Prince Gomolvilas

The Politics of Comedy: What's Off Limits?; Plus, "The Goods" Wants You to Laugh at a Hate Crime

Filed By Prince Gomolvilas | July 15, 2009 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Bruno, GLAAD, Jeremy Piven, Sacha Baron Cohen

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.

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I don't think Bruno will increase homophobia; it will revive forgotten homophobic sentiment.

The movie is largely gay panic humor. Yes, it's meant to satirize homophobes. No, get off that ivory tower in even thinking that satires usually succeed. Just like great satirists like Jonathan Swift didn't achieve much or get the point across the average population, Bruno will not make the audience laugh at the homophobia.

People will laugh at the awkward, very gay shit Bruno puts people through. Just read Twitter and other comments from the average person on the movie.

I've already heard people use "Bruno" to refer to stereotypically gay-looking men. And expect a lot of the fratboy gay panic humor and jokes to become again the rave for young heterosexual male socialization.

The movie was funny, yes. Not as funny as Borat. But to somehow claim that this movie will help us or make homophobes less socially acceptable through ridicule clearly shows an educated, upper echelon queer level of thinking. An extremely naive way of of assuming that the general population will explore such subtle messages in the comedy.

Hmmm... I saw the trailer for "The Goods" as well. I didn't get the impression that the Asian guy being beaten up was supposed to be the punchline, but the stupidity of the crowd, considering that the character isn't even Japanese. It may still have gone too far, but I don't think the filmmakers were trying to imply that hate crimes are a laughing matter.

Cohen is a straight man who won't, in real life, ever suffer any blowback from perpetuating gay stereotypes or fomenting gay hatred.

He will say it's all a joke, it doesn't "really" perpetuate stereotypes or incite hatred because he's just playing a character, an argument which is based on somehow getting nuanced thinking from the very homophobes who are such ignorant, bigoted rubes that they fell for his shtick in the first place.

What fun! We Smart, Clever, ever-so-Aware people get to guffaw at the Small, Stultified, Foolish People. Sorry, not even close to being funny. Minstrelsy is mintrelsy. (which is hard to spell)

BTW BRUNO is also pretty damn racist. And being a hysterical stick-up-my-butt shrew, I don't find it funny.

Rick Sours | July 15, 2009 2:08 PM


You have made some very valid points.

I personally would have found Bruno less offensive if, rather then start out at an obviously fake stereotype that seems to mock us.

If he would approach as a perfectly well mannered man that happens to be gay, but as the homophobia of the person comes to light he starts devolving more and more into the ridiculous stereotype seeing how far he can push it until the person realizes how ridiculous it is, then it would be clear to everybody that the point is to make fun of the homophobe not Bruno.

(Weird, my spellchecker says Homophobe is not a word and corrects it with Homophone =/)

I think if a white man made a movie where a white man wore blackface, and satirised stereotypes about African Americans, it would be considered racist and unacceptable.

I don't see how a straight man writing a movie with a straight actor satirising gay culture is any different.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 16, 2009 4:25 AM

When I had mentioned the Mississippi Riverboat Minstrel act in Prince's last posting I literally had the lyrics "When the Darkies Beat Their Feet on the Mississippi Mud" running through my mind. Unthinkable to imagine that being performed today where the only legitimate place for Blackface is "Othello."

Just like those depictions, anti Asian, anti Arab, anti Jew stereotypical presentations are inappropriate. Gay people should portray Gay people. The only comedians that should be allowed to touch us had better be out and Gay themselves or they are similarly exploiting us in poor taste for a cheap laugh based upon a false premise.

Of course we have no means of enforcing this and fashions come and go.

Rick Sours | July 16, 2009 7:42 PM

My Partner and I were on a cruise ship this past
April. A straight entertainer made an anti-Gay
joke; people around us laughed. It was embarrassing
and we felt uncomfortable.

Isa Kocher | July 16, 2009 12:34 AM

there's never anything funny about cruelty, abuse, exploitation. buying and selling babies, entrapping people, inflaming people isn't funny. i get the joke. as a disabled 65 year old gay man, i don't need to know about homophobia. cohen does not reveal anything new. I already know what hate is and it isn't funny. it's simply abusive. all cohen does is build barriers between people, and in reality people are better than that. an old quaker lady once told me that if you live like god's love is at the heart of every human, then your life will justify that choice. cohen tells me there is no hope, and even if he's right, that's not how i want to live. and he isn't right. i know.

Thanks for your comments, everyone. Bruno may be polarizing, but I hope we've found some benefit in bringing to the surface some of the issues that face our community and, by extension, the public at large, particularly when it comes to talking about the media.

Ken Narasaki | July 17, 2009 2:24 AM

I always resent it when a non-Asian weighs in on whether or not a performance or piece of writing is racist against Asians - my knee-jerk reaction is generally, "You don't get to tell me whether or not I should be offended or pissed off." So I won't weigh in on that core question. The one thing I will say after seeing the film is this:

However you judge this as a piece of art, good or bad, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a piece of performance art. It's daring, it's dangerous, it's provocative, and I have to say, I laughed in horror, glee, with a variety of other emotions mixed in.

This may not be Lenny Bruce, but it IS art of a kind and I think that makes it entirely different from THE GOODS.

I believe Bruno was successful because it has forced people to talk about these issues - left or right - people are having discussions, reading what other people have to say and talking about racism, exploitation, homophobia. Cohen made this a comedy because he knew a lot of people would be curious to see it. And they did. And here we are, posting comments, reading articles, following the Twitter trends and talking about it over and over again. Sure, I didn't agree with all parts of the movie, but Cohen certainly knows how to push the envelope and for that, you have to give the guy some credit. - Everyone's a little racist video

Ed Note: Changed to just a link since we don't allow for embedded videos in the comments section.