Borat and the Psychology of Humor

Sigmund Freud asserts that there are two ways for humor to take place: A. when someone makes a joke and a second person finds it humorous; and B. when someone makes fun of someone or something else (making them the subject of humor, regardless of whether or not they too see the humor in the situation or joke) (Freud 1953). Sacha Baron Cohen works with both of these forms of comedy in his new film, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, though he more heavily relies on the second form of this comedy as defined by Freud (Woliner 2020). Cohen and his films are known for their comedic value around making a mockery of unaware victims. However, more importantly, Cohen also uses the psychology behind these forms of humor as Freud illustrates in On Humour.

Freud assesses that ‘there is no doubt that the essence of humor is that one spares oneself the affects to which the situation would naturally give rise and dismisses the possibility of such expressions of emotion with a jest” (1953). In essence, one jokes as a coping mechanism used to deflect their real emotions and turn them into a joke, so to avoid dealing with the emotions (such as anger, sadness, etc.) that would more naturally arrive with the situation at hand. Cohen reflects such uses of humor to make a broader statement about anti-Semitism in the United States.

There are a surplus of anti-Semitic made jokes throughout Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. One particular scene is when Borat and his daughter go to a bakery, and Borat requests a cake that says “Jews will not replace us” written in frosting. The lady obliges without question and even puts little frosting smiley faces around the phrase. This scene is funny, outrageous, and enraging all in one. While it’s mostly funny because the audience is aware that Borat and his daughter are about to get up to some tom-foolery, the outrageousness of a hate message written on a chocolate cake in blue swirly frosting letters adds a little to the humor, and a lot to the shock-value of the scene. Second, either the lady’s ignorance to this statement (which hails from the Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville, VA in 2017), or her lack of care for blatant anti-Semitism is both so appalling and horrifying that it invokes anger but also potentially laughter (depending on the viewer) (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm 2020). This scene is particularly interesting to me, because not only does it invite the viewer to laugh at the absurdity, but it also invites the viewer to be shocked and outraged at the exact same time.

The fact that Cohen, being Jewish himself, chose this form of humor to display anti-Semitism in the United States I think speaks a lot to Freud’s assessment of the psychology of humor. However, I also find that the audience’s perspective provides a nuance to Freud’s thoughts. As a viewer, I feel as though I processed many emotions at once, rather than laughing to stop myself from feeling. Perhaps, though, as a viewer I allowed myself to both laugh and feel angry because I wasn’t the butt of the joke.



Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Borat 2 – Bakery Store Scene [4K], 2020.

Freud, Sigmund. “On Humour.” Essay. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 21, 21:160–66. Hogarth Press, 1953.

Woliner. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, 2020


  1. Borat for me functions as what Mary Douglas would call a ‘ritual purifier’ because he acts from a liminal zone where he is safe as a character, a joker, and a satirist. Cohen by bringing up these divisive topics presents a challenge to dominant structural problems present in America. The comedy he is aiming for is one of catharsis.

  2. This example highlights the complications that arise of identity within comedy. It is impossible to truly clarify who is allowed to tell jokes that others might deem offensive, especially as it pertains to ethnic, racial, religious, or sexual identity. In the case of Borat, it seems to be left up to the individual to determine whether or not Cohen’s jokes are offensive.

  3. Borat II is an interesting example because of how its humor is structured: the film itself is heavily reliant on context, and if its antisemitism is taken at face value (i.e. without the knowledge of Cohen’s background or political intent) the comic effect probably wouldn’t fully succeed. It’s seems to be at its best when audiences are “in” on the joke.

  4. Borat is such a good example to think about in relation to being “in on the joke” as an audience. If we look at Borat II as a mockumentary, this knowledge of Sacha Baren Cohen’s background and his type of humour plays an integral part of the audience finding the jokes funny because it may border on absurd or obscene in some sequences. Not only is the audience in on the joke, but we are in on the political satire because we know Cohen’s goal for the film and we see it working in his favour.

  5. I think Borat is a really interesting example that potentially challenges Freud’s claim that emotions can be dismissed with a joke. As you mentioned, the scene can definitely initiate laughter but also feelings of anger, so this proposes questions about Cohen’s comedic intentions and whether, as Lydia mentioned, certain groups of people are more permitted to engage in the joke or emotionally react.

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