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Laughing Again

Thoughts

The weeks leading up to the election were fraught with embittered discourse, stirrings of unrest, rampant increases in COVID-19 infections and rises in hate-based crimes that included the defacing of Jewish cemeteries with swastikas and MAGA graffiti. This sense of dread was compounded by the devastating loss of the patriarch of the Golden family, my grandfather Donald. This marked the second time in a stretch of six months that my family sat shiva, the Jewish period of mourning, through a Zoom screen. With my work-life balance constantly in flux, and my own sense of being trapped on an infinite treadmill of bleak reality, I asked myself, “Is it okay to laugh right now?”

Then two Jews walked into a bar...

And said, “Fuck yeah.”

This could only be the work of two eccentric comedians whose manic energy belies a nuanced sense of zen control and genius: Sacha Baron Cohen and Eric Andre. Of the duo, Andre is more of a cult favorite, lacking a massive mainstream hit like “Borat” but winning the late-night viewers of Adult Swim with his truly bizarre eponymous “talk show.” A hybrid interview/surrealist torture program interspersed with man-on-the-street pranks, “The Eric Andre Show” premiered its fifth season in October. It’s been four long years since Andre took a hiatus after the 2016 election, and the strength of the election-centric bits left fans like myself clamoring for more.

Andre’s ability to expose the latent anger below the surface of some of his marks is secondary only to his willingness to say and do the most banal thing possible in any given situation. At the 2016 RNC, he fought his way through a rally of Hell’s Angels for Trump to get onstage with right wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Mistaken by Jones for Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show,” a “left-Wing Pentagon weapon,” Andre stood beside Jones and his fervent crowd of armed supporters, who expected an impassioned liberal argument from a political pundit. Instead, Andre cast his eyes downward and muttered in a plaintive tone, “I want you to have sex with my wife.” Instantly eliciting boos and slurs from the throng, Andre was shoved offstage and pushed to the ground. A disgruntled MAGA-hat-wearing man spat in his face, shouting, “You’re not Martin Luther King!” Andre’s response: “Coachella sucks this year.”

In the interim between seasons of the show, I saw Eric Andre perform live in September of 2019; the set was captured in the “Legalize Everything” standup special, but no filmmaker can truly capture the manic energy that seized the room. For the first time in my life, I laughed so hard that I started choking on my tears, and the crowd seemed to agree with my response. Andre called up two audience members to chug entire bottles of ranch, demanding that the winner initiate a freestyle rap only to pull his pants down midway through to unveil his entirely waxed body. He explained this “new look” was designed for an as-yet-unannounced fifth season of his show.

After a year of anticipation, Andre does not disappoint; his revamped show features a glitzy new set, a new house band and a set of new pranks that evoke an earlier time in New York’s history, turning familiar city locations into surrealist hellscapes. Nearly every bit is a winner, but Andre has devised a set of new pranks centered around his Jewish upbringing. Clad in a typical Hasid outfit and fake beard, he whispers to passerby, “It’s my last day as a Hasid. I don’t care anymore,” as he eats a bagel with cream cheese and pantomimes injecting the mumps vaccine. In a similar vein, he builds a scale model of a park bench and paints his face white as “the bench mensch,” who offers unhelpful advice to city movers and struggles to remain mobile. It’s a refreshingly self-deprecating, cartoonish look at some of the staples of Jewish life in the city, and it doesn’t punch down. Andre always makes himself the butt of the joke, humiliating himself and redirecting anger towards his outlandish costuming and persona. Taken by this approach to street-based, hidden camera comedy, I decided to explore the work of Sacha Baron Cohen, who revolutionized the genre with 2006’s “Borat” and repeated the trick in 2020’s sequel, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”

I was late to the “Borat” parade and decided to watch both films as a double feature. A proper review of both would entail an in-depth look at the Bush years, the touchy politics of Cohen selecting the real-life nation of Kazakhstan as the scapegoat for many of his punchlines, the evolving state of media and political correctness between the Bush and Trump years and the bizarrely touching feminist subplots of the sequel. Instead, I’d like to emphasize Cohen’s somewhat undersung role as an advocate for Jews through the ironic lens of his character Borat’s rampant antisemitism.

In the “Borat” sequel, the protagonist must infiltrate a synagogue to track down the whereabouts of his daughter. The character dons a ludicrously anti-Semitic costume, with a long, red nose, prosthetic horns and dollar bills dangling from his fingers on marionette strings. An elderly woman in mid-prayer, Judith Dim Evans, receives Borat with empathy and a wealth of understanding. She points to her button nose and says, “Look at my nose. I am Jewish. Is my nose long?” When Borat questions the existence of the Holocaust after consuming right-wing Facebook articles, Evans points to the concentration camp numbers tattooed on her arm. Borat is terrified of this woman, but she disarms and eventually embraces him, giving him the strength to continue his journey. In the context of the film, this scene is played for laughs, but I found my eyes welling with tears. In an era where Holocaust denial is stunningly prominent and anti-Semitic hate crimes still ravage local communities, Borat’s interaction with Evans (who has since passed) offered a moment of catharsis. It also reminded me of my grandparents.

Baron Cohen was instrumental in bringing attention to Facebook’s implicit allowance of Holocaust denial and Nazi-centric content on the platform. His scathing indictment in a rare non-comedic speech targeted Mark Zuckerberg as a traitor to marginalized people and one of the most dangerous men in the world. Cohen argued, "If a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a restaurant and starts threatening other customers and saying he wants to kill Jews, would the owner of the restaurant, a private business, be required to serve him an elegant eight-course meal? Of course not. The restaurant owner has every legal right—and indeed, I would argue, a moral obligation—to kick the Nazi out, and so do these internet companies." His later ridicule of Zuckerberg’s appearance and Julius Caesar haircut did little to dull the severity of his barb. In the aftermath, Facebook eventually banned Holocaust denial content; Twitter has yet to follow suit. Andre has similarly “broken character” to chat with fellow Jewish comedian Ilana Glazer of “Broad City” fame to advocate for voter registration and protest police brutality in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s nothing to laugh about.

But somehow, both Andre and Baron Cohen appealed to my sense of Jewish identity, the most banal and shameful crevices of their depravity, and both the best and worst that humanity has to offer when faced with insanity in the streets in real time. Somehow, in the midst of a bleak era of misery, Andre and Baron Cohen still brought their A-game. They’ve been a huge help in easing the period of sheloshim (mourning) as I try to focus less on the absence of my grandfather’s presence and recall happier times we shared. Times like risking an hour delay in his commute home to talk to an eager Hasidic man, or his recitations of his favorite Rodney Dangerfield bits and firm protocols on how to properly consume Nathan’s hotdogs and fries we shared. I remember his toothy grin and his insistence that in spite of any number of tragedies, our lives could and would be joyous someday.

And I start to laugh again.

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Illustration by Aidan Moyer

written by
Aidan Moyer
January 4, 2021