Friday, February 21, 2003

Go home 'Da Ali G Show'

British comedian invades U.S. television with annoying satire

By Lynn Elber
The Associated Press

British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen plays hip-hop journalist Ali G in a six-week run on HBO.
Enquirer file

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 the Da Ali G Show (12:30 a.m. Saturday, HBO), 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 Jackass 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 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?

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.

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.

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.

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