Cultural Learnings of a Post-Borat America
Posted by <Julianna Ham> on 2022-10-15
The mustachioed silhouette of Borat looms over the center of the world like a Derridean ghost. In the same way that "post-9/11" describes our times, American comedic film and TV can be separated into two eras that precede and follow the 2006 film. Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, shocked American audiences upon its release, revealing the lurid, contradictory nature of contemporary American life and ideology at the height of its "War on Terror." Like a terrorist, Sacha Baron Cohen's cartoonishly foreign character violently burst into the world's imperial core, subverting its citizens’ expectations of both reality and culture, and shocked them with something they have never seen before. The American conceptualization of both the comedic film form and its relation to fiction and non-fiction had been permanently altered by a British Jew posing as a Kazakhstani. This birth of a genre was reflected in contemporaneous writings on Borat; it was described as "one of the greatest comedies of the last decade and perhaps even a whole new genre of film"1 in a post-premiere Rolling Stone interview, and coined as "evil comedy" by a Filmsinreview.com reviewer. 2 With the perspective of a decade and a half in a post-Borat America, these premonitions have proven themselves to be true.
There is a growing body of filmed comedy that's been made in the past decade, devoid of Borat's mainstream success, but amassing large online cult followings. While varying dramatically in their real and purported creative aims, what they share is a repetition of the Borat M.O. – the protagonist, playing an affected/altered version of themselves to varying degrees, goes out into the "real world" and interviews subjects. The subjects are uninformed of the true nature of the reason they are being filmed, also to varying degrees. The humor, and the true content of the form, lies in the things the subjects say under the social influence of the protagonist, when unaware of the true nature of why they are being filmed. The punchline is the words of a rotating cast of "freak-shows," whether idiotically bigoted, disconnected from reality, or simply kooky and asocial. Comedy Central's 2013 Nathan for You is the most mainstream descendant, revolving around a protagonist who goes out to interact with people who are unaware of the comedic intention behind why they're being filmed. Youtube is rife with examples, the lowest and most common form being prank videos, and the highest form most similar to the above named – I have chosen the cult comedic news channel Channel 5, formerly known as All Gas No Breaks as Youtube's most prescient representative.
This is a genre of comedy recorded on video that, to my knowledge, has not been named or written about extensively before, but certainly deserves to be. I will name and henceforth refer to this genre "reflexive mockamentary." Mockamentary is not a typo, but in response to "mockumentary," a word commonly used to describe Borat, yet is an untrue designation. Much of this essay was inspired by the ideas of Lewis Macleod, who wrote that "the mockumentary is a straightforward and unproblematic mode of mimesis (...) Its stance is always fictional, and both the film's participants and its implied viewers unproblematically recognize it as such."3 Borat and its formal, ideological, and aesthetic heirs that I will discuss in this essay, do not have this effortlessly understood relationship with reality. Similar to the Blair Witch Project, there is room for misinterpretation on the audience's behalf, as the fictional stance is never truly revealed, and the hand of the author is never fully shown. As well, I believe that "mockamentary" more accurately describes the quality of laughing at the subject that is inherent to the genre, while the "mock-" in mockumentary describes the parodying of the genre itself.
In writing about the term "documentary-style" that was used in the description, promotion, and consent agreements with the subjects of Borat, Macleod writes, "This hybrid term simultaneously makes a truth claim and admits an aesthetic dimension."4 For Macleod, this is problematic because it implies that the line between fiction and reality is an aesthetic or formal signifier. He suggests that it would be more productive to consider the term "documentary-style" in terms of the interpretative positions it encourages its addressees and implied viewers to adopt. This is a belief that is at the heart of my definition, and of these media properties themselves. While they vary drastically in form and the various ways in which these real life people are found and interacted with, the commonality between them is the specific relationship between these people and the "protagonist." For the purposes of this essay, I will borrow Macleod's terminology of the addressee to describe the "real life" people encountered, and addressant to describe the Borat-like protagonists - the one who is privileged with the "true" knowledge of the encounter.
This essay aims to clearly define reflexive mockamentary filmmaking, and discuss the ethical, philosophical, and human consequences of the genre. It is divided into four major sections. The first begins with a brief description of historical precedents to the genre, and defines "prank media '' as a separate genre that preceded and influenced the reflexive mockamentary form. The second section more clearly elucidates the relationship between addressee and addressant, and studies an episode of Nathan for You for its ethical implications. The third focuses on the discursive problems of fiction/non-fiction within the genre, and how the form of it serves to both serve its purported goals and conceal them too. The second part of the third chapter focuses on Channel 5, formerly known as All Gas No Breaks. Finally, the last section discusses irony within the reflexive film form.
Historical precedents and the Prank Media genre
Pre-Borat, the closest cinematic frame of reference that Americans had to the film was Jackass. Low and Smith acknowledge the frequency of this comparison in the contemporaneous reviews that followed the film's 2006 premiere.5 This comparison is understandable; both media franchises embrace the thrill of vulgarity and a recklessness that borders on self-endangerment, and this thrill most often originates in the deceit of unsuspecting subjects.
It is important to underscore the use of the word deceit when searching for the likeness between Borat and Jackass. Jackass is a prank show, while Borat is not. In fact, Jackass, while hugely popular and no doubt rich inspiration for Baron Cohen, has more similarity with other, much more light-hearted prank shows of the 2000s – Just for Laughs, Punk'd, The Jamie Kennedy Experience. These media franchises and Jackass belong in the genre of prank media, a term I have coined and which can be characterized as a movement in the art historical sense – synchronous in their emergence, reflective of their times and trickling down into culture through time. While the Renaissance of prank media was in the early aughts and broadcast on television, there are many Youtube channels and much online content devoted solely to the form. I believe the first instance of recorded prank media in America was in the predecessor to the long-running Candid Camera, the radio show Candid Microphone, which premiered in 1947.
This program's about people (...) – just people. We want to know what they're like. But when most people step in front of a microphone, they change. Some get shy, other's show off. But get those same people where they live and work and play, hide a microphone and hear what they say and they sound real again. This is what this program's all about – ordinary people reacting to situations – some funny, some unusual and human. But remember, all of the people on this program never knew they were reacting to the candid microphone.6
So begins the introduction for the July 13, 1947 premiere episode of Candid Microphone, the radio programme that would later spin off into Candid Camera in its televised form. Prefacing the 6-minute episode, where various pranks are recorded – e.g., a man in a bar given an exploding cigarette – this introduction serves as the best mission statement for prank media. This genre is defined simply by the recording of pranks being played on people, the birth of the "comedy of the unsuspecting subject,"7 as Lowe and Smythe call it. The similarity between Borat and prank media is summated by them as "We laugh at those who don’t know to laugh."8
However, they also disagree with the categorization of Borat as within this genre, for the simple reason that while prank media ends with the reveal of the true nature of the encounter to the "victim,"9 Borat does not. The moment of the reveal is a genre-defining consequence. Its presence, or its absence, informs the discursive positions and relationships of understanding within the triangulation of audience/addressee/addressant. For the addressee/addressant, it cracks open the semi-fictional, semi-historical conditions as established by the addressee. In prank media, the reveal cannot happen until after the execution of the prank, because the knowledge their actions are being recorded changes the actions of the unknowing addressee. The reflexive mockamentarian cannot tell their addressant the true nature of their encounter, or at least show this "reveal moment" on screen in the same way a magician cannot reveal the secrets of their tricks. Baron Cohen, as well as the sons who have inherited his throne, stick steadfastly to a policy of never revealing; a shared ideological and formal choice that further serves my argument that they belong to a cohesive genre/movement. Baron Cohen recounts only one extraordinary instance of showing his hand - to a Holocaust survivor in Borat 2,10 and a fan interview published on Reddit with one of Nathan For You's addressees reveals that she was never told the true nature of the show, even after its premiere.11
This commitment to the "bit" is a key distinction between the aims and purposes of prank media in contrast with the reflexive mockamentary, and its reason for being. This commitment aligns Borat and his antecedents closer to the work of Andy Kaufman – famed for his sometimes decades-long commitments to obscuring the true nature of his comedy – than within the prank media canon. In the case of the latter, the facade only needs to hold until the recording of the successful prank is produced. The facade is simply a means to the end of acquiring the comical footage, or the historical record that the prank was successful in fooling the addressee. In reflexive mockamentaries, the lie, or the audience's perception of the lie must hold the entire time. The art of it is not in the record of the lie, but in the lie itself.
This is truly what makes the reflexive mockamentary a higher art than prank media. In the three examples of reflexive mockumentary I've chosen for this essay, there are moments imbued with an ecstatic surrealism and disruption of daily life that rival any Happening or social practice. The art is within the moments of often elaborate situations characteristic of the genre, and the highest forms can be argued to constitute a Baudrillard hyperreality, where both the viewer and addressant is unsure of where reality begins and fiction ends.
Addressees and their material consequences
Much of Borat's contemporaneous and enduring publicity and cultural relevance resulted from the multitude of civil suits filed against Baron Cohen and the film's creators by the everyday people Borat encounters in the film. Macleod refers to these people as the addressees, or the unwitting subjects of these interviews, who suddenly found themselves as the unintentional guest stars of a box office hit. Within these legal filings is one of its most stark and notable interactions with the fictional/non-fiction question.
These suits all claimed varying levels of damages – spanning defamation suits that claimed that the addressee's participation in Borat lead them to be perceived as racist in their personal lives,12 to entrepreneurs claiming loss of income, believing that their businesses were unfairly represented.13 While the unsuccessful litigation of frat boys and business owners regretting their racially insensitive statements may not draw fury from many, the ethical dimension of Borat's relationships with his addressees is most prominent when considering the case of the Romanian village Glod. In Borat, Glod is the set-location of Borat's native Kazakhstani village, and the villagers are shown participating in "Kazakhstani traditions," like the cartoonishly anti-Semitic yearly Running of the Jew festival. Borat introduces the residents in English with names like "Urkin, the town rapist." Upon learning the true nature of the film, residents became incensed at the blatant misrepresentation of their town and selves and the >$100 fee they each received (some claiming losing money as the film crew damaged their property) and filed multiple unsuccessful lawsuits. 14
These addressees, and their legal recourse, show a wide spectrum of class and power within the people Borat chooses to address – from impoverished Romanian villagers to coiffed southern socialites.
When examining the ethical implications of these interactions, a common refrain on the spirit of satire comes to mind; that it is about "punching up, not down." However, I believe that it is illogical to separate the ethical harm done by Borat into simply "justified harm" and "unjustified harm" depending on how much access the addressees have to material and social resources. It is my stance that this relationship between addressee and the active character will always be unethical. This is not a judgment on whether this work is good or bad, nor whether it should continue to be produced, just an obvious conclusion that is immediately backed up by the existence of copious litigation by the addresses itself.
In fact, the power dynamic between addressee and the addressant is a key feature of the reflexive mockamentary. In the various film, television and web series I characterize as belonging to the reflexive mockamentary genre, the most defining characteristic is that the addressant is aware of the simultaneously true and fictional nature of the interaction, while the addressee is not. If both were aware, it would be improv. For both to be unaware, it would be prank television.
Before addressing the more discursive ethical problems of the reflexive mockamentary, it may be helpful to introduce my first non-Borat example of the reflexive mockamentary to further elucidate a picture of the material, real-life consequences of the reflexive mockamentary. In an analysis of the show Nathan for You, the elements of real people's lives that are put at stake so we can laugh are made uncomfortably present through the show's interaction with small business-owners.
Nathan For Himself
In Nathan for You, which ran for four seasons from 2013-2018 on Comedy Central, Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder impersonates a socially inept business expert hosting a television show about improving struggling small businesses. In reality, Fielder suggests outlandish, often nonsensical stunts – e.g., eliminating labor costs for a moving company by starting a Crossfit competitor that extols the virtues of lifting heavy boxes; or offering customers an unreasonably cheap rebate on gas that requires them to climb a mountain and solve a series of challenges to cash in on.
By the very premise of the show, there is something that feels almost more mean-spirited than Borat. Despite Fielder's relative professionalism and lack of conflict or obscenity over his hirsute counterpart, there is something more offensive to his deceptions than Borat's. One reason is that his choice of addresses are simply more sympathetic – while Borat aims to deceive overt expressions of chauvinism out of bigots, Nathan encounters people with genuinely good intentions, who are desperate to save their businesses. As well, these addressees, unlike Borat, have a reciprocal understanding of the good faith they expect Fielder's actions towards them to originate from.
Much of this is due to simply the differing forms – Fielder is constrained by the limits of acting somewhat plausibly like a real business expert/TV show host. Most of this difference is in their characters. How they choose to present themselves greatly defines the new space they are putting the addressee under and asking them to perform within. The consequences within the fictional space each create through the complexities of their characters brings to mind Diderot's insistence for a Keatsian "negative capability" in acting. 15 As Lewis writes of this space that straddles between the real/fake as created by Borat The Character:
“Borat seems too present (physically) to be felt as distant and too distant (behaviorally) to be regarded as fully “real.” His high-volume otherness, the degree to which he functions as an unfathomable representation of a far off order, someone capable of almost anything, makes him appear as something decidedly outside everyday life, as an affront to any one-world model of reality. Cultural content, like fictional content, then, can rebound out of one zone and into another, and this threshold crossing capacity makes it different for the addresses to situate and evaluate Borat.16
In contrast, Fielder is constrained by the limits of his form, where he is not able to appear as abnormal in his presentation, and instead relies more on the situations he sets up to elevate the situation into that hyperreal space. Borat's ability to be so outlandish stems from the perceptions Americans have of the foreign other. Scholar Dickie Wallace argues that Borat's Kazakhstan is a Baudrillardean simulacrum, because for the Western filmgoer who has no knowledge of Kazakhstan,17 it replaces the real country. For Fielder, who presents as an incredibly awkward Canadian who went to business school, he is not that much different from the facts of his real life.18 While the latter two facts are objectively verifiable, by Fielder's own account in a Reddit interview post, his character is simply a conflation of his actually socially inept self:
I definitely play up certain parts of my personality and exaggerate vulnerabilities I have for the sake of comedy. I feel like the Nathan on the show has a much tougher time reading social cues and is way less self aware than the real me. (...) A lot of the time I feel like I'm emulating a younger version of myself. 19
In this admission, Fielder is touching on the nuances towards the work as a whole that are imparted through an alteration between himself in the fictional/real world. The line between a fictional self and the non-fictional self is one of the topics later discussed in this essay.
The discursive problems of the reflexive mockumentary, how its form serves to conceal reality
On Las Meninas, the canonical 1656 painting by Spanish court painter Diego Velázquez, Michel Foucault wrote:
We are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another's glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject. 20
This description, and the painting itself, can be a metaphor for the tenuous space between fiction and reality explored in the reflexive mockamentary. In the same way that Velásquez exists in his own painting, the addressant is positioned among his addressants with a power that they are unaware of, due the privilege of knowing the truth of the encounter. The addressant slyly inserts himself into his own creation, invites the addressees into this space, and while the addressees are preoccupied with the conditions he has created around them, he looks back at the audience with a sly wink.
However, the conditions of painting, which offers unlimited possibilities of representational images, differ dramatically from the conditions that define video, which is constrained to what in the real world can be recorded. For this reason, what is captured on video is considered more "real," or historically authoritative, than painting, and video is used to affirm matters of historical record. The success, poetry, and the uniqueness of the mockamentary is that it utilizes this authoritative position of video for the purposes of comedy. When an addressee says something outlandish on camera, there is no doubt whether it has been said or not, unlike any other form of documentation, recollection, or retelling. The recorded statement is a statement confirmed to have been said, by virtue of it being recorded.
It is this interpretation of their words as historical record that has gotten the unintended guest stars of Borat into real-life consequences. However, as Macleod argues, this is unfair to the addressees, "The addresses are caught on tape, not transcribed, described or remembered, functionally guaranteeing the implied viewer's acceptance of the historical accuracy of the account of their behavior."21 At the heart of the lawsuits is a very accurate claim, not a legal one, as the multiple failed suits prove, but a human one. It is unfair to place an individual in a fictional circumstance and to take their words, solely, as being non-fictional, while the addressant's is taken as ironic. The subjective interpretations of the sincerity of
the addresses words vs the addressants will be addressed in the next chapter on irony, but it is pertinent to understand how the reflexive mockamentary film form contributes to this privileging of the addressant's words over the addressee's.
My choice to name this genre of mockamentary is in reference to the term "reflexive documentary," which is a documentary that is about the act of making the documentary. The Master Class article on the topic defines this genre as "The reflexive documentary mode focuses on the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience, pushing viewers to reflect on their perceptions and re-analyze their notions of truth. Unlike the expository documentary, the reflexive mode does not examine outside subject matter – it exposes the documentary-making process."22 In the same article, Louis Theroux's late 90s Wild Weekends and the 1961 Chronicle of a Summer is cited as examples of this form. The reflexive documentary "shows the hand" of the filmmaker, and its expressed intent is to fully reveal the inner workings of the film-making process.
However, no film can truly reveal the full truth of how it was made. Almost a century after Walter Benjamin's ideas on mechanical reproduction were published, we understand that all forms of making have a bias towards varying degrees of showing its process which is inherent in the work. As with Las Meninas, representational painting fully obscures the process of it being made, and what the historical truth of its origin is. Film is on the other end of this spectrum as its ability to record real-life movement makes us feel like it is the most truthful, harkening back to the urban myth of the audience who ran away in fear at the Lumiere brother's screening of Arrival of a Train.23 However, just like how there was no train running over the audiences at the 1895 screening, there is a wealth of information that is either intentionally or naturally hidden from the audiences on how the film was actually made. The deleted scenes and details of the addressee's consent agreement revealed in the Borat lawsuits are just some examples of the missing truths the audience is not privy to.
When a camera is pointed at something, it is our natural instinct to forget it is there. We take the words of addressees documented by the camera as completely sincere, because we forget that what we are not seeing is the camera crew that surrounds them, and the reflexive social pressure created by this arrangement. The very premise and thrill of the reflexive mockamentary is to catch ordinary people saying lurid things, and it works best when we fully believe in the truthfulness of the encounter. Anecdotally, I have noticed that the most famous and frequently recollected moments among fans within the examples I've presented in this paper are when both the perceived "truthfulness" of the encounter and the perceived "wackiness" of the addresses are both at high levels. In the same way that a viral video loses its traction when it's proven to have been falsified, or the concern that reality TV producers and celebrity PR workers put into maintaining the illusion of reality, the thrill of a random encounter is only heightened when it is truly random. In our repetitive, weary days as wage-laborers under highly regimented capitalism, the spectacle of encountering genuinely weird individuals is a kind of pleasure that can't be codified in fiction. Of course, reflexive mockamentary film-makers know this about their audiences, and they self-select the "craziest" people to include in the final cut. This demonstrates that the distance between the reality presented within a reflexive mockamentary and actual reality is not just a problem presented naturally by the form, but also a self-aware process engaged in by the actual makers. To illustrate this, I chose the Youtube show Channel 5, previously known as All Gas No Breaks, to make this case.
Channel 5 and New news
All Gas No Breaks began as a Youtube channel by Doing Things Media and then-21-year-old Andrew Callaghan in 2019. Callaghan originally conceptualized the channel after publishing a memoir-zine entitled All Gas, No Brakes: A Hitchhiker's Diary about a 70-day road trip he took around America when he was 17. 24 The channel quickly gained a massive following for its man on the street style interviews, where Callaghan would visit strange events like the 2019 Facebook meme-turned-anticlimactic small gathering "raid" on Area 51, and the LA Alien Con. The popularity of the show quickly grew off this formula of interviewing people congregating for some of the strangest subgroups and ideologies within American life. After attempting to renegotiate his contract, Callaghan was fired from Doing Things Media and started an independent Patreon-subscription based channel of the same format, titled Channel 5.25 Citing Sacha Baron Cohen as an influence,26 the similarities between Cohen's and Callaghan's humor are familiar – they both are addressee-focused humor, and the inclusion of Channel 5 within the reflexive mockamentary form is obvious. However, as with Nathan for You, the premise of the show greatly changes the interactions that occur between addressee and addressant.
Like how Borat is described as "docu-style" in contemporaneous reviews and by Lewis, Channel 5 can be described as "news-style." Callaghan fashions himself like a typical news-anchor, in a Borat-like oversize suit, and differentiates himself from others within the canon by holding a microphone to interview his subjects. Both the microphone, camera crew, and Callaghan's very affable, laid-back personality seem to have an activating effect on the extremely strange people he encounters. In most episodes, he is regaled with their conspiracy theories, self-admittedly embarrassing anecdotes about themselves, or expressions of what they're most passionate about – flat earth theory, Bigfoot hunting, or living a Crip-centered life of fandom without actually being part of the gang.
Some of his videos are much more traditionally "news-like" than others, and this has been a recent shift, signaled by a June 8th, 2020 upload of footage shot during the initial 2020 Black Lives Matter insurrections in Minneapolis. It opens with a shot of a young Black man with his face blurred, standing in front of a burning building, and he alludes to the metaphor within the fire, gesturing to it as he speaks; "Everything is inevitable. This is how people are actually feeling (...) Is this the way to go about it? No. Is everyone perfect? No. Everyone feels like that."27 The 5 minutes that follows is interviews with mainly Black protestors as well as some detractors. There is a clear and immediate conceptual, tonal, and formal shift in this video; the content of what the addresses are serious and sincere, whether expressions of a political project or rage or pain. Their faces are blurred in post-production, and there are no "meme-style" edits as is standard for the channel. Minneapolis Protests stand in stark contrast to the channel's immediately preceding upload, which is a two minute-long, comically edited cut of a man who calls himself "Yung Terps" expressing his love of weed. This is Channel 5's first foray into more conventional journalism, a trajectory that continues as Callaghan and his team have recently covered the war in Ukraine.28 However, since then, the majority of their content has stayed similar to the original ethos of All Gas No Breaks, covering gatherings of the deviant/strange subcultures of America, like QAnon conferences and parking lots outside Phish shows. While the formula has stayed the same, changes do emerge in Callaghan's interactions with his addressees. While he previously was a very neutral force, giving the addressee time in front of a camera to say what they wish, in recent videos he's begun to ask more leading questions, and to sometimes implicitly and facetiously agree with the expressed views of his addressees to prompt them to keep talking.
Within the past year, Channel 5's content has almost created its own cast of occasionally recurring addresses, similar to the cross-over of content famous to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After popular fan response to a teenage rapper encountered at the Utah Rap Festival, Channel 5 flew him to Los Angeles to produce a music video that involves a truly bizarre cast of familiar faces – "Crip Mac," a flamboyantly dressed woman from the QAnon conference, a man named Steve who was at the alt-right trucker convoy of 2022, among others. 29 The very existence of, and resources invested into, this project, as well as the modulations of Andrew's character, most demonstrates my argument in the previous chapter; that while the reflexive mockamentarian form causes viewers to believe the situation as raw and real, there is an incredible amount of editorializing and artifice. This, of course, is due to an inherent aspect of the reflexive mockamentary – the top priority is always comedic value.
A self-purported news channel that emphasizes comedy, and a self-purported journalist heavily interfering with the lives of his subjects presents multiple obvious ethical questions. As well, another problem of genre is presented, as Callaghan et. al continue to blur the distinction between comedy and "serious news." Unique in its subscriber-based funding model and greater financial reliance on fans among the other media properties discussed in this paper, both of these concerns seem to only accelerate in response to fans' responses.
Irony and the lie
In defining irony and distinguishing it from other forms of rhetoric, a general standard that has been agreed upon by many scholars is that an ironic statement's intent is not to lie. Macleod uses Searle's definition of an earnest statement being one where the speaker "commits himself to a belief of the truth of the expressed proposition."30 Assuming that irony is the antithesis of a sincere proposition, Macleod takes the inverse position – that an ironic statement is one where the speaker is not committed to the truth of the words they express. Classical scholar Gregory Vlastos, in charting the birth of Socratic irony in Socrates, ironist and moral philosopher, asserts that a key factor in irony is the lack of an intent to deceive.31
How can we reconcile this definition with the actions of Baron-Cohen, Fielder, Callaghan et. al, when their entire careers are based off deceit? Simply, the deceit in itself is not where the ironic content of the reflexive mockamentary lies. The statements of the addressant are not what makes reflexive mockamentaries ironic, whether those statements are ironic or not. The irony is within the addressee saying something that they believe to be true in a situation that they do not know the true nature of. The addressee’s words are taken as real, the addressants are taken as ironic. Despite the ethical implications already discussed, this is aligned with the spirit of Socratic irony, which Vlastos defines as a mode of irony used to further access nuances of meaning that lead to a greater truth. 32
Macleod points out that the lack of cultural similarities in the attendees and Borat means that Borat's irony, while heavy-handed, fails to signal to the attendees that an ironic mode has been entered. However, with because the viewer has been primed to "irony triggers"33 – a word borrowed by Macleod from Linda Hutcheson, referring to hints throughout the film that the content is ironic – the signal is caught by the viewer; "In many ways, Borat speaks through, not to, the addresses, while delivering an 'in group' ironic communique to the second-tier audience, the implied viewers, who have been successfully triggered to adopt a fictional stance when it comes to Borat."34 This is shared by the other examples of the reflexive mockamentary form previously discussed. However, for Nathan for You and Channel 5 it is not a cultural clash that causes the attendees to miss out on the irony triggers. In both these cases, the contexts that the addressee believes under which they are filmed in serve to dissuade any doubt of the legitimacy of these purported contexts. There is an innate trust that is granted to a self-proclaimed business expert and to a news channel reporter. As well, as discussed previously, Fielder and Callaghan's portrayal of themselves serve this motive as well. Fielder's incessant social ineptitude clearly causes his addressees to reason this as causing his objectively deranged behavior, and Callaghan's confidence can make one believe he really is a news anchor, despite the tells of his clear departure from journalistic norms and ethics.
The discrepancy in understanding this irony is not simply one of differing understandings, but one much larger and ontological – a difference in the way one understands the world to be. When a medical doctor takes Borat's statement that forcibly extracted "gypsy tears" are used by Kazakstanis to protect against STDs during incestous acts as factual, he is accepting a version of the world that contains this mythologized Otherized country. Fielder convincing a parent to allow their child to remain in a sound-proofed locked box designed like a rocket-ship as porn actors engage in an orgy just a few feet away is her accepting a world where this would be a viable venture for a hotel to attract parents who would like to have sex on vacation. When Callaghan flies out a cast of oddities to be in a music video for a 15-year-old rapper that subverts the popular rap video archetype of gangsters and attractive women by holding up their abnormality in contrast, they are accepting a version of reality where this would be popularly regarded as cool.
This is another way that the reflexive mockamentary differs and was generated from prank media – the stakes are higher in the former's sense, elevated beyond a question of "getting it" and into a question of understanding reality. The truth behind the irony these three selections from the emerging canon reveal is that material and cultural conditions under late-stage technocapitalism has produced an American public that has no consensus on what reality is. The individuals featured in the work all have different answers to questions on the state of the country, whether it's good or bad, and why. This is the thrill, and the artfulness, of the form. We hear of and know of these strange subcultures, but only their vaguest contours. To see them personified is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the mirror after much time has passed of only hearing about how his face looks.
After the rage comes laughter. This comedy only works because it comes sincerely from the mouth of another human. Clearly, communicative technologies have shaped the way we view our places in the world, and those of other humans. Over the internet there is a removal from "real life" that allows us to say things or act in ways to other people that we never would to their face. Simultaneously, people form deeply intense para-social relationships with people that functionally exist only on their phone. The reflexive mockamentary feels like shattering through this anonymous plane, personifying our political and social Others. Of course, this break is somewhat illusory, as demonstrated by the previous chapter on the control the mockamenarian has over the addressee's words, as well as the fact that these encountered humans are also viewed through the same depersonalized lens of a web user viewing recorded and edited footage.
Finally, some of this curiosity for non-fictional expressions must come from an innate part of human nature that precedes the internet and contemporary information technologies. There is a reason why the biography can be traced back to as early as Cornelius Nepos publishing Excellentium Imperatorum Vitae ("Lives of outstanding generals") in 44 BC. It is ultimately the same reason why people have tuned in to The Jerry Springer Show since 1991, and each time consented to suspending their belief to watch the spectacle of an interpersonal fight instead of simply watching UFC. Witnessing another human who acts in non-normative ways in what we perceive to be the real, non-fictional world – no matter how true or false this perception of reality is – is thrilling in a way that does not have the same effect when produced in fiction. When reflexive mockamentary is at its highest form, it makes the viewer almost feel like a videogame character exploring an expansive open world, occasionally coming across strange non-playable characters that entertain you with the things they have to say. This evokes a strange magic that comes with the feeling of discovery and adventure that most who live in the industrialized world do not frequently experience. We've built on or mapped out most of the inhabitable Earth, and all that's left to discover is other humans. Under our monotonous daily existence under liberal western democracy where we are governed by both legal and social codes, to be reminded that we theoretically can subvert many of these structures, and that some do choose to do so, becomes ever more prescient. We laugh at the addresses for their abnormality, but perhaps we also see something we desire in ourselves within them.
1 Neil Strauss, “Sacha Baron Cohen: The Man behind the Mustache,” Rolling Stone, June 25, 2018.
2 Bronwen Low, David Smith, “Borat and the Problem of Parody,” Taboo, the Journal of Culture and Education 11, no. 1 (2007), 27.
3 Lewis Macleod. “‘A Documentary-Style Film’: ‘Borat’ and the Fiction/Nonfiction Question.” Narrative 19, no. 1 (2011), 115.
4 Macleod, 114
5 Low and Smith, 27.
6 Candid Microphone, 1, “Exploding Cigarettes” hosted by Dorian St George, aired July 3rd, 1947. 7 Low and Smith, 32
10 Mike Fleming Jr., “More Borat: WATCH Judith Dim Evans’ Holocaust Testimony Outtake; How Sacha Baron Cohen Sequel Went From Universal Theatrical To Amazon Prime’s First Zeitgeist-Capturing Film In $80 Million Deal,” Deadline, October 28th, 2020.
11 Reddit user u/rdegen88., “More Borat: Was able to talk with Ellen (The owner of the bar "1881 Club" from tonight's episode.) Here's what she said.” Posted in 2016.
12 Reuters Staff, “L.A. judge sides with "Borat" against frat boys,” Reuters, January 20th, 2007.
13 No author credited “Borat has last laugh after lawsuit fails,” Sydney Morning Herald, January 21st, 2008.
14 Lama Hasan “'If I See Borat, I Will Kill Him With My Own Hands'” ABC News July 8th, 2008.
15 Denis Diderot, The Paradox of the Actor, London: Chatto and Windus, 1883. Accessed via online translated copy at https://archive.org/details/cu31924027175961
16 Macleod, 120.
17 Dickie Wallace. “Hyperrealizing ‘Borat’ with the Map of the European ‘Other.’” Slavic Review 67, no. 1 (2008): 35–49.
18 Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. "Nathan Fielder," (accessed March 5th, 2022), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathan_Fielder
19 Reddit user u/Nathan_Fielder., “I am Nathan Fielder, comedian, director and host of "Nathan for You" on Comedy Central. AMA” Posted in 2014. https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2aoj9b/i_am_nathan_fielder_comedian_director_and_host_of/cix993a/ 20 Foucault, Michel. 2001. The Order of Things. 2nd ed. Routledge Classics. London, England: Routledge. Accessed via online translated excerpt at https://www.csus.edu/indiv/o/obriene/art192b/Foucault_OrderThings_las%20meninas.pdf, page 2
21 Macleod, 116
22 MasterClass staff “Film 101: Understanding Reflexive Documentary Mode'” MasterClass.com June 28th, 2021. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/understanding-reflexive-documentary-mode
23 Loiperdinger, Martin, and Bernd Elzer. "Lumiere's Arrival of the Train: Cinema's Founding Myth." The Moving Image 4, no. 1 (2004): 89-118.
24 Matthew Nixon “QAnon conspiracists to drugged-up juggalos: the YouTube hit delving into Weird America” The Guardian September 25th, 2020.
25 Taylor Lorenz, "He Had an R.V., a Camera and a Plan to Document America. Was That Enough?", The New York Times, March 23rd, 2021.
27 All Gas No Breaks, “Minneapolis Protest,” YouTube video, 5:50, Doing Things Media, June 9th, 2020,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZPeD2miyF8
28Channel 5, “War In Ukraine,” YouTube video, 12:53, Channel 5, April 13th, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBah5HNknLM
29 Channel 5, “Rowboat - Clap That (Ft. Lil Xay),” YouTube video, 3:45, January 4th, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EY07XkagdnQ
30 Macleod, 121
31 Gregory Vlastos "Socrates, ironist and moral philosopher." Ithaca, N.Y, Cornell University Press. 1991. 22. 32 Ibid.
33 Macleod, 122.
34 Macleod, 123
Bronwen Low, David Smith, “Borat and the Problem of Parody,” Taboo, the Journal of Culture and Education 11, no. 1 (2007), 27-39. https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1038&context=taboo
MacLeod, Lewis. “‘A Documentary-Style Film’: ‘Borat’ and the Fiction/Nonfiction Question.” Narrative 19, no. 1 (2011): 111–32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41289289.
Candid Microphone, 1, “Exploding Cigarettes” hosted by Dorian St George, aired July 3rd, 1947, https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/comedy/candid-microphone/exploding-cigarettes-1947-07-13.
Mike Fleming Jr., “More Borat: WATCH Judith Dim Evans’ Holocaust Testimony Outtake; How Sacha Baron Cohen Sequel Went From Universal Theatrical To Amazon Prime’s First Zeitgeist-Capturing Film In $80 Million Deal,” Deadline, October 28th, 2020. https://deadline.com/video/borat-sacha-baron-cohen-judith-dim-evans-holocaust-testimony-dropped-lawsuit-univers al-amazon-first-zeitgeist-movie-80-million-deal/
Reddit user u/rdegen88., “More Borat: Was able to talk with Ellen (The owner of the bar "1881 Club" from tonight's episode.) Here's what she said.” Posted in 2016. https://www.reddit.com/r/nathanforyou/comments/3smvdr/was_able_to_talk_with_ellen_the_owner_of_the_bar/
Reuters Staff, “L.A. judge sides with "Borat" against frat boys,” Reuters, January 20th, 2007.
No author credited “Borat has last laugh after lawsuit fails,” Sydney Morning Herald, January 21st, 2008. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/borat-has-last-laugh-after-lawsuit-fails-20080121-gdrxmx.html
Lama Hasan “'If I See Borat, I Will Kill Him With My Own Hands'” ABC News July 8th, 2008. https://abcnews.go.com/International/Entertainment/story?id=2659018&page=2
Denis Diderot, The Paradox of the Actor, London: Chatto and Windus, 1883. Accessed via online translated copy at https://archive.org/details/cu31924027175961
Dickie Wallace. “Hyperrealizing ‘Borat’ with the Map of the European ‘Other.’” Slavic Review 67, no. 1 (2008): 35–49.
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. "Nathan Fielder," (accessed March 5th, 2022),
Nathan For You, season 3, episode 5 “Smokers Allowed,” directed and performed by Nathan Fiekder et al, aired November 12, 2015 on Comedy Central
Foucault, Michel. 2001. The Order of Things. 2nd ed. Routledge Classics. London, England: Routledge. Accessed via online translated excerpt at https://www.csus.edu/indiv/o/obriene/art192b/Foucault_OrderThings_las%20meninas.pdf, page 2
MasterClass staff “Film 101: Understanding Reflexive Documentary Mode'” MasterClass.com June 28th, 2021.
Loiperdinger, Martin, and Bernd Elzer. "Lumiere's Arrival of the Train: Cinema's Founding Myth." The Moving Image 4, no. 1 (2004): 89-118.
Matthew Nixon “QAnon conspiracists to drugged-up juggalos: the YouTube hit delving into Weird America” The Guardian September 25th, 2020.
Taylor Lorenz, "He Had an R.V., a Camera and a Plan to Document America. Was That Enough?" The New York Times, March 23rd, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/23/style/all-gas-no-brakes.html
All Gas No Breaks, “Minneapolis Protest,” YouTube video, 5:50, Doing Things Media, June 9th, 2020,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZPeD2miyF8
Channel 5, “War In Ukraine,” YouTube video, 12:53, Channel 5, April 13th, 2022,
Channel 5, “Rowboat - Clap That (Ft. Lil Xay),” YouTube video, 3:45, January 4th, 2022,
Gregory Vlastos "Socrates, ironist and moral philosopher." Ithaca, N.Y, Cornell University Press. 1991.