I don’t think there is really any comedian around who does what Richard Pryor did. Comedians tell jokes. They make observations. Sometimes they do impressions, or impersonations. But Richard Pryor was like a method actor. He would get into character. Or multiple characters. And play them out. Some of what he said was funny in the “ha-ha” sense, but a lot of it was “funny” in the sense of pleasure that comes with enlightenment or revelation.
I obviously don’t know what it was like in the ‘60s when Richard Pryor started performing. But I have this sense about him, which is similar to the sense I have about Martin Luther King. Which is something along the lines of the old instruction to writers to “show, don’t tell.” Obviously, Martin Luther King did a lot of significant things. But, in addition to that: People like Richard Pryor and Martin Luther King didn’t, it seems to me, tell white people that African Americans were just as good as whites. They demonstrated it, in a way that couldn’t be denied or rejected.
Sure, telling jokes is a disarming way of telling someone that he or she is responsible, whether directly or indirectly, for something that is deeply immoral. Just as King’s non-violence was, in its own way, less threatening and disarming than some of the other approaches advocated by civil rights activists at the time.
(And, of course, the intent and effect on African Americans was probably a lot more important than communicating with whites.)
But, ultimately, I believe that they displayed such unambiguous and undeniable genius, and courage, and humanity, that no white person, or any person, after bearing witness to that, could look himself or herself in the mirror, and honestly say that African Americans were in any way “inferior”.
That’s my sense, at least.
In any event, Sacha Baron Cohen amazes me because he is, in many ways, a method actor as well. Sure, he has the people he interacts with to play off of; and sure, he has the advantage of being able to cut and paste; so it’s not the live-wire act Pryor was on. But the self-control, the timing, the genius in that, is truly remarkable. At least to me.
Having said that, I was disappointed in the Borat movie. I was expecting, and would have preferred, and hour and half of interviews or other interactions. I don’t know why they felt the necessity to try to come up with a “plot”. You can just hear the producers discussing how we can’t just have a 90-minute Da Ali G Show; we have to make it into a “movie”. It is what it is. Don’t try to turn it into something else.
A lot has been made of the unfairness or immorality of “tricking” people into signing a release.
Actually, a good point was made about the Christian woman who welcomed Borat into her home, only to have him humiliate her in front of her husband and dinner guests (and now pretty much everyone else) about the way she looks. It’s one thing to make fun of people for something they do or say. But you don’t make fun of people for the way they appear. The critic (I think it was a “Shouts and Murmurs” in The New Yorker) imagined that this woman probably spent her entire life trying to feel good about herself; worthy of someone’s love; finally overcoming years of insecurity and self-doubt; largely due to the love of her husband; who did, in fact, find her quite beautiful; because she was. I think I laughed at that line during the movie. But, in retrospect, it wasn’t really funny.
On the other hand, I don’t think this has anything to do with the issue of a release.
Sure, if you are going to enter someone’s home, you need to be invited. And I guess if something is taken so far out of context that it gives a false impression, perhaps that is somehow actionable. But I don’t think that people do, or should, have the right to “veto” the use of a film, or a book, or a photograph, or a peice of art depicting something they said or did.
Particularly when they are politicians or other public figures.
Moreover, I wouldn’t call the exchanges that occur “fake” at all. Sometimes you get people who are just going along because they are trying to be nice. But, like Richard Pryor, Borat can be disarming, and in many cases reveals the kind of truth that is unambiguous and undeniable.