Home / Actually, I Don’t Like You: Turning Down Borat

Actually, I Don’t Like You: Turning Down Borat

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I find I've never had to be as defensive about an entertainment decision as I've had to be in deciding not to pay to see Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. So I’m explaining here and forever holding my peace, outside of forwarding the URL to people who haven’t realized they should stop bugging me about it.

I'm sure Borat is funny. I've thought Sacha Baron Cohen was funny since I first saw Da Ali G Show in the 1990s, when it was still British. The show was hilarious back then. The unwitting participants in the laughs were pretty hostile to the Ali G or Borat characters, and Cohen was good at rolling with that.

When the show came to HBO, it was still hilarious, but in a different way. The Americans were so nice to him. The hilarity came in this niceness: the desire to gloss over suggestions (even Polaroids) of Borat having sex with his sister, the struggle to maintain a polite round-table on religion while your moderator insisted you hadn't flushed the toilet after defecating, the patience of explaining why 'honkey' wasn't a nice way to describe white people.

With all of Cohen's characters, the hilarity’s produced through a reliance on the candid camera: his interlocutor/foil rising to infuriating bait, giving him too much benefit of the doubt, or else going off on an obliviously self-obsessed tangent. Witness is borne to this reliance by the unfunny, unmitigated crap that was Ali G Indahouse, a scripted film without candid reactions.

This reliance is complete with his Borat character, who says the most shocking things to the most average people. It's easier for me to laugh at Bruno and Ali G; the shtick from those characters is often directed at types who should know better because they court that kind of attention. But the humour in Borat's shtick is akin to running up to some jerk on the street, farting in his face, and filming the reaction.

I'm sure Cohen works hard on Borat. Nonetheless, it's lazy humour. It makes us laugh because we're glad it's not us getting nad-palmed, glad that no confused, earnest foreigner is anxiously asking us to join a sing-a-long of "Throw the Jew Down the Well," glad because it makes us look smarter than the people on camera. In the words of Homer Simpson watching a man get a football to the groin, “It’s funny ‘coz it’s not me.”

I'm past the point of paying to see this kind of movie. I was watching Ali G when most North Americans still thought Saturday Night Live was the be-all and end-all of television humour, so I know what I'm turning down. This movie will be fucking hilarious, no doubt about it. But I don't care. Why is that so hard to understand?

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About Melita Teale

  • Having actually seen the Borat movie (but never Da Ali G Show), I will report that the movie IS hilarious, but not really at the expense of the Americans. Really, none of the Americans had a meltdown or did much that was really dumb. You might fault the Americans for erring somewhat on the side of being too patient with the foreigner talking foolishness, but they really did very little that would subject them to ridicule. The folks at the Alabama dinner party were particularly patient and nice, even when he’s bringing a bag of poo to their dinner table.

  • Al, I’m glad it’s good. I don’t have a problem with the mockery of Americans myself – you know, I don’t know of too many other countries where self-satire is so well developed.

    You shouldn’t miss the show. It’s good. And if you’re already paying for HBO, you don’t need to pay to see it.

  • nugget

    I couldn’t agree more. Though I did see it, and I was a bit disappointed.

  • Melita, I’m 100% in favor of satirizing Americans. We’re big boys and girls, and we can take it. I went expecting to see that some Americans had been behaving badly, and was pleasantly surprised at how well we came out of this test.

    Also, I would specifically disagree with your description of the Borat approach as “lazy.” You might say that he was fighting dirty with his deceptive tactics, or that Nugget was less than impressed with the results. However, there was nothing lazy about the approach, and Cohen very much put both his dignity and even his personal safety very much on the line.

  • Al, I pointed out in my article that I’m sure Cohen works hard on Borat. If you watched the show, you’d see a scene where he gets piss drunk and stays in character with hilarious results. It’s incredible. Or it’s cocaine. Either way, he’s a hard-working man.

    I called the humour lazy. It’s well-done candid camera. I’d watch it for free on an aeroplane. I wouldn’t pay $12 for it. You did. That’s where we disagree.

  • John Galt

    “There is a level of cowardice lower than that of the conformist; the fashionable non-conformist.” – Ayn Rand

  • JC

    I think you’re missing the boat a little bit here. It’s hardly lazy humour. In fact, Borat is smart in the sense that as over-the-top as the character may be, the humour is revealed when the interviewees reveal their own prejudices and racism.

    One of the funniest bits from Ali G is when Bruno interviews a bunch of fashion designers, and in the process they contradict themselves over and over again, revealing once and for all the vacuousness and brainlessness that dominates our society.

  • Hey . . . I’d pay alot more than $12 to see the Bruno movie. Are you people actually reading the article, or just getting pissed off that I don’t want to see this movie and letting your eyes go cross-eyed at bits where I talk about things like liking characters like Bruno better because the people he’s working with court that sort of attention?

    BTW, Ayn Rand is for babies.

  • JC

    I did read your article. You argue that “the humour in Borat’s shtick is akin to running up to some jerk on the street, farting in his face, and filming the reaction”, I maintain that it’s a little bit smarter than that.

    His stupidity, if taken at face value, is nothing more, but I say it’s a device to expose even more stupidity.

    Incidentally, I clicked through to your personal blog, and just on the first post alone, I noted two comments directed at two different races. Though they might not necessarily be “racist” per se, I wonder how well you’d fare in a Borat interview yourself.

  • Incidentally, JC, I belong to one of those races, and the other was in a Cohen song title. But it’s nice to know you can read individual words when you have something to prove.

  • CChen

    Melita, I totally agree with your point of view. Thanks for writing the article, I’m getting so sick of everyone just loving the movie because they feel so superior to the people in the movie.

    And don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone the opinions of many of Borat’s victims.
    As someone who was one of only a couple of asians in a small West Virginian town, I got my fill of bigotted treatment; food thrown at me at school, racial slurs yelled at me on the street, people following me into the bathroom to verbally harass me.

    Still there were lovely people who were nice to me, who tried within the best of their knowledge, and cultural experience to be good to me. I saw people like that in the movie too and I don’t appreciate it.

  • Bliffle

    I decided soon after this movie appeared that I wouldn’t see it: Too broad.

  • Thanks, Chen. You got what I was driving at. In great part Borat’s straight men are run-of-the-mill people who see an anxious, vulnerable fish-out-of-water. Laughing at those people, who sometimes act like idiots trying to reassure or accommodate the fish-out-of-water, is cheap.

    It’s like this CanCom segment called “Talking to Americans.” A Canadian ‘reporter’ shanghais people on the street and asks them ridiculous questions about things like a non-existent $5 Canadian coin called the “woody.” People are anxious to be helpful and to sound like they know what they’re talking about. They can be interviewed in the hundreds and carefully edited for maximum hilarity. The end result makes the United States look like a nation of ignorant loudmouths. That’s cheap, candid-camera humour. Hilarious, but cheap. Too cheap to pay for. Just like Borat.

    But “TOA” sometimes tackles people who should know better about the questions they’re asked, like academics or politicians. And then it’s not so cheap. And it’s not like Borat anymore. AND I don’t have to pay $12 to see it.

  • Ty

    You are Canadian, so we are not surprised you don’t want to see it. This film polks fun at Americans, so it is most enjoyed by Americans and those who hate Americans (Which is why this did well opening weekend in Europe).

    I saw Da Ali G Show originally on HBO and Borat was easily my favorite character of his. That is why I saw the Borat movie and loved it too.

    What you call “cheap,” I call biting social commentary.

    Example: Cohen doesn’t wash his suit for Borat. Why? The suit being smelly makes him seem more foreign to Americans. THAT IS BITING SOCIAL COMMENTARY. Without doing anything but having Americans smell him, social commentary is made: you are a foreigner if you smell. Americans believe his nonsense because he has dark skin, a thick moustache, and “smells” like a foreigner.

    What does say about American society? The thing is, you don’t care because you aren’t American. Americans care, which is what makes this interesting and funny to us at the same time.

  • Maybe you’re right, Snarkattack. Maybe understanding the class structure and urban environments in Britain gave him more to be clever about. Now Borat, at least, has been reduced to laughs via smelliness (I’ve heard Cohen talking about that, Ty; it adds physical humour to situations like unexpectedly kissing grown men, and in terms of ‘biting social commentary’ rates somewhere below the tough moral stand “There’s Something About Mary” took against stalking). But it works, so there you are, I guess.

    The first few episodes of the HBO series seemed dumbed down. I thought this was on purpose because obviously there’s alot to be witty and acerbic about in the United States if you want to be, and because eventually the Ali G interviews with semi-famous writers and politicians got so hilarious.

    This kind of proves your point, though, as he does his funniest stuff with media figures. The Borat character never stepped up like that. I hope that was to keep a lower profile before the film, and not because Cohen’d rather step on little toes than big ones.

  • John Galt

    “BTW, Ayn Rand is for babies. ”

    That statement alone, proves to me that I’m am posting to an idiot…

  • It’s is interesting you’re are so sure, about that…

  • John Galt

    Ayn Rand, is easily one of the greatest philosophical minds to ever walk the Earth. Dismissing Objectivism, as “something for babies”, is a strong indicator of a weak intellect…

  • John, why don’t you write an article about Ayn Rand and objectivism?

    Then I’ll write a comment about how she butchered literature and philosophy at once in her crummy rants, and maybe about how objectivism is the paranoid self-justification of infantile assholes who want a prettier way to describe themselves.

    Even if I make a good point, you’ll look like a much stronger intellect than you do now because one of the editors will fix your punctuation.

  • I must admit, I am pleasantly surprised. I guess my spelling must be better than I thought, if it makes you desperate enough to reach as far as punctuation in search of “counterarguments”. What’s next – a wrong font, not enough spaces in a tab? Nevertheless, you choosing to attack the form over the essence just proves my earlier point.

    I rest my case, and leave you with a quote:

    “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” – Ayn Rand


  • Ladies and gentlemen, John leaves us with a quote explaining the philosophy of an infantile asshole. You should remember it; that way you’ll never have to consider subjecting yourself to objectivist “literature”.

    The philosophical novel is one thing. A paranoid prose-pisser plugging unoriginal ideas of obsessive selfishness through fiction because it’s easier for her to manipulate imaginary (if tedious) situations than pay attention to biological and social reality – that’s Ayn Rand.

    Sacha Baron Cohen himself has more vision. I’m still not going to see the Borat movie, though.

  • Dennis M

    I agree with you on Ayn Rand.

    That being said, it’s fascinating that you write an elitist article, then attack an elitist (though less grammatically impressive) poster.

    So your argument is (and I’ll accept the fart in someone’s face comment as provocative sensationalism) that it’s too low a common denominator, and in essence, you’re above that.

    Well. If you bothered to see the movie, rather than attack a straw man, then many of your claims would be disproved. There’s plenty of the “niceness” you describe, and even if it is occasionally prone to the shock statements towards the unsuspecting victim – so what? Better to leave it unacknowledged, and the elephant in the room, than satirize it and make it comedic?

    You’d also find Borat “fucking hilarious”, I suspect.

    Until then, you just seem miserly for the sake of being miserly.

  • More like I’m above paying $12 for that, Dennis. That only makes me miserly from the point of view of the film’s producers. The $12 I save will almost certainly not be sensibly spent, I’m afraid. But it will be more sensibly spent than going to see Borat. Cohen’s humour is television fare at best and from an amusement point of view I haven’t heard anything suggesting the film offers more than the show.

    Obviously there’s more to it than that or else I just would have shut up, so . . . You talk about “leaving it unacknowledged, and the elephant in the room, than satirize it and make it comedic” and I think you’re talking about the niceness. That’s the thing.

    It’s not uncovered or unacknowledged. It’s right there. It’s the way people get through life without killing each other. You could satirize it, sure. But not in a way that’s going to be interesting enough for me to blow $12 on. Or $8 on Tuesdays. Frankly, I don’t think it’s even something I want to spend 84 minutes on.

    There is so much else to satirize that’s worth time and money. My time and money. And if that makes me elitist, viva elitism.

  • IgnatiusReilly

    “paranoid self-justification”

    sounds like this article.

  • nugget

    “There is a level of cowardice lower than that of the conformist; the fashionable non-conformist.” – Ayn Rand

    -John Galt-

    This is too funny. Isn’t Ayn Rand, like, THE most unfashionably fashionable post-graduate school corporate world intelligentsia middle-aged depressed man thing to read right now?? Rand’s rhetoric doesn’t stand a chance against the most unforgiving critic, time.

    John. Do you wear a leather jacket?

  • nugget

    let me also say that people like Ayn Rand’s flavor-of-the-decade ramblings because the postulates make them feel better about themselves. It means that they can go on burying their guilt and practicing a shameless asshole lifestyle. This is only a very natural justification for their material lust and various immoral means to achieve.

  • Like most people, I couldn’t care less whether you like Borat. Perhaps you’re not as brave as you think you are?

    I think it’s pretty gnarly that your bad-assed sophisticated Canadian self was watching Ali G. back when it was cool, man. You certainly are better than the rest of us.

    For the record, no person—not in America or anywhere else in the universe—thought Saturday Night Live was the “be-all and end-all of television humour”.

  • Nugget, I’m pretty much with you. I figure calling themselves ‘objectivists’ is fine if gets disconnected, empty men through the night, but when they start prostletyzing I can’t stomach it.

    For the record, Pete, you’ve just set the bar for commentating uselessness. You’ve managed to make each of your sentences pointless. Gnarly! Atta not care less!

  • My point, perhaps to subtle for you, was that your defensiveness leads you to appear quite arrogant. One hopes this was not intentional.

    Of course, it’s this comment that’s truly useless, because your response made my point for me.

  • I would add that the whole “I was into it back before it was cool” argument is nothing more than a hipster security blanket. When you start appreciating something good is far less important than the fact that you do appreciate it. And that’s overrated, too.

    Only a fool would judge a person’s worthiness based on the contents of their iPod or DVD collection. Taste may be an aspect of a person’s personality, but it says nothing about the essential goodness (or lack thereof) of their heart.

    That said, it’s unfortunate that people have been giving you so much crap for not wanting to see Borat. You may as well have walked into a college student union and announced that you hate the Daily Show. The people who judge you for your taste are insecure jackasses.

    Just don’t fall into that trap yourself. Dissing someone else’s tastes is a sure sign of closed-mindedness. Perhaps you didn’t intend it this way, but you come very close to saying that Borat fans are bandwagon-jumping rubes and johnny come lately ignorami.

    There are a million things under the sun. Don’t forget that you’re defending your choice to like what you like without having to put up with the disapproval of others. I respect that. But it is a two-way street.

  • Fair enough, Pete, but I never made a statement like “I was into Borat before Borat was cool, so it’s not cool to me now.”

    The lines I think you find most arrogant, towards the end of the article, aren’t there to make people feel like they’re not as hip as I am. They’re to make the sort of people who’d been endlessly bothering me to go understand that I know what I’m missing and I don’t care, and to allow other people in the same situation to get some sympathy.

    Because if you think this comment thread has been excessive, you should have seen my home for the first week of November. People have been way too militant about the necessity of seeing this movie.

  • Right on, and sorry you were pilloried.

    We can go see the Bruno movie together in 2008. If is ok say “Vassup.” If no, say “ich don’t think so.”

    (And it really is true, no one has thought SNL was good since about 1982…)

  • Vassup – I hope they took the rushes already. I don’t know if fashionistas are going to be so oblivious they’re not going to recognize Bruno from a mile away now . . .

  • Oh, their vanity will easily eclipse their sense of good judgment.

  • STM

    Two of the funniest things I’ve seen on TV were Ali G interviews, one with Buzz Aldrin (Buzz Lightyear) and the other with former US surgeon-general C. Everett Koop. Neither of them got the joke, although one wonders why Koop, who conducted the interview in a very patronising way, didn’t work it out pretty quickly.

    Buzz was just shocked, I think, particularly by Baron Cohen’s question about whether man will ever walk on the sun.

    They were cringeworthy, but the best of all was Ali G’s interview with that darling of the loony Left, linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky. The revelation about Ali G’s grandad being “cunni-lingual” had Chomsky, for once, lost for words.

    Check ’em out by doing a search on google video.

    They are a hoot.

  • Yeah, those were three BRILLIANT interviews. Especially the Noam. Loved it. Ali G is funny when people are in on the joke too though . . . I loved the studio interview with the Beckhams.

    I’d like to say that the thing about Bruno and Ali G is that the “biting social commentary” works better. People struggle to accommodate poor, confused, vulnerable, visibly foriegn Borat. So half the time the humour rests on them struggling to be polite. That’s not biting ANYTHING.

    But Ali G manages to often get the same fish-out-of-water treatment from victims who should be much more accustomed to dealing with the media simply by virtue of seeming young and – erm – semi-bad-ass, which is telling in terms of how these media figures think about the young. Whether they’re lovable (as poor Buzz was) or humourless dicks (like Naomi Klein).

    And then Bruno is one step more sophisticated, because he’s usually going into a milieu WHERE HE SEEMS TO BELONG. The people he deals with aren’t just humouring him or coddling him. He might occasionally shock them, but not nearly as much as they should be shocked. We can have the feeling we’re really getting their true colours, which I don’t think we should with Borat’s schtick.

    And now I’m going to shut up about Bruno because I want the 2008 movie to work. If this Borat movie fucked up the prospects for the Bruno film, I’ll be sad.

  • Gary

    Its not hard to understand at all… because you’re a pretentious prick! innit!