Monday, April 9, 2007

Glorious Benefit

A few years back, while I was having dinner with Dave Chappelle, he asked me what I thought of Da Ali G Show. I said I didn't think it was all that funny, in part because it put me in the position of feeling sorry for people like Newt Gingrich, people I really didn't want to feel sorry for. Chappelle agreed with me. He didn't get the show and didn't understand what was so funny about it.

I have a feeling Chappelle liked Borat -- the 2006 film by Larry Charles, continuing the triumphant roll he began with Masked and Anonymous -- more than that, because there's a lot more lunatic humor in it that doesn't come at anyone's expense. But what made Borat a cause celebre, of course, were the scenes poking fun at ordinary Americans, which actually make up a minor part of the film. I also suspect that these scenes were more staged than most people are aware of, but that's another story.

Take the sequence where Borat attends a formal dinner party somewhere in the Southern part of the U.S. It's fine, really, when he misinterprets one guest's self-description of "retired" as "retard." Handing the hostess a plastic bag of his own poop, though, probably made everyone in the room a wee bit suspicious, so that when a black prostitute in a halter top shows up just before dessert, one suspects that the outraged reaction isn't because of racism or classism but simply because the other guests realize they have been played for chumps.

I wasn't laughing or disgusted with these people by the end of the scene; I felt sorry for them. They didn't do anything but be nice to this odd, foul character in their midst. And even if you think these people deserved a bit of comeuppance, being mean to people you think deserve it is still being mean, which is rarely funny. Candid Camera always had the decency to trot out Allen Funt at the end of a gag, letting the victim off the hook. What we really needed at the end of this sequence was for Borat to stand up and announce, "Hey, it's me, British TV personality Sacha Baron Cohen! And look, over there, it's Masked and Anonymous director Larry Charles!"

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