The media campaign for Brüno: The Movie has unfolded like a well-executed modern military campaign, conquering the hearts and minds of the public. First came the rumours: in January this year, People Magazine picked up the story that Idol judge Paula Abdul had been punked by Brüno. When they asked her to comment, she didn’t even know it had happened. Abdul eventually recounted an encounter with Brüno in which she was pressured to sit on the back of a Mexican gardener while ostensibly being interviewed about her music.
Then in mid-March Universal tweeted SXSW festival-goers that it would be showing the “first-ever look at BRÜNO footage!” – teasing the assembled audience into a frenzy of shocked gasps and wheezing laughing fits. As the release date approached, photos of Brüno in costume, from a photo shoot by Mark Seliger for GQ magazine, to in-character publicity stunts (like his crotch in Eminem’s face at the MTV Awards) began to trickle onto the web, to be disseminated joyfully through tweets and group emails.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Universal are not the first people to get good at controlling their message by any means – although it helps when your product is hilarious taboo-breaking entertainment, rather than the latest climate change policy or press release about the Iraq War.
On the other hand, SBC is better at controlling his own media than most. During the press campaign, he only does interviews in character and full costume, preventing any insight into his process or politics. And if you listen to his interviews for the Brüno junket, the same lines get repeated almost word for word. On Rove last week, he left the host and his co-star comedians breathless with pre-fab lines about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – “he’s got that kind of taxi driver chique”; about Borat – “an offensive portrayal of a foreigner”; about SBC – “I bet Katie Holmes gets more sex than SBC’s wife”; and fashion advice – “You should treat clothes like you treat your pets – love them for a week, and put them in a zip-up bag and throw them in the river!”
In our post-irony culture, where media savvy seemed ingrained, people still want to suspend disbelief, loved to be shocked and entertained by this character, as much as any Hollywood blockbuster comedy. At the Sydney Brüno premiere on June 29, the audience were audibly outraged during a scene where Bruno ostensibly drives recklessly with his young adopted child on the back of his motorcycle. It was clear, if you think about it, that the scene was a visual trick – no child was actually put in that situation. But the myth of Bruno as a narcissistic normality-challenged self-promoter prevails over the reality of SBC and his blockbuster comedy movies.
And heck, the whole premise of Brüno, as part of the gay Austrian’s quest for personal celebrity, is his ability to dupe American audiences and celebrities into taking him seriously. As if half of them hadn’t seen SBC in one or other of his incarnations – Ali G for cable TV, or Borat in 2006 (it grossed somewhere in the region of $128 million at the USA box office, $62 million in DVD sales not including rentals and cable screenings). Not to mention the extensive media exposure SBC’s pranks got.
But SBC does exist in the real world, and there are times when his career as an entertainer (including bit parts in Sweeney Todd, Talladega Nights, and Madagascar) and his in-character creations come face to face. His rare out-of- interviews dispel any illusions of reality that anyone might still have. At the press conference following his Golden Globe win for Borat in 2007, he explained, “It isn’t a documentary. It is a movie, it has a conventional three act structure, and we tried to make that three act structure work in the real world.” He and co-star Ken Davitian also dissected the “nude fight” scene, into a series of scripted directions: “you know, he moves his arse in my face, he puts his balls on my chin.”
In these moments, SBC does not seem shy. He competently fields various questions designed to provoke, including Borat’s potential to encourage anti-Semitism, in less enlightened parts of the world (!) than America: “he doesn’t just think that Jews are good with money: he actually believes that they can change their shape into little insects. And the idea of that, really, is to show that all prejudice is absurd, and a type of delusion.”
So why then is SBC so reluctant to give interviews as himself? The lengths he will go to stay in character and control his message were demonstrated in a very curious incident at the Sydney Premiere, where the boys from The Chaser were apparently asked to sign a waiver that they would not disrupt “Brüno’s” speech, and were actually contained between security guards who stood with them until his speech was finished. And this for comedians who essentially do what SBC does.
On the flipside, SBC has clearly realised that the kind of undercover tactics that made Borat so brilliant are no longer feasible. The press notes for Brüno, helpfully walk readers through the artifice behind ostensibly real situations – well, if you read through them you’ll find that the situations were actually dangerous, but also thoroughly engineered to be entertaining. Make no mistake, the business of “shock comedy” is no laughing matter. Whatever it takes. Whoever it takes hostage. SBC is on a one-man comedy campaign.