November 16, 2006

Sacha Baron Cohen, working as a tool.

Rolling Stone has an interview with Sacha Baron Cohen that's billed as his only out-of-character interview. (Via Metafilter.) He's really smart -- smart enough to play idiots brilliantly -- and I'm not positive I want to hear him explain the theory behind it. Is it a little like a magician ruining his magic by revealing what the trick is? Let's read it anyway:
"Borat essentially works as a tool," Baron Cohen says. "By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice, whether it's anti-Semitism or an acceptance of anti-Semitism. 'Throw the Jew Down the Well' [a song performed at a country & western bar during Da Ali G Show] was a very controversial sketch, and some members of the Jewish community thought that it was actually going to encourage anti-Semitism. But to me it revealed something about that bar in Tucson. And the question is: Did it reveal that they were anti-Semitic? Perhaps. But maybe it just revealed that they were indifferent to anti-Semitism.

"I remember, when I was in university I studied history, and there was this one major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw. And his quote was, 'The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.' I know it's not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but I think it's an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic."

Baron Cohen doesn't make this grand statement with confidence. He makes it shyly, as if he's speaking out of turn. It's interesting to watch Baron Cohen get bashful, because it is the exact opposite of the characters he portrays....

There is a certain sadism to Baron Cohen, who seems most comfortable when making others uncomfortable. To some degree, Borat and Ali G are safe refuges for him, masks he can hide behind. If everything that comes out of your mouth is parody, then you never have to be accountable for what you say -- because you didn't really mean it anyway. You only said it to lead your interview subjects to the thin line between patience and intolerance in order for their true personality to reveal itself....

"I think I'd find it hard to," he admits. "I think you can hide behind the characters and do things that you yourself find difficult."
One hears this sort of thing about many comics. It's really the biggest cliché about comics, isn't it?

James Lipton -- of "Inside the Actor's Studio" -- describes
the release form he signed before letting Ali G interview him and what an obvious red flag it was. (Go to 17:45 in the audio clip.) The person you're talking to may not be the person he says he is. You waive your right to sue. He may do things that will embarrass you. Etc. I just watched the episode from Season 1 of "Da Ali G Show" where Lipton appears, and it's very clear that Lipton understands the situation. Why did he do it? "I looked at this guy, and he looked very funny and very clever." Lipton says the interview went on for 2 hours and expresses admiration for the improvised performance. Lipton says that in the end, after hearing Ali G say all sorts of racist and sexist things and worrying about how the edit would be done, he told him that if they did not use the material that establishes that Lipton was not complicit in the racism and sexism, he would test that release contract in a lawsuit. In the final cut, we see Lipton firmly chiding Ali G about his language. But Lipton is unusually smart and he -- of all people -- is onto the ways of actors. Easy as it may be to see what's in that release and that Cohen is an actor... a lot of people aren't going to see it.

28 comments:

JohnF said...

I must say I've been surprised that Borat has fared so much better than Andrew Dice Clay. Is there much of a difference between what the actors behind the characters were doing?

Anonymous said...

But to me it revealed something about that bar in Tucson. And the question is: Did it reveal that they were anti-Semitic? Perhaps. But maybe it just revealed that they were indifferent to anti-Semitism.

Or maybe, as a society, we've become accustomed to accepting, or "tolerating" these kinds of views from foreigners.

Mark Daniels said...

I could have sworn I heard Sacha Baron Cohen do an out-of-character interview on NPR some months ago.

mcg said...

He did one on the Daily Show as well. Perhaps YouTube still has it :)

mcg said...

In fact, in that interview he talks about the James Lipton interview. He claims that James showed him topless pictures of an attractive asian woman---and then that woman walked in the room, to be introduced as James' wife :) Sacha did not seem to ackowledge that James had been "on to him".

Pogo said...

Andre Dice Clay lacked that "loveable" side that Cohen seems able to generate even while being obnoxious. Cohen is like Andy Kaufman's Latka's older brother.

I thin Cohen mistakes being non-confrontational for apathy. A foriegn boor like like Borat is tolerated, partly to get along and in hopes he will soon leave. Cohen is careful, and seems to have learned over time when the line gets crossed and in what crowds this occurs.

Cohenis like Kaufman, who later seemed to lose his mind testing the point at which humor crosses over into mere cruelty.

Hamsun56 said...

"The person you're talking to may not be the person he says he is. You waive your right to sue. He may do things that will embarrass you."

I wonder if the good people of Glod understood this.

mcg said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dutJ31sIW68

Internet Ronin said...

James Lipton is an extremely perceptive man. (Always a pleasure to find out that one's assumptions were correct.)

As for Cohen/Borat: No interest in the movie or its aftermath. Cruelty, gross behavior, and the greediness of useful dupes just aren't my thing.

Ann Althouse said...

The first time I saw Andrew Dice Clay, before I heard anyone else's opinion of him, I thought he was brilliantly spoofing male chauvinism. People just didn't have such a sense of humor about these things back then. We've been through a lot these last 15 years or so.

George said...

To some teenagers in the Middle East, suicide bombers are like rock stars. They watch their last-will-and-testament videos on the internet. They watch terrorist recruiting videos on the internet They admire the courage of the suicidal fighters.

Of course, the people blowing themselves up are simultaneously blowing up Arab and Muslim societies in the process.

Cohen is our version of a suicide terrorist. He destroys our sense of social cohesion, desensitizing us to the humiliation of others.

Like a lot of good people in the Arab world, many of his victims find security in silence or grim chuckling complicity.

Liam Colvin said...

We have this tendency to accept really insulting "humor" from well educated people (Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Bill Maher, and of course Jon Stewart).

We seem to think that if that person is an intellectual, they can't really be what they portray. It must be a parody challenging our entrenched...etc. Think of Andy Kaufman.

Cohen is clearly a brillant man with a biting sense of humor. Unfortunately, as with much parody these days, being mean spirited is synomous with being "honest".

the pooka said...

Hyperbole, thy name is George.

StrangerInTheseParts said...

I have always been skeeved by James Lipton and his show. There's something so preening and self-important about him, even as he debases himself and fluffs his guests, who are so often big celebrities with little talent.

I can't help thinking that Lipton was wise to Baron Cohen because, in many ways, his own performance on Inside the Actor's Studio is very similar to what Cohen is doing but turned inside out.

Pogo said...

And I cannot watch James Lipton without seeing Will Ferrell as James Lipton.

Mark Daniels said...

Not only does Lipton seem "preening and self-important," to me. The thing that causes us to turn the channel around here is that he's such a sycophant of anyone he interviews.

PatCA said...

I agree with you, Ronin and other non-Cohen fans. I watched Ali G a few times and hated it. This type of "humor" is a hamhanded attempt at postmodernism, but it's really manipulation and abuse.

LarryK said...

I think it's interesting that Cohen suggests in Rolling Stone that most of the people he interviews aren't really anti-Semites (or by implication racists, sexists, homophobes etc.) but probably just indifferent to these problems. He is in a much better position to know, since he dealt with them in real time and all we see is the two dimensional, edited version.

I also think Pogo is right that a large part of what we see on screen is people trying to avoid confrontation - after all, if you're a car salesman, how exactly should you respond if someone asks you how fast you have to go to mow down a gypsy? You're on the job, trying to make the sale, and you're likely just to smile and try to ignore it.

It's hard to say whether this "niceness" is distinct from or another form of indifference, and it's not clear which is more dangerous. But I do think Sasha is onto something - most people are wrapped up in their own little worlds, and they would rather look away when they're confronted with something that might be ugly.

Meade said...

"We've been through a lot these last 15 years or so."

True. And only five years ago, we were supposed to be at "the end of the age of irony." Isn't that ironic?

"To know inauthenticity isn't the same as being authentic [...and] just because you ironically know you're wrong doesn't make you right."

Sissy Willis said...

I felt a chill when the Borat character faced the audience during a Fox & Friends interview a couple of weeks back and said he had something for everyone, including -- "for the children" -- anti-semitism.

I saw in his smirk the Joel Gray character of the Cabaret Master who turned his dancing partner -- a gorilla -- to the audience at the end of his performance, saying "If you could see her through my eyes, you wouldn't think she looked Jewish at all."

knoxgirl said...

Not only does Lipton seem "preening and self-important," to me. The thing that causes us to turn the channel around here is that he's such a sycophant of anyone he interview

ugh, I agree. That show is intolerable.

reader_iam said...

The title of this post has to be right up there among my favorites from Ann's blog.

Coupla hours later, and I'm still chuckling.

reader_iam said...

'Course I'm predisposed to amusement this morning, given the highly comic nature of this blog today and how one can thread together a theme for one's own entertainment.

(That's a compliment, and, yeah, I acknowledge that my sense of humor can be odd, if not obscure. Still.)

Internet Ronin said...

And I had no idea that James Lipton was such a polarizing figure!

The Jerk said...

I thin Cohen mistakes being non-confrontational for apathy. A foriegn boor like like Borat is tolerated, partly to get along and in hopes he will soon leave.

But enthusiastically singing "Throw the Jew Down the Well" isn't really apathy.

And I cannot watch James Lipton without seeing Will Ferrell as James Lipton.

The Tom Cruise one is my favorite.
"And that film was...Risky Business" I saw Lipton on the street a few months ago. He's really short.

Ann Althouse said...

Re Lipton's manner: he talks about it a lot on the audio clip. Listen to the whole thing and you might think better of him. It's about the fact that he's teaching a class and he's not a journalist. He's extremely intelligent, he does no pre-interviews, and he develops all the material on the cards himself. The class, which you see an edited version of, goes on for 4 or 5 hours, and is done for the benefit of the students.

Doolesfan said...

I think Newt Gingrich handled Ali G the best. Newt was unflappable, though he had to be aware of the joke.

Steve Sailer said...

Borat is just a 21st Century revival of Polish Jokes. Then Baron Cohen and the critics make up a lot of cant about how his Stupid Foreign Person humor is really about fighting anti-Semitism so that means it has Moral Vitamins in it and is good for you.