Thursday, July 2, 2009

From Borat To Bruno

Jack Benny
George Burns
Eddie Cantor
George Jessel
Fanny Brice
Milton Berle
Henny Youngman
Phil Silvers
Bert Lahr
The Marx Brothers
Neil Simon
The Three Stooges
Al Jolson
Ed Wynn
Gertrude Berg
Red Buttons
Danny Kaye
Jackie Mason
Alan King

Joan Rivers
Mel Brooks
Lenny Bruce
Mort Sahl
Jack Gilford
Carl Reiner
Jerry Lewis
Woody Allen
Sid Caesar
Mike Nichols
Elaine May
Jerry Stiller
Anne Meara
David Steinberg
Shelley Berman
Albert Brooks
Richard Lewis
Gary Shandling
Al Franken

Rodney Dangerfield
Paul Reiser
David Brenner
Jon Stewart
Ben Stiller
Adam Sandler
Goldie Hawn
Andy Kaufman
Jerry Seinfeld
Shecky Greene
Robert Klein
Don Rickles
Billy Crystal
Bette Midler
Fran Drescher
Roseanne Barr
Sandra Bernhard
Madeline Kahn
Gilda Radner

What other race, religion, culture, ethnicity has a list like this? None.
Sure, there are a handful of successful black comedians who are household names like, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. And they are great comics to be sure. But it’s small latkes comparatively. Truthfully, no other group comes close.

While the roots of Jewish comedy in the twentieth century trail back to the old country, here in this decade there’s a British import by the name of Sacha Baron Cohen who is again taking Jewish comedy into new territory. Who is he and how does his brand of humor fit in, or veer off, from what’s come before?

In speaking with experts in the field of comedy, Sacha Baron Cohen, might have just been Sacha Baron, had it not been for his predecessors.

Within our long, winding tree of laughter, there are demarcative eras, branches of media that carried the message that changed the course of history while influencing politics and pop culture.

Vaudeville transitioned into radio, which then made it’s way to movies and, along with a detour creating a new Jewish Eden in The Borscht Belt, eventually landed onto TV screens. That winding path of comedy throughout the entire 20th century is a genealogy of Jewry. So powerful was it, that in many ways it’s become like religion.

According to Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile a book about the story of Jewish Comedians in America, “For the secularized Jewish community, the comedians were especially important as secular rabbis providing both meaning and a way into American society.”

In speaking with Mr. Epstein, I asked if our comedians have been a salvation to more than just us Jews? Are gentiles even aware of what we’ve given to them with this gift of laughter? And, with a names like Sacha Baron Cohen, do they even know we’re Jewish?

“If Jerry Seinfeld had been putting together a radio program in the 1930s, it wouldn’t have been called Seinfeld, his name would have been Jerry Smith” he retorted. But Epstein remarked, “much of gentile awareness came by way of Woody Allen, who in the 1960s deserves a lot of the credit in movies like Take The Money And Run and later in Annie Hall where he’s dressed like a Hassid.”

For Baron Cohen, who is a an observant Jew, his characterizations seem so far from that bygone era when Jews were afraid to admit their Judaism, that he’s actually taken it 180 degrees. Though most Jews are in on the joke, in some of his characterizations he actually portrays an anti-Semite. That trick of the audience being in on his ruse, is a necessary linchpin of his comedy.

Rewind back to the early years of this century on HBO, when his new voice came onto the scene.

In the first season of Da Ali G Show on HBO, Sacha Baron Cohen introduced Bruno to America. Bruno was part of his trio of characters who along with Borat wore a guise while interviewing unsuspecting individuals from politicians and celebrities to ordinary folks. In turn, Cohen would expose their reactions to his outlandish behavior and questions, each time making them look like utter fools.

Now on July 10th, for a much wider audience, he will revive a character known to only cable subscribes and Youtube followers.

To get a sense of his various characters’ shtick, Cohen’s Ali G., for example would pretend to be, as he simply put it on David Lettermen’s Late Show “a twit”.

Cohen’s feigning idiocy is definitely a part of his act. But his description is also about as understated as his Ali G wardrobe. For it takes sheer chutzpah to insert himself into the situations that he does. Fashionwise, Cohen’s Ali G. often dons a bright yellow homeboy sweat suit with wrap around shades and a British inner city attitude. He is the modern day version of Norman Mailer’s The While Negro, i.e., a white hipster who clothed himself in black garb and speaks and gestures like a rap star.

In one of his shows he wangles his way into interviewing former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Ali asks him “What is legal? And gets a legit answer. Then asks what is illegal, again, a normal answer. But when he asks with a straight face what is “barely legal” and still gets the same naïve answer back, the audience is in on the joke, while Mr. Thornburgh is caught completely unaware of what he’s gotten himself into. I won’t even get into the bit where Cohen asks him about a “hung” jury, but let’s just say, Cohen might as well play a schoolyard trick and “pants” the poor man. It’s hard to contain laughter, while squirming in sympathetic pain as the chief law enforcement officer gets conned by a comic.

With Cohen’s alter ego gathering so much fame however, came an inability to fool an ever shrinking pool of unsuspecting individuals. Consequently, with Ali G. so famous, he then had to rely on the two other doppelgangers in his repertoire.

One was Borat (the anti-Semite I referenced earlier), who in 2006 became a hit movie with Cohen playing the dope from Kazakhstan and perhaps the most infamous foreign visitor since Tocqueville.

Borat swept the country by storm in his movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. But again, like Ali G, once exposed to the world, Borat became such a recognizable character there was no way Cohen could have again used him successfully. His jig was up.

That leads us to Bruno, who, luckily for Cohen, and for us, was not as overly, err, out.

The character Bruno is an Austrian gay fashion reporter who works for a fake TV station (ÖJRF - revealed once as Österreichischer Jungen-Rundfunk, or in English, Austrian Boys' Broadcasting).

In each of the three faces of Sacha, his guerilla style of comedy lures the unsuspecting victims of his ruse in, often with the intended effect of revealing their own prejudice and darker side.

His same in-your-face technique is similar to the one used by Michael Moore in his movies, most notably Roger & Me, Bowling For Columbine and perhaps his most infamous, Fahrenheit 9/11.

Yet for Cohen, by donning his characters with a disguise and the guise of satire, he’s able to twist his punch just as we’re keeling over in cramps from a belly laugh.

While Moore lures his victims in and let’s them get tangled up in their own contradictions, he plays himself while intending to make a serious political point.

Cohen dressed in peculiar garb, has fun dancing outside the edge of what’s deemed appropriate behavior. While less overt in his approach to politics, it could be argued that because his gags are so outrageous they hide any socially or politically redeeming quality.

Indeed, some think his humor a far cry from anything that could be deemed sophisticated.

According to Ruth Wisse, a Harvard College Professor and Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and author of the classic, The Schlemiel As Modern Hero, “Sacha Baron Cohen’s style is much less of an emphasis on jokes or on verbal repartee and more on slapstick and violence.” Sadly though authoritatively, she remarks, “He relies on a greater vulgarity and coarseness. As the degree of Jewish literacy declines, the literacy of Jewish humor also declines.”

I suppose the same could have been said of other Jewish humorists and certainly was of characters like The Three Stooges. But while Cohen’s humor can and does incite physical violence, it’s very reliant on word play as evidenced by the Dick Thornburgh repartee. The joke however is when his victims misinterpret it. And that phenomenon gets repeated in all too many of his encounters. When he plays a dolt who mangles the language, it’s in order to set the trap for his victims.

In many of the scenes in Bruno, like a chameleon, he blends right into the trendy circumstances, fitting in perfectly, only to then create a scene.

To give you some sense of the character, let’s rewind to an early episode on Da Ali G Show for some of Bruno’s appearances. Take the one where he infiltrates NY Fashion Week and interviews stylists while getting them to say outrageous things like “trailer trash are primitive rubbish people” and laughing that “we take the clothes from the homeless people and sell them while jacking up the price”. While posing with his blond coiffed hair, swooshy stance and microphone he has fashion designers nod and agree “that is the beauty of fashion”. Or, in another interview, he has a male fashionista claim that fashion has saved more lives than doctors. But perhaps the most edgy is when he has a stylist agree “people without fashion sense should be sent on a train to a camp and told ‘bye bye’.”

Cohen, who is an observant Jew, often reveals the horrors in his unsuspecting victims hearts, many of whom probably consider themselves to be “politically correct”, but due to the nature of the bait he lays for them, he is able to have them utter such pronouncements.

Now, by taking his showbag of tricks and opening it up on the big screen, the medium’s ubiquity will become part of the show. Like a modern day Candid Camera with a twenty-first century edginess, the larger the audience he has to expose humanity’s embarrassing elements, the greater impact it has due to its dependency on us all being in on the joke. His medium and his message are symbiotic.

In the upcoming film, Bruno, Cohen travels to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where a riot ensued at a stunt orchestrated by Baron Cohen.

Imagine the reaction when approximately 1500 fans are lured by print and on Craigslist to an event billed as cage fighting, held at a Convention Center and promoting "hot girls", $1 beer and $5 admission. But, instead of hot girls and cage fighting, the acts taking place are homosexual! Lo and behold, the performers in the cage were none other than Bruno (Baron Cohen) under the ironic gimmick, "Straight Dave" and an unknown actor portraying his opponent in the cage.

The crowd truly went nuts throwing chairs and beer and luckily, though risking his life for a laugh, Cohen got out alive. Yes, taking their lives in their hands is what comics do whenever they get up on stage, standing there with nothing between them, a microphone and a one-liner. But Cohen is a daredevil.

Of the earlier long list of Jewish comedians, the one SBC puts me most in mind of isæGroucho.

And long before Baron Cohen made rubes of southerners in Arkansas, one of the most verbally adept and hilarious of any Jewish comics, had his own fun with neighboring Texas.

It’s Marx Brothers lore that during an evening performance of theirs in 1912, (long before their movie career), at the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas, the show was interrupted by shouts from outside about a runaway mule. The audience hurried outside to see what was happening, Groucho, angered by the interruption, yelled out "The jackass is the flower of Tex-ass".

Luckily for Groucho, when the audience returned, instead of becoming angry, they laughed and the family then realized they had potential as a comic troupe.

But what some younger readers may not realize is that the era in which the Marx Brothers films ran, was the height of The Great Depression; The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931) and on and on. Throughout the hardest of times, Jews were making the country laugh.

Now we’re in the Great Recession and in a summer which is giving us Star Trek, Transformers, Terminator and Wolverine the two dimples on either end of the season’s haunted smile are Woody Allen’s Whatever Works starring his central casting’s stand-in Larry David, and Cohen’s Bruno.

It cannot be ignored either that SBC’s character is not just gay, but flaming and at a time when more and more States are allowing same-sex marriages. We have yet to see what influence, if any, Bruno will have on the debate that’s taking place across the country, but historically humor and Jewish comics in particular, have played a vital role in moving both the political and social scrimmage line.

No doubt comedy and Jewish comedians will have a role to play when it comes to the issue. But it may not be all laughs.

While many refer to the phrase “comic relief”, I often wonder if comedy does just the opposite and in turn, exacerbates. Writing of the schlemiel in her book, Wisse describes this comic stance as “a stage from which to challenge the political and philosophic status quo.”

Likewise according to Epstein, “The Jews have had to come up with a way to deal with the tragedies that punctuated their history.” And what people know from pain and tragedy more? To ask the question is to answer it.

While Jews in the 1930s had to fake a self, by either changing their name or changing their accent, being Jewish at home and non-Jewish in public. For Cohen, by donning all of these various disguises he is taking those same characteristics and mocking them.

According to Epstein, “The very act of faking a self is mocking what the Jews had to do. Cohen’s mocking gentile society and mocking what the gentiles forced the Jews to do. ‘You want to see what it’s like to fake a self…here, I’ll show you’.”

Note too, Cohen’s characters are narrow-minded and prejudiced. By playing them, he’s in essence satirizing bigotry.

It’s exactly what other political Jewish satirists have done, though due to the advancements Jews have made over time, Cohen’s able, unlike The Marx Brothers, to be openly Jewish about it, just like Jon Stewart can.

But if Cohen and other Jewish comedians who poke fun at politics and in turn move the needle of what’s acceptable while affecting political and social change, what about Jews who’ve been politically active, but use satire and comic techniques as instruments of change?

Speaking to one who knew both Lenny Bruce and Abbie Hoffman, I was able to get a hold of the immanent writer on politics and civil liberties, Nat Hentoff on the subject. For Hentoff, “Lenny used words to show people, why they’re so afraid of words. Lenny, like Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory used comedy to point to social issues.” He said, “People talk about free speech, but those people are only for free speech if they believe in the right of people saying things you hate.”

In a more radical fashion, Abbie Hoffman, purposefully used theatrical and comic techniques for political ends, like when he gathered together 50,000 demonstrators in front of the Pentagon and attempted to lift it using psychic energy. He describes in his autobiographical book, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture, how his cohort Jerry Rubin’s style was “too forceful and rhetorical. It didn’t have the silly element to appeal to the spirit.”

It’s that element, the human element, which great creators of comedy have leveraged most successfully. Hentoff uses the example of the satirist Mark Twain whose book Huckleberry Finn was the most powerful anti-racist book with a great impact.

But if African Americans and Jews were the token oppressed minority and the pool from where most comedians rose during the past century, then gay comedians have and are asserting their role to play today. Two of the most notable gay, Jewish comics today are Jason Stuart and Jaffe Cohen.

Stuart, whose father was a Holocaust survivor and his mother grew up poor and in Brooklyn, explained to me how his father told him at age eight, that no matter what young Stuart experienced, it will never compare to what he’s experienced. For Stuart who again punches home the fact that he was eight, emphasizes the only way he could comprehend what he was talking about was through humor.

I asked them what it’s like when a straight guy, like Sacha Baron Cohen, plays a gay character. Is it at all offensive? Stuart replied, “My only concern is that when you are talking about something that’s not your experience, your poking at it, rather than playing it…you’re doing an impression. But through the years straight men love playing us. More straight men have played gay men, than gay men have.” And he’s right. After all, from Tom Hanks to Al Pacino and, most recently with Sean Penn, straight men have dominated.

For Jaffee, “Being gay is only part of the act. In the age of Obama, we should care less about the differences and more on what we have in common.”

Ultimately, that’s what all of the great comedians have been able to do, whatever their background. By creating a direct connection with their audience they used that very human element, no matter whether it was Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld or Sacha Baron Cohen.

While Cohen may not set out to achieve social change, it will be interesting to see if by inserting himself as a reporter into circumstances where he’s able to expose an ugly side of our humanity, he’ll expose prejudice and enlighten our sensibilities. All that while making us laugh at the same time.