) said,

    November 16, 2006 at 11:58 pm

    So, uh…since when do we appeal to multiplex crowds for critical judgment? The same people you’re saying wouldn’t go for The Lady Eve are the same ones that made a box office smash out of The Fantastic Four.

  7. Stephen (221) said,

    November 17, 2006 at 1:19 am

    The fact is that if somebody tells me they think Anchorman is the funniest movie ever, I can’t argue with them. All criticism is subjective, but arguing over what’s funny is even more pointless than arguing over the more objective merits of movies.

    My point is that I think popular comedies seem to push the limits of what is culturally appropriate. Mass audiences just won’t respond as well to older comedies because they don’t have the cultural references to get some of the humor. What I was trying to say, Sam, is that your liking the movies of the ’30s and ’40s despite their not pushing contemporary boundaries is tied up with your understanding the time periods and being more in tune with their value systems than the average modern filmgoer.

    Does that make sense? I’m not really expressing my point well, I realize.

  8. Sam (405) said,

    November 17, 2006 at 2:52 am

    I guess it makes sense. But yeah, I’m not sure I entirely understand your ultimate point. If it’s just that “people find pushing the boundaries funny,” I guess I have to agree. I just feel resistant to any stronger statement, like humor *has* to, or is always improved by it, or whatever.

    Your post got me thinking about what I think are the funniest more recent movies, say, within the last fifteen years. I came up with Noises Off (1992), Groundhog Day (1993), Get Shorty (1995), and State and Main (2001), after not enough thought to be very exhaustive. None of those particularly push any boundaries. State and Main probably comes closest, but satirizing Hollywood, however viciously, is a pretty accepted thing these days. Now, is that what most people would say? No, probably not. A heck of a lot of people would be naming titles like American Pie and Jackass. But my response is that means your sense of humor is stupid. If that makes me elitist, that’s better than the alternative. And even so, there is There’s Something About Mary, which I’m comfortable having listed with those other four titles (although, again, the funniest scene in that movie for me was completely innocuous, but never mind).

    There’s another thing I’m still thinking through, and that’s the resistance to the idea that what gross-out comedies are doing now is the modern equivalent of what the classic screwball comedies did 60 years ago. Both senses of humor may have boundary-pushing in common, but I’m not sure that zeroing in on that one similarity and ignoring the differences is logically sound. “Huh, huh, scatology!” just doesn’t seem like the natural continuation of witty social satire. Sure, *maybe* the one common characteristic does in fact lead to a truthful conclusion about both. But I’m not convinced, and in any case there has got to be more to the story. I think maybe the crucial difference is how different insinuation and explicitness is. When Groucho Marx scandalizes Margaret Dumont with lines that she doesn’t quite understand and we in the audience scarcely have time to think about before the next joke, that’s one thing. And when Adam Sandler scandalizes somebody with a bald-faced proposition, that’s another. The latter may still elicit laughs, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I’m also not sure what point I’m leading up to with this paragraph; I’m just speculating that there’s more going on here than what the rest of this conversation is about.

    Ultimately, though, I think I agree with you on the very basic point here, where you say, “I think [pushing the bounds of current taste] helps a lot in setting up the right sort of atmosphere.”

    But I also think many of the funniest movies don’t do this at all and are all the better for not leaning on the crutch of shock value to be successful.

  9. Dave (130) said,

    November 17, 2006 at 12:46 pm

    This conversation, especially Sam’s last post, makes me wonder how a show like South Park will hold up over time. The past five or six seasons of the show have been pretty much nothing *but* social commentary mixed with liberal doses of fart, scat, and genital jokes. When people look back on it in 50 years, will the social commentary hold up, or will it turn out to have been too topical or too timely? Will the constant scat and vomit jokes be seen as fairly tame, or will tastes swing the other way again and those jokes will seem even more offensive than they do today? I happen to think it’s one of the funniest shows on TV, but not because it often shows animated kids having explosive diarrhea or vomiting on people. I think it’s funny because they’re not only willing to talk about subjects other people won’t even touch, especially in a comedy, they’re completely open about it and don’t try to hide behind metaphors or allegory to make their commentary. I’m amazed they get away with the stuff they do–I guess mostly because they’re on late night basic cable, but partly because people just stopped being shocked by what they do years ago. People just kind of expect them to “go there” now, and they do, repeatedly.

    But what do I know, I thought American Pie was pretty funny in places.

  10. ThePhan (128) said,

    November 17, 2006 at 1:25 pm

    Interesting topic. There’s not a *whole* lot that I’m outright offended by in comedy, although there’s a lot I don’t respond to in comedy. But more often I come across something potentially offensive that I simply don’t think is funny. Not “That is no laughing matter!” but more along the lines of “Okay, that was stupid.” And I tend not to think that the fact of something being offensive in a really outrageous way is funny. I know there are a lot of people who do respond to that, but for me there has to be something more than just “I can’t believe they’re doing that.” It’s *not* an intrinsically funny concept to me, but on the other hand it’s not one that offends me either. It just bores me, and I’m left thinking, “Yeah, okay, so you pushed the boundaries in a crazy way. Woohoo.”

  11. mindless_drivel (29) said,

    November 17, 2006 at 2:47 pm

    The thing about humor is that it’s extremely subjective. You can’t go up to somebody and say,”Because I don’t find that funny, it’s not funny for anybody.” That doesn’t mean that some modern humor is idiotic, it just means that some people find idiotic humor funny. I personally am not offended by most humor, but when a movie is offensive just for the sake of being offensive, I quickly tune out because that is not appealing to me. I don’t mind when people use offensive imagery or subject matter to get a point across, but there needs to be a reason for it.

    I personally enjoy humor that has a good helping of cynicism added into it. The British are masters at this. My favorite books and movies have very understated but liberal amounts of humor in them. Each time I reread or rewatch them, something different pops out. I don’t like being bludgeoned to death by a joke. Going back to the earlier conversations on whether art should be subtle or in your face, I tend to lean towards subtle humor.

  12. Henry (5) said,

    November 18, 2006 at 1:26 am

    I saw the movie and thought it had some good moments but didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as everyone else in the theatre.

    It’s kind of a moot point since I’ve already paid to see it and didn’t learn about this until after, but I really, really do not want to support a movie that makes its millions by, in part, defrauding an entire impoverished Romanian village. ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=415871&in_page_id=1770 )

  13. Darien (88) said,

    November 20, 2006 at 12:06 am

    What, pray tell, makes his lying to those people worse than his lying to frat boys in the USA?

  14. mindless_drivel (29) said,

    November 20, 2006 at 10:08 am

    I think in sociological terms, we must support the downtrodden masses. Exploited poor people should always be supported more that exploited frat boys. Afterwards, we’ll just move away and forget about them as they stay in the exact same situation as they started with. Personally, I don’t care about either the poor people or the drunken frat boys.

  15. Henry (5) said,

    November 20, 2006 at 5:27 pm

    I don’t support either case of lying. The difference is that the frat boys ultimately hung themselves with their own rope, whereas the villagers took no such actions.

  16. Ferrick (140) said,

    November 20, 2006 at 9:11 pm

    So, Sam, what are your funniest scenes in Something About Mary?

    There is one line where I took a second to process it and then laughed harder at that one line than anything else in the movie. I liked the movie and laughed a lot but have only seen it once and have no real desire to see it again. That usually tells me a lot about my feelings on a movie but it isn’t definitive.

    Maybe that could be a Top Six list: “Movies you liked but never want to see again.” (Good Will Hunting, As Good As It Gets, Pulp Fiction (Although I have seen most of it again))

    “Every day is better than the next.”

  17. Stephen (221) said,

    November 20, 2006 at 10:33 pm

    Wow, I have watched Pulp Fiction over and over and over and it gets better each time, I think. I can’t even fathom how you could only watch it once.

  18. Ferrick (140) said,

    November 21, 2006 at 1:21 am

    Actually, I would probably put Reservoir Dogs ahead of Pulp Fiction as a movie I liked but wouldn’t watch again. Especially since I’ve pretty much watched Pulp Fiction more than once.

    I enjoyed watching it and love the one-liners within the writing but I think it is that I have no desire to watch the disturbing scenes over and over. Primarily, the overdose scene. Not something I need burned into my brain. There are scenes that I’ve watched again and taking it in doses seems fine but I wouldn’t want to sit down and watch it all the way through again.

  19. Stephen (221) said,

    November 21, 2006 at 4:49 am

    The overdose scene is hilarious. “Prank call, prank call!” In my mind, the disturbing moments in Pulp Fiction are lightened up so much with humor that I don’t have trouble watching them.

  20. Eric (44) said,

    November 21, 2006 at 8:05 am

    I don’t even understand that article. I haven’t seen the movie yet (my friends keep flaking on me), but I’m quite familiar with Borat, and my understanding is that he doesn’t portray this Romanian village as “a backward group of rapists, abortionists and prostitutes, who happily engage in casual incest” — he portrays a fictional Kazakhstani village, which the movie audience knows is fictional (and probably assumes was filmed in the U.S. somewhere) as being a backward group of rapists, etc. No one is going to go into this movie and think these characters being portrayed by the villagers are real. If they were really only paid three pounds each, that does seem a bit low to me, but I don’t agree with the sentiment that they were “tricked”.

    Also, I find it hard to believe that, especially with this kind of movie, they would have failed to secure the proper filming permits.

  21. Sam (405) said,

    November 21, 2006 at 11:38 am

    I suspect there’s not that much of a question of the legality of the filming permits and the documents the Romanian villagers had to sign. And you’re right; it is unlikely that anyone will think the villagers, as portrayed in the movie, are real.

    The objection is not one of legality or libel but a claim of ethics. Just because some gibberish legalspeak documents conform to the law doesn’t mean those signing it had the legal savvy to anticipate all the different ways an American film company could screw you over. Just because a document was signed doesn’t mean it wasn’t signed in “good faith” of returns that were not delivered upon.

    And just because it is unlikely anyone will believe Borat as a documentary, that doesn’t mean individuals cannot have been degraded by the film. I know that if I were not entirely aware of how a film was to portray me, even in the capacity of playing a fictional person, I would be absolutely livid and mortified to discover after the fact that I was portrayed as Borat portrays this village.

    Note, however, that I’m not necessarily siding with the villagers. It stretches the imagination to think the situation is quite as extreme as that article depicts. These people may not be savvy American businessmen, but surely they aren’t total idiots. Nonetheless, it is not a stretch at all to conceive that they were taken advantage of by the studio, and if that’s the case, that’s wrong regardless of whether it’s legal.

    I don’t honestly think any of us on the outside are in a position to make any kind of judgment. We don’t know the facts, the writer of that article clearly has an agenda (otherwise we’d have had a statement from the studio, or, at minimum, a statement that the studio declined to comment), and most importantly of all, nobody knows what happened at the negotiations except the people who were there.

    When a movie is popular, lawsuits like this tend to happen — claims of exploitation or plagiarism or whatever. Many of them are lawsuits of opportunity. When a huge amount of money is at stake, sometimes you can get a settlement out of a studio that wants to avoid the expense and publicity of going to court. On the other hand, sometimes these things are real, this one sounds more plausible than usual, and if you think movie studios don’t try to screw people over on a regular basis, you’re as naive as that article says the villagers are.

    So for myself, I must abstain from making a call on this one. I think the claim is plausible enough that I wouldn’t want to support it, just in case, but I’m not the least bit interested in the movie in the first place, so it’s sort of a moot point.

  22. Eric (44) said,

    November 25, 2006 at 4:04 am

    I just saw the movie, and I thought it was hilarious. I think the thing that shocked me the most was a part where Borat hithced a ride in an RV with some frat brothers and they expressed their views on women. I think it’s horrifying that people think of women the way these guys clearly do — and they don’t try to rationalize it away, the way some misogynists do; they flatly believe that they are superior to women in every way, and state outright that they have no respect for them. That was the part in the movie that shocked me. I don’t think Borat even had to prompt them very much to get this out of them.

  23. Darien (88) said,

    November 25, 2006 at 2:21 pm

    They’re suing him too, by the way.

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