I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Big Up Yaself: Ali G.

by Casey Dewey
Nov. 24, 2013

In the early 2000’s, HBO was a beast to be reckoned with. Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire and Sex and the City were ratings bonanzas and cultural touchstones. In 2003, they brought over Da Ali G Show, a series originally broadcast on Channel 4 in the U.K. since 2000. Young adults and twenty-somethings who were hip to HBO’s Mr. Show finally had something to fill that slot that had been left vacant after Mr. Show ended a few years back. Suddenly, “booyakasha” and “much respek” were pinging on the cultural radar. Who the hell was this lanky guy of indeterminable race immersed in hip-hop culture interviewing Pat Buchanan?

Sacha Baron-Cohen, that’s who. Probably the best master of disguise since Peter Sellers, Cohen was barely known by name at that point. Baron-Cohen was a Jewish student at Cambridge University when he created Ali G. Baron-Cohen/Ali G was effectively lampooning street culture at the time. His critics lobbed softball missives that it was a racist schtick; a white guy doing a number on black culture. Others thought he was a mulatto making fun of white kids imitating black culture. And a few thought he was an Asian making fun of Middle-Eastern kids who were imitating white kids imitating black culture. 

Look at Ali G’s gear. He’s rocking massive jewelry, wearing designer sunglasses/goggles, and on top of his dome is something like a cross between a yarmulke and a taqiyah. Ali G. is a multi-cultural mix of slang, sizzle and swagger. Baron-Cohen grew up close to Asian and West Indian communities and saw what could work and what would result in laughs by combining all the already-humorous excessive qualities of the youth in his and these communities.

Ali G’s backstory is this: He lives in his grandmother’s flat in “Staines” where he represents the “West Staines Massif” gang. He went to “da Matthew Arnold Skool” and became the “voice of da yoof” when he was first presented on Channel 4’s The 11 O’Clock Show in 1998. The 11 O’Clock Show was a sketch-comedy/news program that also launched the careers of Ricky Gervais and Black Mirror’s Charlie Brooker. The Ali G. joke caught on like gangbusters, with over half of the viewers thinking the guy was real. His segment became so popular Channel 4 granted Baron-Cohen Da Ali G. Show.

The two programs differed somewhat. The U.K. version was scripted, had a studio audience and musical guests. The HBO version was unscripted, had no laugh track and a brief opening monologue. Ali G. would interview politicians, doctors, scientists and other square types without the interviewee being in on the joke. The questions were uninformed, crass and fucking hilarious. Highlights include Ali G. calling astronaut Buzz Aldrin “Buzz Lightyear”; the interview with former Secretary General of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali, (“Boutros. Boutros. Boutros Ghali”) one of the best sports Ali G. had on the show; career curmudgeon Andy Rooney, who walked out after a few minutes, insulting the bewildered Ali G.;  the pissed off veterinarian, who Ali G was confusing with a veteran (“loads of people went to Vietnam and treated the animals, like”); and Noam Chomsky, where Ali G. can’t figure out the difference between “bilingual” and “bisexual”. Chomsky cracks a few smiles.

Da Ali G. Show also introduced two new Baron-Cohen characters. Borat Sagdiyev, everybody’s favorite inept reporter from Kazakhstan, and Brüno Gerhard, a flamboyantly gay reporter from Austria. 2006/2007 skyrocketed Baron-Cohen into fame with the release of the Borat movie,  Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. At that time, you couldn’t run away fast enough from people wanting a “high fiiiiiive” or complimenting you with a “very niiiiiice” gesture. 2009 saw the release of Brüno, a similar film that didn’t seem to go over as well as Borat. This was a year after the gay marriage issue that George W. Bush won a second term with, and America wasn’t ready for the fun-loving, tail-wagging risqué reporter who had a hankering for young boys.

Most people tend forget that before Borat and Brüno had their day on celluloid, Ali G. had his motion picture as well. Ali G. Indahouse came out to little fanfare in 2002. It’s a shame, because as far as lowbrow comedies go, this one ranks up there with Pootie Tang. In a plot ripped almost straight from Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, Ali G. mentors the “yoofs” at a rec center in Staines. After the government cuts the funding for the center, Ali G. stages a protest and somehow ends up being elected to Parliament, where he immediately implements a few new policies, like utilizing drug deals to teach kids math in school. Check it, batty boy. 

Casey Dewey resides in Tucson, Arizona. He's a film writer for the Tucson Weekly and host of "Deep Red Radio" , a radio show dedicated to film soundtracks on 91.3 KXCI FM. He enjoys tacos, cervezas and garlic in everything. He wakes up every morning to a fresh pot of black coffee and at least two hours of Dragnet on TV.