The Laugh Track

Sacha Baron Cohen is angry. Angry at Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, and tech companies in general. Angry because Facebook and its competitors spread “hate, conspiracies, and lies.” He wants something to be done. Speaking at an Anti-Defamation League summit in New York City, Baron Cohen argued

“There is such a thing as objective truth. Facts do exist,” he continued. “And if these internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.”

This turn is not really surprising or out of keeping with Baron Cohen’s often deliberately absurd personae. It is the only path left for the comedians and entertainers of Baron Cohen’s generation, who can no longer balance their dual and often contradictory identities as clowns and scolds. It was always a stretch for Jon Stewart, who had a habit of oscillating between lacerating satirist and passionate media critic. Stewart could always, of course, fall back to “I’m just a comedian” if things got too rough. This option no longer seems to be available, especially in a climate that seems both oppressively absurd yet devoid of any successful humor. Playtime is over, you see. The stakes are too high. It’s time for the adults to step in and clean up the mess. Unfortunately, there do not seem to be many adults left. And, though this will almost certainly seem absurd in its own way to some readers, Baron Cohen – or more precisely, the Baron Cohen generation of entertainers – has as much to do with it as Zuckerberg does. Now Baron Cohen points an accusing finger and sternly tells us that objective truth is real, facts exist, blah blah blah. He denounces the tech titans and demands they act to “purge” the “lies and conspiracies.” But it is not up to him to decide such things anymore, and in any event it is far too little and too late.

Sacha Baron Cohen built a career out of deliberately deceiving people to illustrate inchoate higher truths about social wrongs. Taking the guise of strange and exotic yet comically bumbling and idiotic characters, Baron Cohen repeatedly tricked both famous people and ordinary rubes into revealing their gullibility, ignorance, and prejudice. Isn’t this just satire? Maybe. Satire of course always involves some element of deception, and more importantly it must by necessity delineate separations between some people who are in on the joke and others who are not. And the satirical device of the naive savant who extracts some embarrassing and revealing behavior out of people who interact with him is one of the oldest satirical devices in the arts. But one pervasive problem with Baron Cohen’s act was always the uncertainty about what, exactly, he was actually eliciting from the people he interacted with. People will often – out of politeness – bend over backwards to accommodate a strange yet seemingly sincere outsider. This desire to accommodate can be a target for social engineering, obviously, and Baron Cohen was particularly skilled at it. Additionally, examples of when Baron Cohen cannot fool his targets are downplayed but not totally absent. Similarly rare are moments in which subjects respond in a dull fashion with impersonal boilerplate, as there is little comedy to be had in that.

And, obviously, there are also many, many editing tricks available to any filmmaker in Baron Cohen’s position that can distort the audience’s perception of what is going on. Still, Baron Cohen undoubtedly – via a fake persona – elicited real drama. No one put a gun to the heads of his interview subjects and forced them to blurt out what they did. So what’s the harm in that? His defenders will (rightly) say that – bad faith tactics and editing tricks aside – he exposed the toxic inner beliefs of powerful and dangerous people. He forced them to take off the mask. Isn’t that what we need more of? Do we not need more people to confront hidden prejudices in today’s dark times? I frankly doubt it. People systematically over-value hidden information at the expense of publicly available knowledge. What value is a racist gaffe from a politician that routinely says similar things without prompting? Or, perhaps, who has gone beyond mere words and willed into being policies with manifestly and blatantly racist consequences? And if attention and embarrassment is Baron Cohen’s weapon against the powerful, what happens when these things become shields deployed by the powerful to protect themselves from accountability? This is not a hypothetical question for reasons that shall soon become quite obvious if they are not obvious already.

A public figure like Donald Trump can negate the revelatory power of gaffes by simply blabbing constantly in a way that forces everyone else to pay attention and react without Trump needing to necessarily condition his attention or reactions on anything they say or do. And if attention in and of itself is now a form of currency – morally neutral and fungible like any other form of money – we only see our craving for attention and entertainment when we look at Trump rather than anything necessarily revelatory or illuminating. I am certainly far from the first to observe this, but there is also some justification to wondering who the “we” audience is supposed to be and therefore whether “we” are actually laughing or cheering when these figures are “exposed” for ridicule. Meanwhile, Baron Cohen helped in his own way to destabilize our ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. How? Why? The generation that came of age watching him, Stewart, and their peers developed during a seismic shift in how professionals – and especially media professionals – understood concepts such as objective truth and facts. What happened? In short – but not exclusively:

  • Academics, journalists, and other professionals either rejected the concept of objectivity as nothing more than a professional ritual or indirectly undermined it via increasingly elaborate justifications for telling audiences that they “needed” to understand.

  • Corporate public relations specialists, advertisers, and other “symbolic analysts” of the post-industrial economy spent decades erecting a permanent and pervasive system of managed perceptions, promotional self-branding, and public relations as a way of life.

  • Political “spin doctors” – increasingly unable to justify policies often developed and executed in hermetic isolation from the public – doubled down on the already prevalent selling of cultural experience decoupled from the meat of policy.

The twisted but nonetheless perfect convergence of these trends can be found in the 2002-3 onset of the Iraq War. Anti-war opponents often focus on the blatantly deceptive way the war was sold, but tend to downplay how much the people waging the war lied to themselves long before they lied to the American people. Did Karl Rove really infamously say “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” as heavily implied by Ron Suskind? Maybe he did, maybe he did not. We do know that, whatever he did say, something of this nature literally was the basis for the Iraq War and its military strategy. The United States would use advanced technology to create a fearsome and terrifying show in the desert, cowing regional and international American rivals and resolving intractable security issues. Things did not go as planned, of course, because while empires can violently make their own realities the enemy also gets a violent reality distortion field of its own. Iraq and the trauma of the Bush II administration as a whole destroyed much of the basis for good faith interpretation of social institutions and optimism about the future. The 2008 economic crisis and its lagged effects afterwards would finish what Bush started.

Baron Cohen, Stewart, and their entire cohort emerged in the destabilized and disoriented climate that followed the Bush administration’s foolhardy dash into the desert. Their act was not entirely novel. Satirical TV shows that provide timely send-ups of the news were, via Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live, already well-entrenched by the 1970s. And the practice of holding up solemn official pronouncements to crude and subversive ridicule in order to expose their fundamental illegitimacy is perhaps the origin of political comedy itself. But what made Baron Cohen and others different was that they appealed to a more cynical than ostensibly subversive audience. This audience existed mostly in embryonic form at the beginning of the 2000s but now has more than grown up today. Unfortunately, discussion of it is plagued by incomplete analysis and bad moralizing. Take South Park, for example. Today, many blame South Park for depriving people of the will to care about the world and teaching them to mock do-gooders as naive and pathetic simpletons. Due to their political beliefs and the self-professed desire to play video games and tune out, its creators lend themselves well to such critiques as targets. But in truth what South Park really gave its viewers was something quite different. South Park did not teach people to stop caring about the world, its viewers intensely care about it. But not in the way that many would like.

By the 1990s, TV shows around the world structurally changed to appeal to a more ironic and cynical viewer. These shows strip-mined earlier entertainment and cannibalized it as material for parody. Much of this relied on the assumption that the viewer was “in on the joke” – aware of the endless layers of subtext and meta-subtext behind the entertainment industry and its material, ironically detached from the substance of the subtext, and willing to join together to collectively mock and belittle it for its fake and contrived tendencies. Viewers, joined together in ever-expanding communities of cynical intimacy, became increasingly estranged from any kind of normative evaluation of the object level and consequentially stuck on the meta. So then to damn South Park for making it cool not to care about the world is missing the point. People drawn to such media do so because they want to – collectively – use the world as material for continuing the relationship of cynical intimacy they have with both the TV show and each other as fans of it. Therefore it is perfectly appropriate that South Park did not call on its own viewers to change the world, as doing so was entirely besides the point. The world was not there to be changed, the world was there mostly to give people a reason to feel savvy. And South Park, in any event, lacked the legitimacy to beseech its audience to do much more than collectively feel savvy.

Post-Iraq comedians generally wanted to do better than this. They wanted to give people both a cynical and detached attitude as well as make them righteously outraged at the world’s inequities. Hence they often traded off between the role of cynical insider and passionate moralist. This was always an uneasy balance to straddle. Some did it better than others. Baron Cohen at least had the advantage that he – unlike Stewart or Stephen Colbert – was not imprisoned by a fixed persona that he had the burden of maintaining. Baron Cohen – an extraordinarily gifted chameleon of a man – could take on any number of them simultaneously in order to pursue his comedic craft. Many dismiss his work as gimmickry, but this is unfair. A man capable of only gimmicks could not pull off even a fraction of what Baron Cohen could. But in each costume or ruse he created and inhabited, Baron Cohen nonetheless hewed to what his peers on TV increasingly did best – establish a community of cynical intimacy by allowing people to collectively mock and belittle some poor, sad sucker that was unable to hear the hidden laugh track in the background. Though Baron Cohen could pass as everything from a loud and vain gay fashion journalist to a fake Israeli counter-terrorism consultant, Baron Cohen was in reality always playing the same exact character. A vessel for the audience watching other people making fools out of themselves for their amusement, once again confirming their suspicions that everything was just a silly scam after all.

Baron Cohen as a screen presence therefore was distinguished mostly by his paradoxical passivity even as he blustered and bungled around. He did not face the burden of expressing any (potentially mockable) views of his own, remaining – much like his viewers – aloof and flexible. In Baron Cohen’s defense, perhaps this was the only kind of comedy that made sense in the context of the day. The only sort viewers felt capable of relating to. And the alternatives in that era – and much more so today – were much less promising. By subjecting official seriousness to ridicule and mockery, past comedians of older generations could credibly portray themselves as dissident figures capable of speaking brave truths to power. In practice this was always more dubious, but it is much easier to imagine it in the past than the present. One reason why is undoubtedly social media, but not necessarily for the reasons Baron Cohen believes. It is, as a start, very ironic that Baron Cohen criticizes Zuckerberg so bitterly today. As more and more of Baron Cohen and his peers’ audience moved away from traditional television to online streaming, being a fan of Baron Cohen and others meant consuming, reproducing, disseminating, and dissecting their content on social media. Being a part of the Twitter or Facebook conversation about TV and movies has become just as – and in many cases more important than – actually watching it the entire way through.

Sharing isolated clips and viral memes, in turn, becomes more important than taking media on its own terms. And Baron Cohen in particular reacted to the demand to fight “trolls with trolls” by increasingly adapting his content around the needs of Very Online audiences searching for – what else – material for their own cynical intimacy rituals. It is increasingly difficult to imagine how Baron Cohen-esque comedy is possible without the very toxic overlay of social media he denounces. Now Baron Cohen wants to be the moralist. He wants us to know that there is a real world, that we should believe in the facts, and that Mark Zuckerberg is threatening us by refusing to crack down and “purge” the people out there trying to mislead us. It’s time for Zuckerberg to stop things by putting the experts in charge and throwing out the trash. It’s a childish and naive view of the problem of social media content regulation and post-truth, not least of which because it would potentially open up political satire like his to the almighty banhammer. Baron Cohen further reveals his lack of comprehension about the problem when he justifies his own style of humor:

Baron Cohen went on to acknowledge the incongruity of the man who popularized the phrase “throw the Jew down the well”—as the anti-Semitic Kazakh character Borat—accepting an award from the ADL. “At times, some critics have said my comedy risks reinforcing old stereotypes,” he admitted, defending himself by explaining, “as a comedian, I’ve tried to use my characters to get people to let down their guard and reveal what they actually believe, including their own prejudice.”

But as he laid out with examples from Da Ali G Show and his more recent Showtime series Who Is America?, his humor only works when the majority of viewers “share the same facts.” For instance, he said, “When Borat got that bar in Arizona to agree that ‘Jews control everybody’s money and never give it back,’ the joke worked because the audience shared the fact that the depiction of Jews as miserly is a conspiracy theory originating in the Middle Ages.” Social media has changed all of that.

Ah, but do audiences in fact share the same facts? And what makes Baron Cohen so sure that they did when he put Borat in that bar? Fellow comedians Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle learned to their horror that many people didn’t “get” the joke the way they did, and that when they ironically reinforced racial stereotypes a certain subset of their audience was actually nodding rather than guffawing. Social media makes these ambiguities explicit, furthermore it exposes how Baron Cohen was never as much in control of his own persona and its reception as he believed he was. As others have noted, the same communities that once were a part of the media’s circle of cynical intimacy ultimately turned on the media itself, using it for raw material much in the way the media had long encouraged them to use others in such a capacity. Hundreds, thousands, millions of online subculturalists emerged united by their often tortured relationships with targets they were dependent on as material to build intimacy with others. They affected a romantic pose of being truth-seekers and moralists, but also were always capable of reverting back to their base of comfort: downplaying robbery by saying legal financial activities were just as criminal but protected by law.

Furthermore, social media threatens figures like Baron Cohen by making painfully obvious the way in which others can – via their highly sophisticated ways of receiving, reproducing, and remixing content – wrest control of Baron Cohen’s likeness and speech away from him and subject him to the same cannibalization he so routinely inflicted on others. No longer the insider helping others laugh at those without the laugh track, Baron Cohen is now just one of many targets of convenience for the hordes of social media e-droogs. To the extent to which his humor depends on a shared set of insider knowledge and an implicit pact with an audience of would-be insiders, Baron Cohen now faces the fragmentation of this audience into many smaller and hostile micro-audiences. Faced with such a predicament, Baron Cohen adopts the stance of a moral scold earnestly beseeching the authorities to DO SOMETHING GODDAMMIT. It is a rather sad, silly, and downright pathetic turn of character. But it is nonetheless likely the only one available to him and his peers. But what of my claim earlier, that he and Zuckerberg are not so far apart as he believes? What singular responsibility does Baron Cohen bear for all of this? And is it not totally absurd and ignorant to equate the complicity of a comic to that of a tech tycoon? At the very least Baron Cohen helped contribute small slices of the dysfunctional personality type that dominates today’s social networks. At most he generated countless clones of himself to populate said networks. Let us return back to Facebook itself in order to be better understand this.

Zuckerberg claims today that Facebook opened up conversation about the Iraq War that otherwise would not have taken place. This is patently absurd. Facebook has been, is, and always will be an engine that supercharges the normal human habit of social comparison. We take the average of what everyone around us does, how we match up in return, and adjust our behavior accordingly. Social media platforms take this basic process and supercharge it. In doing so, Facebook and similar platforms create or stimulate many negative side effects that I’ve written about at length elsewhere. To make it short, members of social media communities are beset by powerful doubts about their own authenticity and pervasive mistrust of others they interact with. One way to alleviate this pain and anxiety of feeling like a stranger to oneself – surrounded by hostile strangers around you – is to adopt the pose of studied detachment and cynicism I have alluded to throughout this post. Another is to become a meta-troll capable of adopting any number of seemingly bizarre and deranged troll personae in order to elicit embarrassing reactions from others. I do not actively post on Facebook anymore in part because I saw people I knew engage in grotesque folk derivations of what Baron Cohen made a career out of doing: use the disguise of a strange and baffling idiot savant to manipulate and bait people into publicly humiliating themselves. It’s one thing to see it on TV or movies, its another when you see your own friends doing it to professional colleagues and relatives on your Facebook wall.

Baron Cohen and his peers have many fans in my generation, so I also expect that much of what I say here will be absurd or even offensive to readers even after all of this exposition. For what little it is worth, I myself take very little pleasure in saying any of this. I myself once was a big fan of Baron Cohen’s comedy. One of his movies in particular has particular sentimental relevance to me and will always be linked to a particular period of my life I will remember with great fondness. Especially today given the looming and disturbing events in the news and the normal stresses of a life that has become much less simpler than it used to be with the passage of time. My appreciation of Baron Cohen and my sentimentality aside, at a certain point I started to realize that though I laughed along with Baron Cohen as I watched his TV shows and movies, maybe the joke was actually on me. I am not sure when I really begin to fully recognize this, but watching my own friends rip each other to shreds online certainly did help move that recognition along. Similarly, I am not sure if I “learned my lesson” – these kinds of self-realizations tend to induce more doubts rather than less. I am only reasonably certain that Baron Cohen has not learned his. It is too little and too late. The ground he is trying to defend has shifted out from under him. And the more he tries to zealously guard it, the harder on him and others what comes next is going to be.