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Lunchtime Briefing: Media (Heart) Borat

Frank Ahrens

If it were not for the media, it's hard to imagine you would have ever heard of Borat.

A quick backgrounder for those of you unfamiliar with Borat, whose movie opens on Friday:

He is a character created by Brit television comic Sacha Cohen, who gained fame in England via another character, Ali G. Borat is a Kazakhstani TV journalist and Ali G is a ridiculous-looking hip-hopper of indeterminate ethnic origin.

Borat visits with David Letterman.(AP)

Cohen uses his characters to ambush-interview real dignitaries and regular folks, asking them purposefully stupid and embarrassing questions. The fun is in their reaction. When everybody in England got hip to Cohen's shtick, and no one would sit for an interview anymore, he came to the U.S. HBO picked up his show in 2003. Ali G interviewed the likes of Newt Gingrich and Gore Vidal, who, like the rest of Cohen's victims, were woefully underserved by their advance staff.

Cohen is probably a comic genius. It's rare when a comedian can conceive of and execute such a high-concept performance in an accessible way. Andy Kaufman did the former but could not pull off the latter. Cohen produces cringe-worthy TV: I watch with my hands over my eyes, peeking out between the slits, mortified for the people he interviews. But at the heart of Cohen's act is a sweetness. For all of Borat's vulgarity and frequent parodies of anti-Semitism (Cohen is a Jew), Borat is a naif and Ali G is, well, not a very good gangsta.

But here's the thing: Hardly anyone else in the U.S. saw Cohen's act.

"Da Ali G Show" ran for only 12 episodes on HBO and got negligible ratings, averaging only about 1 million viewers per episode. In the TV universe, that's a rounding error.

I can't remember a fringier cult figure getting as much love from the media. This would be like bass-fishing superstar Kevin VanDam suddenly popping up all over TV and the papers. And bass fishing actually draws ratings: Nearly 10 million viewers watched the Bassmaster Classic on ESPN in February.

The media are happy to be Cohen's straight man, for whatever reason. As such, we have essentially obviated the need for 20th Century Fox to allocate a marketing budget to promote the film.

Borat has been interviewed in Maxim (where he gave his Top 10 Sexytime Tips), shown up on the late-night TV circuit and profiled in newspapers galore. His bogus press conference here in Washington last month--to coincide with the visit of the actual president of Kazakhstan--was covered by a swarm of media and was dubbed "hugely successful" by The Post's Style section.

How would 20th Century Fox have marketed this film were it not for us? "Come see a movie about a fake Kazakhstani journalist pretending to interview Americans!" That's box office magic, baby! Instead, thanks to the media's helping hand, all the studio has to do now is make posters with Cohen's picture and one word: "Borat."

Though Cohen cracks me up, I'm not sure I'm terribly happy with the media complicity in his movie's marketing campaign (which I suppose I just added to here). On the other hand, if we're going to be an enabler, I suppose it's better to be flacking a funny movie than something worse. Like, say, the certainty of WMD in Iraq.

By Frank Ahrens  |  November 1, 2006; 12:12 PM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
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Okay, but then at what point is the media permitted to write about a movie or an actor? Sacha Baron Cohen (and I think he's not "Sacha Cohen" any more than GBS was "George Shaw") is an immensely funny, entertaining man -- that doesn't merit some ink? I would rather read about someone with a small audience who is genuinely talented and makes for funny copy than read about Lindsey Lohan, you know?
I just don't think I get the "complicity" argument. What -should- the entertainment media write about and televise, then? Or should there not be an entertainment media at all?

Posted by: SP | November 2, 2006 10:21 AM

The complicity comes from the media's all-too-eager willingness to interview Sasha Baron Cohen in the guise of Borat (often providing questions in advance, so Cohen can write his clever answers ahead of time). It's no more tolerable for David Letterman or Matt Lauer to interview an actor playing the fictional character "Borat" than it would be if they were interviewing actors playing Emma Bovary or Holden Caulfield. This isn't journalism -- it's an infomercial.

Posted by: Dave I. | November 2, 2006 11:04 AM

Please check out this link. I addressed this Borat issue last week in the NYC film blog The Reeler. I'll also be on NPR's "On the Media" this week discussing this issue.
Personal e-mail is

Posted by: Lewis Beale | November 2, 2006 11:27 AM

Unlike Beale, the guy who shamelessly promoted his blog above, I think this is a much more level-headed approach to the "Borat" issue.

I've been a Ali G fan for awhile, and even I don't get why the media has fallen so much in love with this act. If everyone thought he was such a comedic genius, why weren't they interviewing him before the movie came out?

That said, I think it's well within Cohen's right to insist on being interviewed in character. That's his schtick -- that this is a real person.

There will be plenty of time to interview the man behind the curtain once the movie premiers, since in all liklihood this character will have to disappear.

The media's complicity is baffling and can get sickening. I think I would have preferred for this to continue under the radar. It's just not as funny when the straight guys are so obviously in on the joke -- that CNN interview was by far the worst example.

Still, I totally support Cohen doing promotions as Borat. Like I said, there will be plenty of time to interview Cohen in the future.

Posted by: Jeremiah | November 2, 2006 1:06 PM

I am a huge fan of Borat (dressed as him for Halloween) and I'm also a journalist who finds trouble with the fact the likes of Matt Lauer, Harry Smith and other "journalists" including newspaper reporters have interviewed Cohen as the character. He's not real, quoting a character just doesn't sit right with me, I hope his movie is a huge success, but it just seems wrong the way the media is handling it.
In the lead-up to Old School, Frank the Tank would not have been interviewed, Will Farrel would have been, why is Cohen different?

Posted by: Erik | November 2, 2006 2:21 PM

Isn't the media just making a judgment call that Borat is, in fact, hilarious?

I object when the press gives wall-to-wall coverage to cr-p like whatever that Will Ferrell movie about Nascar was called, or the piles of p-o that were the "new" Star Wars movies. But in this case, it seems, reporters have sifted through all the dross and are saying, "Hey, this is worth checking out."

I'm not sure this will be the funniest movie of the past decade, as Michael Hirschorn claimed in the Atlantic this month. But Borat deserves the hype.

Isn't this similar to the way the Sopranos started small, got raved about by every critic on the planet, and then took off?

Posted by: Cthomas | November 2, 2006 2:26 PM

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