Too Funny- Or Too Far?

There's a malicious rumor going around that anyone over 35 won't find "Borat" funny. Then how do you explain all those rave reviews from old farts like, well, me? I haven't laughed so hard in a movie since the world's fattest man reached for an after-dinner mint in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life." "Borat," which is des-tined to be the most hotly debated comedy in ages, has the power to offend anyone of any age, and to appeal equally to those who like "Jackass" and Stephen Colbert, "Dumb and Dumber" and Lenny Bruce, the Three Stooges and Molière. Joan Rivers, who's not exactly a spring chicken, thinks that Sacha Baron Cohen--the invisible man who plays Borat--is "exactly where comedy should be now. Comedy is there to break open the box that holds the untouchable and the unsayable. It's about making you face the things you don't want to face, and the easiest way to face it is through humor. I hate to get serious, but that's why I love this stuff with Borat. Break the next barrier down! That's the joy of comedy."

Baron Cohen's creation, Borat Sagdiyev, takes us to the comic edge. Borat, for the many who have never seen him on HBO's "Da Ali G Show," is a disarmingly enthusiastic, viciously anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic, horny and unhousebroken fiction-al journalist from Kazakhstan. (It's a real country: just ask its government, which has mounted an outraged PR campaign to counteract Borat's slurs on its national honor.) In the largely unscripted film "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," the faux TV journalist travels to America, accompanied by his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian), to make a documentary. As director Larry Charles's camera captures real-life encounters with unsuspecting Americans (making this an almost-documentary comedy about the making of a fake documentary), it soon becomes clear that the ultimate joke is not on Borat, but on us. With its cavalcade of drunken frat boys, well-mannered racists and a gun dealer who doesn't bat an eye when Borat asks him what would be the best gun for shooting a Jew (he recommends a 9mm or a Glock automatic), "Borat" paints a portrait of the American subconscious that would give you nightmares--if you weren't laughing so hard.

When our "hero," who has talked his way into singing the national anthem at a rodeo in Virginia, proudly boasts to a rodeo official that in his homeland homosexuals are hunted down and strung up, his host smiles. "That's what we're trying to do here," he says. This gasp-producing moment has no precedent in American comedy--except in Borat's previous appearances on TV, where with a little friendly coaxing he once got a bunch of merry revelers to sing along with "Throw the Jew down the well." It may be worth noting here that the British Baron Cohen is an observant Jew.

Baron Cohen's guerrilla comedy shoots down anything in its path. Yet strangely enough, it doesn't feel angry or polemical or (and this is open to debate) mean-spirited. Mixing high and low humor, scatology and sociology, his comedy crosses the border between "Punk'd" and performance art, the subversive wit of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor and the deadpan put-ons of Andy Kaufman, all updated to the world of reality TV. A comedy like "Borat" couldn't have been made in another era, not just because of its raunchy content, but because we're living in a culture in which everyone seems more than willing to preen in front of a camera. "Candid Camera," the mild-mannered progenitor of ambush TV comedy, used hidden cameras. In our age of "Survivor" and celebrity culture, getting filmed is the bait, not the hook.

There are sidesplitting scenes that appeal to everyone's inner 10-year-old, like the prolonged nude fight between Borat and his unsightly producer that escalates until the two naked men pursue each other into a convention hall filled with mortgage brokers. This is gross-out humor at its most basic. But even as you roar at Baron Cohen's comedy, it produces a unique uneasiness. It's the awful and awe-full suspense you feel watching a tightrope artist working without a net. You feel anxiety for the unwitting victims of Borat's jokes (with a few nasty exceptions), and you fear for Baron Cohen himself. There are stunts here that could--and almost did--get him lynched. When you kiss strangers on a New York subway (not to mention unleashing a live chicken on the A train), don't expect a friendly reaction. And when, at that rodeo show, you change the lyrics of the national anthem to celebrate the glories of Kazakhstan--watch your back! That "Borat" manages to build from one hilarious episode to the next without ever flagging is even more remarkable when you consider that all the scenes involving real people--the majority of the movie--had to be pulled off in one take.

Baron Cohen's characters--Borat, the aggressively ignorant gangsta-hipster Ali G and the gay Austrian fashionista Bruno, who will "star" in his next feature film--are all designed as toxic antidotes to political correctness. Not to get all academic about it, but he's a descendant of the court jester, who spoke rude truth to power; he's a modern incarnation of the Lord of Misrule, and he's our collective id, acting out everything we're not allowed to say or do. That's what makes Borat a cult figure to college kids--and a hero to other transgressive comics. "Because in this stupid, uptight, politically correct climate, where you can't say anything--can't call an American Indian an Indian--how wonderful that a movie like 'Borat' comes out and says, 'You are all f---ing insane'," says Rivers. "We're such a sick, scared society. We are terrified to say anything about anything."

Paul Provenza, the director of the documentary "The Aristocrats," which explored the boundaries that comics push in the creation of a classic filthy joke, says: "It's very important to understand that Sacha Baron Cohen doesn't feel the way that Borat feels, and that's why it's comedy." Borat, the uncouth outsider whom everyone condescends to because--well, what do these ignorant foreigners know about our great civilized culture?--turns the tables onhis sometimes too-accommodating hosts, holding up a mirror to American culture that's savage, sometimes silly and not always fair. "I think it's funny that people are saying he shines a negative light on American culture," says stand-up comic Kathy Griffin. "Because you know what? Sometimes America has a negative light. That's why it's funny. A positive light is not funny."

Comedy is always at someone's expense: that's what mothers-in-law are for, not to mention lawyers. "My bristles go up when I hear somebody complain about crossing the line," says Bill Maher, who hosted ABC's "Politically Incorrect" until he himself was deemed too un-P.C. for network television. "Let the audience decide. An audience is very quick to tell a comedian when they feel he has crossed the line. They don't laugh, or they boo." Comedy allows you to say things you couldn't in any other form. "One of my favorite types of laughs," says Maher, "is the kind where you can almost feel this harpoon go through [the audience], because it was so true, but then they laughed. They didn't want to laugh. It's that to-the-bone. The great thing about laughter is that it's an involuntary response." Griffin, who, like Rivers, has been accused of comic cruelty for barbs at celebrities, insists that good comedy demands that you don't censor yourself. "When I started out I thought, Oh, I can never talk about AIDS, I can never talk about cancer. And then I met AIDS patients and cancer patients, and they told me the sickest jokes. It was the first thing out of their mouths. And I thought, What am I worried about? And frankly, if you're worrying about people's feelings you kind of can't do the job."

But comics do draw lines; their art depends on knowing just which ones can be trespassed. Paul Mooney, who wrote for Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle, firmly believes that "comedy is the funniest when it's mean and shocking. If you study African-American comedy, it's always been politically incorrect because it's always been politically incorrect to be a Negro. Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx--they were as mean and nasty as you could find, and they were great." But each comic has to find his own comfort zone. "When Richard [Pryor] decided not to use the word 'nigga' anymore, it was because he was growing as a person. He understood the pain of the word. I, on the other hand, use 'nigga' all the time and I know the pain behind."

Does Baron Cohen wrestle with his conscience when he destroys the merchandise in an antiques shop, or when he insults the appearance of a defenseless woman at a dinner party--a definite low blow? Yes, according to director Larry Charles. "When we were making the film, we had this almost Talmudic questioning of ourselves. Who are we? What do we really believe? How far are we willing to go? What is our line in the sand that we're not willing to cross? We were constantly asking ourselves, Are we being fair? Do the ends justify the means?" And what did they decide? "We certainly tried to avoid taking advantage of people who would be perceived as the meek or the weak of society. We tried to explore the aristocracy, the elite, the vain, the egomaniacal--that was one of our lines in the sand."

A close viewing of "Borat" bears this out--mostly. There are episodes that could serve as Rorschach tests for both liberal and conservative viewers. In his encounter with an evangelical revival meeting, a disheveled, heartbroken Borat, who fell in love with Pamela Anderson after his first glimpse of "Baywatch" on American TV, has just discovered, via her video with Tommy Lee, she's not the vessel of purity he had thought. Devastated, he stumbles into church to be saved. Secular humanists may find this grotesque --all that leaping and hollering and speaking in tongues. But Borat himself does nothing to provoke or offend the true believers surrounding him, who welcome him as one of their own, and are genuinely concerned about his salvation. And it's Borat's insane anti-Semitism we laugh at when he proudly shows us his favorite Kazakh public spectacle, the "Running of the Jews," complete with horned effigies of hook-nosed Semites. (What a real anti-Semite will make of this is anyone's guess.) This is comedy from the danger zone, and it will genuinely offend some folks who feel certain subjects are not to be laughed at. They'd best stay at home. Fans should be warned as well: "Borat" can make you laugh so hard it hurts.