My recent post about how funny I thought Bruno is sparked some lively and (sometimes fierce) debate. The core issue is whether Sacha Baron Cohen's obnoxious, gay fashionista reinforces hurtful stereotypes and harms the gay community or whether he satirizes people's homophobia, creating a sharp social expose of America.
The comments section of that post had its fair share of readers defending the movie, but a handful of people were incensed by Bruno - going even further than GLAAD in denouncing the film.
Bilerico reader Drake, for example, asserted, "Bruno will undoubtedly negatively influence a lot of middle America when it comes time to vote for or against our civil and human rights." Pete contended that Bruno goes for "cheap laughs" at the expense of gay people. And Robert G. compares what Cohen does to "a good old-fashioned Mississippi River minstrel show."
These comments, as well as others that were posted here and elsewhere around the web, naturally got me thinking even more about these issues than I already do. But the most unexpected thing that I started to mull over because of all this was the politics of comedy itself.
I have a lot of questions about this subject, and I am curious what Bilerico readers think.
The overarching question is this: When it comes to comedy by, about, or for the LGBT community, what's off limits? Are there certain topics within the community that should not be touched (AIDS, suicide, etc.)? Is it more about how certain topics are approached (through satire, flat-out mockery, etc.)? Does it depend on who is creating the comedy (a gay comedian, a heterosexual, etc.)?
And do your opinions about these things remain the same or change when we start talking about comedy in general? What if the comedy is about race? Or politics? Or children?
Is the way Sacha Baron Cohen approaches his craft in Borat and Bruno indicative of who he is as an individual? Or is his kind of comedy a reflection of the culture in which we live? Earlier this year, New Yorker film critic David Denby released a polemic against "snark" in the Internet age. In the appropriately titled Snark, Denby draws a line between professional biting wit and amateur cheap laughs.
As shocked as I was during many parts of Bruno, I was never more offended than when I saw a movie trailer that preceded the feature. In the trailer for The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, Jeremy Piven's fast-talking used-car liquidator attempts to inspire the employees of a dealership by giving the following speech:
July Fourth Weekend, everybody, and we're going to war. Don't even get me started on Pearl Harbor. We are the Americans, and they are the enemy. Never again!
The employees chant, "Never again! Never again!," as the group's sole Asian-American man chants along uncomfortably. A Caucasian man looks at the Asian-American guy and then angrily yells, "Let's get him!," before smacking him in the face. The other employees proceed to attack the Asian American with punches and kicks.
Out of context, I was extremely disturbed by what I was seeing and even more troubled that some audience members found this funny. I don't know if I would think differently if I saw the scene in the context of the movie, but I can't imagine what context could possibly justify a gag that encourages the audience to laugh at a racial hate crime. I'm surprised that Asian-American groups aren't up in arms over this yet (as far as I know).
Watch the trailer. The section in question begins at the 1:00 mark. I have to admit that I think that the gag begins rather amusingly (Asian-American actor Ken Jeong sells it with his shifting eyes) - but it quickly devolves into the supposedly hilarious comedy of racially motivated violence:
So what makes me think that Bruno is okay and that what happens in The Goods is not? Are there actually two different kinds of comedy at play here? Or are my opinions the product of who I am as a gay Asian-American man? Does the fact that I was once assaulted on the street, knocked unconscious, and robbed by three men who were not Asian American have anything to do with how I see this?
In my opinion, Bruno mines laughs from putting people in awkward social situations and sometimes drawing out their homophobia - it attempts to reveal people's dark sides and hopefully encourages us to see and deal with the dark sides in ourselves. In the aforementioned scene from The Goods, the filmmakers ask us to laugh while an American man accused of being Japanese (even though he's Asian American and is of Korean descent) is beaten by a crowd of mostly white attackers - the focus of the scene is not on the stupidity of the dealership employees but on the extreme violent act (made to look cartoonish) perpetrated against the minority.
So, I've brought up a lot of issues here. Now I'm curious what your take is on all this.