Obscene humour is life-affirming. It steals death’s thunder. With every forbidden word said aloud, every affront-giving body part on show, comedians yank death out of its prudish silence. In the same way sex let’s you (hopefully) bare all, obscene humour is about making an audience stop minding their bodies. You’re meant to startle (at first), but once the oh-my-God bit is done, laughter is liberating. Death is the only word that’s truly obscene, because it’s an end. Obscene humour is about saying: yes, x is mortifying, but – so what? The new comedy, Bruno, will give prudes a heart-attack. It’s horny for life.
Shot like a documentary, Bruno is about some men’s terror of homosexuals. In a blaze of penises, sex paraphernalia and come-hither looks, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen takes a ludicrous gay stereotype to America and… Bruno happens. It’s no more a conventional movie comedy than Borat was two years ago, but the effect is perhaps easier to guess. Men run, men cry, men hurl beer and metal chairs at Baron Cohen, and we look on – the way you watch a volcano erupt (awed, but glad you’re not there). It’s a movie that asks the rhetorical question: do cage-fighting fans want to watch men kiss? And it also contains perhaps the most amusing talking penis in movie history, a phallus that literally shouts: BRUNO!
The debate is: is Baron Cohen being mean to his victims? And that’s perhaps my only sticking point. Obscene humour is one thing, but humiliating real people is not alright. I’d guess Cohen would say: these bigots deserve to be laughed at. And you certainly can’t accuse him of cowardice. In one scene he tells the leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade that “his king Osama” looks like “a dirty wizard or a homeless Santa Claus” (even Lenny Bruce never did his act in front of terrorists). But just because Cohen is willing to get nose-to-nose with his victims, he can’t get around the fact that he wants to hurt them. If you enjoy Bruno, you’re not a homophobe, but you are laughing at stunts that are (sometimes) pretty cruel.
The movie is best when it’s simply outrageous. Outrage, ironically, is easy in America. You’d think all that porn would have dulled the Puritan instinct by now, but no – everyone still freaks when they see a penis. Male genitals are America’s last taboo (besides gun control). You can rape, murder, disembowel and defile the human body in movies, but God help you if you show a guy without pants. Bruno takes this hang-up and has a little fun with it. The opening montage of surreal gay sex acts is enough to have the Puritan fathers stage The Crucible (once you’ve seen champagne poured out of a man’s anus, you may feel a little woozy too).
As a character, Bruno lacks the cheery anarchic streak that made Borat so loveable, but as an illustration of Sacha Baron Cohen’s kamikaze comedy, he’s peerless. Cohen is the love-child of Peter Sellers and Patty Hearst; he erases himself to wage joke warfare. Whether he’s mincing up to a group of Hasidic Jews in Jerusalem or being whipped at a swinger’s party in Alabama, he shows no fear. His life insurance premiums must look like cell-phone numbers. His motives are simple: he wants to make comedy dangerous. If someone had handed Andy Kaufman a blank cheque and a full body wax in 1980, you’d have got the same result.
What’s obscene? Most of the time, it’s bodily: below the waist but above the knees, body fluids, nipples, bodies that don’t look the way they should. But what’s obscene? These things… they’re us. We live in deathly terror of our bodies; double, even triple that terror of sex. It’s a deathly terror because we don’t speak of it (death robs everything of its voice). Obscene comedy just points out the silliness of it all. With proud abandon, it encourages us to look on mortifying things as harmless. The point of Bruno is to depth-charge shame. Because we all get old, and we all die, and that’s the only obscenity. Prudery is like laughing discreetly – it’s anti-life.