No one commits to a role quite like Sacha Baron Cohen, but his dedication to duping real people is part of a proud history of performance art, which makes us laugh and cringe while teaching us about ourselves.
Borat took the world by storm when the movie premiered in 2006. Cohen’s absurd portrayal of a Kazakh—the voice, the suit, the hair and moustache—all became instantly iconic. His cartoonish version of a foreigner, who’s comically racist, sexist, and ignorant of American customs is still funny to this day.
But Borat was never the butt of the joke. Rather, the target of Cohen’s satire was the unwitting participants in his “documentary” who believed Borat to be a real person.
In that way, Borat lets the audience in on the joke as we point our fingers at American culture itself. Cohen’s next projects made this mission abundantly clear.
Bruno, released in 2009, was a character who, much like Borat, originated in Cohen’s Da Ali G Show where he first adopted the schtick of pretending to be an outrageous person to troll whomever he was interacting with.
But where Borat is all our faulty perceptions of a foreigner bundled up and taken to the extreme, Bruno is every gay male stereotype set to overdrive. In hilarious and uncomfortable ways, Bruno challenged the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” mindset of our heteronormative culture and exposed the prevalence of homophobia in the United States.
Another popular performance artist is Eric Andre, whose comedy is very much in the same wheelhouse as Cohen’s. He hosts The Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim, a combination of bizarre celebrity interviews, where the goal is to make the guest feel as uncomfortable as humanly possible, and absurdist street sketches which shock and confuse unwitting citizens.
One such sketch involves Andre bursting loudly into a café while pursued by an actor in a police uniform. The fake cop pushes him up against the wall and cuffs him, then out of nowhere, the two passionately make out to as the camera cuts to the shocked and dismayed reactions of some of the customers.
Like in Cohen’s work, the punchline isn’t the act of trolling itself but the reaction of regular people whose social script is being challenged. To elicit those reactions, the performer must fully commit to the absurdist reality of their characters and the situations they create. The Eric Andre we see on his “talk show” likely bears no more semblance to the real Eric Andre than Borat does to Cohen.
The father of this type of comedic performance art as we know it today is probably a man named Andy Kaufman, the first stand-up comic ever to bomb on purpose. Just like Borat, Kaufman would speak with a silly and vaguely foreign-sounding voice and pretend to be a simpleton.
Kaufman’s stand-up routines were in a class of their own. He’d go up on live television wearing an ugly suit and greased back hair, then stand there with the shifty-eyed, nervousness of a child while telling a series of deliberately awful jokes.
Often the audience reactions would be staggered, their laughs only coming after an awkward moment of silence taken by Kaufman every time he dropped a supposed punchline.
Kaufman, now deceased, became a man of legend because even in interviews he was engaging in performance art—always acting under a veil of fiction to conceal his true character. Only those who knew him personally could tell us what the real Kaufman was like.
While Kaufman’s work was never as politically bent as Sacha Baron Cohen’s, he was the first to figure out the comic doesn’t have to play themselves. You can troll the entire world and get away with it.
American society looks pretty different than when the first Borat came out 14 years ago. A corrupt real estate mogul and television personality named Donald Trump is president, and the coronavirus is tearing through the country.
Based on the trailer and early reviews of Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, it seems that Borat will be taking on the Trump administration in a direct and shocking way. In that way, the Borat sequel might have more in common with Cohen’s political satire Who is America? from 2018.
In that show, Cohen targeted American politicians, which in some instances resulted in real consequences. For example, Cohen posed as an Israeli counter-terrorism expert and tricked former Republican House Representative Jason Spencer into pulling his pants down and brandishing his butt in an exercise meant to somehow deter Islamic extremists. When the episode aired, Spencer was forced to resign.
In another instance, Cohen disguised as the same character and got Dick Cheney, vice president of the Bush administration, to sign a water jug he claimed was used for waterboarding. That particular scene laid bare the casual cruelty of Dick Cheney in implementing torture policies.
So, performance art is no laughing matter. While many of these kinds of stunts are hilarious, they also shine an uncomfortable light on society. We should all be eager to see what that light exposes when Borat 2 airs on Oct. 23.
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