In the 2006 movie "Borat", an American humor coach explains the concept of a "not" joke to Borat Sagdiyev, the disarmingly moronic Kazakh journalist played by Sacha Baron Cohen. "We make a statement that we pretend is true, but at the end, we say, ‘not,’" the coach explains. But Borat struggles to grasp the pause required to make the joke work. First he pauses for too long before "not"; then, too briefly. The joke falls flat.
Baron Cohen’s postmodern comedy hinges on that pause. Traveling through America as a bigotry-spewing buffoon, he confronts people with a series of "not" jokes posed as ethical litmus tests. He’s an anti-Semite... not. He’s a misogynist ... not. He’s an ignorant foreigner ... not. If you can detect the pause, you’re the audience for the joke; if you can’t, you’re its butt.
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