Monday, Dec. 25, 2006

Sacha Baron Cohen

Holding Up a Mirror To the Ugliest Things
In 1963, psychologist Stanley Milgram proved that people will do horrible things if a scientist in a lab coat tells them to. In 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen, 35, proved they'll do them even for a boorish, stultifying reporter from a low-budget news station in a country they have barely heard of. The Cambridge-educated, Jewish comedian from Britain specializes in a form of humor that isn't nice — in his surprise hit movie Borat, Cohen breaks most of an antique dealer's wares, calls black politician Alan Keyes a "chocolate face" and really ticks off the government of Kazakhstan — but is often hysterical. And as Borat gains the confidence of his marks, he shows how willing our own awfulness is to expose itself: our xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia and, most of all, our enjoyment of others' discomfort.

For the past 50 years, music has been the schism between generations. Now, for the first time since Lenny Bruce, comedy is a cultural divide. Some squirm at Borat's cruelty and crudeness, but the reality-show generation understands that with democratized media, anyone can be nominated the global-village idiot. In a world in which privacy is a quaint memory, total information means we find out a lot of things about ourselves we preferred hidden. But at least we can laugh at them.