Thursday, November 30, 2006

Random In Name Only

Belated but enthusiastic and heartfelt huzzahs to the now-unionized janitors of Houston. This latest victory is part of a nationwide campaign by the Service Employees International Union to organize and provide better pay and benefits for those who do the shit work, night after night. From Boston to Miami to Los Angeles and elsewhere, janitors and groundskeepers are scoring victories that one might find unthinkable in this age of corporate domination and global sweatshop exploitation. Having done this work myself, I know how thankless it can be and how cleaning people are routinely dismissed and looked down upon. There is a bond between those who render these services, and I still get mail from janitors and cleaning people who've read about my experience and want to share their stories with me. As I've said, janitorial labor is perhaps the best thing to ever happen to me, and gave me a much-needed look at life from another angle. Now, if I can only transfer some of my cleaning skills to my own home, the wife would be ecstatic.

Here are some personal stories from Houston. Read, understand, appreciate.

Speaking of the wife, she and the teen like to watch the various make-over shows that populate the cable wasteland. Their favorite is "How Do I Look?", hosted by Finola Hughes, a soap opera mainstay, but to me she'll always be John Travolta's dancing mate in "Stayin' Alive", the hilarious sequel to "Saturday Night Fever". There's very little dancing on Hughes' make-over show, however, but plenty of mugging and silly posturing. Which is part of the appeal, I suppose. Yet what gets me is how everyday people allow themselves to be dressed down and re-dressed, undergoing a twenty-minute re-education camp about what "proper" attire they should wear. There's a lot of stylistic bullying present, egged on by the fashion victim's family and friends who cannot stand the sight of their supposed loved one. The allure of being on TV accounts for most of it, I'm certain; but there's also the comfort that some people find in being told what to do or what to wear. I dunno. It's all pretty much alien to me.

The other day, while hanging with the teen, "How Do I Look?" came on, which meant I was leaving the room. But the teen asked me to stay and watch one make-over with her, so I did. It was appalling, and the teen agreed. The victim was a teen-age girl, maybe 18, who we thought looked perfectly fine with a pseudo-Mohawk (the sides of her head were close-cropped but not shaved) and a punk/ska wardrobe. Her make-up was light but beautifully applied, and she had a sharp sense of humor and spoke candidly.

What was the problem?

Well, her older sister thought she looked weird and didn't want to be seen in public with her (the girl was not mall material, it seems). And her father thought she looked "slutty" and "too sexy" in her short skirts and ripped fishnet hose. Now, neither of these two were anything special to take in. The sister was dumpy and dopey as hell, giving off "Like, y'know, whatever" airs, and the dad clearly wasn't being called late to chow. Listening to these two kvetch, it became immediately apparent that the sister was jealous of her sibling's independence and intelligence, while pops had a serious problem with his daughter's comfort with her sexuality, and may even have had a hard-on for her as well. It was pretty creepy to watch, and for a moment it seemed that the girl would reject much of the style options being thrown at her. But in the end, she acquiesced, not only dressing more like her sister, but having her hair colored to match the drab extensions hanging to her shoulders.

The teen was pissed.

"What the fuck?" she shouted, as the girl's dad showed visible relief, happy that his daughter no longer looked like a streetwalker, or at least his vision of one.

"In conformity there is acceptance and peace," I replied with a grin.

"Yeah, well, it's still bullshit. God, does that make me mad!"

"Maybe you shouldn't watch this show anymore."

She looked at me like I was nuts.

"Are you kidding? I love this show!"

And people are complaining about Borat?

Wanna know just how geekity geek I can get? I was watching "Studio 60" Monday night, which has drawn me into Aaron Sorkin's world, and loved the new plotline about an avant garde writer played by Mark McKinney coming in to school the two freshman writers on the finer points of televised satire. Not that the actual comedy that comes out of this is any good or remotely funny or interesting, just the premise of it. I could watch an entire hour of comedy writers sitting around and riffing, one-liners and concepts flying back and forth. McKinney's character, which he plays as dour and low-key, may become my favorite "Studio 60" fixture, assuming the show makes it to the end of the season. Like I said, geekoid supreme.

Many weeks ago, I mentioned that a debate with another prominent blogger was in the works, but it has since fallen apart. The original set-up was me engaging Michael Bérubé on how the left should deal with Iraq, Afghanistan, the whole Terror War construct, the emergence of Hezbollah, and possible war with Iran. Though Michael and I have exchanged some pointed barbs in the past, he and I are on pretty good terms of late, and are in agreement about more than you might imagine. But we do have differences, and wanted to thrash those out on Michael's home turf, Penn State. After showing some initial interest, the PSU Dems decided that they wanted the standard Liberal vs. Conservative format, just like you see on TV. My response to that decision was, what is there left to debate with war supporters? Wouldn't it be more constructive for those against the war to air and iron out their differences while finding a political approach that most if not all can agree on? The campus mules don't think so. But if there's anyone out there who would like to see the Son and Michael Bérubé mix it up, for the sake of the greater good, of course, contact either one of us, or try Scott Pellegrino. Imagine the theatrics! Caramel corn for all!

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Two-Fer

Two years young, baby. That's what the Son is today. I can't believe that I've written 24 months of more or less continual blogposts. As I've said, I had to be pushed into doing this gig, which I saw as a complete waste of time. Well, Sonsters -- I was wrong. So very very wrong. Writing the Son has been, especially over the past 10 months, the most rewarding creative work I've ever done. And that I've built a solid, responsive, global audience floors me everytime I think about it. Unlike my daughter's generation, I still view this Web thang as a human miracle of communication. But that's because I'm nearing 50 and grew up with records you cut out of the back of an Alpha Bits box. When I look at the teen or watch any of the music videos/ads aimed at her demographic, instant global connection and expression is no different than a breakfast burrito. It just is. I wonder what it'll take to knock the teen's socks off when she hits middle age . . .

How much longer I'll keep the Son running I really can't say. Thanks to this little soapbox, I'm starting to get feelers from some serious folk to do bigger things, both written and non. I can't divulge what these are, since for all I know, they could collapse later today. But it feels nice to edge back to The Show. Still, I can't see abandoning the Son any time soon. I've made too many new friends, restored old friendships, drained poisonous relationships. Plus, there's so much insanity to attack and misery to address, while finding time to laugh in the middle of it all. Though I must say, honest laughter is tougher to come by, which makes it even more imperative to enjoy.

While I feel a sense of joy when I contemplate the past two years, I feel a certain sadness this morning. Yesterday, while the wife and my mother (who is visiting with my stepfather), worked in the kitchen (and yes, the men helped), the teen was flat on the couch, suffering a nasty cold, and the boy was in the basement, watching a "Simpsons" tape. Suddenly, I heard the boy yell for me. I went downstairs to find his red face covered in tears. He was holding his left hand, which was bleeding. Seems he got his fingers caught in the VCR as he tried to retrieve the tape, became frightened, panicked, and yanked his hand out, ripping some skin away in the process.

I took him upstairs where his grandmother consoled him and took care of the cut, which thankfully wasn't stitch worthy. But this did nothing to soothe him. He kept crying and sobbing, went to our bedroom, fell on the bed and cried some more. On and on it went. After about 20 minutes, I went back to talk to him. Did it hurt that badly? I asked. He wouldn't answer. I tried to look him in the eye, and he buried his face in the pillow. Frustrated, I said that his cut wasn't that deep, and that this was now an official overreaction. I told him to stand up, come into the bathroom with me to clean up and return to the family gathering. He refused. Further frustrated, I grabbed him by the arms and lifted him off the bed -- no easy feat, as he's nearly 5'4" at 10-years-old. I stood him up, but he went limp, fell on the carpet and cried some more. I told him I was disappointed and left him there to cry for however long he desired.

I went into the kitchen, popped a beer and leaned against the counter, shaking my head. I know my son is sensitive, but Christ, this was fucking ridiculous. The teen soon joined me, sat down and said that the boy wasn't crying about his finger. In her view, he was releasing weeks of repressed anger, hurt and anxiety caused by some of his classmates.

"He tells me everything is fine."

"He won't tell you the truth," she replied. "He's afraid that either you'll get mad and go to his teacher, which would embarrass him, or that he'll disappoint you in some way."

"How would he disappoint me if it's him getting picked on and made fun of?"

"That's just how he is. But he tells me pretty much everything. All that teasing from the jocks, telling him that he's a girl and a loser and that he sucks really hurts his feelings. But with you, he'll deny it."


"Like I said, he looks up to you and doesn't want to let you down."

"But I went through the same thing!"


Sometimes I forget that she's 15. Or are today's 15-year-olds this perceptive?

Needless to say, I now felt truly awful. The poor kid. And with me tugging at his arms, telling him to shake it off. Fucking hell.

By this time, the wife had calmed him and had him take a bath and wash his hair, which he did without protest. I was sitting in the living room, drinking an Absolut on the rocks, watching the Lions get hammered by the Dolphins, while hammering myself in my head. It's not that I felt guilty about my initial response to his anguish, though I did to a degree; but that he's enduring such soul-crushing emotions at his young age, and feels he can't tell his Dad about it -- his Dad, who knows better than most what it's like to be bullied and verbally attacked at that very age.

The boy returned to the living room, hair wet, fresh clean shirt, and smiled.

"Sorry, everybody, for all that crying. I get that way sometimes."

He plopped down next to me, pushed his damp head against my chest, and whispered, "Sorry, Dad."

I choked up, held him and kissed his head.

"I love you, son. I love you so much."

"I love you too, Dad."

Then he got up and went to play "Operation" (which they still make, to my surprise) with his sister.

I went into the kitchen, dumped the ice into the sink, looked at my mother who was chopping celery, and began to cry. She held me as I had held my son, and told me that the boy would be fine, that this was a rough patch. Part of life.

I sincerely hope this is so. He has a lot to fight through -- not just his physical awkwardness, but his dyslexia, which he inherited from me, and his surging, creative personality which he's still trying to control and channel, with varied success. For the rest of the day I watched him closely, studied his expressions when he wasn't looking my way, trying to pick up some kind of clue. An absurd tactic, admittedly, but I did notice his sincere desire to be taken seriously, even if he wasn't completely sure what he was attempting to express. The kid's carrying a lot of excess weight, and how we help him unload it is going to be the chief task ahead. Yet under all that anxiety and pain exists an incredibly bright and optimistic young man. And just before we sat down to eat, he prayed for the poor, the starving and the forgotten, and pleaded for the war to end. For me, that was the highlight of the day, something truly to be thankful for.

SEE: This great and revealing segment from Danny Hoch's film, "Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop", brought to my attention by Doug Henwood. Provides the proper bookend to the Michael Richards outburst.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Race Bombs

The old cliché is true: bombing while performing comedy is utter hell. And every comic, no matter how unique, talented or plain funny, has bombed more than a few times. Part of the process. Part of the scene. Inescapable. I've seen top flight comics die in front of silent, cynical crowds, their acts fast becoming feverish attempts to keep the plane from hitting the control tower. And, yes, I've died a thousand deaths onstage as well, both singly and with a group, the only salvation being the scattered laughter from the other comics at the back of the room. At that point, you're essentially playing to the band. In fact, some of my bombing experiences won over comics who liked my material despite what the audience thought, and offered to pay for it. So some silver was yanked from those dark, swirling clouds.

After watching Michael Richards' meltdown from last Friday night, however, I don't see how he gets anything back. It's one of the saddest and most perplexing plummets I think I've ever seen. I'm sure most of you have seen it, but if not, here it is:

Dealing with hecklers is tricky, and few can deftly pull it off without breaking stride. Sam Kinison was especially brutal on hecklers, but his aggression worked since he had a very aggressive act, making his retorts seamless. Bill Hicks would loudly question the intellectual capacity of hecklers, telling them that perhaps they were at the wrong gig and that they might be more comfortable at a Billy Ray Cyrus concert. For lesser talents, there are the old stand-bys -- "Hey, I don't knock the dick out of your mouth when you're working" being a club favorite. But Richards was in a different place altogether, and it's frankly shocking to see him unravel so easily and crudely in front of a couple of guys talking shit. You can see in mid-rant, Richards tries to swing his racist yelling back to some kind of free-form commentary on words that wound and the hatred that exists in us all. But by that point it was too late -- you can't rebound from shouting about hanging niggers in trees by asking the rest of the audience if they are shocked. Of course they're shocked. Even if there was some savage satirical point being made about racism, a white guy using those words in that manner makes it impossible to be understood.

But Richards wasn't channeling Lenny Bruce. He saw two black men interrupting his act, and he flipped out. If they were Asian or Latino, I'm guessing that gook and spic would've been uttered instead. Richards wanted to stab those guys right in their throats, so he used the most jagged tool nearest him. And it worked. He did hurt them. Decidedly so. But by doing this, he also hurt what's left of his career, as well as his comic legacy. Which is really a shame, for Richards has shown himself to be a first-rate physical comic actor, a descendant of Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis and Jacque Tati. Kramer was the acme of his craft, seen and appreciated by millions. But as I've shown in several clips here, Richards also did fine work on "Fridays", which set the stage for his emergence on "Seinfeld". Now, all of that is trashed, at least for the foreseeable future.

It's clear that Richards appreciates the deep hole he's in. His attempt to apologize last night on Letterman appeared genuine but confused, as if while he was explaining himself, he further realized just how fucked he currently is. Deer in the headlights barely covers it. See if you agree:

This morning's talk radio reaction was pretty much unified in overall disgust, but, obviously, for different reasons. On Laura Ingraham's show, one caller chastised Letterman for being too soft on Richards, saying that if Richards were a conservative Republican, he would've been crucified. Ingraham instantly agreed, citing the woes suffered by Trent Lott and George Allen. While it's rather rich for Ingraham to complain about "double standards" when it comes to offensive speech, given her history of queer-baiting and making light of US-armed death squads killing nuns and priests, lumping Richards in with Lott and Allen is essentially a non sequitur. To my knowledge, Richards has no history of making racist remarks or opining about "inferior" breeds. Lott and Allen do. Lott and Allen are also politicians who supposedly serve the public. Richards is a comic actor. Slime Richards all you want, but there is simply no comparison between him and those poor, misunderstood Dixiecrats.

On Michael Eric Dyson's show, audience anger was very evident, and many of the callers I heard were not in a forgiving mood. Dyson himself asked if some kind of action be taken against Richards, though he didn't specify what that would be. Richards isn't on any show, and I seriously doubt he will be anytime soon. I suppose one could boycott "Seinfeld" reruns or not buy or rent the DVDs, but that would be the extent of it. Richards is an individual, not a corporation. If he has any PR savvy or sense of honest guilt, he'll attempt to make amends. But that's on him, not outraged "Seinfeld" fans.

Dyson also wondered what Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle thought of Richards' outburst. That's an interesting notion, and I'd love to hear what Rock and Chappelle might have to say. I suspect that while they would condemn Richards' language, as comedians who play on the edge themselves, they may give Richards some slack. It's a different world on stage, especially against a hostile crowd. Anything can happen to someone intensely free associating, as Richards was. And naturally this includes exposure of one's hidden bile, rage and hatred. Tough to edit that in real time, which is why stand-up remains the hardest and perhaps the most dangerous comedy format. If you doubt this, go on stage and give it a whirl, say around 1:30 AM on a Friday in front of scattered, heckling drunks. Or failing that, ask Michael Richards.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Yesterday And Today

The pitcher's mound is lower than I remember, but the rest of that field looks as it did in 1972. The houses, same colors, just behind the outfield fence; the street along the first base line; the concession stand, now shuttered for the winter, in back of left field -- it all remains, at least for the moments I spent lingering there on Saturday morning. Standing at short, my main position back then, I let the whole scene swarm over me, and for a brief instant I felt the unsullied excitement of playing ball at St. Albans, the crack of wooden, not aluminum, bats coming from the other two diamonds, parents yelling encouragement and critiques, balls slapping leather, kids chanting "Hey batter batter . . . swing!" Then I snap back to the present, a graying man alone on the field of his youth, kicking up dirt for old time's sake.

Not all of my weekend visit to Indy was this nostalgic, but a lot of it was, unavoidable whenever I go back there now. Perhaps it's a middle age thing, for I was never that interested in the old sites when I came home from New York or LA. These days, however, a memory's mere scent starts the time machine in my head, and there I am, occupying a boy's body, using his eyes and nerve endings to relive a moment long dead, in an effort to better understand my present self. It's a narcissistic but necessary practice, especially with a son encountering some of the same obstacles I did at his age (and older). It's as if I'm trying to link my son to that boy and show him that he's not alone, that he's connected to this timeline which can be and has been altered to better negotiate those obstacles he currently faces. My son's big advantage is that he, for all of his anxiety about performing well in school and at home, is much more secure in his skin than I was in mine. On that front, the present tutors the past.

As for present day Indianapolis, it seems less hawkish than the last time I was there. What residents personally feel is another matter, but there aren't as many outward prowar signs and expressions --- plenty of Support The Troops stickers, but today, that could be construed as antiwar as well. Not surprising, really. At this point, only blood-maddened sadists and disconnected ideologues rant favorably about the Iraqi slaughterhouse. There's not much more to discuss, save ending the US presence, which isn't going to happen anytime soon, if ever, especially with Dems in the saddle. The mules want a more "realistic" approach to attacking and helping rip apart other countries. They want to be considered "credible." This is not the language of an opposition party seeking justice and political rollback. It is the rhetoric of the corporate state's other wing, hungry for power and influence after years of muttering in the shadows. Right now, they're stretching their arms and cracking their necks, preparing for the real deal in January. Think things have changed? Just wait.

I suppose the measure of how muted prowar arguments have become can be seen in my aunt and uncle, with who I spent time Friday night. When last I saw them, there was a heated political exchange between my aunt and I as she tried to persuade me that Bush's invasion was all about democracy, freedom, soda pop, hot dogs and balloons. There was none of that Friday. Not a word about Iraq from either of them. What could they say? As much as I desired to, I didn't broach the topic, which would've been a nasty gesture on my part, given that their rationales are currently on the ropes. Instead, they went on and on about O.J. Simpson's "If I Did It" grab for money and attention, knowing that no one at that table would have Juice's back. Then the Emilio Estevez film "Bobby" came up, and their eyes brightened a bit at the memory and possibility of RFK's 1968 presidential run, stopped by Sirhan Sirhan in a California kitchen. That was their generation, and it clearly still resonates with them. When I said that the Vietnam war was a criminal enterprise and that they were right to oppose it, they fell silent and stared off. I didn't intend for my statement to be a veiled criticism of their pro-Iraq war stance, but that's how it appeared to be taken. When you mention one imperial war, the others aren't far from view. And seeing how the dismemberment of Iraq (which as a country has pretty much ceased to exist) is in many ways worse than what happened in Southeast Asia, at least in geopolitical terms, reminding those who favored this war just how wrong they were is not the nicest way to connect. Appropriate, necessary, yes. But not polite conversation.

Still, they helped to set the current mood. Having it thrown violently back in their faces is to be expected.

WATCH: Patrick Cockburn report on just how really fucking beyond belief awful Iraq presently is. I can see why bashing O.J. is preferable to defending that insanity.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Where Has The Laughter Gone?

Try as I might, I cannot shake the anxiety I feel on behalf of my son. He's currently going through some kind of emotional transition, his tall, lanky body still growing, making him clumsy and uncoordinated, which doesn't help his self-image. He's isolated from most of his peers, which doesn't bother me all that much (hell, I'm isolated from many of my peers, and glad of it), but it bothers him, and for good reason -- the boy's 10-years-old. He tries to reach out and belong, and apart from one or two other boys, the majority of his class seems to view him as weird and not part of their circles. This was confirmed by his teacher to the wife and me the other day, and it just sank my heart. I was on the verge of tears. He's such a sweet, straightforward kid. Maybe that's his problem.

He's been participating in a weekly, after-school basketball clinic, hoping that this might help win him some friends. He certainly has the height for the game, being one of the tallest boys on-court. But he doesn't have the competitive drive. It's just not in him. Plus, he's all elbows and knees when running the court, bumping into other players, dribbling the ball off his foot, and so on. This of course elicits put-downs from the more advanced boys, and when he tells me about this, I feel horrible inside.

"Are you sure you want to keep doing this, son? It doesn't sound like much fun."

"It's okay, Dad. I don't mind it."

"I don't believe you. It would bother me."

"I screw up sometimes. It's no big deal."

"Please be honest with me."

"I am being honest, Dad."

Is he? I really can't tell. The boy has such pride that he would never admit to feeling insecure on this front. But then again, as the wife reminds me, our son feels very secure within the family fold, which has, save for a few brutal months in '99, remained solid. Around the house and in the yard, the boy smiles, laughs, romps about, when not playing video games or watching, for the umpteenth time, "The Mask Of Zorro". At school, however, he displays nervousness and anxiety, unconsciously chewing on his shirt until the neckline is drenched. Yet he's doing well in class, especially when it comes to writing stories and reports. His teacher, the same one he had for third grade who really empathizes with him, has marveled about his imagination and narrative skills. Which doesn't surprise us -- our son is very conceptual in his thinking. This hurts him now with his classmates, but as I keep telling him, in time it will work in his favor.

The boy shows interest in comedy. He's always enjoyed funny things, but his enthusiasm is becoming more defined. So earlier this week, he and I began what I suppose you could call Comedy School. At the moment, I'm showing him various forms of slapstick, noting, for example, the differences between Chaplin and the Three Stooges

"Chaplin's like a dancer," he said after watching some clips from "The Kid," "City Lights," and a few early Keystone shorts. "But the Three Stooges just hit each other. Hard!"

"Well," I replied, "they do hit each other, but that's carefully planned out in advance. But yes, Chaplin moves like he's in a comedy ballet. The Stooges are more like crash test dummies."

Soon we'll get to Keaton, Lloyd, Tati, Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball, among many others. After that, joke and story tellers (early Bill Cosby will be heavy here); then absurdity; then farce; and hopefully by that time the kid will be well-versed in the tradition and forewarned about trying to make it a living.

Given all this comic study, you'd think that today's belated video fest would be especially laff oriented. But as you've probably guessed, I'm not in a comedy mood. Far from it. So instead, here are a few items that better reflect my present mindset.

Someone who shares my love of "thirtysomething" is posting entire shows at YouTube. So far, there's only three, but one is a personal favorite from the third season, "Legacy". If you're not familiar with the show's characters and interwoven plotlines, there's really no point in me trying to explain it all here. Still, this episode displays all that is good about "thirtysomething", which for me is Joseph Dougherty, who wrote "Legacy." Dougherty's scripts were among the most political, in this case a Mother Jones-type magazine being bought and gutted by an outside corporate group. Dougherty also wrote the Miles Drentell episodes, the cut-throat Zen capitalist ad executive played brilliantly by David Clennon, whose politics would appall Miles. As I've said elsewhere, I got to know Dave in his "thirtysomething" period, and once coaxed him to co-host the WBAI media show I was doing at the time (my usual co-host, Laura Flanders, was away on assignment that week). Years later, when I was in the bowels of "Mr. Mike," the majority of which I wrote between 11PM and 6 AM, I'd take a 2 AM break to watch "thirtysomething" re-runs on Lifetime. During this stage of the book, I talked to Dave quite a bit; and since his old show was fresh in my mind, I got him to reveal all sorts of backstage gossip, as well as engaging him on the meaning of Miles, who was loosely based on Mike Ovitz. I'm not normally star-struck, but I must confess that I found it pretty cool to watch Dave's performances and then later dissect them with Dave himself, a generous, funny guy.

Anyway, here's the episode, which cannot be embedded, only linked. So go, watch, do -- Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

And as I've also mentioned before, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" is one of my favorite American films. I love the way the movie begins, sharp performances and crisp, Scorsese-like editing. But as the varied narratives unfurl and intersect, and we get to know the characters that are thrown at us early on, "Magnolia" slows down and allows us to absorb the pain, regret, anger and anxiety that these main characters feel. Below is the turning point of the film, when the characters ponder their next, decisive moves, expressed by singing along with Aimee Mann's beautiful "Wise Up." Some critics at the time were either confused or put off by PTA's singing/narrative device, and it certainly risked being laughed at. Yet for me it works and sets the tone for the remainder of "Magnolia," a film that has made me cry more than I care to admit.

Here's another Aimee Mann "Magnolia" song, "Save Me," which served as the film's closing number. This is the music video, directed by PTA, featuring the film's cast being haunted by Mann.

Next week -- back to the comedy. I hope.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Hype Is To Believing

When shown an early cut of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," George Meyer, a producer for "The Simpsons" and perhaps that show's keenest mind, said, ''I feel like someone just played me 'Sgt. Pepper's' for the first time.''

Normally, I wait to see a film or show that is being hailed before I lean in any appreciative direction. But Meyer's endorsement of "Borat," along with similar takes I've heard on the comedy grapevine, heightened my anticipation. If these comedic talents that I respect liked Sacha Baron Cohen's new film that much, then I knew I would as well. And after watching "Borat" over the weekend, I do. Intensely so.

"Borat" is one of the funniest and most disturbing films I've ever seen. Not since Tom Green's "Freddy Got Fingered" have I laughed so hard and wept so openly. In Green's case, I was floored by the sheer audacity and extreme absurdity of the comedy. I simply couldn't believe what I was seeing, and that released the floodgates. Fortunately for me (but not for Green), there were maybe 12 people in the theater that day, so my near-breakdown could be viewed as the raving of an isolated lunatic. The theater showing "Borat," however, was sold out, so at first I felt inhibited about letting go. But after about 20 minutes, I couldn't suppress my emotions any longer, nor wanted to, and from that point on my heaving lungs, watery eyes, and jangled senses fully defined me. I was completely in Borat's hands. But then, so was the rest of the audience.

I don't mean to over-praise something that's already getting tremendous press. This is simply an honest appraisal. And as I type this, I'm still laughing to myself.

I was not a big fan of Baron Cohen's "Da Ali G Show" on HBO. I felt that the joke about a fake interviewer was played out very quickly. I did enjoy and recognize Baron Cohen's first-rate talent as a comic actor, and my appreciation deepened when I first saw the Borat in America segments. While Ali G and Borat did essentially the same thing -- ask ridiculous questions of unsuspecting targets -- it was the Borat character that took this comic device to another level. Ali G maintained a cool distance from his guests, affecting a hip-hop pose that was essentially narcissistic. Borat, on the other hand, got down with those he spoke to, hugging, kissing, laughing, dancing, as open as anyone could possibly be with strangers, and then some. To me, Borat was more human, and hence, more believable. Even his more cartoonish behavior seemed somewhat "normal," owing to Baron Cohen's acting gifts and commitment to character. Borat's relentless openness made it easier for others to let their ids surface. And that's when the satiric point to Borat's coaxing was fully made.

In his film (directed by the great Larry Charles of "Fridays"/"Seinfeld"/"Curb Your Enthusiasm" fame), Baron Cohen recreates some of Borat's better moments from "Da Ali G Show," which on a larger canvas are fresher comedically and fuller in exposition. You get a better idea of who Borat is and why he acts as he does. And though he casually expresses some of the vilest racist, sexist, queer-phobic, and anti-Semitic stereotypes and slanders, there's actually a sweet side to Borat, primarily when it comes to the love of his life, Pamela Anderson. This is shown in a number of scenes, most effectively when Borat has hitched a ride with a trio of drunken, Southern frat-boys cruising in a camper. After explaining to his new-found friends that he plans to marry Anderson and take her virginity, Borat pulls out of his bag the infamous amateur porn DVD showing Anderson and Tommy Lee going at it on a boat. As the DVD plays, Borat sees that the object of his affection is not what he imagines her to be, and he is crushed. What's amazing in this scene is that just moments earlier, we get a full dose of racism and Jew-hatred from one of the frat boys, along with the general misogyny shared by his brothers. What is sickening and crass suddenly becomes moving, as Baron Cohen is able to shift the scene's mood in an instant. The frat boys try their best to comfort Borat, offering him sexist advice, of course, but showing a humane side of themselves. Borat cannot be soothed, however, and is dropped off on the side of the road to ponder his pain and future plans, if any.

This is but one fine scene among many. I can't go into them all, but trust me when I tell you that for an hour and 24 minute film, "Borat" is densely packed with observational and provocative comedy, running the spectrum from social and political satire to the roughest, and in one case, hairiest slapstick. At its best, "Borat" exposes the foul beasts that lurk just beneath the average American psyche, and shows, quite easily, how uncivilized and violent we really are. That may not be a news flash to many of you (nor to me), but watching the scene when Borat tells a rodeo crowd that his native land of Kazakhstan supports America's "war of terror" and that he hopes that our "Premier Warlord George Walter Bush" drinks the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq to the applause and cheers of the flag-draped crowd, the realization that a chunk of America is out of its fucking mind is made immediate. You laugh, but from sadness, anger and fear, not joy. And there are many more laughs like that throughout the film.

There has been criticism of Baron Cohen's use of Kazakhstan as Borat's home country. Not only is the Kazakhstan government appalled by Borat's existence, but some who are not Kazakh appear uncomfortable about laughing at a crazy, primitive foreign caricature. Of course, ethnic comedy is nothing new; and performers like Bill Dana and Andy Kaufman enjoyed considerable success pretending to be clueless immigrants. But Dana's Jose Jimenez offered little in the way of social commentary, while Kaufman's Foreign Man, who hailed from a fictional homeland, was originally played as a club comic who just got off the boat that morning, and tried to make Americans laugh with broken English and wide, innocent expressions. Kaufman's character went in several directions: one, as a pitiful performer who loses his way in mid-act and tries to win back the audience through pleading and crying; two, as an incredibly bad impressionist, which served as a set-up to Kaufman's killer Elvis Presley; three, and most profitably, as Latka Gravas on the ABC sitcom "Taxi". Kaufman hated this show, but the money he made allowed him to finance his more avant garde projects. Still, as textured as Kaufman's character was, he didn't push societal buttons. Foreign Man was performance art, as apolitical as Kaufman himself.

Sacha Baron Cohen, however, has a different agenda, and through Borat he pretty much achieves it. Borat could come from any Baltic or Near East country, and in Baron Cohen's able hands, the results would be the same. His being from Kazakhstan has less to do with that actual country, and more to do with exposing the geographical ignorance of those Americans Borat meets. It's the open salvo from his comedy arsenal, one that may come close to killing you with laughter.