On My Distaste for Sasha Baron Cohen

I was talking with some friends about Borat, and saying that I thought Cohen’s approach was meansprited. Later, one of my friends sent me this very apropos quote from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the German scientist:

A person reveals his character by nothing so clearly as the joke he resents.

That reminds me of some old advice my Aunt once gave me: the characteristics we most dislike in others are the ones we most dislike in ourself.

Bonus link: Via Waxy, here’s a first person account of somebody being duped by Mr. Cohen.


  1. In this case, I would have to disagree. Just because I dislike a racist sexist person, does not make me racist nor sexist. Did I misunderstand your post?

  2. it has more to do with who you hate the most, not who you disagree with.

    there are lots of reasons to disagree with a racist. but if racists make you go all bonkers and foam at the mouth, there is a chance, according to the theory, that it’s because deep down inside you feel like maybe you’re a bit of a racist, too. so, not only is your reaction fueled by logic (racism is dumb) but also by self-loathing.

    so, you’re more likely, according to the theory, to run into a slightly overweight person who hates fat people than a skinny one.

    have you ever talked with an ex-smoker about smokers? all the scary anger is really just directed at themselves and what they fear they still are and the behavior they will revert back to.

  3. Wow… I’ve never met an ex-smoker who hated smokers. They just tend to be sympathetic, in my experience.

    I think that quote can be taken a number of ways – what you dislike in the way of jokes says much about your character and standards (true), or YOU ARE what you dislike (sometimes).

    I think Mr. Cohen believes all is fair in the pursuit of the joke. Which is not a new thought in comedy or blogging, for that matter, but a notion I find really, really sad.

    Hopefully he does other things with his life to balance out that arrogance.

  4. I wonder what my dislike for shows like “The Office” says about me. There’s something about that type of humour, where we’re expected to laugh at peoples’ lack of social grace that makes me cringe.

  5. Alexis: I’m the same on ‘The Office’. I only saw the British show. The actors were really talented, and brilliant, but for me it was totally unwatchable. It is, as the British say, cringable.

    I feel much the same about ‘expose’ shows when journalists confront sweatshop owners on camera (or what-have-you). It’s strong work, I guess, but I just can’t watch it.

    I don’t think my Aunt’s advice was aimed at big ideas like ‘isms’. I think it’s more about say, if you can’t stand arrogance in others, then you might be a bit arrogant ourself. And, happily, if we’re self-aware enough to notice it and be guilty about it, we might be redeemable.

  6. This is not a new form of comedy, but you have to remember that’s all it is. If you can’t laugh at yourself for getting duped then you have issues. It’s not like they were duped into committing a crime or anything sinister. His *victims* are meerly duped into believing he’s real. What they’re pissed off about is that their true feelings are revealed and they are embarrassed about it.

    Ditto for the Office. It was always way too hard much like hard work to watch it.

  7. Cohen is Brechtian: part of his schtick is to make the audience uncomfortable.

    I don’t personally enjoy that kind of vibe (I’ll say — I used to get uncomfortably embarrassed when the characters on “Three’s Company” would stumble into their double-entendre cases of mistaken identity), and nor have I ever found practical jokes like “Candid Camera,” “Just for Laughs,” Rick Mercer’s “Talking to Americans,” or “Punk’d” funny. Laughing at someone else’s embarrassment, ignorance, or befuddlement doesn’t work for me. The meta-punchline is always, “Ha ha! You’re too dumb to know I was playing a joke on you!”

    I do laugh at something like Stephen Colbert’s roasting of Republicans at this year’s Press Dinner — they should have known what they were in for when they booked him, after all — so satire clicks with me. But I don’t watch Borat or the Office. I can understand why people like them, but I don’t.

  8. Derek: That’s a good point about Brecht. Except I don’t think Brecht wanted to alienate his audience for humour–I think he wanted to teach them moral truths. From Wikipedia: “By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate that the audience’s reality was, in fact a construction and, as such, was changeable.” That may be Cohen’s intent, but I think we’re giving him too much credit.

    I actually don’t mind that much when Ali G goes after politicians. They’re public figures, and as such give their consent (and deserve) to be mocked, satirized or otherwise duped. I don’t feel the same way about private citizens, though.

  9. Re: “Punk’d” – This show was never funny to me, but mostly because it was never interesting. The pranks aren’t clever, Ashton Kutcher comes off as a smug asshole, and they only prank pathetic C-list celebrities. I mean, pick on someone deserving, or at least interesting!

    “Just for Laughs” is mostly harmless, as it only aims to surprise or slightly embarass people, unlike “Talking to Americans” which exploits the subjects’ ignorance to the viewer.

    “The characteristics we most dislike in others are the ones we most dislike in ourself” – I really hate Borat’s mustache. But what I REALLY hate is my own mustache.

  10. Spare me the retarded insights. That’s a pretty lame, oh so precious reason, for finding Sasha Baron Cohen distasteful. You should find him distasteful because he’s a hypocrite for overlooking the racism he could just as easily have “uncovered” in any non-white community, including his own Jewish community. It’s not a coincidence that he chose some white goyim to set up. That in itself is a racist act, and a far sneakier and dangerous kind of racism than that displayed by those dumb kids.

    1. Ben you make an excellent point. Having lived for 6 years in The Europe and traveled extensively in Africa and Asia for work, I can say with 100% confidence that the average American WASP, which Cohen lambasts, is no more ignorant, racist, bigoted, and or mean-spirited than any other nationality or ethnic group I have encountered. I am eagerly awaiting Cohen to take Borat on the road to ‘corrupt” Nigeria or the “arrogant inbred” Switzerland for his his next endeavor at exploiting ignorance and racism. It probably won’t happen though, because it is currently so fashionable around the world to hate on the USA. Case closed.

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