Tuesday, November 14, 2006

You know, there is an old Chinese belief that the moon is God's nipple.

I loved Borat, and am astonished at how many ways there seem to be of not getting the joke, so I was glad to see Christopher Hitchens' newest at Slate. It's been a while since I've been able to say this, but Christopher Hitchens has gotten this one right.
But it's that attitude of painfully maintained open-mindedness and multiculturalism that is really being unmasked and satirized by our man from the 'stan. In what other country could such a character talk his way into being invited to sing the national anthem at a rodeo—where the horse urine is not so highly prized, and where horse excrement, and indeed all excrement, is still a term of abuse?
As John Derbyshire said, Borat is an excellent prank on "American niceness." You can see his marks struggle with how to react to his alarming behavior. They have to take a second to make sure they understood what he said through his broken English and his accent. Then they have to decide whether they're going to give his utterly horrifying home culture the benefit of the doubt or whether they'll bother to chew him out. All of this happens while they're on camera, trying to make a good impression of Americans to "Kazakhstan."

What I like most about Cohen, though, is his ability to keep people in the same room with him while he pushes the line of credibility. Check out this video of Borat at an STD clinic:



The thing I love here is how he has to struggle to keep the doctor from just walking out. He has had relations with his sister, but only at the feast of [foriegn-sounding word]. He throws in just enough things that a stranger won't know how to react to or judge - the camera, the friendly and difficult-to-understand foreignness - and mixes in as much of the truly absurd and terrible that he can without getting smacked across the face.

I probably have an unusual affinity for the way this sort of humor is crafted because my husband works at it dilligently and constantly. In casual conversation, a good rule of thumb is that you shouldn't believe the first thing he tells you because it's probably a lie - and if his brother's around, you should probably not believe a word that's said at the table. The joke works best when you have absolutely no reason to be lying. Andy's favorite gotcha of me was when we had been dating only a few months, and were out on a night walk looking at the full moon, and he told me that the Chinese used to believe that the Moon is God's nipple. I didn't think twice about it - just said "Hmm, that's interesting," and he made it a good 60 seconds without cracking up since I'd actutally believed him. The more quietly Andy can insert something completely absurd and untrue into conversation, the more he's amused. It's an interesting and hilarious and maddening pursuit, and I've learned to fish out his "lie face" and he gets a lot of "Goddammit Andy!" The other stealth-comedy performers in this vein I think of are the Yes Men, whose horrifying big business plans don't raise an eyebrow on MSNBC, but won't get past a community college class.

The "social commentary" aspect of the humor of Borat comes out when the things that people should be alarmed at and should find absurd are matched by the marks who take them completely in stride. The frat guys showed no indication that they needed Borat around to display their racism and misogyny, and I'm sure that old cowboy giggles about hanging homersexurals on his own time. The beauty of the Borat joke is that it's funny whether it backfires because your mark is more absurd or disgusting than you could have imagined, or whether the mark can't get over their social training to freak out like they should.

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