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Actor Sacha Baron Cohen, who played the character Borat, arrives for the U.S. premiere of Borat (REUTERS)
Actor Sacha Baron Cohen, who played the character Borat, arrives for the U.S. premiere of Borat (REUTERS)

Sacha Baron Cohen is the greatest prankster of our age

The art of an accomplished prankster is a form of anthropology for what it reveals of us

In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a Kazakh prisoner enters the US to deliver a monkey to the American vice-president as a bribe. It is a film that is filled with reality.

In a “true story", what is often true is a trivial thing called a plot, while it is filled with dramatized facts or lies; but in a great comedy, the plot may have never happened, but for it to work, it depends on reality, unlike easier things like films that are not funny.

This film is a sequel to the exquisite Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan in which a man called Borat, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, pranked unsuspecting Americans. He went to the American heartland, stood in front of a huge rodeo crowd, praised president George W. Bush, the Iraq war, and sang what he claimed was the Kazakh national anthem to the tune of the American anthem. “Kazakstan is the greatest country in the world…," he went, as the crowd grew restive. He even interviewed three women of the Veteran Feminists of America, assuming one of them was “an old man".

I will not reveal much from the Subsequent Moviefilm beyond the fact that it further establishes Cohen as probably the greatest prankster of our times. He is an improbable prankster because he has all the trappings of an elegant bore. He is a handsome British aristocrat, who went to Cambridge; in short, he has the right antecedents to become a sanctimonious writer-activist. But then, that is what he is, and his greatness lies in the medium he has chosen—the comedy of real and fake pranks.

Pranks, when real, are closer to anthropology than most things that claim to be anthropology. In a prank, people react to a situation in ways that reveal a lot about their society and times. In Cohen’s Who Is America, a television series that appeared two years ago, he poses as a former Mossad agent and convinces an actual Republican member of the Georgia House of Representatives that ISIS terrorists are petrified of homosexuality and that their culture deemed them gay if a man’s buttocks touched them, so the best way for a man to defend himself against an ISIS terrorist is to run backward with a pouted rear-end towards the terrorist. The politician does exactly that in a drill as he charges at Cohen, who plays the role of a terrorist. But Cohen is not satisfied and he convinces the politician that he has to bare himself, and, as he charges backwards, scream “USA, USA." Incredibly, the politician does that. The fake ex-Mossad agent also convinces former US Vice-President Dick Cheney to autograph a water bottle as a tribute to waterboarding, a form of torture that Cheney is accused of sanctioning.

In Who Is America, Cohen pranks Democrats, too, by posing as a handicapped interviewer to win their sympathy and time. In an interview with Bernie Sanders, he argues with him that Democrats should stop whining about the top one percent and instead include the other 99% in the top one percent, and proceeds to show how the math can be done as Sanders looks perplexed.

In an age when most documentaries, like The Social Dilemma, are propaganda masquerading as journalism, and the moral compass of literature has been taken over by posturing simpletons, Cohen’s pranks surpass them as anthropology, journalism and art, even as they make you laugh so hard that you fear your stomach will explode.

There is greatness in Cohen, not only as a prankster, but as an artist. He is, of course, protected by the great constitution of the US that lends him an exceptional degree of free speech and legal protection. Even so, he is courageous in doing what he does, because many of his pranks carry the risk of impulsive physical retribution. But his courage is most significant in his innate ability to debase himself: Few would dare parade themselves in a thong that even other thongs would find funny.

He is evidently a man who is not shy. In a certain sense, he is a perfectly shameless man. The shy are shy because they are so judgmental that they fear others may be as severe in their opinion of them as they are of others. So people who are incapable of shame are probably those who not only speak of freedom, but also grant others the freedom to be themselves.

Like any comedian of high quality, Cohen considers it his duty to make fun of all that is sacred. And powerful men, whom he does lampoon without mercy, are not as sacred as the entire spectrum of the unlucky. The poor and the handicapped, for instance. There is a common view among the pious of our times, the social minders who often tell us how to be, that making fun of the weak is not humour. But they miss the whole point. When a comedian derives humour from the miserable, he is not making fun of them; rather, he is making fun of the serious, noble people who will be offended.

Cohen often does slip into mediocrity, chiefly the ordinariness of sarcasm, a facile form of humour in which you say the opposite of what you mean to say. And many of Cohen’s pranks are not really pranks, but set-pieces played by paid actors, and it is somewhat crooked of him not to tell us which one is a real prank and which is mere cinema. Most of what he does is funny only because we presume they are real pranks.

Despite all that, Cohen is worthy of the world’s adoration. There is no doubt that he performs a very tough art—he tells us a story that is not about us at all, and despite our megalomania, we watch in a near trance. But his greatest gift perhaps is that when he is out pranking someone, he never laughs.

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