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.