Is Brüno good for the Jews?

Guest post by Simcha Weinstein
“What’s up?” you ask. For one thing, the new movie, Brüno. The swishy, semi-fascist fashionista Brüno is the imaginary Austrian TV personality created by the very real British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. In 2006, Baron Cohen broke box office records (and probably a couple of laws) with his movie Borat, about another foreign fictional reporter’s adventures in America.
With their microphones in hand and their cameramen at their heels, both characters give Baron Cohen the unique ability, in our media-crazed age, to access people and places few “real” people could get close to. The results are hilarious or offensive – sometimes both – depending on your point of view.

As with Borat, the “plot” of Brüno is non-existent. Brüno flies to Hollywood, hoping to become “the most famous Austrian star since Adolph Hitler” and “the biggest gay movie star since Schwarzenegger.”
Besides being a “take no prisoners” iconoclast and equal opportunity offender, Sacha Baron Cohen is Jewish. So not surprising, there are cringe-making “Jewish” gags throughout the new film. It’s a carry over from Baron Cohen’s old TV program, where the character Brüno originated, and, among other things, liked to rate red carpet looks as either “in the ghetto” (thumbs up) or “train to Auschwitz” (thumbs down).
At one point in the new movie, the staggeringly tactless Brüno decides to become a Middle East peacemaker of all things. But he confuses the words “hummus” with “Hamas” in a high stakes dialogue between a real life ex-Mossad chief and an equally authentic Arab leader. Like everyone Brüno encounters, the two men were baffled by his bizarre behavior.
Some of Brüno’s unfortunate subjects end up making fools of themselves, like the stage mothers and fathers who’ll do anything to get their children a part in Brüno’s movie. Would a mother consent to liposuction for her preschooler? Bruno asks them with a straight face. Will their babies be comfortable working with bees, Komodo dragons, or snakes? What about being “thrown from a building”? Brüno suggests to one mother that her 30-pound baby lose 10 pounds within seven days — and she eagerly agrees! When Brüno tells one father that his child would be expected to wear a Nazi uniform and push a wheelbarrow carrying a Jewish baby into an oven, the father calmly responds, “That’s fine, as long as he gets the gig.”
Remember: these are real people, and they’re not reading from scripts.
For better or worse, Borat helped make the nation of Kazakhstan a household name (and international punch line). Cohen’s new alter ego might not have the same effect on Austria, though –- in promotional interviews, Brüno says he wants to “live the Austrian dream of finding a partner, buying a dungeon, and starting a family” (a reference to Austrian madman Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter in a cellar for years and even fathered children with her). Austria may not be a fascist nation, but right now it is experiencing a growth in nationalistic, anti-immigration movements. Brüno is probably the last thing it needs right now.
Which brings us to the eternal question: Forget the Austrians. Is Brüno good for the Jews?
Context and narrative point of view are everything. They’re what separate an insightful gag that is in borderline taste from a tasteless joke that falls flat. Jewish performers like Baron Cohen, Larry David, and Sarah Silverman all share offensive-yet-naïve stage personas. These seemingly oblivious characters charge through life, offending everyone in their path, but not always intentionally. Their carefully crafted persona escort the audience through edgy routines that reveal a larger point of view within a specific context. Along with Sacha Baron Cohen, Larry David’s show “Curb Your Enthusiasm” satirizes the way we overvalue (fake) celebrity and undervalue real history. Meanwhile, Sarah Silverman uses utter absurdity to remind us of the gravity of the Holocaust, not make fun of it. By playing a fascist, not to mention a loudly “out” homosexual, Cohen forces audiences to confront their own prejudices. His rationale seems to be: If you beat your enemy to the punch line by getting in the first and last word, even if you lose, you still win.
It’s a dangerous game, though. How can Cohen be sure that audiences “get” his meta-humor? (“All in the Family” creator Norman Lear was appalled to discover that millions of viewers embraced Archie Bunker, a character he’d meant the audience to despise. Comedians Chris Rock and David Chappelle dropped certain routines about racial differences that some audiences liked too much, for the wrong reasons.)
In an interview with Rolling Stone when Borat first came out, Baron Cohen explained the “minstrelsy” he employs in his anarchic humor:

When I was in university, there was this major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw, who said, ‘The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.” I know it’s not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but it’s an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic.

It’s telling that so many Jewish comedians (and their audiences) have declared the Holocaust “off limits” for comedy at this particular moment in time, because as its horrors recede into the past, the macabre phenomenon of Holocaust denial is growing, a trend I chronicle in my latest book, “Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century” (Barricade Book). It goes without saying that this sort of gallows humor offends Holocaust survivors and their families. “Nazi” has become the Jewish “N” word — whether or not it’s an acceptable punch line depends upon who’s using it, and how.
I’m a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen, and respect the fact that we could all use a good laugh or two these days. But I’m also a rabbi; so much of his raunchy humor makes me deeply uncomfortable, too. It certainly isn’t material for a Shabbat sermon. That said, watching Brüno declare that fashion is more important than Darfur reminds us of the dangers of material excess, at a time when we need to practice and praise restraint. There are more real-life, shallow, dimwitted “Brünos” out there in the media world — deciding on a whim what the rest of us should wear, watch, read, and think — than many of us care to believe. In that respect, Brüno may serve as a lesson to us all.
Simcha Weinstein is an award-winning author, whose latest book is “Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st century” (Barricade Books) is out now.

18 thoughts on “Is Brüno good for the Jews?

  1. I’m sorry, how can a rabbi enjoy Cohen, who in “Borat” humiliated all kinds of well meaning people, in front of the entire nation . . . for no reason.

  2. You may not have liked or agree with Cohen’s reasons for making Borat, but the stunts he pulled were not “for no reason,” which Rabbi Weinstein addresses above.

  3. Ok, if I can remember a scene (it was hard for me to watch that movie)….
    There was some scene in the South, where Borat is dining with a bunch of people–including a minister. Borat calls one of the guests retarted and says that another guest is thoroughly ugly. Then Borat goes to the bathroom, and those same guests talk about what a nice guy he is, and how they want to help him learn about American manners. Then, one of the lady guests takes Borat’s bag of crap and tries to show Borat how to wipe his butt properly.
    Finally, they have enough when an obvious prostitute arrives, and they politely end the evening.
    And, movie-goers across America got a huge laugh out of it all.
    Now, what the hell did that accomplish, other than making Cohen rich and famous…and humiliating those people?

  4. Well, Jonathan, I think you need to look at that scene in context of the entire film. To me, that shows that not all Americans — even Southerners who often get stereotyped as being more foolish or bigoted than folks from other parts of the country — are as awful as others. I haven’t seen the film since it was in theaters, so I’m not really equipped to discuss it like a page of Talmud. But the film exposes a lot about “regular Americans” that was pretty unsettling and worth thinking about.
    Bruno, which I thought was hilarious, didn’t strike me as nearly as pointed. The segment exposing what parents will do to make their kids famous was pretty horrifying, and the final scene bordered on chilling (and not because of the crowd’s reaction to the climax of the scene, but for the existence of such a crowd for such an event at all). But overall, Bruno strikes me as less focused on a point than (although just as funny as) Borat.

  5. I’m sure some of those people (who sued Cohen because they were so mortified) would be happy to learn that they helped demonstrate that not all Americans are awful.
    Maybe you will volunteer some of your loved ones to be subject to Cohen’s next sociological exposure of “regular Americans?” Right?

  6. Rabbi Weinstein, any special reason why you chose to repeatedly misspell Cohen’s name? It’s Baron not Barron. You have Baron a couple of times, but Barron far more. And it is Sacha not Sasha. I don’t get the abject carelessness from an “award-winning author.” There are several other naming mistakes in the article, but the above is the most ridiculous.

  7. Great article give a very imp take on contporary
    pop culture.
    I will be buying this rabbis book – he rocks!

  8. Jonathan1, Yes, some folks sued because they were embarrassed by how intolerant, stupid, and/or ignorant they were exposed as in Borat. But that doesn’t change the fact that they had those opinions in the first place. And we, the movie goers, had to think about the fact that many more Americans are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and generally intolerant than perhaps we’d otherwise like to think.

  9. First, some corrections: Parents were trying to get babies in a photo shoot, not movie. They were asked about bees, wasps, or hornets – not dragons or snakes. They were not asked about being thrown from a building, but about being in a fast car – car wasn’t mentioned, but rather Brüno asked if they were good with “rapid acceleration,” and the follow up question was if they needed a car seat or could “free-style” it. Also, it was a mother, not father, who was asked about the wheelbarrow stuff. This hilarious scene worked by showing that the parents are willing to do anything to further their kids’ careers. Its offensiveness is what makes it great.
    And there is a plot, even if it’s loose, and you mention it right after saying there isn’t one: Brüno wants to be famous. His attempts to further his career in America are the reason for all of the scenes, gags, offensively humourous jokes.
    I went to see Brüno motzei Shabbos with Jewish friends. And I spotted a good number of kippahs in the audience. We didn’t stop laughing from the first to last minute. It was great. As folks left the sold-out theatre, everyone was talking of favourite scenes, jokes, and characters. I didn’t hear anyone saying they were offended, that the humour went too far. I thought the Holocaust jokes were as funny as any others.

  10. Excuse me, feygele. I described one specific scene in the movie (and some people in that scene sued Cohen and lost.) What exactly was racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or generally intolerant in that scene–other than Cohen’s intolerance for innocent people’s dignity? Ok, they ended the evening when an African-American prositute shows up…I guess this shows their racism and sexism.
    In one scene–if I remember right–Borat asks a gun store owner what’s the best gun to use to kill Jews. The owner doesn’t even sell Borat a gun. I guess that exposes this dude’s deep-seeded Jew-hatred.
    In one scene, Borat tried to grab some guy on a street in New York, and he ran away (I think he too sued Cohen and lost.) I guess that shows that New Yorkers are xenophobic.
    Give me a break.
    Just say you thought the movie was funny, and it doesn’t bother you that much that innocent people were harmed in its publication (obviously it’s not the end of the world that that’s the case.) Don’t give us this line that Cohen was working to expose the true face of Americans.

  11. Jonathan1, I wasn’t referring to one scene in my comment, rather the movie as a whole. And as dlevy also suggested, the point of his film (aside from making us laugh) was to show us “real” Americans, including all the isms and phobias I listed perviously. He did that quite well.
    And I never said the movie wasn’t funny. I enjoyed Borat. I loved Brüno.

  12. And, the more I think about it…
    Wasn’t there a scene in Borat where he meets with a manners lady, and shows here pictures of Borat next to somebody’s naked penis, and she’s in fact so polite that she kindly suggests he doesn’t show others those stills?
    There was a scene where Borat takes a driving lesson and the instructor has to drive because Borat tells the instructor that he doesn’t want to hold the steering wheel–it reminds him too much of receiving oral sex. Then, the instructor has to explain to Borat that–in America–women only have sex when it’s consensual, to Borat’s laughter.
    There’s a scene were Borat stays with some Jewish couple, and he races out of the house in the middle of the night, in order to escape them?
    feygele, what is all of this accomplishing in terms of exposing American racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia?
    At least dlevy admits there are decent/innocent harmed people in this film, who had to be made sacrifices to expose the greater truth.

  13. So much ambivalence in here. Borat is brilliant in defusing anti-semitic stereotypes with parody.

  14. Jonathan1 – don’t forget those “decent/innocent” people all signed waivers to be in the movie. Were they duped? Maybe. Or maybe they were just so excited to be in a movie they didn’t care to read the contract. Does that absolve the filmmakers from their moral obligations? No, but it’s not quite so simple either.

  15. Disclaimer – I wrote the article before the movie was released so my examples were based on you tube clips – sorry for any discredits.
    I have met Sacha Baron Cohen (not Sasha Barron – not sure who put that in!) & he’s undoubtedly a comic genius, well worthy of discussion – plus here’s far better for the Jews than Britney!

  16. Sorry, but Cohen is not the new incarnation of Charlie Chaplin. Unlike Borat, Bruno is plainly bad, mostly off-message and pitifully unfunny. I liked Borat, and at the time I thought that Cohen was venturing – skillfully – into unexplored comedic zones. This hasn’t been the case with Bruno, and it’s a shame.

  17. Here’s a great idea for a Sacha Baron Cohen comedy, but I seriously doubt he wants any part of it:
    “Shlomo: The Jewish Holocaust Denier.”
    It’s all about Shlomo, a clueless, cranky old Jewish journalist who wanders the world denying the Holocaust. His arguments are beyond foolish — as absurd as those put forth by the prominent deniers — and he upsets lots of fellow Jews in various hilarious, clueless encounters. Shlomo’s charming yet obtuse innocence, however, endears him to the audience. He’s as messed up as any Nazi, but his excuse is that he’s just stupid.
    Does anyone think Sasha Baron Cohen has the courage to try and pull that one off? I don’t. He’ll always prefers the easy, lower hanging fruit — no pun intended.

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