Borat Owes Me 97 Dollars

How Sacha Baron Cohen is Jewish vaudeville.

Sacha Baron Cohen has pulled off some coups in his brief career as a comic trickster, but nothing—not Ali G’s inveigling of Pat Buchanan into a discussion of the Iraq War and Saddam’s possession of “BLTs,” not his bum-rushing of the Alabama cheerleading squad in the guise of Bruno, the gay fashion reporter from Austria—has come close to topping Borat’s performance of “In My Country There Is Problem (Throw the Jew Down the Well)” on an episode of Da Ali G Show. It’s a densely packed piece of sociopolitical parody: an incitement to pogrom (“Throw the Jew down the well/ So my country can be free/ You must grab him by his horns/ Then we have a big party”) sung by a British Jew disguised as a Central Asian bumpkin before a whooping, Bud-swilling audience at a Tucson, Ariz., honky-tonk. It’s hilarious. It’s catchy. And it’s a perfect distillation of Borat’s satirical attack, designed to offend and indict just about everyone: Old Europe and Middle America, fulminating right-wingers and piously PC liberals, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman.

Pundits have lumped Baron Cohen in with Ricky Gervais, Larry David, and other practitioners of the new “cringe comedy.” There’s plenty to cringe at in Borat—see, for example, the episode in which he regales his elderly lunch companions with tales of his dalliance with a Gambian prostitute. But Baron Cohen is drawing on a much older tradition—he’s really a vaudevillian. Borat revives the dialect comedy that thrived during the first decades of the last century, when American popular culture functioned as a kind of psychic clearinghouse for anxieties about the millions of new European immigrants and black Southern migrants flooding into the nation’s big cities. In those years, the vaudeville stage was overrun with singing and joke-telling “impersonators” of ethnics. Sheet-music covers from the period—the songs churned out by Tin Pan Alley for vaudeville routines—offers a panorama of the types: the loutish, drunken Irishman; the mustachioed, stiletto-wielding Italian; the inscrutable, opium-smoking Chinese; the grasping, hook-nosed Jew; and, of course, the ubiquitous “coon” depicted by a million shucking-and-jiving wearers of burnt cork.

Dialect comedy is still a staple of popular entertainment—minstrelsy hasn’t gone away so much as taken on slightly subtler forms. The shock of Baron Cohen’s shtick, though, is its coarseness; from his gross sexual proclivities (peccadilloes include prostitutes, incest, and—jackpot!—sex with his prostitute sister), to his malapropisms, to his tacky fake mustache that looks like it was lifted straight out of the prop box of old-time vaudeville stars like the famous “Dutch” (that is, German) impersonators Joe Weber and Lew Fields, Borat is a throwback to the crudest kind of vaudevillian ethnic burlesque, the stuff that we thought was smoothed out of pop culture long ago. The essence of Borat’s act is the same as the dialect comics of 1910: the slapstick story of a greenhorn immigrant, bumbling his way across America, mangling the English language, misapprehending the native customs, and looking ridiculous in a big cowboy hat.

I’ve spent a dozen or so years digging in libraries and trawling flea markets while researching the Jewish variant of this vaudeville type, the comic “Hebrew.” (The result of these efforts—besides a massive eBay debt and a collection of sheet music upsetting to the mishpochah—is a new compilation CD of vaudeville-era Jewish ditties, Jewface.) Hebrew comedy offers some interesting parallels with Borat’s “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” Songs such as “Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars,” “Get a Girl With Lots of Money Abie,” and “I Want to Be An Oy, Oy, Oyviator” traded in some of the oldest and most grotesque Jewish stereotypes, depicting Jews as schlemiels, cowards, money-grubbers, and buffoons.

Yet while Jews of a certain station—the Central Conference of American Rabbis and, yes, the Anti-Defamation League—organized campaigns to wipe out Hebrew comedy, they were met with furious resistance in, of all places, the Jewish press. Hebrew comedy, it turns out, was a Jewish enterprise: The songs were largely composed by Jewish songwriters, published by Jewish-owned music firms, performed by Jewish vaudevillians in Jewish-run theatrical circuits before cheering Jewish audiences. There are precedents, in other words, for “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” an anti-Semitic song bellowed heartily by a Jew.

The cultural dynamics of Sacha Baron Cohen’s song and Irving Berlin’s “Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars” (1915) are vastly different—the difference is 90 years of Jewish history. “Cohen” and its ilk were assimilationist anthems: The Jews who embraced caricatures of blundering greenhorns were asserting their sophistication, laughing at the comic hebe to prove that they had passed out of their own awkward greenhorn phase. The songs were love letters to the New World, designed to cleanse all who got the joke of the Old World taint. A decade after “Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars,” Berlin and a new generation of Jewish tunesmiths had moved on to crafting elegant love songs for all-American crooners. (Berlin, of course, would become the specialist in post-ethnic musical Americana: “God Bless America,” “Easter Parade,” “White Christmas.”) The next time Jewish dialect music surfaced in the pop mainstream was on Broadway, when a new generation began to sentimentalize, of all things, the deprivations and piety of the Pale of Settlement. What was the Fiddler on the Roof score if not a collection of “Hebrew” dialect tunes?

Viewed against this backdrop, “Throw the Jew Down the Well” looks like nothing less than the angriest and most extraordinary piece of Jewish-themed music that has ever bubbled to the surface of American popular culture. It’s a dialect song sung not in the voice of the greenhorn, or the assimilated Jewish-American smoothie, or the saintly shtetl-dweller, but by the Old World tormentor. And, Borat’s performance of the song insists, in the face of nearly a century of Jewish pop-cultural passing and ventriloquism, that the Jews never did assimilate after all, that the lynch mob is waiting just over the hill—or downing brews beneath Stetsons at the local watering hole—waiting to “grab him by his horns” and hurl him down. It’s classic Jewish paranoia, of the kind voiced darkly in the privacy of Jewish homes, and in the lyrics of another famous novelty song, Tom Lehrer’s “National Brotherhood Week” (1965): “Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics/ And the Catholics hate the Protestants/ And the Hindus hate the Moslems/ And everybody hates the Jews.” You want to dismiss it out of hand, but Borat’s song isn’t just a comedy number—it’s an exposé. Watch those bar patrons singing along and you can’t help but wonder: In my country is there problem?