P.O.V. No.26 - Humor in Film and TV

Three critiques of the Borat number,
"Throw the Jew down the well"

Richard Raskin

...."Borat" is not a guilt-free pleasure. We can laugh at Cohen's unwitting marks, because they're not us. But really, we're just lucky that we weren't in his line of fire.
Stephanie Zacharek

Undoubtedly one of the most outrageous of all of Sacha Baron Cohen's appearances in the guise of Borat Sagdiyev, the outspoken anti-Semite, Gypsy-basher and misogynist from Kazakhstan, the "Throw the Jew down the well" performance was first aired on HBO on August 1, 2004. It was the final segment of a Da Ali G Show broadcast entitled Peace - the ninth program in Season 2 (episode 203), [1] and not included in the 2006 "moviefilm," Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. [2]

This segment begins with establishing shots of an illuminated outdoor sign identifying the "Country West Dancing and Lounge" as its nighttime location, which we soon learn is in Tucson, Arizona when the mistress of ceremonies announces Borat and his Cowboy-Astana Band and calls upon the guests to give a nice hoot-'n-holler welcome to the performers who have come all the way from Kazakhstan. Borat is then seen climbing onto the stage amidst applause and cheers, and after several shots of patrons - one expectantly looking up at him, the other looking rather grim and unfriendly - Borat again appears in frame and says:

Thiisa song is called a Nemobozorbicha Domovan. It mean "In my country there is a problem.

After hoots and cheers, he then proceeds to sing, with a number of people in the audience eventually beginning to clap and finally joining gleefully in the singing of the repeated verses marked here in italics.

In my country there is problem,
And that problem is transport.
It take very very long,
Because Kazakhstan is big.

Throw transport down the well
So my country can be free
So my country can be free
We must make travel easy
Then we'll have a big party.

In my country there is problem
And that problem is the Jew
They take everybody's money
They never give it back

Throw the Jew down the well
So my country can be free
So my country can be free
You must grab him by his horns
Then we have a big party

If you see the Jew coming
You must be careful of his teeth
You must grab him by his money
And I tell you what to do

Throw the Jew down the well
Throw the Jew down the well
So my country can be free
So my country can be free
You must grab him by his horns
You must grab him by his horns
Then we have a big party
Then we have a big party

Throw the Jew down the well
Throw the Jew down the well
So my country can be free
So my country can be free
You must grab him by his horns
You must grab him by his horns
Then we have a big party.

Shots of the audience happily clapping and singing along make it clear that the participation of many of the patrons is wholehearted, and at one point even smilingly accompanied by a gesture illustrating the verse "You must grab him by his horns." And the number ends with a total shot of the grinning public cheering and applauding.

What this segment appears to show is that instead of recoiling in horror and indignation from an encouragement to "throw the Jew down the well," the patrons of this Arizona lounge are only too happy to join in the refrain, their applause and cheerful participation apparently signifying an unqualified approval of the violently anti-Semitic sentiment expressed in the song. In this way, the Borat performance is presumed to be as troubling as it is funny, in that it seems to show that virtually all the patrons in an Arizona lounge are not only potentially anti-Semitic but also unashamed to embrace that outlook openly in response to even a most ridiculous form of encouragement.

This segment of Da Ali G Show might be criticized in at least three different ways, which will now be considered one at a time along with possible counter-arguments.

In an op-ed column of The New York Times, David Brooks attacked what he saw as offensive manifestations of snobbery in contemporary culture, the crowning glory of which was Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), described in this piece as "an explosively funny rube-baiting session orchestrated by a hilarious bully." According to Brooks, Cohen panders to his own audience - the educated bourgeoisie - and safely ridicules groups that audience enjoys looking down upon as morally and intellectually inferior. Furthermore:

Cohen also knows how to rig an unfair fight, and to then ring maximum humiliation and humor out of each situation. The core of his movie is that he and his audience know he is playing a role, and this gives him, and them, power over the less sophisticated stooges who don't. The world becomes divided between the club of those who are in on the joke, and the excluded rubes who aren't. The more tolerant the simpletons try to be toward Borat, the more he drags them into the realm of anti-Semitism and vileness. The more hospitable they try to be, the dumber they appear for not understanding the situation. [3]

Though Brooks doesn't mention the "Throw the Jew down the well" segment from Da Ali G Show, his comments are eminently applicable to the staging and purposes of that performance.

However, if in fact that segment shows what it implicitly claims to show - an audience eagerly responsive to what Jody Rosen has called an "incitement to pogrom" [4] - then it could be argued that the deception and snobbery involved were justified by what the performance alarmingly revealed, which according to Rosen is:

…that the Jews never did assimilate after all, that the lynch mob is waiting just over the hill-or downing brews beneath Stetsons at the local watering hole-waiting to "grab him by his horns" and hurl him down. […]You want to dismiss it out of hand, but Borat's song isn't just a comedy number-it's an exposé. Watch those bar patrons singing along and you can't help but wonder: In my country is there problem?

Or in Sacha Baron Cohen's own words

Borat essentially works as a tool […] By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice, whether it's anti-Semitism or an acceptance of anti-Semitism. 'Throw the Jew Down the Well' was a very controversial sketch, and some members of the Jewish community thought that it was actually going to encourage anti-Semitism. But to me it revealed something about that bar in Tucson. And the question is: Did it reveal that they were anti-Semitic? Perhaps. But maybe it just revealed that they were indifferent to anti-Semitism. [5]

And as Cohen subsequently explains, he considers an indifference to anti-Semitism to be as much a cause for alarm as anti-Semitism itself.

But precisely because assertions regarding an overriding revelatory function of this performance rest in turn on assumptions as to what actually happened in that Tucson lounge, and more specifically as to why the patrons cheerfully sang along, we will have to reserve judgment on the issue at hand until a later point in this discussion when those assumptions will be examined in some detail.

One week after the Ali G episode containing "Throw the Jew down the well" was first aired, Abraham Foxman - the national director of the Anti-Defamation League - sent a letter to Sacha Baron Cohen, informing him that the ADL had received numerous complaints about the segment, and mentioning this central concern:

While we understand this scene was an attempt to show how easily a group of ordinary people can be encouraged to join in an anti-Semitic chorus, we are concerned that the irony may have been lost on some of your audience - or worse, that some of your viewers may have simply accepted Borat's statements about Jews at face value. [6]

The same worry, that Cohen's Borat may actually serve to promote anti-Semitism for some members of the viewing public, was echoed in a subsequent ADL press release about the Borat film of 2006:

...We hope that everyone who chooses to see the film understands Mr. Cohen's comedic technique, which is to use humor to unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism and other phobias born of ignorance and fear.
We are concerned, however, that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry. [7]

Commenting on this press release, Jim Hoberman accurately pinpointed the essentials when he wrote of the ADL: "Their real anxiety is that by satirizing anti-Semitism, Borat will legitimize it." [8] In other words, it would be ironic if the ease with which the Borat persona openly and comfortably espouses anti-Semitic views enabled a susceptible segment of the viewing public to feel unashamed about doing the same.

Commentators arguing in Cohen's defense were quick to point out that Borat is in the same respected tradition as the bigoted Archie Bunker figure played by Carroll O'Connor in All in the Family (1971-1979); and that figure was named by Bravo in 2005 as the number one all-time greatest TV character. [9] On the other hand, much of the vitality of that TV series resulted from the interplay of Archie Bunker with his left-wing son-in-law, Michael "Meathead" Stivic (Rob Reiner), while the Borat figure is not - and could not be - counter-balanced in Cohen's performances by an appealing character who criticizes Borat's racist views.

There are always risks involved when a comic brings to life a persona whose statements are intended to be understood by the viewing public as unacceptable. In other words, there is a danger that the comic's own person be confused with a persona played for laughs, particularly when a deadpan delivery is used and there are no obvious visual or vocal cues to set the persona apart from the person playing the role. This was the case when during a 2001 appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Sarah Silverman pretended to explain how she once got out of jury duty. She later retold the story on ABC Nightline in this way:

I got one of those like… things for jury duty in the mail, you've gotta fill it out. So I'm like, "Oh my God, I don't want to do jury duty." And my friend tells me, "Why don't you just write something really racist on the form, like 'I hate Chinks.'" And I was like, "Yeah, but you know I don't want people to think I'm racist. You know, I just want to get out of jury duty." So I filled out the form and I wrote: "I love Chinks." [10]

Though Silverman only pretended not to realize that she was uttering a racist slur, and though the joke was intended to be at the expense of the mindless persona she was playing for comic effect, The Media Action Network of Asian Americans demanded an apology, and one was issued both by NBC and Conan O'Brien, but not by Silverman who maintained that what she told was not a racist joke but rather a joke about racism.

With Borat singing "Throw the Jew down the well," in contrast to the Sarah Silverman story cited above and her deadpan delivery, numerous cues - including a fake mustache, over-the-top accent, crude lyrics that neither rhymed nor fit the music, a patently unprofessional singing voice - should have lowered the risks of not realizing that a persona was in play, at least for some percentage of the patrons at Country West.

And this leads us to the final and in some ways most serious of the three critiques.

Important factual questions were raised in two articles that appeared shortly after the segment was aired on HBO: Nathaniel Popper's "Comic Pushes Limits in Anti-Semitic Sing Along" (Jewish Daily Forward, 13 August 2004) [11] and Curtis McCrary's "In My Country West There Is Problem. Do Tucsonans really want to throw Jews down wells, as 'Da Ali G Show' suggests?" (Tucson Weekly, 26 August 2004). [12]

One issue concerns exactly what transpired between the time "Borat and his Cowboy-Astana Band" were introduced, and the singing of the explicitly anti-Semitic verses and choruses. The impression given in the 2 min. 46 sec. segment is that the only intervening action was the singing of a verse and chorus about "transport." But statements made by people who were there at the Country West that night and which are cited in the two articles make it clear that "Borat" also sang verses about throwing his wife and family and his wife's cooking down the well, and that the entire performance lasted several hours.

This of course is significant if these other portions of the song were sung before the explicitly anti-Semitic section, for the simple reason that they would have served to tip off at least some of the patrons that the entire performance was a joke.

For example, Nathaniel Popper quotes Carol Pierce, described as "the treasurer of the company that owns the bar," and who "could be seen during the segment on HBO, laughing heartily behind her goateed husband, " as pointing out

that what television viewers saw was only a few minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour performance that Borat gave when he came to Tucson, Ariz., in April. The rest of Borat's performance, in which he sang about throwing his wife and family down the well, made it perfectly clear to Pierce that the man performing was a comedian in disguise - who was very funny.
[...] "You could tell right away it was a wig he was wearing, and a fake mustache. I would say 99% of the people in here saw that, too."

And Curtis McCrary quotes a Carole Irizarry "who supervises the bar, along with her husband, Robert," as stating that "everyone was in on the joke." McCrary adds:

At the time of filming, the Country West featured a mechanical bull on which Borat took a turn; he continued to regale the assembled with other things he'd like to throw down the well (his wife, his wife's cooking), which would suggest that Irizarry's characterization is, at least in part, accurate.

That not absolutely everyone was in on the joke seems clear. For example, even after watching the segment on HBO, Bill Sandy, the manager of Country West, "still did not appear to grasp that Borat was simply a character, created and portrayed by a comedian from Britain" (Popper). And Sacha Baron Cohen reportedly said that one of the patrons told him after the show: "You know, Borat, I'm from Texas; you better see how we treat the Jews down there" (McCrary, citing a statement made by Cohen on a Howard Stern broadcast).

But it seems equally clear that a significant number of the patrons were in on the joke, and even if we have no way of assessing whether they constituted 25 or 50 or 75 percent of the people who cheerfully sang along, the impression given in the edited segment that the very act of joining in the singing revealed latent anti-Semitism, is almost certainly misleading.

And although in the general pattern of deceptions carried out in the guise of Borat, the television viewer and Sacha Baron Cohen are knowing confederates enjoying the discomfiture or naïveté of an unsuspecting stooge, in the case of "Throw the Jew down the well" it would appear in retrospect that a different configuration was in play, with a number of the apparent stooges playing along with the joke, and the TV viewer - for being led to think otherwise - the real victim of a deception.

1 http://www.hbo.com/alig/episode/index.html

2 Shots of Borat and five young children singing the chorus of "Throw the Jew down the well" are however included in the "musics infomercial" found in the bonus material on the DVD of Borat.

3 David Brooks, "The Heyday of Snobbery," The New York Times, 16 November 2006. http://select.nytimes.com/2006/11/16/

4 Jody Rosen, "Borat Owes Me 97 Dollars." Slate, 3 November 2006. http://www.slate.com/id/2152773/

5 Strauss, Neil. "The Man Behind The Mustache. Sacha Baron Cohen - The Real Borat - Finally Speaks." Rolling Stone. 14 November 2006. http://www.rollingstone.com/news/coverstory/sacha_baron_cohen

6 The entire letter, dated 9 August 2004, can be found at this link: http://www.adl.org/media_watch/tv/20040809-hbo.htm

7 "Statement On The Comedy Of Sacha Baron Cohen, A.K.A. 'Borat.'" 28 September 2006.

8 Fallow Traveler." Village Voice, 24 Oct 2006.

9 http://www.bravotv.com/ The_100_Greatest_TV_Characters/
All in the Family had been inspired by the highly successful British sitcom, Till Death Do Us Part (1966-1975) in which the racist star of the show was Alf Garnett (played by Warren Mitchell) who vented his wrath on his socialist-leaning son-in-law, Mike Rawlins (Anthony Booth).

10 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PW33qppZjCA

11 "Comic Pushes Limits in Anti-Semitic Sing Along." Jewish Daily Forward, 13 Aug 2004. http://www.forward.com/articles/

12 "In My Country West There Is Problem. Do Tucsonans really want to throw Jews down wells, as 'Da Ali G Show' suggests?" Tucson Weekly, 26 Aug 2004. http://www.tucsonweekly.com/gbase/currents/

Literature and websites

Akbar, Arifa. "Baron Cohen comes out of character to defend Borat." The Independent. 17 Nov 2006.


Ansen, David. "Too Funny- Or Too Far?" [review of Borat]. Newsweek, 13 Nov 2006. http://www.newsweek.com/id/44544

Brooks, David. "The Heyday of Snobbery." Op-ed column, New York Times, 16 Nov 2006. http://select.nytimes.com/2006/11/16/opinion/

Burr, Ty. "Scathingly funny 'Borat' skewers America and its complex values" [review of Borat]. Boston Globe, 3 Nov 2006. http://www.boston.com/movies/ display?display=movie&id=8982

Dargis, Manohla. "From Kasakhstan, Without a Clue" [review of Borat]. New York Times, 3 Nov 2006. http://movies.nytimes.com/2006/11/03/

Edelstein, David. "So funny it hurts" [review of Borat]. New York Magazine, 29 October 2006. http://nymag.com/movies/features/23476/

Felperin, Leslie. Review of Borat. Variety, 10 September 2006. http://www.variety.com/review/

Hoberman, J. "Fallow Traveler" [review of Borat]. Village Voice, 24 Oct 2006. http://www.villagevoice.com/film/0644,hoberman,74897,20.html

Krauthammer, Charles. "Throw the Jew Joke Down the Well. Borat gets anti-Semitism wrong." The National Review, 24 Nov 2006.

Lane, Anthony. "In Your Face" [review of Borat]. The New Yorker, 6 Nov 2006. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/11/ 06/061106crci_cinema

Lasalle, Mick. "Borat explores America, finds a very funny place" [review of Borat]. San Francisco Chronicle, 3 Nov 2006.

Leyden, Joel. "Of Borat, America, anti-Semitism, Israel, ADL, and Kazakhstan." Israel News Agency. 16 Jan 2007. http://www.israelnewsagency.com/boratkazakhstancohen

McCrary, Curtis. "In My Country West There Is Problem. Do Tucsonans really want to throw Jews down wells, as 'Da Ali G Show' suggests?" Tucson Weekly, 26 Aug 2004. http://www.tucsonweekly.com/gbase/currents/

Popper, Nathanial. "Comic Pushes Limits in Antisemitic Sing Along." Jewish Daily Forward, 13 Aug 2004. http://www.forward.com/articles/

Radosh, Daniel. "The Borat Doctrine." The New Yorker, 20 Sept 2004. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/09/ 20/040920ta_talk_radosh

Rosen, Jody. "Borat Owes Me 97 Dollars." Slate, 3 Nov 2006. http://www.slate.com/id/2152773/

Rosenbaum, Ron. "Kramer vs. Kramer: Five Theories on Michael Richards." New York Observer, 3 Dec 2006. http://www.observer.com/node/53003

Strauss, Neil. "The Man Behind The Mustache. Sacha Baron Cohen - The Real Borat - Finally Speaks." Rolling Stone. 14 Nov 2006. http://www.rollingstone.com/news/coverstory/ sacha_baron_cohen_the_real_borat_finally_speaks

Turan, Kenneth. Review of Borat. Los Angeles Times. 3 Nov 2006. http://www.calendarlive.com/movies/

Wolf, Buck. "Kazahkstan Not Laughing at 'Ali G.'" ABC News. 15 Nov 2005. http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=1315240

Zacharek, Stephanie. Review of Borat. Salon, 3 Nov 2006. http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/review/2006/11/03/borat/

Unsigned but reportedly written by national director Abraham Foxman. ADL Letter to Sascha [sic] Baron Cohen, 9 Aug 2004. http://www.adl.org/media_watch/tv/20040809-hbo.htm

Unsigned. "In My Country There Is Problem." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_My_Country_There_Is_Problem

Unsigned. "Statement On The Comedy Of Sacha Baron Cohen, A.K.A. 'Borat.'" Press release. Anti-Defamation League, 28 Sept 2006. http://www.adl.org/PresRele/Mise_00/4898_00.htm

http://www.metacritic.com/film/titles/borat?q=borat for access to 37 reviews of the Borat film



Borat. Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, DVD issued by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2006.

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