Notes on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who is America?”

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Comedy opens up our senses.  It helps us to see things differently – with new eyes and ears.  Sometimes, we laugh so hard that there is a revelation that comes – physically – through tears.   In Jewish American comedy, this laughter exposes us to a kind of embodiment.   However, its confusing.  Is this laughter – at things Jewish and by Jewish American comedians – an embodiment of something Jewish, something American, or even something “self-hating” or anti-Semitic?  Where does embodiment fit in Jewish comedy?   Where – in particular – does embodiment fit in Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who is America?”

In his book on Jewish Comedy, Jeremy Dauber defines humor in seven different theses.   1) Jewish humor is a response to persecution and anti-Semitism 2) Jewish comedy is a satirical gave at Jewish social and communal norms; 3)  Jewish humor is bookish, witty, intellectual and illusive play; 4) Jewish comedy is mordant, ironic, and metaphysically oriented; 5) Jewish comedy is focused on the folksy, everyday, quotidian Jew; 6) Jewish comedy is about the blurred and ambiguous nature of Jewishness itself (xiv).  The seventh thesis – which he actually ranks as the fourth – is that “Jewish comedy is vulgar, raunchy, and body obsessed.”

Instead of placing Sacha Baron Cohen in the chapter that addresses this thesis, Dauber places it at the very end of his first chapter, “What’s so Funny About Anti-Semitism.”   He argues that Cohen has a “transgressive delight in displaying (or purporting to display) a hidden and not so hidden anti-Semitism in famously tolerant America.  He does this primarily by means of one of his characters, the Kazakstan journalist Borat, who attempts, in his interviews, to get his subjects to accede to his rabid anti-Semitism”(48).

The response to the character’s song “Throw the Jew Down the Well” or his character, Bruno’s expression “on the train to Auschwitz” is “basically a testament to the docility and occasional inanity of people caught up in the media spotlight; whether it pulls the cover back on anti-Semitism, as some watching have indicated, may be less plausible, especially given the deeply contrived, if hilarious, circumstances, Cohen creates to let his art flourish”(48).

The greater takeaway for Dauber is the “position of confidence and strength Jews have in the American culture”(48).   He assesses this position by way of taking note of a scene from Larry David where he makes an “assault on the Christian majority: his astonishing protestations of ignorance about that culture.  In one episode, in which he stops a Jews conversation to Christianity by disrupting the prospective converts baptism, he claims he doesn’t know what a baptism is, or what it looks like. David’s character’s cluelessness is a comic foil…but suggests two lessons”(49).

The two lessons are two sides of the coin: one positive, the other negative.  On the one hand, David’s schlemiel-like ignorance is an “apotheosis of Lenny Bruce’s approach – I don’t need to know,” a “kind of fuck you to the ostensible majority power”(49).   On the other hand, it is also a reminder to his viewers “that comedians, that Jews, are different, so essentially so that they can know little about the outside world”(49).  The latter, he calls, a “neurotic” stereotype that feeds into self-hatred.

Dauber argues that this prompts the biggest question of all for American Jews who partake in the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen,  Larry David, or Sarah Silverman (who employ humor that makes Jews look odd, different, inept (like schlemiels, in the worst sense): “Is it the safety and security of the American Jewish community that allows David, Silverman, and Cohen the comfort to  wallow in such neurotic (not to say self-hating) comic behavior?”(49, my emphasis).

Dauber gives “one answer” that is disturbing.  He argues – by way of a comment by Israeli illustrator Amitai Sandy – that Jews are better than even anti-Semites at creating “the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons every published.  No Iranian will beat us on our home turf”(49).    The last words of his chapter – following this claim – are hard to accept: “Black times do call, it seems, for black comedy”(49).  Is it the case that the main point that Sacha Baron Cohen is making is that Jews today are – even though Dauber doesn’t like to use the term but does – self-hating  out of a historical pathology to do so? The word “do”sounds odd.  What does it imply that these dark times “do” call for this?  Is Sasha Baron Cohen’s work an echo of a historical perspective tainted by deep anti-Semitism?    This, for Dauber, is the problem because it is a kind of Jewishness that is not simply self-deprecating (and neurotic, think of Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, etc) but self-destructive.

This question has a specifically American focus for Dauber.  After all, all of these comedians are rooted in Jewish American culture or base most of their comedy on it (like Sacha Baron Cohen).  Moreover, Dauber cites an Israeli who notes this self-hating aspect to point out that there is a blind spot in Jewish American comedy that can’t see anti-Semitism or how the caricature of Jews feeds into this.

While Dauber notes that Cohen is trying to expose the naivite and possible anti-Semitism of Americans, he also – as we see above – rejects that thesis because the circumstances that they are put in are bizarre. There is no real revelation of what Americans are (namely, anti-Semitic at their core).  The trick is to believe that such a disclosure is being made.  But this, Dauber argues, only makes American Jews look bad because it is more than a “fuck you” to American culture; its also an act of self-hate that feeds anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Cohen, it seems, is very aware of this issue.  For this reason, in terms of embodiment, Cohen wants us to ask a question: When we see America, who do we see? It is not “what do we see”?   It is “who” is America.  The schlemiel-like mistranslation of the Israeli is telling.  It seems to counter Dauber’s argument.

When we see America through the eyes of someone who is playing a caricatured Israeli, something else comes through.  What does Cohen’s character, Coloniel Eran Morrad show us?

He doesn’t simply show us that America is gullible – as he does in most of his other work – he also shows us that many of the people who meet this character think of him not as a caricature but as a “real” Israeli.  They trust that Israelis know about terrorism, weapons, and self-defense.   What does it mean that we laugh at this trick?   We – as “insiders” to the joke – laugh at his eyebrows, his make up, and so on because we can see that it is a caricature.  It is a fake embodiment.  They can’t see that.  But is it also, as Dauber would say, a sign of entitlement to show how stupid Americans are?

Cohen’s origins are fascinating because he has Israeli parents and a strong connection to the country.   Would this character and his own identity counter what Dauber is saying?  Or is this also a parody of the Israeli masculine stereotype?  This seems to be more than an insider joke.

Who is America is also the question, who is Israel?  What does an Israeli look like? How do they act?  But is it the case that the “who” may transcend both?

One interesting cultural confluence right now is the fact that Fauda is one of the most popular shows on Netflix.   One sees more faces of Israelis than ever as a result of this show, which has a cast that is mostly Israeli.

How is Jewishness embodied in America or Israel?  And how does humor put a new angle on these kinds of embodiments?  With the question “who is,” we come close to something that is more relational.  In our time, this is at the core of our relations.  Jewish American humor can bring this out, but to do so it will have to pass through stereotypes and caricatures of Jewishness.   The question of who one is, of embodiment, must pass through Larry David, Sarah Silverman, and Sacha Baron Cohen as much as through Fauda.  Comedy can either break the stereotype or reinforce it.   That all depends on “who” we see not just “what” we see.  Embodiment has a face.  Perhaps, through humor, we can see it…or fail to see…who is “facing” us.

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