Originally created 02/20/03

British comic lowers the satire bar in HBO's 'Da Ali G Show'



LOS ANGELES -- First, in the interest of international relations, an obvious truth must be acknowledged: Britain has a glorious tradition of satire.

Jonathan Swift and Gilbert and Sullivan alone would place the kingdom in the lampooners hall of fame. Flash forward to Monty Python, Eddie Izzard and "Absolutely Fabulous" and our admiration is boundless.

Which brings us, regretfully, to HBO's "Da Ali G Show," debuting Friday and billed as the U.S. version of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's "smash-hit" British television show.

Nice to meet you, Mr. Cohen. Now go home. Please.

At first, we admit, we got a kick out of the characters you've created: hip-hop journalist Ali G, resplendent in acid-yellow track suit and big jewelry; clueless Borat of Kazakhstan; preening "style" reporter Bruno.

Watching the ungainly Borat chasing on foot after a taxi put us in mind of Peter Sellers' wonderfully clumsy moves in "The Pink Panther." Cohen's accents are also impressively Sellersesque.

But when Cohen goes in search of America, "Da Ali G Show" goes terribly wrong. Forget Swift; think Tom Green and his pointlessly cruel pranks or "[filtered word]" and its inane stunts played on the unsuspecting and, most importantly, undeserving.

Yes, this dumb and dumber style of humor is now available in an imported version and HBO (those chumps!) shelled out money for it. The generosity didn't extend to a decent time slot: The six "Ali G" episodes air Friday nights at 12:30 EST, following HBO's new "Real Time with Bill Maher."

The annoying aspect is that Cohen is talented and obviously capable of mining more than cheap laughs. But if he's already a hit, why should he work harder than audiences ask, at home or abroad?

The galling part is how Cohen betrays satire by making it hollow and toothless. "Da Ali G Show" is a sheep in wolf's clothing.

For the HBO series, Cohen used his anonymity in America to snare interviews with such prominent figures as former CIA director James Woolsey and former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Then he proceeds to squander the opportunities.

What does Cohen, in the guise of the semi-articulate Ali G, grill Woolsey about?

"Let's talk about some conspiracy things. Let's go back to the grassy knoll. Who actually shot J.R.?" Cohen asks Woolsey, who corrects the reference to JFK's assassination.

If we give Cohen the benefit of the doubt and assume he's trying to drive home a point about American violence and the pop culture of "Dallas" and J.R. Ewing, we've just reached the "Ali G" mountaintop of wit.

Otherwise, he's busy making jokes about sex, about whether the seat in the United Nations marked "Jordan" is for Michael Jordan rather then the country, and then more jokes about sex.

It seems apparent that the famous people "interviewed" by Ali G didn't realize they were playing straight man in a comedy skit. Chalk that up to the perils of being a public figure.

But consider the other folks Cohen has his way with, including police officers and some kindly, civic-minded Southerners who thought they were helping a curious stranger.

Sgt. Thomas Hyers of the Philadelphia Police Academy was expecting to give a British TV reporter a tour when the flamboyant Ali G showed up and made an unfunny hash of a training exercise. He was later escorted out.

Hyers didn't realize how fully he and the department were had until he spotted a picture of Cohen as Ali G in an entertainment magazine.

"I was eating spaghetti when I saw it and almost choked on a meatball. I said, 'Oh, my God. There's that guy!" Hyers recounted in an interview. It wasn't a fond memory.

George Thurmond, 67, of suburban Atlanta, thought he was helping introduce a foreign visitor to this country and to the Sons of the American Revolution, of which Thurmond is a member.

Instead, at a dinner attended by Thurmond and his wife and another couple, Cohen as Borat made the group uncomfortable by sharing details about his sex life.

"We were all disgusted with it, just absolutely hacked off," Thurmond said in an interview. "It was a total waste of time, and everyone's embarrassed to be sucked into it."

So what is Cohen mocking? Older people who have different standards of social decorum? Or maybe groups honoring those who helped free America from British rule (which turns out not to include freedom from mediocre British comedy).

Those hoodwinked by "Da Ali G Show" can shrug off the experience. But consider the larger insult and injury.

Writing in The Times of London last year about the movie "Ali G Indahouse," Ian Nathan argued that Cohen's work is a sign of the shrinking demands made on satire.

"Where before it felled politician and celebrity alike, undermined the class system and took no truck with the complacency of society, now it concerns itself with daft teenage role-play and pushing the boundaries of taste," Nathan wrote.

Nothing funny about that. Much like "Da Ali G Show."

On the Net:

http://www.hbo.com