Photo by Oliver Upton
SACHA BARON COHEN, THE MIDDLE-CLASS wag behind Da Ali G Show, has a taste for a certain kind of deliberately moronic British humor. In the guise of Ali G, a pseudo gangsta rapper and fake television interviewer, he confuses anthrax with Tampax when talking to General Brent Scowcroft, theorizes that there was no room at the inn for the baby Jesus "because it was Christmas," and refers, while wearing an irreproachably pious expression, to the attack on the World Trade Center as "the terrible events of 7/11."
Cohen wears a couple of other hats, too. In some of the best skits he is "Borat," a nerdy-macho Kazakhstani reporter making a documentary about life in "the U.S. and A.," and as Bruno, the effete host of an Austrian fashion show called Funkyzeit mit Bruno, he quizzes people on the Nazis' dress sense and asks a fashionista if it wouldn't be a good idea to put ugly people "on trains, send them to a camp and say bye-bye." ("I would love to say bye to most of them," the fashionista answers.)
For several years now, Ali G's had half of Britain rolling in the aisles over his interviews with English bigwigs. His American debut, Da Ali G Show (HBO, Friday at 12:30 a.m.), takes the same approach. What's amazing is that this oddly endearing goon which is to say, the woefully inarticulate, unbelievably badly educated doofus Cohen plays on TV managed to secure interviews with the likes of Ralph Nader, Edwin Meese, Dick Thornburgh, Newt Gingrich and former CIA head James Woolsey, all of whom thought they were appearing on an educational program aimed at youth. (Or, in Ali G's lingo, "yoof.")
What does it say about these potentates that, once they sat down with Ali G, unaware that he is a comedian, they were willing to indulge this apparent moron by answering his questions as thoughtfully as possible? Could it be that America is actually being run not by "Stupid White Men," as Michael Moore would have it, but by "Polite White Men" with democratic ideals enshrined in their hearts? Or has liberal guilt penetrated so deeply into the ranks of power that even politicians long out of office are desperate to ingratiate themselves with the dark-skinned inhabitants of the world's inner cities, particularly if, as in the case of Ali G, they have a whiff of Islam about them?
On the other hand, why are they so blithely unsurprised, or at least willing to believe, that the host of an "educational" program a British educational program, no less could be so transcendently dumb? Is it possible that they're rather cynical about the lower classes? Or are they simply terrified of offending a member of a "minority," even when said member has suspiciously pale skin?
It's hard to say for sure, but it can be a beautiful thing to watch. Imagine if Inspector Clouseau had infiltrated a real police force, and you'll have an idea of what the Ali G show is like. Come to think of it, Ali G did infiltrate a police force, or at least a police academy, in the opening episode. And faced with this imbecile, who was supposedly training to be a police officer, the pigs were you guessed it helpful and friendly ("You know what a burglary is?" a cop asks him, having figured out the new trainee isn't too bright. "For real," Ali G replies. "I've done a couple.")
The genius of Da Ali G Show is that it pokes fun at the ruling classes not for being bastards, but for wanting to be nice. It doesn't "speak truth to power," but slyly persuades power to speak politically correct blather to the powerless. Thus we get to see Edwin Meese rapping ("I was attorney general/My name is Meese/I say go to college/Don't carry a piece") and, more painfully (because more sincerely), Ralph Nader: "Me name be Ralph Nader/Me gonna make an appeal:/Homies, save the rainforest/Aye, keep it real." And of course there's always the pleasure of watching lowbrow references shoot straight over the heads of the highbrows, as in the hilarious progression of questions Ali puts to former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, on the subject of the "law":
Wot iz legal?
Wot iz illegal?
And wot iz barely legal? (As in, "Me and my mates just watched this movie called Barely Legal 3?").
DA ALI G SHOW IS THE KIND OF COMEDY THAT works best in small doses. After a while, it can start to seem less funny and more callous. A lot of comedians have hurt people's feelings, but the wounded sensibilities belonged to people in the audience, not the actors in the actual performance. On Da Ali G Show, the people hurt are those who agreed to be interviewed without realizing they were being set up. Some of them, obviously, deserve a bit of ribbing and can take it in any case. But that's not true of everyone on the show, a few of whom must feel quite bitter about the way in which they were tricked into appearing on it. Cohen's comedy depends on his ability to con people, and after a while you may find yourself wishing the tables were turned. So when, in an upcoming episode, the former surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, bluntly tells Ali G that he's stupid, and when James Lipton, the host of Inside the Actors' Studio, rebukes him for referring to women as "bitches" and "hos," you may give a small cheer. As I say, a little of Ali G goes a long way.
Part of the problem is that "cutting-edge" comedy, of which this is certainly an example, only seems to go in one direction toward the toilet. There's a skit in which, during a panel discussion about science and "techmology" [sic], Ali G accuses a panelist of having gone to the bathroom before the show and not flushed. The argument that ensues the panelist indignantly denies having done any such thing is one of the most surreal things I've ever seen on television. Whether television really needs it, however, is extremely doubtful. Yet the same episode features a truly inspired comic sketch where, as Borat the nerdy-macho Kazakhstani TV reporter, Cohen sings Kazakhstan's national anthem before a bemused audience at the start of a baseball game in Savannah. It's both funny and strangely moving, and having seen it, one is tempted to forgive Cohen almost anything.
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If Da Ali G Show is a satire of sorts, it's one without a clear target. Cohen's affection for street culture is evident, but the level of ignorance he flaunts in its name can be pretty depressing, as there are a lot of would-be Ali Gs out there. Cohen himself is the product of a very different environment. Now 31 years old, he grew up in a prosperous Orthodox Jewish family in London, attended good schools and studied history at Cambridge University. According to the London Observer, he remains "an observant Jew who keeps kosher" not exactly what one would surmise from watching his show. What is he up to? After having seen five episodes on tape, I'm not at all sure I can answer the question.
But maybe, in the end, that doesn't really matter. The beauty of the show is in its faux serendipity and in the host's quick wit, as in the hilarious interview Ali G conducts with a member of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
"It slows down your reactions, slows down your ability to learn," the agent says of pot.
"And is there any negative effects?" Ali G replies, deadpan.