The show's genius lies in Baron Cohen's use of the dimwitted innocence of his characters to expose comically ugly or foolish behavior in the small-minded, whether it's Bruno eliciting vehement rage from Alabama football fans by prancing alongside their cheerleaders, or Borat getting a Republican candidate for Congress to state his belief that Jews are going to hell, or Ali G getting Pat Buchanan to refer to weapons of mass destruction as "BLTs."
In this season's third episode, aired Aug. 1, Borat announces his intent to "learn how to be star of country music," and he subsequently visits square dancers in a community center, Porter Waggoner in Nashville, and the Country West bar on Ruthrauff Road in Tucson. While Baron Cohen makes a running gag out Borat's anti-semitism, not even seasoned Ali G fans were prepared for what took place that night in April when Borat stopped in to town.
"In my country there is problem," Borat sings from the Country West's stage, after a first verse that elucidates the problem of "transport" in Kazakhstan. "And that problem is the Jew / He take everybody's money / He never give it back ..." Then comes the chorus: "Throw the Jew down the well / so my country can be free / you must grab him by his horns / then we have a big party!" With some encouragement, the couple-dozen patrons of the Country West rather enthusiastically sing along.
The appearance had been pre-arranged by a producer from Talkback, the production company for Da Ali G Show. "They said that (Borat) was an up-and-coming country singer from Kazakhstan, and they had heard about the bar, that it was very country-looking ... he was touring, and this is where he wanted to play," says Carole Irizarry, who supervises the bar, along with her husband, Robert. "They brought cameras; they hung up signs that said, 'You're being filmed.' It was very professional."
Irizarry is nonplussed at the snowballing attention now being paid to her bar and its patrons. "It just bothers that it's being made (into such a big deal). You see worse things on TV, and there are bigger issues to address."
Since Aug. 1, a critical mass of critical reaction has developed. First, there was a complaint to The Hill, the official newspaper of Capitol Hill, from the press attaché of the Kazakhstani ambassador to "U S and A." "Humor of Mr. Cohen's type is vicious and comes perilously close to 'fighting words,'" writes Roman Vassinlenko in the Aug. 4 issue of the publication. "Particularly disgusting is Mr. Cohen's portraying of Kazakhstan as a land of Stone Age people who mistreat women and hate Jews.
The Anti-Defamation League was next to weigh in on the budding controversy. In a letter to Baron Cohen, Abraham Foxman expressed the ADL's concern that, "... the irony may have been lost on some of the audience, or worse still that they simply accepted Borat's statements about Jews at face value." But according to an HBO spokesperson, Tobe Becker, Foxman has privately acknowledged the segment's humor to HBO brass.
HBO may want to share that endorsement-by-faint-criticism with the U.K.'s Jewish Board of Deputies, which, along with the Britain's FCC analogue, is investigating the incident, according to the New York Post. It seems unlikely, however, that HBO would suffer repercussions from any foreign government sanction; it doesn't operate in Britain.
"HBO's position is that Borat is a comedic and satiric character," says Becker, herself Jewish, like many of the show's fans. Becker gives no impression that HBO might pull the show, an outcome which seems less likely given that the final episode of the second six-episode season has already aired.
Amplifying the tempest in a teapot is "King of All Media" Howard Stern's avowed love for the show and the song. Stern takes a dim view of both the customers of the Country West (calling them "hillbillies," among other pejoratives) and the subsequent objections from the Jewish community. Baron Cohen recently made an appearance on Stern's show in which he revealed that one attendee at the Country West approached him afterwards and said, "You know, Borat, I'm from Texas; you better see how we treat the Jews down there," to which he replied "Great! I weel come to Tex-iss!"
This stands in stark contrast to Irizarry's claim that everyone was in on the joke. "We all thought it was funny," she says. "There wasn't any discussion (by the patrons) of that song. They laughed about it afterwards, and then ... it wasn't the hot conversation."
Confederate flag on the wall notwithstanding, Irizarry says the Country West attracts a diverse crowd, and that she's never seen any instances of bigotry there. It should be noted that in addition to the Stars and Bars, the Country West's walls sport a bear pelt, Geronimo's rifle and a signed photo of Earth, Wind and Fire (EW&F actually practiced at the Country West before a recent gig at Casino of the Sun).
At the time of filming, the Country West featured a mechanical bull on which Borat took a turn; he continued to regale the assembled with other things he'd like to throw down the well (his wife, his wife's cooking), which would suggest that Irizarry's characterization is, at least in part, accurate. She also questions the lack of scrutiny directed toward the mockery of homosexuality implicit in the character of Bruno.
"Did HBO get any calls on that?" she wonders, validly enough.
But almost as soon as it seems certain that the seeming casual racism of the incident was engineered by the show's producers, Irizarry betrays a hint that perhaps she and the Country West's imbibers were not as knowing as they claim.
"And then it's on HBO, and then all of a sudden you're like 'Oh, they got us, there, boy do we feel stupid ...' Had we known, we would have all dressed up!" she laughs. "If we would have known it was HBO, we would have still done it, but people would have been a little more gussied up."