British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has created various alter egos to fuel his guerilla comedy – the three most famous being Ali G, Borat and Bruno. Ali G is (depending on how you interpret him) either a white guy who has inserted himself into the hip-hop culture, or a minstrel caricature of hip-hop culture; Borat is a hapless export from Kazakhstan, who innocently spouts off anti-Semitic and sexist claims when interacting with Americans; Bruno is an Austrian gay fashionista who, like Borat, gets a rise from Yanks who fall victim to his pranks.
The scenario is pretty simple: Cohen’s characters approach strangers in the guise of filming a television show and they solicit reactions that often betray prejudices. But the brain-scratching twist is, the characters themselves are also offensive. So the viewer is never sure when and at whom he/she should laugh.
Take Ali G. He’s immersed in the hip-hop and chav culture, spouting lingo (that for many American viewers may elude them). He interviews real people and ramps up the stereotypical machismo, violent, lewd and sexist aspects of urban culture. For example, when interviewing Newt Gingrich (!), Ali G argues that women would not make good presidents because their supposed female masochism would make them fall in love with enemy states and rogue nations (by the way, Gingrich gets some feminist cred by disputing these claims and insisting that a woman can be president). He speaks to former Secretary General of the UN, Boutros Boutros-Gali and insists that the diplomat teach him the French word for shit (merde for those who are wondering). He also run across former U.S. Attorney General, Dick Thornburgh, and the two have an “interesting” debate on whether or not adulterous lovers should be executed.
The show’s structure is a bit like the classic sketch show, In Living Color. Ali G shares the theme of the show with the audience, and then a troupe of beautiful women dance to hip-hop music and then the interviews are aired. Interspersed are interviews held by Cohen’s other characters, Borat and Bruno.
Most viewers will be familiar with the Borat character, because of the hit film. Cohen has Borat relate to Americans, usually in some social setting, but often the situations break down when Borat tries to approach the scenes using his home-spun attitude, marked by old-timey racism when he leads ignorant folks in chants that have Jews going to hell, or Old World misogyny when he warns prospective mates at a speed-dating event that if they cheat on him, he’ll “crush” them.
Like Borat, Bruno has also been featured in a movie. Bruno is the ridiculously trendy, over-the-top gay fashion maven who speaks in an almost-undecipherable Austrian accent. He seizes on moments where people are confronted with their homophobia, by doing some of the most obnoxiously stereotypical “gay” things like joining a cheerleading squad at an American college football game.
The laughs come at the expense of the victims, but they also are found in the stereotypes supposedly lampooned. This is where Da Ali G Show gets a bit complicated. Satire is tricky and a lot of its success depends on whether the joke lands well or not. For the most part Cohen’s humor is on point and he scores the laughs, but there comes a point when it becomes uncomfortably clear that Cohen may be lampooning stereotypes but he’s also inadvertently perpetuating them.
In one skit Bruno goes to fashion week and he accosts the models, designers and entourage. Exploiting the rather air-headed atmosphere of a fashion show, Bruno makes oblique Nazi and Holocaust references, that his subject not only do not object to, but in fact, gleefully agree. For example, Bruno talks to a particularly self-involved, self-appointed fashion expert who blathers on about fashion victims, to which Bruno offers a suggestion: put them in trains and ship them off to a camp. The response is instantaneous laughter and applause from the woman and her friend. Another time he finds a gentleman who agrees that Osama bin Laden has a strong fashion sense. Another stylists also concurs with Bruno that Adolph Hitler was a fashion icon who had a unified “message.” He also interviews at length a designer who continuously agrees with Bruno’s line of questioning despite his contradicting himself. While the skit is funny, I find it interesting that Cohen uses his tool of highlight homophobia by going out of his way to find stupid gay dumb bells – the stereotype of the frivolous and fashion-obsessed gay man gets a huge shot in the arm from this skit, and you’re left wondering what exactly was accomplished.
The same could be said for the Ali G character – is it Cohen’s way of venting frustration at black urban youth? In response to the criticism, Cohen insists that Ali G is a white suburban kid, who is enamored with hip-hop culture. Many may view this as a front to allow for him to indulge in anti-black humor, but maintain the veneer of irony. It’s a tough call and like with the Bruno skit, you never know exactly when you’re laughing at the absurdity of the stereotypes or when does that laughter bleed into laughter at black urban culture.
But upon further viewing, one would have to guess that Cohen doesn’t care much about these questions, and in fact, he revels in them. He’s a contradiction of sorts – the court jester who may be exorcising his own prejudices while we watch. It would be nice if his humor was easily defined and pinned down, but Cohen has crafted a work of art that upon each inspection allows for a different impression. The laughs in Da Ali G Show are often cruel and mean-spirited, but that doesn’t mean they’re not funny.
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