In Defense of Ali G

HBO's latest comedy phenomenon is vulgar, offensive and hilariously revealing

Yes, it’s crass. It’s crude. And it’s more than a little insensitive. All these charges can and should be leveled against Da Ali G Show , which recently completed its second short season on HBO. Nevertheless, Ali G’s critics miss the most important quality of the show, that Sacha Baron Cohen and his trademark alter egos Ali G (the rapper straight outta Staines), Borat Sagdiyev (Kazakhstan’s top journalist) and Bruno (the cartoonishly gay Austrian fashionista) are practicing a kind of guerilla comedy that does much to reveal and eviscerate some of modern American culture’s most laughable assumptions about itself and others.

The Cambridge-educated Cohen first earned television fame in Britain as the man on the street interviewer and voice of the youth for a popular British television program, The 11 O’clock Show. Since taking his act to the United States, he has quickly become HBO’s latest “water-cooler” comic phenomenon, and earned dozens of enemies and millions of fans in the process. Now in reruns after only twelve episodes in two years (season two recently ended), “Da Ali G Show” can be caught late nights on HBO.

The show is simultaneously a send-up of the modern talk show of the Oprah variety and of investigative television journalism. While superficially focusing on the foibles of its host in his incarnations as three individual characters, it regularly employs a quick and brutal shift in emphasis onto the responses of its many guest subjects to the questions and antics of Cohen’s characters. The show is at its best when its title character is savaging some of the implicit cultural assumptions of Anglo-American civilization: to wit, that every person has a right to know the private affairs of one’s neighbor; that those who speak English with a marked accent are by nature simple and ignorant; and that patently offensive behavior is somehow acceptable if conducted within a group context. Because Cohen invariably fools his guests and subjects into thinking he is a legitimate journalist in the course of his interviews and “dim_features,” their unwitting participation in his schemes provide the show’s funniest and most thought-provoking moments.

Cohen’s combination of political satire and low comedy makes him something of an anomaly among mainstream television comics, even if the show does enjoy cable televisions markedly looser restrictions on content. Television comics in the United States have tended to follow the model established by the talk show personalities of the 1960s–use double entendres and implied action, but stay away from the overtly sexual or in-your-face offensive material. While Letterman and Leno are certainly much more crass than their predecessors on the networks, they are no more likely to swear or depict nudity than Jack Paar was half a century ago. In fact, one could even argue that Milton Berle was outdoing Leno for the use of sleazy double entendre when Leno was still in short pants. Da Ali G Show, however, makes no bones about its use of patently sexual material to shock viewers and gain laughs. In other words, this isnt a show that the local diocesan paper is going to be advertising anytime soon. Nevertheless, there is more to the show that its self-conscious veneer of low comedy.

The show’s success at exposing American “mob mentality” was brought
most clearly and uncomfortably to the fore earlier this season in a segment that has drawn perhaps the most public commentary. As Borat, the investigative foreign journalist with the heavy accent and seeming cluelessness about American culture, he invites a bar full of locals in Arizona to sing along with him as he recounts karaoke jingles from his homeland. The crowd quickly becomes cheery and cooperative, a quality that turns disturbingly negative when one realizes they’ll go along with anything. For example, what happens when Boris sings a little ditty about devil-horned Jews who should be thrown down a well? That’s right, the entire crowd sings along gleefully. Suddenly, for the viewer there’s a lot more than just laughs; it is an unsettling experience to see how, with a minimum of effort, Cohen has drawn out from a large crowd an apparently unanimous willingness to engage in scabrous bigotry as long as everyone else plays along.

Heartier laughs and fewer misgivings can be found in Cohen’s many “interviews” with American icons while playing his title character. Because the subjects of his interviews almost always equate his strange British-ghetto-rapper accent and outfits with ignorance, “Ali G” regularly convinces them to go along with his idiotic questions and seeming misunderstandings without a second thought. Choice examples include his interview of Pat Buchanan in which he asked about the search for Saddam Hussein’s “BLTs.” Buchanan, left out of the joke, then proceeds to talk about weapons of mass destruction using terminology more commonly employed for a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Similarly, he gets a former FBI director to discuss the grassy knoll in Dallas as the locale of a famous controversy: “Who shot JR?”

Because Cohen and his style of comedy are so new to the United States, he has easily procured these fake interviews with celebrities and political pundits, all of whom, one would think, should know better. Buzz Aldrin has been a guest (sample question: “what was it like to walk on the sun?”), as have Christine Todd Whitman, Gore Vidal (in Ali G’s world, a famous hair stylist), Marlin Fitzwater, Newt Gingrich, and Donald Trump (who, to his credit, caught on to the joke much quicker than most), among many others. Along with the sidesplitting jokes at their expense comes a revealing tendency on the part of the average American to assume that a young foreigner is, well, stupid. Time and again, Cohen catches these public figures treating him with kid gloves, interpreting every misunderstanding as the endearing ignorance of a foreigner. One can only imagine their reactions when, in the aftermath, they realize they have been so thoroughly had.