Lunchtime Briefing: Media (Heart) Borat
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.
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.
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