Is Bruno Good for the Jews?

The Borat star once again pushes the limits of comedy (and comfort)

Bruno-inside“What’s up?” you ask. For one thing, the new movie, Brüno.

The swishy, semi-fascist fashionista Brüno is the imaginary Austrian TV personality created by the very real British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

In 2006, Baron Cohen broke box office records (and probably a couple of laws) with his movie Borat, about another foreign fictional reporter’s adventures in America. With their microphones in hand and their cameramen at their heels, both characters give the British comedian the unique ability, in our media-crazed age, to access people and places few “real” people could get close to. The results are hilarious or offensive–sometimes both–depending on your point of view.

As with Borat, the “plot” of Brüno is non-existent. Brüno flies to Hollywood, hoping to become “the most famous Austrian star since Adolph Hitler” and “the biggest gay movie star since Schwarzenegger.”

Thumbs Up?

Besides being a “take no prisoners” iconoclast and equal opportunity offender, Sacha Baron Cohen is Jewish. So, not surprisingly, there are cringe making “Jewish” gags throughout the new film. It’s a carry over from Baron Cohen’s old TV program, where the character Brüno originated, and among other things, liked to rate red carpet looks as either “in the ghetto” (thumbs up) or “train to Auschwitz” (thumbs down).

At one point in the new movie, the staggeringly tactless Brüno decides to become a Middle East peacemaker of all things. But he confuses the words “hummus” with “Hamas” in a high stakes dialogue between a real life ex-Mossad chief and an equally authentic Arab leader. Like everyone Brüno encounters, the two men were baffled by his bizarre behavior.

Some of Brüno’s unfortunate subjects end up making fools of themselves, like the stage mothers and fathers who’ll do anything to get their children a part in Brüno’s photo shoot. Would a mother consent to liposuction for her preschooler? Brüno asks them with a straight face. Will their babies be comfortable working with bees, wasps or hornets? Brüno suggests to one mother that her 30-pound baby lose 10 pounds within seven days — and she eagerly agrees! When Brüno tells one mother that his child would be expected to wear a Nazi uniform and push a wheelbarrow carrying a Jewish baby into an oven, the mother calmly responds, “That’s fine, as long as he gets the gig.”

Remember: these are real people, and they’re not reading from scripts.

Context and Narrative POV

For better or worse, Borat helped make the nation of Kazakhstan a household name (and international punch line). Cohen’s new alter ego might not have the same effect on Austria, though – in promotional interviews, Brüno says he wants to “live the Austrian dream of finding a partner, buying a dungeon and starting a family” (a reference to Austrian madman Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter in a cellar for years and even fathered children with her).

“It’s a dangerous game…How can Cohen be sure that audiences “get” his meta-humor?…I’m a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen, and respect the fact that we could all use a good laugh or two these days. But I’m also a rabbi; so much of his raunchy humor makes me deeply uncomfortable, too. It certainly isn’t material for a Shabbat sermon.

Austria may not be a fascist nation, but right now it is experiencing a growth in nationalistic, anti-immigration movements. Brüno is probably the last thing it needs right now. Which brings us to the question I have as a rabbi: Forget the Austrians. Is Brüno good for the Jews?

Context and narrative point of view are everything. They’re what separate an insightful gag that is in borderline taste from a tasteless joke that falls flat. Jewish performers like Baron Cohen, Larry David and Sarah Silverman all share offensive-yet-naïve stage personas. These seemingly oblivious characters charge through life, offending everyone in their path, but not always intentionally.

Their carefully crafted personae escort the audience through edgy routines that reveal a larger point of view within a specific context. Along with Sacha Baron Cohen, Larry David’s show Curb Your Enthusiasm satirizes the way we overvalue (fake) celebrity and undervalue real history. Meanwhile, Sarah Silverman uses utter absurdity to remind us of the gravity of the Holocaust, not make fun of it.

Dangerous Game

By playing a fascist, not to mention a loudly “out” homosexual, Cohen forces audiences to confront their own prejudices. His rationale seems to be: If you beat your enemy to the punch line by getting in the first and last word, even if you lose, you still win.

It’s a dangerous game, though. How can Cohen be sure that audiences “get” his meta-humor? (All in the Family creator Norman Lear was appalled to discover that millions of viewers embraced Archie Bunker, a character he’d meant the audience to despise. Comedians Chris Rock and David Chappelle dropped certain routines about racial differences that some audiences liked too much, for the wrong reasons.)

In an interview with Rolling Stone when Borat first came out, Baron Cohen explained the “minstrelsy” he employs in his anarchic humor: “When I was in university, there was this major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw, who said, ‘The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.’ I know it’s not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but it’s an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic.”

The Jewish “N” Word

It’s telling that so many Jewish comedians (and their audiences) have declared the Holocaust “on limits” for comedy at this particular moment in time, because as its horrors recede into the past, the macabre phenomenon of Holocaust denial is growing, a trend I chronicle in my latest book, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century (Barricade Books).

It goes without saying that this sort of gallows humor offends Holocaust survivors and their families. “Nazi” has become the Jewish “N” word– whether or not it’s an acceptable punch line depends upon who’s using it, and how.

I’m a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen, and respect the fact that we could all use a good laugh or two these days. But I’m also a rabbi; so much of his raunchy humor makes me deeply uncomfortable, too. It certainly isn’t material for a Shabbat sermon. That said, watching Brüno declare that fashion is more important than Darfur reminds us of the dangers of material excess, at a time when we need to practice and praise restraint. There are more real-life, shallow, dimwitted “Brünos” out there in the media world–deciding on a whim what the rest of us should wear, watch, read and think–than many of us care to believe.

In that respect, Brüno may serve as a lesson to us all.