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Sacha Baron Cohen under the 'post-modern' academic lens

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From Borat to Ali G, the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen is the focus of an in-depth study by the Centre for Comedy Studies Research into whether young people find him funny.

A symposium, one of several in a series on different comedy subjects starting in the new year, will take place at the university in Uxbridge, Middlesex, on March 11.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s spoof characters Ali G, Borat, Bruno and General Aladeen have all provoked angry responses from unwitting participants unaware that the characters were comic creations.

Symposium organiser Dr Simon Weaver, who is investigating the response of 18-29-year-olds to Baron Cohen’s comedy, describes the actor as “an incredibly original comedian”.

He says “ethnicity, race or nationalism is a key feature in each of his characters”, but it is very different to the older forms of comedy that use stereotypes in more straightforward ways.

“Sacha Baron Cohen is difficult to criticise. His is a very complex, unstable, post-modern, ambiguous form of comedy,” Dr Weaver added, “Different audience groups receive the comedy in different ways. It’s the relationship between stereotype and offence that I’m interested in examining.”

Preliminary results from the focus group, which was asked what was funny or unfunny about Baron Cohen’s comedy, showed that readings of his characters differed according to the religious, ethnic background, and the gender of the interviewees.

Dr Weaver suggests that Baron Cohen may be more successful in what he’s setting out to do than writer Johnny Speight was with his reactionary working-class patriarch, Alf Garnett, played by Warren Mitchell in the long-running TV series ’Till Dead Us Do Part and its spin-off In Sickness and in Health. “Most people took Alf Garnett literally,” he said. “In that respect, it didn’t quite work.”

The papers to be presented at the Sacha Baron Cohen symposium are: “No Laughing Matter? Race, Identity and the Humour of Sacha Baron Cohen,” from Dr Richard Howells of King’s College London; “Sacha Baron-Cohen: Gonzo Trickster and the Art of Comic Insurrection,” by Dr Helena Bassil-Morozow; and Dr Weaver will talk on “Even though it’s sexist and racist in some parts, it’s still funny: An Audience Reception Study of the Comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen”.

On January 19th, the centre will hold a symposium on Italian comedy audiences. Delia Chiaro, Professor of English Language and Translation at the University of Bologna, will present a paper on “Italian Audiences and Cool Britannia” about how English comedy TV titles may get lost in translation when the programmes are shown in Italy.

Dr Chiara Bucaria, also from the University of Bologna, will present a paper called “Spoiler Alert? Manipulating Comedy and TV Titles for Italian Audiences”, reporting on how titles of British TV comedies are adapted for screening in Italy to explain the plot.

Another symposium is the discussion of Comedy, Health and Disability, looking at representations of disability in television programmes such as Little Britain, The Last Leg and Trollied led by Margaret Montgomerie, Principle Lecturer in Media and Communication at De Montfort University, Leicester, on March 4.