Bruno and Moliere: Comedy without Apology

Bruno and Moliere: Comedy without Apology

When we laugh at our vices and failures, why must we insist they be fixed, or even be fixable?

Bruno Crawling

The fool held up to ridicule should not be one of those men whom we hold in respect, nor should he be someone whose behavior deserves punishment or pity.

– Cicero (probably a misquote, but not my fault)

We bourgeoisie insist that comedy must not be too cruel to the legitimate, but it’s an old value system with old roots. Supposedly, according to classical literature (Aristotle in particular), being too mean with your comedy makes it cease to be funny. And in contemporary society, there is a belief that failing to pull back on this cruelty has the power to remove social legitimacy, so it is dangerous.

You can see the influence of this concept in most Hollywood comedies. Look at the major films of Will Ferrel, which are in a lot of ways similar to Bruno and Borat – they feature protagonists who embody a specific sort of undesirable set of characteristics that are laughable to us, because they reflect the flaws in ourselves and in people we know.

Ricky Bobby is obsessed with winning and competition to the detriment of pretty much everything else in his life. Ron Burgundy has a warped sense of how awesome he is, especially relative to and in the eyes of women. Both of them fail at life because of their arrogance, but both of them reform and recover and get back everything they loved and more.

Comedy is morally useful and justifiable, this sort of philosophy contends, because it points out our flaws, lets us laugh at them, and gives us hope to become better people.

Moliere, among others in the New Comedy, as it was called, turned this on its ear. But they weren’t the first, and they weren’t the last.

Bruno is never reformed. His attempt to un-gay himself ends in a shower of beers making out with his assistant at a fraudulent underground MMA match. Borat, though he less of a fully formed character in a different sort of movie, still does not make apologies for himself or go hug a Jew at the end of the film.

Of course, this is somewhat misleading. Bruno’s flaw isn’t that he’s gay. Bruno’s flaw is that he’s a huge oversexed attention whore who sees his own celebrity as the biggest, most important thing in the world. He thinks his own dance moves are about on par with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  He is so fixated on getting the superficial things he wants that he practically sexually assaults Ron Paul. The way he throws his homosexuality at everybody is a secondary joke about the customs of his time.

And the movie does plenty to try to undermine those who seek to illegitimize LGBT persons. But Bruno doesn’t make apologies, so neither should I. In order to make his jokes about oversexed attention whoring, self-obsession and celebrity, Bruno makes a whole lot of shameless gay jokes. Cruel ones. And it deserves none of the forgiveness the bourgeoisie might want to muster for one of its favorite sons.

Because what is the worth of that rubric? Why should a system that says Bruno ought not to exist as a movie be called upon to pardon it? I thought Bruno was hilarious and awesome, so I say, let that system – the system that requires us to be kind when we mock the flaws of the people of our time – judge what it will judge and fail where it will fail. Then, let us disregard it when we do not want to hew to its purposes.

6 Comments on “Bruno and Moliere: Comedy without Apology”

  1. stokes OTI Staff #

    I like this post a lot. It makes me want to see Bruno more than I did before. But I don’t know if I agree with it. Of course, what follows comes only from my having read a bunch of reviews, and NOT from seeing the movie, so take it with about a quarter-tablespoon of salt.

    The master plot of the comedy is basically as follows:
    (I got this from reading Erich Segal’s “The Death of Comedy,” although I don’t know if it’s his theory or just my half-baked response to his theory.)

    1) Status quo
    2) Protagonist transgresses against the status quo by trying to do something… anything.
    3) Protagonist realizes that his/her (but usually his, alas, if we’re honest) goal is inappropriate, and restores the status quo
    4) Protagonist gets some kind of prize – might be love, might be money, might be a giant rack of spare ribs. Sometimes, confusingly, it’s whatever he/she was violating the status quo in order to obtain.

    So if you look at American Pie (a pretty formulaic comedy, right?) it goes
    1) Everyone is a virgin
    2) Everyone starts trying to have sex
    3) Each of the characters, crucially, stops trying to have sex. They ALL do this, without exception.
    4) Everyone gets a prize, in this case, sex.

    Look at Dave, a much more formulaic example
    1) Dave is not president
    2) Dave becomes president
    3) Dave realizes that he has got to stop being the president
    4) Dave gets a prize, in this case, Sigourney Weaver

    Even in something like Talladega Nights, which SEEMS to have a very different message,
    1) Ricky Bobby wins all his races thanks to the efforts of his support staff
    2) Ricky Bobby tries to go it alone, and fails
    3) Ricky Bobby wins the final race thanks to the efforts of his support staff
    4) Everyone goes off to Applebees to eat a giant rack of spare ribs

    And wouldn’t Bruno fit this model perfectly well?
    1) Bruno starts the movie gay and not famous
    2) Bruno tries to become famous by not being gay anymore
    3) Bruno accepts that being true to his gayness is more important than fame
    4) ?? (At this point, my not having actually seen the movie gets in the way. Maybe gay makeouts are supposed to be their own reward.)

    This is interesting because it forces you to accept as an axiom that gayness and fame are mutually exclusive. It’s doubly interesting because it establishes gayness (of a certain stereotypically flamboyant variety) as *part* of the status quo. But it doesn’t strike me as fundamentally different from the more mainstream comedies. To tie back in to Fenzel’s post a little more: is Bruno’s acceptance of his sexual identity NOT supposed to be redemptive?


  2. fenzel #


    I wouldn’t use that master plot for all of comedy. Moliere’s comedies are a bit different and don’t have those kinds of endings.

    But more importantly, while I’d understand why a reviewer would identify that as the plot of bruno (it helps assuage guilt over laughing at the gay jokes), the “not being gay” isn’t the point of the movie, and it isn’t introduced until late in the second act, at the earliest.

    Also, being gay again isn’t bruno’s victory. His victory is getting on the news for causing a big civil disturbance.

    The plot of Bruno is more like

    1. Bruno’s life is disrupted when he is kicked off his TV show for his bad behavior.
    2. Bruno tries various ways to get famous other than his bad behavior (being straight is just one of them. The others are acting in hollywood, making a sex tape, and being a philanthropist)
    3. Bruno fails at all of them because, every time, he reverts to his bad behavior.
    4. Bruno eventually gets on the news for his bad behavior, which he takes as a victory and proof he is famous again.

    So in the end, the thing that is restored is not so much a positive status quo, but the ridiculous way the world tolerates the main character’s failures. The character doesn’t actually change at all during the story. The only thing that changes is his relationship to the world.

    It’s sort of like your template, but has very different implications.


  3. fenzel #

    So, yeah, I’d add this rubric as an alternative

    1. Protagonist exhibits a bad behavior that the world tolerates or rewards
    2. Circumstances pressure the protagonist to give up the bad behavior
    3. The protagonist essentially does not change in response to these pressures
    4. The world rewards the protagonist by embracing him again

    This only works with comedies that are fairly pessimistic about people’s ability to change and that think social norms are essentially ridiculous.

    A good example of this would be the teen summer camp sex comedy, where the camp across the lake that is all proper must be defeated by the protagonist camp that is full of misfits. Comedies like this with balls don’t make their horndog protagonists into monogamists, they make the world reward them for being horndogs.

    A great example is Police Academy. The status quo here is that the people becoming police officers are really not supposed to be police officers. They all have huge problems with their behavior. Does anybody believe Commandant Lassard is fit to run a real police academy? Of course not. He’s sympathetic, but he’s incompetent and probably has advanced dementia.

    So, the plot is about the attempts to improve the police academy, and the solution is, no, having ridiculous incompetent cops is the way things are, and that’s not changing, so let’s all laugh about the crazy world we live in.

    Mahoney’s own plot is a bit more conventional (the sequels are better examples than the original), but nobody watches Police Academy for Mahoney.


  4. fenzel #

    And for the triple post, I want to clarify that I think your template is 100% right for most comedies. That kind of comedy is ancient and conventional. And you identified the movies it applies to perfectly. And the template I offered is clearly a variation on it rather than a whole new structure. And you could probably build a big enough box to fit everything. But I think these differences in comic structure are there and are important for how different comedies function differently.

    I don’t think Moliere-style comedies would work nearly as well if they weren’t juxtaposed against conventional ones. The expectations and norms need to be there if you’re going to satirize them.


  5. whenclamsattack #

    and just to clarify your example of reform in regards to Borat. . .

    “still does not make apologies for himself or go hug a Jew at the end of the film.”(original text)

    Borat’s story line is that he is a kazakastani reporter trying to learn more about america, and it slowly evolves into him finding a wife. the anti-sematism is just an example of this ass-backwardsness(not a bruno reference)

    keeping with the fenzelian formula, the movie goes like this

    1.Borat goes from a old world village to modern american life
    2.His old world ways are shocking and non-sequitur
    3.through trial, tribulation, and naked wrestling he learns the god fearin’ MERICAN way
    4.Borat’s village recieves culture “we christian now!”(tongue in cheek)

    his resolution is much more big picture than him hugging a jew,not negating your premise at all but fitting it to the formula a little tighter.

    riveting article, cheers!


  6. manscaper #

    I was just so disctracted by the lack of coherence in Bruno its hard for me to embrace it. I feel the Borat had a plot and structure that both worked and supported the mockumentary feel of the film. He was sent to research America, but has his own side agendas, and so he’s followed by a film crew.

    In Bruno is simply doesn’t make sense that he’s being followed by a film crew, there is no plausible basis for that within the plot of the film. He’s fired and friendless except for his personal assistant, so who is filming him?

    Bruno is just so randomly thrown together, nothing seemed to have anything to do with what came before or after it. No I want a baby, no I’m hunting, no I’m wrestling. I also prefer the look and attitude of Bruno on the show over the one in the movie, he looks and acts more like what I’d imagine a Austrian fashion reporter to be like than the too silly movie version.


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