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 scaled croppedThey are mirrors held up to the public, in which we should never admit to seeing ourselves.

— Moliere, La Critique de l’Ecole des femmes

The trick with Bruno, and indeed the trick with Moliere, is how to laugh at it. Because it is certainly not amoral to laugh at the flaws of a ridiculous person who persists obliviously in his ridiculousness – you are making a value judgement about an undesirable behavior. The laughter is not just the sound of a lesson landing in your brain, it is a recognition of the truth of what is going on – the degree to which it represents the flaws of our own time and all of us.

Moliere’s style of comedy thrives when people do not take the ridicule of behavior personally – when they acknowledge  people have flaws, and that admitting to their existence does not mean one is inviting personal disrespect on an essential level.

Moliere’s audience wanted to be ridiculed – they would approach him and list their flaws for him in the hopes of appearing in his plays. When people see a person like themselves being made fun of, and they are unable to separate themselves from it just a little bit and laugh at people and the world and how it is – when they can’t do that, well it tends to wither and fail.

Cohen’s is similar, even when it isn’t as heavily narrativized. When we laugh at “Throw the Jew down the Well,” it is not just because Southerners or Cowboys are anti-Semitic, we’re laughing at something we all know but aren’t really at liberty to talk about publicly for fear of getting too personal; which is that anti-Semitism is still out there and alive and well in America, and that it is a ridiculous behavior worthy of our derision.

Now, we can laugh at it safer when we are not threatened by it personally – so, in that sense, Borat’s existence is a very good sign. We can laugh at how anti-Semitic he is because we do not fear in our guts that behavior is not strong enough in our own time to hurt us or our friends. Oh, we fear it like Steven Colbert fear bears (justifiably), but not like we fear something like cancer.

So, yes, Bruno is a gay stereotype, but let’s be honest, a lot of us have seen behavior like that in our gay friends, in our straight friends and in ourselves. Our own little sense of our sexual grandiosity. Our overestimation of our own fame, attractiveness or excellence. As long as we put somebody else’s face on it, place it within the refuge of the performing arts, we can laugh at it without the reality of having to face it carry with it the hurtful effects that prompt people who do not see movies like this to stand outside the theatre and decry it.

(Not that anybody did that with Bruno)

And in the end, let’s be honest, do we really expect such things to get better? I mean, it’s nice when the Blades of Glory guys discover the value of friendship or whatever, but when that celebrity I didn’t recognize says that Jamie Lynn Spear’s fetus ought to be aborted because of her insufficient celebrity – I’m going to come out and say I think that sentiment is a real part of our culture, and I don’t think it’s going away. It’s something we’re all welcome to laugh at, but I don’t expect it to be reformed. Extra ain’t going anywhere folks, so we might as well laugh at it.

When I classify comedy and drama for people, I often say, “Drama is about people changing. Comedy is about people not changing.” If we divide the world of comedy into Ron Burgundies and Brunos – which path for comedy do you think is proper, superior, or more justified? Ron ends up the same, but redeemed. Bruno just ends up Bruno, still an idiot, still a lost cause, even with Bono doing backup vocals.

Does this strike a moral chord with anyone? A comedic one? Sound off in the comments!

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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