Laughing the Demons Out

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Atlantic reader Bert Clere remembers one of the edgiest comedians of the early aughts:

When reading “The Coddling of the American Mind” and “That’s Not Funny!,” I kept thinking back to Borat and my experience at a small liberal arts college in NC, beginning in 2004.  Like many undergrads at the time, my friends and I used to watch Borat segments from The Ali G Show and quote them regularly.  When the Borat movie came out in 2006 it was an event; the only comedy film in my lifetime that had a genuine blockbuster aura.  Almost everyone I knew went to see it.  

We told ourselves, as did most of the media, that the appeal of Borat was the way in which he “showed up” the rotten underbelly of Bush’s Red State America.  But looking back, I think this misrepresented some of Borat’s core appeal.  

Just about everything Borat said or did was offensive to PC sensibilities.  Of course everyone knew that this was a liberal, Jewish comedian playing on stereotypes. The common refrain: “The joke is on the people who don’t know who Sacha Baron Cohen really is.”

But I remember laughing hardest with my friends at the things Borat said, not at the idea that he was tricking people.

“In Kazakhstan we say that to give a woman a vote is like giving a monkey a gun: very dangerous!”  

“I arrived in America’s airport with clothings, US dollars, and a jar of gypsy tears to protect me from AIDS.”

These things are funny because they are offensive. I think it goes back to Freud’s conception of jokes. Borat is a character specifically designed to offend every cultural sensibility in the 21st century West.  He says things that most of us would never dream of saying, or want to.  But when he says them, it acts as a catharsis that cuts through the moral seriousness and tension our culture has built up around political correctness and culturally sensitivity.  

Caitlin Flanagan mentions the pitfall that occurs when a comedian’s jokes elicit “the hearty laugh from the person who understands your joke not as a critique of some vile notion but as an endorsement of it.” That’s certainly the danger of Borat’s kind of humor. But so long as it remains and is understood on the level of the ridiculous, it serves a necessary function in society.  Laughter is one of the primary valves our minds and bodies use to release built up tension.  When that valve is suppressed or cut off, neurosis is more likely to develop.

Throughout most of human history, comedians have understood this.  Their role is not just to critique social structures with humor but to allow the audience a venue in which to release social and mental tension through laughter. The danger of the PC climate on today’s campuses is it assumes that all “offensive” humor is intended in service of some vile notion.  That just isn’t true, and it’s intellectually dishonest to say that it is.  

A healthy community allows a forum in which its most austere and sacred ideas can be made fun of. That’s something today’s sensitivity police need desperately to understand.  

Have something to add to the debate over the new campus PC? Email