Who’s Borat kidding?
I AM NOT a great journalist. You may have gathered that by the fact that most of the quotes in these columns come either from my wife, my mom or Danny Bonaduce. But this month I’ve been pleased to find out that there are far worse journalists than me. Many of whom are not hosting the “CBS Evening News.”
They are, however, conducting interviews with Borat Sagdiyev, who is not a real person. Although I didn’t go to journalism school, I’m pretty sure that you’re supposed to stick to quotes from real people. Otherwise, the Bush administration could just direct all questions about Iraq to Jack Bauer.
But because comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s wild-and-crazy-foreigner-guy character is so amusing, and news is so boring, the “Today” show, Fox News, the Guardian, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Entertainment Weekly, Premiere and most local newspapers are willing to pretend that Borat is a real Kazakh reporter who put out a real documentary. Luckily, they hadn’t thought of this during the craze for those “Ernest” movies.
In “Borat,” the highest-grossing film in the country for the second week in a row, Cohen uses the friendly Central Asian to fool unsuspecting Americans into revealing their cultural ignorance (a Southern dinner host politely shows him that his feces go in the toilet, not in the bag he’s presented her with), anti-Semitism (a gun shop owner demonstrates which gun is best for shooting a Jew), homophobia, sexism and hatred of Muslims (we’re going to need to come up with a word for that). And now he’s tricked journalists -- who have the distinct advantage of knowing that he’s not real -- into showing how much they’re willing to compromise to save our dying industry. No one has been this desperate to sound cool since Pat O’Brien stopped drunk dialing.
Though Cohen has had many hilarious, penetrating moments, these interviews with journalists are some of his best. Male journalists get suckered into high-fiving him over the death of his wife. They laugh with Western arrogance over the fact that Borat’s father is named Boltok the Rapist. Harry Smith wrestled him on “The Early Show.” Becky Anderson of CNN International, desperate to play along, asked: “I’ve got plow experience, I’ve got no retardation in the family, and I’m not Jewish. Any chance that you and I could have a little thing?” I love that Cohen is using his performance art on journalists themselves, who are willing to e-mail him questions in advance and then print Q&As; with a fake character as if it were a real-time interview. I believe journalism should be entertaining. But not in the Stephen Glass/Jayson Blair/Loch Ness monster way.
If you can’t make a story about a movie this complicated and different interesting -- without just getting Cohen to perform -- then you might as well just direct people to a clip of his movie. The excuse is that it’s only entertainment journalism. But popular culture has dramatic effects on our society. The Beatles, “Easy Rider,” “All in the Family,” the Sex Pistols, Virginia Woolf, NWA, Picasso, MTV, Mickey Mouse -- these have changed the way we live more than most news events. And “Borat” is one of those creations.
I wrote a three-page story about “Borat” for Time magazine, and my editors chose not to have me talk to Cohen in character. Instead, I asked the director and producer about what “Borat’s” candid camera says about Americans and whether the film is offensive to Jews, Gypsies or Kazakhs. Or to people who prefer not to see movies with human feces in bags.
But the most important question in “Borat” -- the one that makes it a cultural turning point -- is about whether the act of tricking unsuspecting victims and sharing it with millions of people is cruel or funny. If privacy is a 20th century holdover, do we all deserve to have our inner nature outed by Colbert or “Jackass” or YouTube? The answer to that question about comedy -- more than music, MySpace or Paris Hilton -- is what cleaves the reality TV generation from their parents. And it’s too bad that Cohen, a Cambridge-educated, traditional, observant Jew, isn’t answering it.
But it’s worth it to see journalists reveal their true selves. I hate to imagine what the buggy whip people did to themselves with those things at the end.