No Laughing Matter? Race, Identity and the Humour of Sacha Baron Cohen

A Symposium on the Comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen

Brunel University London

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Chair: Dr. Sharon Lockyer (Brunel University)

Presenters: Dr. Richard Howells (King’s College London); Dr. Helena Bassil-Morozow and Dr. Simon Weaver (Brunel University London)

No Laughing Matter? Race, Identity and the Humour of Sacha Baron Cohen – Dr. Richard Howells

The chair of the symposium, Dr. Sharon Lockyer, introduced to an audience of about 25 people the three members of the panel before Dr. Richard Howells began his presentation.

Howells made a vivid start to his talk by ‘throwing’ a few sexually charged terms at the audience. Words like ‘clitoris’, ‘fuck’ and ‘orgasm’ had the crowd chuckling. Howells pointed out to the audience that they were laughing at sex, but questioned whether they would have found the ‘n’ word amusing. His point was that “race is the new sex.” For Howells, there’s been an inversion in terms of the attitudes of British society towards discussing ‘race’ and sex. To put it another way, unlike previous generations, society has apparently become less tolerant about discussing ‘race’ while the presence of sex in popular discourse is commonplace.

Sacha Baron-Cohen

Sacha Baron-Cohen

So how was this linked to Sacha Baron Cohen? Howells stated that Cohen has rendered ‘race’ discussable and laughable. Howells dissected some of the alter-egos of Cohen before claiming that there’s no single explanation for how Cohen gets away with making racially charged jokes. Instead, there might be three. Firstly, it is Ali G who speaks and behaves in certain ways rather than Cohen. Howells likened Cohen to a ventriloquist which, in turn, might explain how Cohen absolves himself of any offense he might cause to his audiences.

Secondly, Howells mentioned the idea of humour and transgression. Cohen, for Howells, has got audiences anticipating controversy by deliberately saying the ‘wrong’ thing. Therefore, Cohen provides his viewers with what they are expecting.

Thirdly, the Ali G character was described by Howells as a moving target. Howells highlighted that Cohen has avoided giving interviews about Ali G. Hence, the latter is somewhat difficult to grasp and interrogate. This led Howells to explain how Ali G has a nebulous identity and, as a result, question whether audiences laugh for the same reason. Howells concluded by suggesting that Ali G is more about identity than ‘race’, although, the character has an ability to evoke humour out of both. Howells ultimately extracted a sense of utopianism from Cohen’s work. His message was that if we as a society can laugh about ‘race’, like we do sex, then that will be beneficial to wider social relations. The extent to which ‘race’ can be a laughing matter to those whose everyday lives are shaped by the forces of racism across Britain and the world is, however, another matter.

Sacha Baron-Cohen: Gonzo Trickster and the Art of Comic Insurrection – Dr. Helena Bassil-Morozow

Following Dr. Richard Howells was Dr. Helena Bassil-Morozow. Bassil-Morozow began her presentation by playing the opening scenes from the film Borat. Using Borat as her primary case study, Bassil-Morozow applied the concept of the trickster to discuss the alter-egos of Cohen. The trickster was explained as someone who is a foreign intruder that unsettles the established order with his or her presence.

For Bassil-Morozow, Cohen (through characters like Borat) seems to disrupt psycho-social boundaries and, consequently, has the potential to instigate social change. Particularly interesting was Bassil-Morozow’s use of the Borat character to reshape the concept of the trickster with the idea of the gonzo trickster. Whereas the former rests on notions of change, difference and challenging the system, the latter has an air of risk and personal involvement associated to it as well as intent to make a social statement.

Cohen represents a gonzo trickster to Bassil-Morozow  because he blurs the lines between ‘normal’ and ‘outrageous’ and, as such, declares to his audiences that the boundaries of both are porous. Bassil-Morozow concluded by critiquing the ethical dimension of Borat. She highlighted that places in Kazakhstan where Borat was filmed were left uncompensated. Although she did not allude to this explicitly, Bassil-Morozow seemed to hint that notions of Western Imperialism might be apparent in Cohen’s work. Perhaps the most obvious example of this was when she questioned if Borat exploited Kazakhstan for commercial purposes or whether there was a deeper political statement in that exploitation which attempted to reveal that “each step in this world is destructive”.

“Even though it’s sexist and racist in some parts, it’s still funny”: An Audience Reception Study of the Comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen – Dr. Simon Weaver

The third and final talk saw Dr. Simon Weaver present findings from a focus group study he conducted on 49 participants who were between 18-29 years of age. The study aimed to identify the opinions and attitudes of the participants towards four of Cohen’s films – Ali G indahouse, Borat, Bruno and the Dictator. Weaver stated that Islamaphobia and anti-Muslim racism were some of the principle themes which emerged from the focus groups and, therefore, would form the basis of his presentation.

Weaver began by highlighting that some participants felt Cohen was Islamaphobic. Religion was considered by some as sacred and something that should not be attacked or ridiculed. Culture, however, was outlined by Weaver as something which participants indicated can be open to scrutiny. Weaver did not discuss why some of his participants held the above opinion. Perhaps the sometimes crowded nature of focus groups rendered it difficult to explore this view further. Weaver also stated that some participants did not consider Cohen to be Islamaphobic. These participants felt that any insult perceived by the audience in relation to Cohen’s characters was a reflection of the prejudice of the former, rather than the latter. Furthermore, Weaver mentioned that some participants acknowledged the potential for Cohen’s comedy to cause offense to a third party or themselves if they were part of a certain demographic. This led Weaver to theorise that Cohen’s comedy is ambiguous in the sense that some participants found some aspects of it funny while others not.

Arguably the most interesting finding underlined by Weaver was that some participants recognised Cohen’s characters as racist and funny. Weaver pointed out that the majority of participants who supported this view were white and British and enjoyed the ‘extreme’ nature of Cohen’s humour. Weaver explained that the respondents found what they saw as racist humour funny because they perceived the racism as ironic rather than genuine. Again, the use of an additional research method might have probed deeper into these opinions to identify whether Cohen’s comedy goes on to function as an implicit or explicit precipitator of racist attitudes and behaviours among those participants. Weaver concluded that his findings are liquid at the group level. Individuals were fairly stable in terms of their opinions of Cohen’s work, while the groups they were a part of seemed to fluctuate in terms of their comprehension of Cohen’s comedy.

Although hints of ‘white’ subjectivity and the methodological difficulties of conducting audience reception studies might have been sometimes apparent in the presenters interpretations of Cohen’s comedy, the symposium was an important event in the sense that it aroused an open, critical and public debate about the representations of ‘race’ in contemporary popular culture. Honest, frank and public discussions regarding issues of the kind are important steps in de-familiarising ourselves with, and adopting a critical outlook on, the content of mainstream media.

With special thanks to our Guest Reviewer, Jas Nijjar, PhD Student

Review © Tiemo Talk of the Town

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1. Race by David Mamet – Tiemo review 5th August 2014

2. British Comedy Awards –  review – 5th December 2012

3. The Things we won’t say about race that are true – Channel 4 – 19th March 2015

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8 Responses to No Laughing Matter? Race, Identity and the Humour of Sacha Baron Cohen

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