The Blues Brothers were on cable the other night, and I tuned in just as Jake and Elwood take the stage at a roadhouse that features “both kinds” of music—”country and western.” Impersonating a band called the Good Ole Boys, they get pelted with beer bottles for a syncopated opening number before subduing the unruly crowd with the theme from Rawhide and forging a connection with “Stand by Your Man.”
Sacha Baron Cohen just used a similar setup on Da Ali G Show, when his mustachioed alter ego from Kazakhstan, Borat, shows up in an Arizona bar to perform “In My Country There Is Problem,” a ditty from his purported homeland. He gets the good ole boys in the audience to join in on the chorus:
Throw the Jew down the well
So my country can be free
You must grab him by his horns
Then we have a big party
The three-minute segment (watch it here if you don’t have HBO) struck some as hilarious. Others were put off, especially that a Jewish comedian would use such clumsy, blatant anti-Semitism to bait his audience. (The Kazakh embassy had its own objections.) I haven’t watched Ali G since last year’s disappointing American premiere, and this segment strikes me as a retread of Andy Kaufman, as entrapment of the powerless, as too easy; I’d rather see Borat try his singalong at Bohemian Grove. That said, Baron Cohen, who was educated at Cambridge and wrote his thesis on the civil rights movement and “whether there was really a black-Jewish alliance,” has a method; in front of clowns, people express their “true” feelings and hidden prejudices.
Although Kazakhstan was a staging ground for the United States’ campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Borat comes off as a wide-eyed innocent from that part of the world where militants are peddling an ideology in which Americans and Jews figure as the central villains. To me, the terrifying undercurrent (or, if you’d prefer, the essence of the joke) is how easy it is for Borat and his American audience to find common ground.