Cohen is funny because he offers up ideas that are tired, obvious, and completely calculated, and then gets those recently born suckers that PT Barnum loved to mention to buy into it freely and openly. He's not laughing with you. He's laughing at you!
It's taken a lot of deep thoughts, and two movies, but this critic has finally figured out what makes Sacha Baron Cohen "funny". Now, I'm not talking about hilarious in the traditional sense. Only a juvenile would chuckle out loud at the kind of stilted shock tactics the British comic offers up as jokes. After all, if you've seen one flopping phallus or anti-Semitic cartoon, you've seen them all. Nor am I commenting on the always offered "skewering social commentary" angle to his supposed wit. Running into the woods with rednecks and exposing their narrow minded proclivities is the intellectual equivalent of challenging babies to chess. No, Cohen is funny because he offers up ideas that are tired, obvious, and completely calculated, and then gets those recently born suckers that PT Barnum loved to mention to buy into it freely and openly. He's not laughing with you. He's laughing at you!
Let me explain. If you were to walk into a room of right wing politicians and find a couple of complete nimrods that believe the world is flat, evolution is a myth, and that God created man, woman, and organized sports, you'd giggle - but not out of surprise. Many people wear their beliefs so fully on their rolled up sleeves that it's almost impossible not to see them. No, your titter comes from seeing stupidity so blatantly exposed. For Cohen, this is the foundation of his brand of "funny". He goes to a meeting of NOW and degrades women. He heads to the Middle East and mocks a known terrorist. He takes a trip to Texas and gets a beer-ed up bar to sing along with a song about dropping Jews down a well. He walks directly into the line of fire and then screams - usually in character - about how horribly hot it is. Now, this is not novel. Anyone could do it. As long as you have the guts, finding hate in a hotbed of prejudice should be a slamdunk.
Again, what Cohen doesn't do, however, is find the unknown bigoted needle in the mindless mainstream haystack. It would be far more clever to crash a liberal rallying party and find the Holocaust denier within. It would be far more insightful to see a group of outright racists embrace a favored minority athlete or seemingly incongruous lifestyle choice. In the flash in the pan smash Brüno, Cohen stages an MMA fight that he then turns into a near live sex show as he and co-star Gustaf Hammarsten make out like a couple of high schoolers on Prom Night. A far better way of handling this scene would have been to have our disguised host bring on two big, burly, muscular men, fighters who fully fit the IFC bill, have them pummel each other into a bloody pulp, and then show these two archetypes of machismo finishing the match in a decidedly 'down and dirty' manner. The reactions - and requisite disgust - become far more pointed when they're not so obvious.
But that's the strategy, you see. Cohen realizes that many in his 18 to 25 demographic (let's face it - that's the current audience for Hollywood's tentpole strategy) wouldn't understand something so subtle. They would never "get" the joke if two seemingly straight boxers started boning each other after a bout. Instead, they need their proposed satire spoon fed to them, and Cohen has an entire aesthetic drawer filled with silverware to accommodate. Sure, he deals in shock, but it's not shock the way you see it. Indeed, if you knew that the joke was ultimately on you, would it still seem funny? Let's take another set-piece moment from Brüno and dissect it using this theory.
As part of his attempt to become "famous" our fey hero decides to adopt a baby from Africa (actually, he simply trades his IPod for one). He then takes the child to a talk show hosted by former tabloid talent Richard Bey. As an audience of mostly African Americans sits back in disgust, our queer pappy trots out his prized possession. The look on the faces of many in the crowd mimic that moment when Ron Popeil unveils his latest contraption and announces it will only cost you three easy payments of $29.99 to own it. The outrage is so fake, so fraudulent in its stylized stereotyping, that the entire premise comes into focus. When you learn that the entire set-up was a creative con job (there is no such morning show in Dallas, and rumor has the indignant spectators peppered with actors). Cohen's concept of "funny" becomes as obvious as the gags he is conceiving.
It's all so meta. As a fictional person, Cohen goes out into the real world, locates legitimate sources of concern, and then films them reacting to his own legally leading questions and approaches. He let's them put their own tainted feet into their own misguided mouths while baiting and goading those already prone into proving his point over and over again. He then puts it on film, fancies it up with production value and narrative focus, and then releases it out into the general population to see who laughs. And that's the joke. Not the airheaded PR gals who can't come up with a cogent thought or the high class couple who balk when Borat delivers his shit to them in a plastic bag. No, the real joke is in seeing who responds. If you get what Cohen is trying to do, really "get" how he lobs these softballs over the plate for peons to swing at, you finally understand his humor. Again, he's not laughing with you as you roll in the aisle and stare at his stunts in wide-eyed amazing. He is laughing AT YOU!
Why do you think he is such a god in Britain? Why has he been given every award possible for what is something a stooge like Stuttering John used to do for Howard Stern. It's all about perception. America is seen - at least by many in the international community - as a bunch of raving yeehaws who don't understand just how uncultured and uncouth they really are. Naturally, the last eight years of War on Terror tantrums haven't helped, but our original rulers just can't help but snicker at how disposable and dumb our society has become. Of course, if they look in their own techno rave mirror, they'll get a glimpse of something they surely won't like. But Cohen is their current cause celeb because he wanders over to the States, sets himself up among the Colonies' biggest buttheads, and then captures them being stupid for the rest of the planet to judge and jest over.
So you see, Cohen is clever. He is playing to the audience he knows best. Sure, he puts on a good PR face and makes nice with all the wayward US of A-holes, but at the end of the day, he is going back to Queen and country with a full wallet and a swollen head. From his privileged post in Merry Ole England, he can look back and legitimately laugh at all the people who didn't "get" it - everyone who laughed at the full frontal male nudity, who though a baby was actually in a hot tub filled with naked men, or who believed it was unusual that a group of parents would whore out their child for a chance at fame. Oddly enough, the far more "sophisticated" fashionistas, people prepared to be picked on by the media for their shallow and superficial affectations, saw right through his ruse ASAP. That would explain the one and only runway show Bruno and his camera crew attend. In order to find the "funny" he was looking for, Cohen had to return to Borat's blockbuster stomping grounds. And, not surprisingly, it worked all over again.