Politics & Policy

The Secret of Ali G

Its success depends on its obscurity.

Right now, as you read these words, I am helping to kill something I love. Although I had heard often about this quandary in the country-western songs that blared out of my mother’s car stereo while I was growing up, I never really faced it myself until last week, when Da Ali G Show: The Complete First Season DVD showed up in my mailbox.

For the uninitiated, Da Ali G Show is a spoof reality show in which British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen travels America in one of three guises–Ali G, a “hip-hop journalist” clad in a yellow tracksuit with a penchant for nearly unintelligible street slang; Borat, Kazakhstan’s ace reporter; and Bruno, a not-so-ambiguously gay Austrian broadcast journalist–slaying sacred cows wherever he goes.

Baron Cohen is obviously a gifted man. Who else could get Pat Buchanan to perform an ebonics-laden rap? Who else could ask former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali if French is the funniest language, and have him answer, “Arabic might be funnier.” (Providing some competition for Buchanan, Boutros-Ghali raps as well.) Name one other man who has been given an official tour of the United Nations and used it as an opportunity to ask a U.N. official, “With full respect, why do you give crap countries a vote?” Later he gets a straight answer to a query as to why Disneyland hasn’t been granted a seat. (For the curious, it’s apparently because Disneyland “is not an independent state.”)

Ali G is also able to get Brent Scowcroft to discuss the pros and cons of nuking Canada, with the fake rapper arguing that the “most amazing part” of nuking Canada would be “the element of surprise.” Scowcroft ultimately dismisses the idea, because “we don’t want what they’ve got up there.” He asks astronaut Buzz Aldrin, “So what was it like to walk on the sun?” Newt Gingrich, James Lipton, Michael Dukakis, C. Everett Koop, and Ed Meese all inexplicably and dutifully sit through quite insane interviews. And in one of the highlights of last season, Ali G argues with Ralph Nader over whether the rainforests deserve protection. “Surely [the rainforest natives] would be well happy to get out of there,” Ali G rants. “It must be crap living there. No McDonalds. No KFC. Nowhere to drive around. All these monkeys plopping on your head. Who would stay there? You’d have to be absolutely mental.”

Baron Cohen is so good, Nader doesn’t walk out. He doesn’t bat an eye. He just continues the interview in earnest. “First of all,” Nader replies, “the monkeys are not eager to plop on people’s heads.” And when it’s all over, Ali G talks the notoriously surly Nader into performing a rap as well.

This is the genius of Da Ali G Show. It’s actually fairly politically savvy stuff, and the skewering of political institutions and power brokers cuts all the deeper when Ali G’s subjects (victims) suck up to him and act like even the most absurd question is the most important thing they’ve ever been asked.

“For that time they’re in the room with me, sometimes they totally forget who they are,” Baron Cohen said in a recent New York Times interview. “And they come out with a totally different side of themselves…They want Ali G’s approval. They’re in the room with a total idiot, and yet they’re seeking his approval.”

This, of course, brings us around to the aforementioned problem of writing about Da Ali G Show. On one hand, every episode is so absolutely crazy you want to shout word of the latest antics and absurdities from the rooftops. But you also want the buzz to remain far enough below the radar to allow the show to continue. It’s like Santa Claus and Christmas: The magic can only continue so long as folks believe in Ali G and Baron Cohen’s characters. Ali G once interviewed a Spice Girl in front of a banner that read “Save Africa” over a map of Italy. That’s only funny if Ali G really seems stupid enough to have actually done it. As a skit, it’s garbage.

There is a precedent for this. Baron Cohen only brought the show to America when Ali G’s mega-success in Britain made it impossible to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes any longer. At its height, the show became such a public spectacle that British rabbis demanded Baron Cohen, an observant Jew, end his “offensive and immoral” show. “I would guess his parents are not too happy with what he is doing: it’s not the kind of thing we would want a nice Jewish boy to do,” Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt told The Age. Another rabbi told the paper that Ali G might be giving “people with malevolent intent a further excuse to go round bashing Jews.” When a character you’ve created is being fingered as the root cause of anti-Semitic violence in a nationwide publication, the cover is pretty much blown.

Here in America, Baron Cohen has gotten through a second season of Da Ali G Show and is promising to play it by ear on a third season. With appearances on The Daily Show and high-profile interviews in magazines and newspapers throughout the land, the possibility seems tenuous at best. Ali G’s moment in the sun is, sadly, destined to be short. The Pheonix must burn, and this article is another match thrown at the publicity gasoline can, another scratch in that façade. So enjoy it while it lasts.

Forgive me, Ali G, I couldn’t keep a secret. Boyakasha!

Shawn Macomber is a staff writer at The American Spectator and runs the website www.ReturnofthePrimitive.com.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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