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Mockin da way we live

Da Gospel According to Ali G, Sacha Baron Cohen, Pocket Books: 128 pp., $20 paper

May 25, 2003|Adam Bresnick | Adam Bresnick writes for several publications, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement.

Who is Ali G and why has HBO recently unveiled "Da Ali G Show" for its American audience? The creation of Sacha Baron Cohen, a Cambridge-educated Brit, "Ali G" offers stunningly aggressive satirical interviews that mock the sanctimonious kindness of American culture. Slyly playing the Fool, Baron Cohen disarms his interlocutors and shows how deeply foolish our culture may well be.

Baron Cohen plays three characters on the show: Ali G, a rapper from the West Side of the posh town of Staines who wears the heavy gold rings and oversized Day-Glo nylon track suits favored by brothers in Compton and asks ludicrous questions to politicians in an argot that is half British homeboy slang and half grammatical catastrophe; Borat Sagdiyev, a thickly mustachioed correspondent from Kazakhstan television who enjoys nothing more than detailing his sex life to Daughters of the American Revolution at dinner parties; and Bruno, a gay Austrian fashionista with a Mohawk who insinuates himself into New York fashion extravaganzas and into the locker room of the University of Alabama football team to find out whether players are allowed to date each other during the season. Like Diogenes, who famously masturbated in the Greek agora to demonstrate how admirably shameless he had become, Baron Cohen's characters are beyond embarrassment: To watch them is to squirm with laughter.

Satire has always been a savage literary genre, the resentful man's Pyrrhic revenge on the so-called great and good. Whether it is Juvenal inveighing against Roman decadence in the 1st century, Swift fulminating against English colonial malfeasance in the 18th century, or Dostoevsky's 19th century Underground Man abjectly ranting against the very fact of consciousness itself, satire couches fierce aggression in acid laughter as it mocks the pretensions of adult society. In satire, the long-suffering Fool has his day at the carnival as the world is momentarily turned upside down.

Americans have never taken too kindly to satire, as our belief in progress and the perfectibility of man makes the genre too bitter a pill for the national palate, though canny adolescents tend to like it. These days the best American satire comes in the form of brilliantly scabrous cartoons such as "South Park." In general, however, we tend to like our humor cuddly and reassuring in the manner of the situation comedy and light musical theater, genres that poke fun without poking holes. That several media critics complained that "Seinfeld" was threateningly nihilistic shows how safe Americans have tended to like their comedy.

Maybe it is true, as a British colleague once archly remarked to me, that real Americans have no sense of humor. This would explain the curiously tepid reaction of American critics and viewers to the first six episodes of the show, without a doubt the most hilariously subversive program to appear on our television screens this decade.

Though brilliant Borat and Bruno are sadly absent from the companion book, those who love the show will happily devour "Da Gospel According to Ali G" while neophytes will be intrigued by its relentless puerility. The volume mercilessly sends up youth culture in general and gangsta rap in particular, offering a gleeful barrage of disinformation about sex, drugs, crime and ghetto life, as well as a rather fanciful account of our Judeo-Christian heritage.

Opposite the book's title page, Ali G, dressed in full Mosaic garb, holds up the tablets of his Nine Commandments, several of which are not suitable for a family newspaper. Ali G explains the genesis of his book: "When I desided to write dis book, in me research me discovered a book called de bible -- written by a bloke called Jason Christ and his dad." As Ali G suggests, "da written word iz a very precious fing."

In a manner recalling that of the National Lampoon High School Yearbook Parody of the mid-'70s, Ali G mocks education in general, offering wickedly skewed accounts of the various liberal arts disciplines, among them English: "Me has never been hable to c da point off teachin someone a languidge dat dey already speak. Why don't we just teach kidz American -- dis languidge iz really spreadin fast and even people on de other side of de Atalantic is beginnin to talk it."

"Da Gospel According to Ali G" delivers many such useful lessons, though it does not quite manage the amazing cheekiness of the television show's interviews, as Baron Cohen's satire, like that of Horace and Diderot's, finally depends on the presence of a befuddled interlocutor. Whether it is in the guise of Ali G, Borat or Bruno, Baron Cohen shows himself to be a master improviser during the interviews he conducts. He plays it straight while saying the most astoundingly stupid and impolite things in order to convince those with whom he speaks that he is some kind of naif.

Ali G is an idiot gangsta who needs to have the law against murder condescendingly explained to him by a former U.S. attorney general, or he is a benighted Central Asian who comes to understand the taxonomic nomenclature "homo sapiens" only by way of the ostensible largesse of a panel of self-satisfied scientists. "Da Gospel According to Ali G" conveys Baron Cohen's brilliantly foolish enterprise in an altogether charming fashion.

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