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I’ve always found Sacha Baron Cohen‘s “Brüno” schtick simplistically hilarious: Flamboyantly gay Austrian journalist travels to America’s homophobic heartland to wring laughs out of just how much those people fear and hate gay people.

But just as the hypocrisy construction allows liberally-minded people to freely ridicule Sarah Palin‘s kids for having sex (because it’s hypocritical), razz Miss California for bearing her beasts (because it’s hypocritical), and make fun of Larry Craig for acting gay (because it’s hypocritical), the Sascha Baron Cohen construction allows liberally-minded people to freely laugh at gay shit—-because we’re really laughing at the Southern rednecks who are laughing at the gay shit, right?

A.O. Scott‘s New York Times review of Brüno’s big-screen debut does a really excellent job of explaining this dynamic—-while not devaluing Sacha Baron Cohen’s as a humorist:

In his various incarnations — Ali G, Borat and now, at feature length, Brüno — Sacha Baron Cohen leads his audience in a two-step of squirming discomfort and smug affirmation. Like “Borat,” “Brüno” (Mr. Baron Cohen’s new vehicle, also directed by Larry Charles) offers both succor and sucker bait for liberal-minded viewers who may feel harassed and hemmed in by prevailing and ever-shifting cultural sensitivities.

We all know, for example, that it’s wrong to laugh at foreigners, that making fun of their accents and customs is worse than passé. But Borat, with his outlandish attitudes and offensive behavior, granted an exemption to anyone who was in on the joke. You could titter and guffaw at his backward, ignorant buffoonery because, of course, the real xenophobes were the people on screen who fell for the hoax that this guy was a journalist from Kazakhstan.

And we all know how Borat played in Kazakhstan. This time around, Brüno’s impact is lessoned—-as Scott points out, “the success and notoriety of [Borat] diminished the ranks of potential patsies”—-but both of his targets (gays and homophobes) are on-hand on Cohen’s home-turf. Will Cohen lose his audience by taking homosexuals down with homophobes? Or has he shrewdly keyed into an even larger fan base—-people who hate gay people, and people who hate people who hate gay people?