Back in the day Da Ali G show was chilling at the peak of comedy. Like the best of humour it was about more than the jokes, it was about exposing idiocy and privilege and hypocrisy and bigotry. Between Sacha Baron Cohen’s three most iconic characters, Borat, Bruno and the eponymous Ali G, he wreaked absolute havoc on the very concept of conviction. If you came at him with inflexible morals or beliefs then he’d shred you on the spot, turning those same ideas against you.
Ali G was always a personal favourite. Easily his most developed character and also the one that got to unleash upon the best targets. Ali was young, poor and urban. A white guy but also a cultural poser. The complexities of Ali G himself are pretty hilarious but the purpose of the bloke was to take that young, poor and urban image and chuck it in contrast with interviewees who held immense power. Politicians and businessmen, religious leaders and celebrities. And then he skewered them.
Or Borat, whose outrageous culture clashes with the everyday people of middle America shone a light on an underlying discomfort among foreigners which at times crossed the line into outright racism, at other times simply hilarious awkwardness. Bruno, the gay Austrian fashionista, was a bit more hit or miss given the worlds he found himself in but when Bruno got combative, things definitely got funny.
That magic formula was lost when Sacha Baron Cohen stretched into films. The genius of Da Ali G Show relied on these short bursts of interviews where he could catch people unaware. Chucking an extended narrative onto things made it sloppy – the joke became Ali G himself instead of the situation he found himself in. Not to say that the Ali G film didn’t have its moments and the Borat film, which saw SBC going back off script with unsuspecting social actors, was a massive smash hit. But they were a silly kind of surface funny, whereas Da Ali G Show was ruthless satire that worked on multiple levels. That imbecilic white gangster chap was secretly this conduit to a seriously intelligent and subversive sense of humour.
And, ah, the less said about SBC’s subsequent films the better.
But oh damn what’s this!? He’s back!? With new characters!? Exposing the stupidity inherent in the current political climate of the ‘United’ States of America!?
Oh hell yes.
That ten minutes was the best part of the first episode. Cohen plays this Israeli militant fella and gets a bunch of republican congressmen and gun advocates to help campaign for his Kinder Guardians programme where literal toddlers are armed with deadly weapons. You know, for protection. There cute lines about “Puppy Pistols” and “Uzicorns” as well as subtle jabs like preventing the bleeding-heart liberal “anti-tragedy agenda”. He gets some nominative determinism in there when a bloke called Pratt inexplicably laughs at the idea of raping one’s own wife. It’s completely mental. These people actually exist and they actually did/said this stuff.
The first I heard of this show, which has been heavily shrouded in non-disclosure agreements, was when a bunch of folks (Sarah Palin being one of them) had a big moan about how Cohen tricked them into all this. But they knew the cameras were rolling. They read from cards about “the pheromone Blink-182” and turning “first graders to first grenaders” without hesitation.
You don’t get a free pass for being stupid, in fact that’s exactly what Cohen’s out here trying to illustrate. These people are all highly influential voices in American politics in one way or another and they’re so completely out of functioning brain cells that they couldn’t spot a set-up when they saw one. They couldn’t even spot the blatantly obvious facial prosthetics, or at least they didn’t put one and one together when they did.
It’s rather frightening, actually. Horrifying even. But it’s also hilarious to see powerful people exposed as frauds and mercenaries. Sure, SBC eggs them along… but he doesn’t force them into anything. Gotta say it now: Sacha Baron Cohen is back. He’s back at his Ali G Show best, and not a moment too late.
The reaction to the show hasn’t all been rosy. A lot of people haven’t been able to see past their own outrage at what those congressmen got up to while others have suggested that now is not the time to be creating more divisions within partisan politics. Those people are wrong. The time has never been better for lighting a slab of TNT and wedging it into the political divide. Blow the bloody thing up. Where is civil discourse getting anyone these days when both sides are so completely sure that theirs is the only one where the truth resides? Exactly the same concrete convictions that Sacha Baron Cohen has always taken aim at.
And he doesn’t stick purely to the conservative side, the liberal side gets its servings too. The show begins with a (fake) disabled (fake) veteran (named Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr!) getting shots in at Bernie Sanders about the 1% and whether or not there’s room for the other 99% within it. He takes cracks at Obamacare. It’s well thought out but here’s the thing… Bernie doesn’t fall for it. He’s not an arsehole so he considers the questions, dumb as they may be, and gives considered answers. It’s probably the weakest part of the episode because he doesn’t rise to the bait. So if the conservative side feels more picked on here it’s only because they earned it.
Also in terms of laughs per minute, the peak was with Dr. Nira Cain-N'Degeocello’s visit to middle America. Getting back into Borat territory but this time with a long-haired, socialist, gender studies professor who discusses encouraging his pubescent daughter to ‘free-bleed’ on the American flag (which coincidentally makes it resemble the Chinese flag, if you were wondering) in front of a pro-Trump couple who are remarkably accommodating given the circumstances. Cohen gets to run the script here so it’s joke after joke after joke but they hear him out, which is more than you can say for those elected officials later on who only wanna hear what they wanna hear.
Say and there’s also an ex-con artist (Rick Sherman) trying to exhibit his faecal and seminary fluid paintings with an art dealer who is so encouraging, so open minded about it all that she even offers him a few pubic hairs for the sake of his art. The show gets weird when people like Christy the art dealer and Bernie Sanders don’t fall for the joke, but then the absurdity of the characters at least gives the scenes another level of humour. Ali G whiffed on his share of interviews too but he was always funny.
It’s been a laugh reading some of the responses from the duped interviewees out there. They’re citing deception, dishonesty and scepticism as reasons to discredit the show and, no doubt more importantly, excuse the dumb things they may have said. As if they don’t exploit deception, dishonesty and scepticism every day to their own advantage. They’re just embarrassed is all. And so they should be.
Satire serves a few different purposes but the most useful is its ability to undermine the powerful among/above us. Nobody in recent times has done that better than Sacha Baron Cohen. How great to have him back in form again.
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