How to not get canceled: the value of punch-up comedy

The Netflix comedy special section has become a travesty where rich influential male comedians bemoan #MeToo, cancel culture and mock the LGBTQ+ community for perceived sensitivities. These comedians — Dave Chapelle and Louis CK come to mind immediately — misunderstand why jokes that “used to be fine” are no longer. They wonder why their jokes are being left out and mock the idea that political correctness (PC) is social progress. They fail to have a full view of why their jokes do harm.

Sacha Baron Cohen figured it out. Cohen, having built his career on the back of racially insensitive caricature and political satire, would certainly have been destroyed if cancel culture were really the problem the anti-PC crowd argues.

In 2006, when Cohen made the film “Borat,” it received some criticism but was otherwise a massive success. A film that skewered American nationalism, Borat was a useful caricature because Americans’ willingness to buy it underscored existing racism. Something did go wrong, however. Despite a scene in which Borat gets a bunch of young white men to bemoan that they cannot keep women as slaves, the character became very popular among frat boys. While the movie was an effective satire, some people mistook the point and thought Borat alone was the joke.

It isn’t possible to make that same mistake with “Borat 2.” In “Borat 2,” Sacha Baron Cohen gives up some subtlety in favor of punching up. On two different occasions, participants duped in the film were shown purely in a positive light, with a holocaust survivor feeding Borat and teaching him not to fear her when he entered a synagogue in an antisemitic costume and a professional babysitter who teaches Borat’s daughter about female empowerment.

Even the people the film lampoons are seen in, at the very least, a sympathetic light. Borat is taken in by a couple of QAnon sycophants for multiple days, and while Cohen unconditionally expresses that their ideas are insane, there is a sense that they are just pawns in this much larger sociopolitical game. And that’s the key.

The reason why some jokes that were okay in 2006 aren’t now is that the stakes are far higher. Whenever Dave Chapelle makes a transphobic joke, it seems as if he is indifferent to the massive uptick of murders of Black and Indigenous trans women. Rather than punching down at sexual assault survivors like Chapelle and Louis CK, Cohen punches up at the systems in place and the brokers of power who bring us to where we are.

This culminates in the most prolific scene of “Borat 2,” when Maria Bakalova catches Rudy Giuliani in a honeypot scheme, where he begins masturbating on camera. Rather than ruthlessly attacking those with lower social status than him, Cohen sets his aims higher. In a time of political absurdity, with no social consensus, this is the only option. In 2020, responsible comedy punches up. That’s how to transcend cancellation.

Logan Graham ’22 is from Warrenville, IL.

His major is philosophy.