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From ‘Borat’ to ‘Jackass’: Why We Love Balls-Out, Gut-Busting, WTF Gonzo-Prank Comedy

A little bit of full-frontal nudity, a few kicks to the nuts and a lot of startled crowds — how a generation of smart gonzo-prank grandmasters have turned stupidity into an art form

Meet the Gonzo Comedy Grandmasters: 'Borat,' 'Jackass Forever,' and 'Bad Trip.'

Amazon Studios; Sean Cliver/Paramount Pictures; Netflix

Maybe — hopefully — you’ve seen Jackass Forever in a crowded theater over the past week, laughing your ass off, tears running down your cheeks and onto your N95 mask. If so, then you know the furniture store gag: Head jackass Johnny Knoxville is in prosthetics as his old-man character Irving Zisman. Next-gen jackasses Zack Hoffman and Rachel Wolfson are pretending to be a maintenance worker and Irving’s granddaughter, respectively. They enter a large shop that sells chairs, beds, etc. Hoffman gets up on a hydraulic lift that allows him to work on the store’s lighting; Knoxville casually plants himself on one end of what appears to be a long, beanbag-style coach. Then Hoffman, who is not a dainty gent, falls backward off of the lift and on to the opposite side of the couch. The force of him landing propels Knoxville about 20 feet into the air and right through the shop’s plaster ceiling.

It’s an inspired bit of slapstick, but that’s not why it’s truly funny. What sells the gag is that it’s happening in a real store, with real employees and customers, all of whom have no idea that they’re in a movie. There is a genuine sense of shock, confusion, concern and what-the-hell bewilderment over the fact that they suddenly, inexplicably find themselves in the middle of a live-action Looney Tunes set piece. Like the newbies, they’ve been recruited for a bit, just not willingly or knowingly. Eventually, they’ll sign release forms and, now in on the joke, smile and laugh for the camera. But it’s in those moments before they realize that reality has been temporarily been hijacked that the adrenaline-rush humor springs forth. It is what keeps certain comedians skipping over landmines in the dangerous, no-man’s-land known as gonzo prank comedy.

Practiced by professionals yet fueled by a DIY, anything-goes puckishness, this sub-subgenre lives and dies by the heightened sensation of introducing something outrageous into a ordinary situation and letting the reaction dictate the rest. It’s disruptive cinema du WTF writ large, Situationist comedy set-ups operating on a shared idea of norms and transgression. You’re not supposed to see an old man get launched into orbit while you’re trying to buy a BarcaLounger, or see someone casually taking a shit on a display toilet in a store, or be approached by a guy with his penis caught in a finger trap, or see two naked men chasing each other and wrestling in a hotel lobby. And to watch a generation or two of gonzo prank grandmasters practice this fearless brand of without-a-net comedy is to experience something almost primal. I can’t believe this is happening, say passerby. I can’t believe somebody had the balls to actually do this, say viewers.

You can find shadows and lipstick traces of gonzo comedy in the early, rough-and-tumble days of silent movies, but it’s real roots are in TV, courtesy of one guy: Allen Funt. A former member of the Army Signals Corp who’d dabbled in radio before (and during) WWII, he’d stumbled upon an idea: broadcast practical jokes on average-Joe marks. The Candid Microphone found Funt approaching everyday people, with a portable microphone hidden in a piece of luggage or a fake arm cast, and asking them to donate to a charity dedicated to “needy Eskimos,” or driving a salesperson crazy by testing nerve-rattling alarm clocks. The show was a hit, as were several short films of similar, hidden-camera pranks he’d made to run in theatrical programs; television was the next logical step. A television version of The Candid Microphone ran on ABC in 1948. When it moved to NBC the following year, Funt changed the name to Candid Camera. It ran for decades on various networks and in syndication, in several different forms. “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” became part of the parlance.

But in the late Sixties, Funt came up with an idea that TV wouldn’t, or couldn’t touch. What Do You Say to Naked Lady? is, among other things, an attempt to get people to talk about sex that plays like a sketch revue; it goes from old ladies tsk-tsking the era’s new permissiveness to, er, this. The real reason for its existence isn’t to be a forum for serious discussion, but to spring au naturel men and women on innocent people. When an office building’s elevator doors open and a naked lady asks for directions, the reactions run the gamut from pearl-clutching embarrassment to expressions that should rightfully be accompanied by a b-b-boooiiing! sound effect. It received a X rating when it hit theaters in 1970, and though it wasn’t a success, would inspire Funt to sell an equally risqué, adults-only version of Candid Camera to cable channels in the 1980s.

One brief vignette sticks out when you watch this dated mix of let-it-all-hang-out advocacy and sexsploitation, however. Funt is talking to a man who’s waiting for a bus to arrive when an interracial couple start making out next to them. The couple leaves, at which point the gentleman, his wife and several other folks began to speak about their dislike of “those people.” Even after the blatant, megaphoned bigotry of the Trump years, it’s still startling to hear them air their racism so openly; the uncomfortable feeling of having a laugh turn into an “oh my god” choke midway through a gag is as much a key part of gonzo comedy now as a spit take over seeing an out-of-nowhere topless waitress. You wonder if Sacha Baron Cohen has ever seen this sequence.

Cohen is the contemporary gonzo-comedy MVP, a British actor and writer whose commitment to a bit is awe-inspiring. Creating a fake B-boy TV personality for the BBC program The 11 O’Clock Show named Ali G — “the Channel 4 voice of youth” — Cohen would interview politicians, judges, and various religious and community leaders in character. He’d ask, say, a scientist whether the Big Bang “was really, really loud?” and if it had a good beat. Or, when a member of parliament attempts to explain the concept of “horse-trading” when it comes to getting bills passed: “So, wait…the horse is at the meeting?” The more he began to develop Ali G in those segments and, eventually, on his own 2000 program Da Ali G Show, the more his questions doubled down on the ridiculousness. Told that dogs were used at airports to sniff out explosives by an NSA official, his response was, “Ain’t it a problem that 99-percent of dogs don’t speak English, so how does they let you know who is carrying a bomb?”

The high-profile interviewees became tongue-tied, hostile and/or exasperated. Walk-outs were not uncommon. (This guy did.) Every so often, Cohen’s clueless alter-ego would get folks to nod along to his misinformed, moronic or rather dubious ideas, which only gave his punching-up attack more of an impact: The people in charge were possibly no smarter than the village idiot who addressed a notable Apollo 11 astronaut as “Buzz Lightyear.” There’s a British phrase for what Cohen excelled at doing through his thick-as-a-brick B-boy: “taking the piss.” And the thrill came not just from seeing self-serious power brokers lose their shit, but from the livewire act of seeing how long he could keep taking the piss with a subject and how far he could push it. There are moments where you think, if the cameras weren’t on right now, there might be violence. With Cohen’s next character, the threat of physical harm was there even if the cameras were on.

Once it become known in the U.K. and, eventually, the U.S. that Ali G was a walking, talking joke, it became impossible for Cohen to scam his way into booking interviews as Ali. The jig of talking stupid to power was up. A movie of Ali G’s exploits in 2002 tried to drop him into a typical feature-length comedy and, stripped of the gonzo prank elements that made his TV segments crackle, more or less stiffed. (The same thing had happened to the kings of the viral prank phone call, the Jerky Boys.) So Cohen brought back a version of another character he’d created years before, a backwards immigrant who was first from Moldavia, then Albania. The new incarnation was from Kazakhstan, but like his predecessors, he seemed oblivious to the ways of Western civilization, held primitive views about gender equality and was horribly anti-Semitic. (Cohen himself is Jewish.)

His name was Borat, and like Ali G, he showcased Cohen’s talent for using idiocy to prick pomposity. Rather than simply going after Nobel prizewinners or diplomats, however, Cohen also had his roving reporter for Kazakh TV travel the country and take lessons on proper social etiquette, or how to train a dog. Some of these people who found themselves dealing with a stranger in a strange land showed strained sympathy and politeness. Others became deeply offended and angry, which only encouraged Cohen-as-Borat to push the envelope further. Watch some of these segments, and you cringe a little at how mean and condescending they are toward their innocent marks, while cringing a lot at how Cohen’s “foreigner” character starts to drift into perpetrating a xenophobic caricature rather than commenting on it. And then you get to “There’s a Problem in My Country.”

In a country & western bar in Arizona, Borat dresses up in a cowboy hat and gets onstage for an open-mic night. He announces that he will sing a little ditty about something that’s happening back in Kazakhstan. It starts off as being about how transport is an issue, and everything moves too slow, and no one is happy. Most patrons seem bored or mildly curious. A few are glaring. When the second verse kicks, Borat’s griping has switched from travel to…the Jews. He lists some negative stereotypes, and there is shock on a few faces. But others have lit up. Now the crowd is paying attention. The chorus kicks in: “Throw the Jew down the well/so my country can be free/grab him by his horns/and we have a big party.” Soon, everyone is hooting, hollering, and singing along.

I’ve watched this segment dozens of times, and there is always a certain kind of reaction that it elicits: a belly laugh laced with disbelief, multiplied by the exhilaration of watching someone daring to pirouette over a certain line and the pressure drop of hearing those jus’ folks gleefully chant the chorus back to Cohen. It’s tough to say where the humor ends and the horror begins, and it’s a gonzo prank moment that’s intoxicating and sobering. You start to see how Cohen might have thought of Borat as not just a fool but as a type of sonar, throwing out ugly ideas and listening for a ping to echo back from someone. It’s hard to say how many people in that audience think what they’re hearing is a joke. The enthusiasm certainly sounds real. If he’s singing it, it’s acceptable to say the quiet part out loud, right? It’s a gonzo comedy prank that doubles as a sociological experiment, and you feel like it’s the Rosetta stone for what the comic wanted to do with Borat’s big-screen debut. That, and the tried-and-true belief that hairy nude men wreaking havoc in public is always a comic bullseye.

Unlike the Ali G movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan would stick to the gonzo prank format that let the character flourish; there’s an excuse of a plot, revolving around Borat seeing a picture of Pamela Anderson and traveling across the U.S. to make her his wife. What it does best is place Cohen’s character in the middle of real situations — a New York subway, a Confederate-friendly antique shop, a dinner party, a rodeo (which Cohen admitted came close to resulting in a riot after he sang the Kazakh national anthem), a trailer full of litigious frat brothers — and see what happens. Some of them end up serving as a state of our nation, which suggested that the sonar of ugliness that made the earlier country-bar sequence so damning in 2003 was dredging up more and more toxicity burbling under the surface in 2006. It was a hint of the shape of things to come.

If you were lucky enough to see this in a theater, you can attest to the rolling waves of laughter that accompanied a lot of these bits. Yet that was nothing compared to the delirium that greeted the scene in which, having caught his traveling companion played by Ken Davitian “admiring” a picture of Anderson, the two men tussle. Both end up stark naked, then running through a hotel hallway, then getting into an elevator and continuing the fight through the lobby. Its escalation of outrageousness is damn near peerless, from the faces of those who can’t quite comprehend what’s going on to the duo’s ability to keep the momentum going, and it remains the pinnacle of gonzo comedy. Cohen would try out other characters after the movie turned Borat into a pop culture sensation (read: recognizable as a prank), from the homophobe-baiting Bruno to the fake despot Admiral-General Haffaz Aladeen to citizen journalist Billy Wayne Ruddick, Jr. None of them resonated nearly as much as the man from Kazakhstan.

In fact, when Cohen began doing a similar gotcha-type series for Showtime, Who Is America?, it felt like the culture had shifted so radically as to render his type of give-’em-enough-rope humor useless. After Trump slithered into the White House, the notion of shame — or that saying horrible, racist, sexist things in public disqualified you from a political career — felt antiquated. After rumors spread that Cohen had been causing disturbances at some political rallies, he eventually announced that a new Borat movie would be coming out in 2020. Released just as the Trump era was coming to a close, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm proved that the age of alt-right agitators, Covid conspiracy theorists and hate-group rallies might have been beyond parody, but it wasn’t immune to ridicule. Even Cohen’s Ali G could not have pulled off something as gonzo as the now infamous Rudy Giuliani interview that ends with him unzipping his pants in anticipation of a sexual favor. The first Borat movie held a funhouse mirror up to the U.S. The sequel knew it only had to hold up a mirror to it now and the gonzo comedy aspects would sell themselves.

While Ali G was testing the tolerance of U.K. elites in the early 2000s, a troupe of amateur daredevils was coming up with a homegrown blend of gonzo that was one part skaterat culture, one part gross-out comedy and several parts America’s Funniest Home Videos on nitrous oxide. When Jackass began airing on MTV, a disclaimer was slapped on the front of it: These are trained professionals, kids. Don’t try these stunts at home. “Professionals” might have been pushing it, as the main qualifications for Johnny Knoxville and his merry band of jackasses was the ability to risk life and limb, a willingness to do just about anything to crack themselves up, and rising to the challenge of making their longtime cameraman/collaborator Lance Bangs vomit. If it brought out those last two reactions in viewers and, later, moviegoers, all the better. As stuntmen, they’re mostly just fearless. As pranksters? These gents are definitely pros.

Throughout their three seasons on MTV and three movies made between 2000 and 2010, the Jackass guys had their share of memorable DIY comedy moments, from setting off an airhorn near golfers teeing up (watch out for that flying club, guys!) to running around Tokyo in panda suits to dressing up in old-man prosthetics and pretending their scooter’s breaks had gone. (Knoxville would spin-off his geriatric character in 2013’s Bad Grandpa, which has its own Gonzo Hall of Fame sequence involving an underage beauty pageant and Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.”) They’d influence a host of similar shows involving people getting punked on camera, including, well, Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d. — because who doesn’t want to see Taylor Swift get tricked into thinking she just blew up a boat?

One of their heirs apparent, Eric André, had already created a sort of Jackass version of a talk show for Adult Swim, in which he’d trash his studio, throw absurdist and/or terrifying curveballs at famous guests and go into restaurants dressed as an octopus with six little people as attached “tentacles.” You wanted to see him push some of these real-world scenarios even further. Thankfully, in 2021, the comic obliged. Bad Trip begins with André working at a Florida auto shop and telling a customer that his high school crush is going to pick up her car; a mishap with vacuum then sucks off his coveralls and leaves him completely nude, which forces the customer into a panic. The crush goes to New York, André and his best friend (Lil Rel Howery) “borrow” a car from a psychotic ex-convict (Tiffany Haddish) and all three of these comics go up the Eastern seaboard causing fictional chaos in real settings. Including a sequence set in a zoo that still haunts us to this day and a musical sequence in a mall that’s a work of pure genius.

It’s outlandish, and fun, and suggests that, should André & co. not be scared off by the threat of angry barbershop owners with guns coming after them, they could easily keep this gonzo franchise going, and going. Yet there’s also a sweetness to the shenanigans in Bad Trip that makes this a different beast than, say, the Borat movies. For every encounter in which you fear that André or Howery or Haddish are actually going to get the snot beat of out of them for antagonizing folks, there are a half dozen examples of people stepping in and defusing things, offering help, trying to de-escalate a blow-up. It’s less a portrait of a society revealing its worse self than displaying its better angels, coming after several years of horrible divisiveness and on the edge of an ongoing pandemic. It’s disruptive comedy, as all cinema du gonzo should be. It’s why we love the form: reality shatters, you suddenly see an everyday world turn topsy turby, and the next thing you know, someone is getting fucked by a gorilla. (Technically a guy in the gorilla suit, but trying telling that to the horrified people in the zoo.) And yet seeing those people respond with compassion or act accordingly rather than recoil feels oddly healing.

As does seeing old friends goofing on each other one final time, which brings us to Jackass Forever. Arguably the best of the four Jackass films — or maybe just the most sentimental in its stupidity; these guys can’t do this forever — it’s a great reminder that, like so many of the group’s injuries, the best gonzo moments in the franchise are self-inflicted. There is no one the Jackasses like to prank more then fellow Jackasses, as any member who’s been unwittingly forced to wear a fake beard made of the others’ pubic hair will tell you. There are pranks on unsuspecting citizens and pranks on celebrities, including Machine Gun Kelly, Tyler the Creator, and yup, new gonzo regent Eric André.

But it’s the sheer joie de vivre that they bring to fucking with each other that makes Forever feel oddly like a family affair, and proof that a kinder (though not gentler) gonzo may be the sub-subgenre next’s evolution. They’re older and grayer now, but they still love to launch someone off a rigged easy chair or unexpectedly bean a guy in the noggin. It hits its crescendo with a sketch they dub “The Silence of the Lambs,” playing off the climactic scene in Jonathan Demme’s thriller. A bunch of the crew find themselves trapped in a dark basement with what they believe is a venomous snake. The space is really a multi-room obstacle course filled with traps and pitfalls. Their new recruit Hoffman — nickname: “Zackass” — runs blindly through a doorway, is hit on the head by numerous hanging skillets, slips on a greased patch of floor, and throws himself over a table that, unbeknownst to him, is covered in sharp tacks and mousetraps. For nearly a full minute.

Then, after he runs the sort of sadistic gauntlet that would make most mere mortals crumble, they turn on the lights and slap the young man on his scarred back and can barely breathe from maniacally giggling. Hoffman looks elated. Everyone is just laughing their asses off — including, most likely, you. And its suddenly easy to remember how, at its best, this type of subversive, go-for-broke style of assaulting gag reflexes and funnybones feels, in a world gone mad, downright therapeutic.

From Rolling Stone US