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Published on September 30th, 2008 | by Sharilyn Johnson


Victim-less comedy

Sacha Baron Cohen has made news again, for taking his Bruno character to Milan’s fashion week and storming the stage at the Agatha Ruiz de la Prada fashion show.  The footage will undoubtedly make it into his next film.

Being the comedy diva that I am, my friends and colleagues were shocked that I didn’t run out to see his last film, Borat, when it was first released.  I made excuses, but the truth was simply that I can’t handle victim comedy.

Scare Tactics, Just for Laughs Gags, Jamie Kennedy, Punk’d… they all make me a little ill.  We as the viewers are being told that natural human emotions/reactions are something to be mocked.  The victims have done nothing wrong, nothing stupid, nothing evil.  Yet we circle them, point a finger, and utter a collective Nelson Muntz “ha-ha” in their direction.

I finally did watch Borat out of professional necessity, in preparation to interview one of Cohen’s co-stars, Ken Davitian.  What I didn’t ask Ken –  and should have – was whether any of what they did weighed on his conscience.

Yes, those frat boys deserved it.  So did the rodeo guys.  But did the folks at the bed & breakfast deserve the stress they had to experience?  Did the owner of the antique store, whose hard work and passion went into filling that store, deserve to have his merchandise smashed to bits infront of his eyes?

“But they paid him for the stuff!” my friends would protest, rolling their eyes at me.  Perhaps.  But he still had to experience the negativity of that moment.

Such is the same for the stunt Cohen hatched in Milan.  Despite what you think about the merits of the fashion industry, all I could think about was the effort the designers had put into the work, only to have the pieces forever overshadowed.  I think about the assistants running their low-salaried butts off months in advance, making sure everything about this event would be perfect, only to fail for reasons beyond their control.

Maybe it’s my gender, for once playing a role in my comedic tastes.  Guys think nothing of destroying property, costing someone money, or doing something generally douchey for the sake of hilarious camaraderie. Women… if we wrote “slut” in black Sharpie across the face of a passed-out female, it would be because we actually think she’s a terrible person who deserves to die.  (But really, just talking about her behind her back is much more efficient.)

Maybe it’s my general philosophies about comedy that get in the way of enjoying these things.  Comedy to me is all about positive energy and joy.  So causing someone pain in the process seems counterproductive.

I can watch America’s Funniest Videos, no problem.  But that’s simply real-life.  That’s unprompted, unscripted, natural things that happen.  I’ve had a few moments in my life that would have easily won me $10k, and I have no qualms about repeating those heee-larious stories (ask me about the time I got stuck in the mud on the way home from groceries, and had to use the rubber bands from my broccoli to reattach my sandal to my foot).

And ImprovEverywhere, which I blogged about in my last entry, makes a habit of documenting the public’s reactions to their “missions”.  But those folks are typically aware that they’re watching a stunt, and they’re not being harassed or offended or harmed in any way.   No individual is being targeted.

This weekend I’ll be attending the New Yorker Festival, including a Q&A session with Stephen Colbert.  I had watched the Daily Show for years while he was a correspondent, but always chose to brush my teeth or wash dishes while the field pieces were airing, as a way to avoid the discomfort of watching people being mocked for being slightly unbalanced.

This changed when I saw some of the Daily Show correspondents and producers discuss their work at the Just For Laughs Festival in 2005.  Colbert said he prefers to look like the idiot himself instead of making the other person seem stupid.   I watched the segments differently.  My mind was swayed.

But can anyone sway me further on the merits of victim comedy?

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About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

5 Responses to Victim-less comedy

  1. Pingback: Fashion News » Blog Archive » Victim-less comedy

  2. Chica says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I have long held this sort of humiliation comedy in utter disdain. It’s just so damn lazy, so cruel and requires so little talent. My hatred of it started with the various Candid Camera shows, as we were forced to sit there and watch people put through what they thought were hellish situations, while we were supposed to sit back and laugh.

    I know what Cohen is trying to do in exposing people’s true opinions by lulling them into a false sense of security, but as Colbert and the TDS correspondents showed, there are other ways of doing that.

    There is always an exception to the rule and in this case it is Chris Morris’ Brass-Eye. Yes, his way of asking celebrities to read out utterly ludicrous charity campaigns (“Did you know a paedophile has more DNA in common with a crab than you or me?”) was mean to people who essentially just wanted to help, but it also proved that these clueless folk will read out anything put in front of them without a second thought.

  3. I haven’t heard of Chris Morris — I’ll have to check that out, Chica. Sounds like a distant cousin of Rick Mercer’s “Talking to Americans”.

    It does bring up a related issue about the effects of having a camera on you. Like Colbert has said in the past, “the camera lobotomizes whatever it is pointed at”. I think that’s very true. Another mildly comedic show that I hold in great disdain is MTV’s “I Bet You Will”, whereby people are pressured into subjecting themselves to regrettable stunts (a woman having her head shaved, a student allowing the contents of his backback destroyed) all for a couple of bucks. I know from having worked in radio promotions that people will do *anything* they’re told to if they have a camera or mic in their face. There’s a huge responsibility that goes along with that, and I think too often the line is crossed.

  4. Allisa says:

    Agreed. Agreed. Agreed!

  5. Yese, I enjoyed “America’s Funniest Home Videos” when it was on, but “Just For Laughs Gags” is one Comedy Network show I refuse to watch based on what I’ve seen (and I’ll refuse to rent/see “Borat” for similar reasons) – sadly “Gags” is often listed in the TV Guide as “Just For Laughs”, I’d turn on the TV expecting great standup and I get cruel pranks. Dammit, TV Guide, they are two separate shows!

    I think the main difference is laughing at yourself. One of the first lessons that got hammered into me when I first took to the standup stage (and I think even you’ve reminded me a time or two yourself) was to make yourself the target of the humour, not others. Shows like “AFHV” do have us laugh at others, but only because others are submitting the video because they see the humour in it – the same reason audiences laugh at a comic telling self-deprecating material, sure they are laughing at others’ shortcomings (ie the comic’s), but he’s the one telling the joke, so it’s OK.

    Shows like “Gags”, on the other hand, are just juvenile humour. Unfortunately they sell because juvenile humour sells (if you ever meet Tom Green, ask him how much money he has for proof of this.)

    I think another reason I don’t appreciate the “prank comedy” is because I was way too often the victim of it growing up (a comic who was teased as a child! How novel! What’s next, a Jewish comic?) – which is probably why I was reticent at the start to do self-deprecating material (and still am to a degree) because it traumatized me so much. Until it was explained to me that it’s me who is picking on me, not others. I bet those who still laught at Borat and “Gags” still pick on people weaker than themselves too, where others grew up.

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