Thursday, April 12, 2007

176. Wrestling Foreign Men

The Borat phenomenon went past me largely unnoticed, if only because there is just so much I can pay attention to. Still, I had the feeling I would appreciate Sasha Baron Cohen's shtick, even though--hm; because?--I heard grumblings that it was ugly and gross. And then came the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination for these "cultural learnings Of America for make benefit glorious nation Of Kazakhstan," and I grew more curious about how an extended prank could merit such attention.

But even before Borat made it to the "U. S. and A." I realized what I was watching: the Andy Kaufman that would have been, the non-cancerous comedy-tumor Andy would have, if he'd had the chance, lovingly, impishly grown on our collective backsides. As much as I laughed, at once tickled and appalled--and ashamed for laughing--I felt a little sad--and, of course, vindicated. I long ago joined the Andy Kaufman faithful, '70s college students who, as pointed out in an old National Lampoon magazine parody of Mad, knew we'd "really outgrown Mad" because we laughed "at simpler things, like clouds and flowers." Like Andy Kaufman. His comedy--or whatever you want to call it--seemed (and when it comes to Andy, if you "know not 'seems'" you're in trouble) predicated upon the notion that you began to understand what he was doing first through the jaundiced eye of irony, but would never get the punchline unless you could transcend* your condescension and embrace the experience itself, as much of a non sequitur as it might be.

Kaufman's "Mighty Mouse" routine--in which he "accompanies"/lip-synchs a scratchy 45 of the cartoon's theme song--is the apotheosis of his method: It begins as off-kilter camp--his late-'70s audience had that song engraved into their kid-consciousness--and we could appreciate the irony of a slightly formal young man, also a bit nervous and self-conscious, using the song, spinning away next to him on a cheap record player, as an "entertainment": absurd, but not absurdist, if you catch my drift. Yes, the performer is a simpleton, somehow convincing himself this is worth "performing" on national TV. But just as we decide the point is to laugh at him, the combination of every element softens our response: We understand his love for the song, a silly little thing from childhood; but it becomes more than nostalgia, because the performance chides us, ever so slightly, for our nostalgia--and then more sternly for our even imagining that he should've done something "worthwhile"--after all, this is TV, the last place we should expect any substance. But the performance--here comes that word again--transcends parody (of what, though, is not certain: '50s nostalgia? the act of performance? definitions of "professionalism" or "comedy"?) and becomes itself: a minimalist's exercise, a rehearsal-as-performance. We have been invited to watch, but it is so personal we believe it would have occurred even if no one was watching, even if the performer had remained at home--a home cluttered, of course, with comic books and trivia, junk collections and garish memorabilia--meditating on the light of the self diffused.

Cohen's Borat is, of course, simply an extension of this urge to erase the line between private and public life. Cohen's most obvious predecessors in pop culture are the clueless victims of reality programming, the punk'd celebrity-ette, the mortified housewife who must smile because she's on Candid Camera. But between Borat's surreal origins--a Kazakhstan that only drunken fratboys and small-city socialites could believe exists--and his (seemingly?) innocent demeanor--and, of course, all that discomfiting wrestling--I could see nothing but the desire to "carry on Kaufman." Borat is Andy's "Foreign Man" grafted onto Tony Clifton; it's just that Cohen realized there is, after all, something worse than a man wrestling a woman.

*It's difficult to discuss Andy Kaufman without using this word: Transcendental Meditation was at the center of his life, and he held on to it with open-hearted conviction.

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