Da Ali G Show, an interview show based on the comic alter egos of postgraduate wunderkind Sacha Baron Cohen, has just completed its first season on HBO. And, despite massive pre-launch hype, the show’s reception has been lackluster at best. Unlike its fellow British import American Idol, Ali G looks destined for a ticket home.
While much of the media focus has been on Ali G, the hip-hop moron who splashed Stateside in Madonna’s “Music” video, the series’ most hilarious segments come from two other characters—also played by Cohen—Kazakstani journalist Borat Saddiyev and gay Austrian lifestyle reporter Bruno. Pretentiously clueless, Bruno introduces one his segments by saying, “Being gay is the new coolest thing, so that’s why I’ve come to the gayest part of America: Alabama.”
What follows is a sidesplitting trek through the explosive homophobia of America’s Blue State backwaters, as Bruno assumes that everyone he interviews is gay or bisexual. The resulting defensive outbursts and torrents of bigoted bile are worth their weight in platinum. I confess: when someone railing against “the Jewish hand in my pocket” suffers the tricksy condescension of Cohen’s wit, I absolutely revel in the scuffing. I know, I know, my bad.
Borat Saddiyev, obliviously embarking on a discovery of American customs, is by far Cohen’s most endearing, and ultimately kindest, character. Following one impolitic exchange about women, Cohen asks to touch a macho Texan’s penis. He explains to Borat, “That ain’t the custom around here,” then reluctantly lets him. When Borat shows pictures of his wife to a couple he meets at a rodeo, the woman gasps at one photo of the roomy spouse spread-eagle, naked on a bed: “Did you know that was in here?” Instead of the honor brawl one might expect to ensue, the couple ends up laughing it off as the politically incorrect stupidity of a “foreigner.”
Even the historic interpreters working at a “preserved” plantation begrudgingly tolerate his queries about buying a slave. Borat couches such questions with such genuine warmth and genial foolishness that he frustrates one potential “purchase” to the breaking point. Borat finally ends the discussion with: “Do you like me? I like you.”
On the other hand, his Ali G persona, an insufferably stupid B-boy poser, can be relentlessly dull. In one episode featuring a panel discussion on pornography, he steers the discussion from anti-pornography crusader Jan LaRule’s definition of pornography in order to leer at porn star Leann Hart and tell her, “I’ve got a massive one.” At moments like this, Ali G appears less as some sort of Rhodes Scholar ironist and more like just an asshole, a rude one, whose jokes are made thinner by the consistent kindness of his guests. With the exception of Marlyn Fitzwater (who exclaimed, “This guy is an idiot!”), they pretend the questions he asks are legitimate. Humor at the expense of someone’s good will fails with viewers inclined toward empathy. After all, assholes are only funny until their disdain for niceties comes your way. Given his comedic breadth, it’s a shame that all the critical focus remains on his flattest sketch.
Critics have already penned the premature obituaries (see BBC correspondent Maggie Shiels’ “Ali G’s Stateside Flop” (**http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/reviews/2788697.stm). Many of these doomsayers go to great lengths explaining why British humor doesn’t translate for simple-minded Americans. The most oft-cited canard is that Americans don’t understand irony. (Even Madonna, explaining her decision not to release her original “American Life” video, cited Americans’ lack of irony as one reason.) It’s not that Americans can’t appreciate irony; it’s just that our tolerance for irony as a device of cruelty, because of its implicit condescension, is more finite that it might be with others.
Ali G also misses that Americans prefer their humor compartmentalized, prefer the joke to have a beginning and end, and do not like their comedians to be method actors who refuse to surrender their personae. U.S. celebrity culture is driven by a distinction between actors’ careers and lives. We love to know that, although they play glamorous or brilliant characters, they still lead pedestrian existences full of cellulite, bad choices, and venal intrigue.
Without access to Baron’s intimate nitty gritty, Americans are unlikely to form the crucial bond that enables us to overlook a mercilessly overbearing character. Artists who refuse to leave their art and come out and play come off as elitist, the death knell for any performer wanting popular U.S. acceptance. Like Andy Kaufman and Tom Green (who rarely breaks character), Sacha Cohen refuses to let go of his fictitious creation. (Cohen gives few interviews and only as Ali G.) If he did, it’s very possible that viewers wouldn’t reach that squirming point where they begin to identify and be embarrassed for the targets of his satire. It’s not that we don’t love fooling people or even making them uncomfortable. Just remember Candid Camera and TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes or the current success of Fear Factor
and The Bachelor, reality programming where bottomless humiliation is standard fare. We just want the person to be freed in the end.
This is why “Da Ali G Show” might be destined for an even quicker demise than Green or Kaufman. Green’s crudeness insured a male teenaged viewership, at least for a time. Although Kaufman has been posthumously written into the pantheon of comic geniuses, many of his refusals to break character won him public loathing. When Cohen deflates the egos of political figures whom many Americans have never heard of—like for U.S. Attorney General, Dick Thornberg or former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali—is unlikely to keep them tuning in.
It’s a shame really, because Da Ali G Show, in its finest moments, is just the kind of playful swat that our cultural pieties and empty bureaucrats deserve. But in the end, we’re too forgiving to offer our cherished incongruities up as sacrifices to a ceaseless jester from the other side of the pond.