In Defense of Ali G

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

Cohen’s most devastating comic bits can be found when he focuses on modern sexual mores, or the lack of same. My favorite Ali G moment comes not from his current show, but from a mock interview he did for a fundraiser on British television with soccer star David Beckham and his wife Victoria, nee “Posh” of the defunct Spice Girls. In the midst of a series of inappropriate questions for the celebrity couple, Ali asks the couple why they chose the name “Brooklyn” for their infant son. For reasons known only to themselves, the Beckhams answer him with far too much information—the child was conceived during their stay in the New York borough of the same name, they proudly explain, and thusly named in honor of the moment (the poor kid; can you imagine how he’ll explain it to his classmates when he enters the first grade?). Cohen’s apparently ad-libbed comeback is not only a source of raucous audience laughter, but also a devastating sendup of the impulse to reveal such private information for the prurient satisfaction of all: “Well, I suppose me and me Julie [though the audience never meets her, Ali G constantly refers to his girlfriend as me Julie] should name our boy ‘Bathroom of the KFC in Liverpool,’ then?” It’s crass and hardly appropriate, but then, so was the info we gleaned from the Beckhams.

The same is true when Borat visits a minor league baseball game. He convinces the friendly crowd to look through his photos of an ersatz “wife,” while slipping into the pile some obscenely sexual images of the woman. Rather than taking offense or realizing the joke, his new friends good-naturedly ask if he had included the photos by mistake; no one, it seems, finds it all that odd that a complete stranger is showing photos of his naked wife. The scene speaks volumes about modern America’s confident assumption that the private life of one’s neighbor is fair game for anyone’s perusal. It is also, by the way, the sort of scene that could only be shown on late-night television.

In that vein, Cohen’s show regularly crosses the bounds of good taste, a recurring phenomenon that has drawn perhaps the most biting criticism from some viewers. To be sure, a native of Kazakhstan would find the character of Borat offensive; so too does “Bruno,” his ultra-flamboyant Austrian alter ego, often serve as a mean-spirited caricature. Along with a few too many jokes about subjects most Americans find singularly unfunny (genocide, abortion, etc), these elements of the show prevent Cohen from reaching a larger audience–it is not the sort of show one would recommend to one’s parents—and sometimes derail his comic intentions. Nevertheless, there is so much to recommend in terms of comedy and political satire in the show as a whole that I am always tempted to forgive Cohen’s excesses as a modern analogue to a medieval carnival: overdone, grotesque, often offensive, and yet serving a valuable function in their skewering of societal norms and the pressures to conform to them.

Cohen is more than just a comedian, but also something of a cultural safety valve. In the manner of many great comedians before him, he allows us to laugh at the forbidden, the taboo, the uncomfortable subjects that are only brought up in the context of naughty laughter, and gives us a chance to poke fun at our foibles instead of pretending they simply don’t exist. In that sense, this outrageous outsider, a faux rapper-cum-reporter-cum-fashionista hailing from outside the very culture he is so expertly skewering, is acting in a manner that is thoroughly all-American.