When Stand-Up Guys Aren't Stand Up Guys

NPR'S Scott Simon reflects on the use of racism and anti-Semitism for comedic effect.

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Seeing Michael Richards' recent racist rant at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles is sickening. Mr. Richards is presumably rich from the sale of all those Seinfeld DVDs that can't be returned. If he never works another day, he will not starve, and comedy will not suffer.

I have more complicated thoughts about Sasha Baron Cohen's popular new film, "Borat." I think Mr. Cohen is maybe the funniest man in the world and one of the most interesting. He went to Cambridge and lived on a kibbutz. My misgivings about Borat should be measured against the fact that I've only seen bootlegged clips of the character on YouTube, which made me queasy about seeing the movie.

Mr. Cohen pretends to be a Kazak TV reporter that comes to the United States and provokes people into saying stupid, bigoted things by opening the conversation with a few himself. Part of his Borat act is to get people in a bar in Tucson to join him in singing "Throw the Jew Down the Well."

Mr. Cohen told Rolling Stone Borat works as a tool. By himself being anti-Semitic he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice. "Throw the Jew Down a Well" just revealed that they were indifferent to anti-Semitism, and he quotes one of his Cambridge professors as saying the path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.

I think that when you go into a bar with a camera, give people drinks, pay them a few hundred dollars, put a buffoon on stage and tell them to sing "Throw the Jew Down a Well" so they can be in a movie, you can get them to do it, even in, maybe especially in, London, Manhattan or Santa Monica.

I've been in a bar in Austin when Kinky Freidman gets people to sing a racist rant in his most famous song. I'm sure we all considered ourselves urban sophisticates, but if somebody made a videotape, we'd look like asses. When Sasha Baron Cohen sings anti-Semitic nonsense as Borat, he's acclaimed for exposing prejudice. When the people he set up for ridicule sing along, he portrays them as the ugly face of prejudice in cowboy hats.

You heard just a few voices singing in that bar. I wonder how many people who you don't see refused to sing or just walked out. There's a second grade - not Cambridge - quality to this humor, like putting a kick me sign on the back of the kid with glasses.

Now, some people who appear in "Borat" are suing Mr. Cohen, saying his production crew represented the film as a documentary, gave them drinks and paid them just a few hundred dollars to sign a release. So far Mr. Cohen's film has made $165 million. But if those who appear in "Borat" weren't in on the joke, maybe they should be in on the money.

(Soundbite of song "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore")

Mr. KINKY FRIEDMAN (Songwriter): (Singing) No they ain't making Jews like Jesus anymore, we don't turn the other cheek they way they did before. You can hear that honky hollering...

SIMON: Kinky Friedman, and this is NPR News.

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