HBO // 2004 // 180 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // September 6th, 2004
Booyakasha! Chek dis out.
Ali G is the ultra-cool host of a hip-hop talk show in the U.K., bringing a new spin on real-life issues to the youth culture of today. He speaks their language and asks the hard-hitting questions that others fear.
Borat Sagdiyev is Khazakhstan's sixth-most-famous man, due to his high-profile job as a crack journalist for Khazakhstani State Television. His current project is a series of documentary reports on the United States, its people, and its culture. This is a significant leap for Borat -- he's never been outside of Khazakhstan before.
Brüno (just "Brüno" -- one name, like Cher, or Madonna, or Gumby) is the hip voice of today's fashionable Austrian youth. A successful male model, he currently spends more time working on his television show ("Funkyzeit mit Brüno") in a quest to bring the truth and beauty that is fashion to the uninformed.
Or so English comedian/actor Sacha Baron Cohen would like you to think...
Da Ali G Show is an import from the United Kingdom, where it debuted in 2000 on Channel Four. It currently airs (with all-new episodes created for the U.S. market) on HBO in the States to much critical acclaim. Its premise is the essence of simplicity -- Cohen pretends to be these three television personalities, interviews people (often comically), and allows his interview subjects the freedom to hoist themselves on their own petards if they so choose. Each of the three characters is designed to immediately force the interview subject into an uncomfortable situation: Ali G is incredibly stupid -- almost to the point of borderline retardation. He's also an obvious wannabe; he doesn't have a single "gangsta" bone in his body. Borat is uncomfortably "foreign" and behaves inappropriately at every turn. Brüno is even gayer and more shallow than the fashionistas he interviews.
The filmed results are insanely funny. People just don't know how to react to Ali G and Borat, and watching them attempt to be polite when asked questions like "are you afraid the terrorists will hijack a train and crash it into the White House" is sublime. But the humor of Da Ali G Show runs deeper than the malapropisms and awkward klutziness of the characters would seem to indicate. Yes, it's very broad and coarse humor in general, but for every question that's deliberately ridiculous (like the terrorist question above), there's often a decidedly pointed question that cuts straight to the core of the interviewee's belief system, albeit a question wrapped in absurdity. Cohen and his writers are very intelligent, and seem to know just how to rhetorically back people into logical corners. At that point, the fallacies of their arguments are laid bare for the whole world to see. Is it unfair? Manipulative? Well, to a certain extent, yes. But it can also serve to illuminate some of the darker trends in American thought, things that most people don't really want to believe exist in our nation.
In the end, Da Ali G Show bears a lot of similarity to a past "wave" of satiric comedy from the U.K. No, I'm not talking about Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, or even Absolutely Fabulous -- I mean, believe it or not, the bitingly witty satire of Jonathan Swift and early Charles Dickens. Ali G illustrates, as did these greats of literature, that in absurdity there can often be found truth.
This two-disc set is a collection of the first "season" of the show, consisting of six roughly half-hour episodes.
* "Episode 1: Law"
Ali G heads to Philadelphia, where the local police allow him (to their regret) to participate in a training exercise. Borat is looking for love in America, trying out both a dating service and speed dating. He discovers that American women aren't well-versed in the technical aspects of agriculture. Brüno visits New York's Fashion Week and attempts to talk his way onto the catwalk at a show. Amazingly, he succeeds. The show wraps up with a discussion between Ali and former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh on the finer points of the law, such as the difference between "legal" and "barely legal."
* "Episode 2: War"
Ali G travels to New York to visit the "United Nations of Benetton" and its former Secretary-General "Boutros Boutros Boutros-Ghali." He learns that Disneyland is not a member nation, nor are they likely to be considered for membership in the near future. A roundtable on religion occurs; the scowl on the priest's face is priceless (as is his barely disguised contempt for Ali), but the rabbi seems nonplussed. In possibly the funniest bit of the entire series, Borat travels to Charleston, SC to learn the finer points of etiquette, such as the appropriate amount to tip a hooker. Last but not least, Ali interviews former National Security Advisor Gen. Brent Scowcroft about war, his experiences in Vietnam, and whether he would have gone over to the Vietcong if they had offered him a really nice Lexus.
* "Episode 3: Politics"
Will there ever be a female president? Ali G discusses the question with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who is surprisingly patient with him. Newt, though, does not agree that a woman president "would just start crying" if someone attacked the U.S. Brüno returns to New York's Fashion Week for more interviews with the stylishly vapid. Ali tries to convince venture capitalists to invest in his new invention, the Ice Cream Glove. (It keeps your hand from getting cold while eating ice cream.) Borat (in a search for American hobbies) visits a gun range, and hangs out with some gun nuts. Guns are fired. He's then off to a very awkward personal training session at the gym. Ali caps off the show by discussing drugs with Will Glasby, a Special Agent from the DEA. Ali is extremely well-informed on the subject.
* "Episode 4: Art"
Ali ponders the question "what is art?" His answer? "I dunno -- but I think it's got something to do with the gays." He discusses the craft of acting with Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton. Borat takes acting lessons. He's not very good. Brüno takes the Funkyzeit camera to Los Angeles, exploring the ins and outs of Melrose Avenue and WeHo. Finally, Ali gets to the bottom of the whole controversial "does the Moon really exist" issue with very annoyed former astronaut "Buzz" Aldrin.
* "Episode 5: Science"
Ali hosts a roundtable discussion on science and technology, which is brought to you by the number "9." Borat learns about our National Pastime, baseball, courtesy of a minor league team in Savannah, GA. His performance of the Khazakhstani National Anthem runs...a bit long. It's competing agendae time as Ali tries to get a word in edgewise on Ralph Nader, then attempts to score with hippie chicks at an anti-nuclear rally. Finally, he learns about the human body from the utterly humorless C. Everett Koop. (Brüno has the night off again.)
* "Episode 6: Belief"
Ali G goes to Hollywood and attempts to "pitch" his proposed series "Spyz," which is "like James Bond, but on TV." He also hosts a roundtable on sex, and chats with former Reagan/Bush administration officials James Baker and Marlon Fitzwater. Meanwhile, Borat and Brüno explore the American South. Borat, on a trip to a Jamestown-like historical site, fails to understand the concept of "historical recreation," and Brüno visits "the gayest place in America" -- Alabama.
Words can't describe how funny some of this stuff is. Personally, I'm partial to Borat. I don't think I'll ever get sick of seeing Borat at a stuffy Charleston dinner party, after having been instructed on how to make polite dinner conversation (make it bland and acceptable to all), starting in with "My wife is dead. She die in a field. But is no problem; I have new wife now." Later, he offers to fart on demand for them.
Okay, this isn't highbrow stuff by any stretch of the imagination. It's very basic (and often very base) humor. But it can be devastatingly funny, and at times, sharply satirical. For example -- sending Brüno to Alabama was like sending Nixon to China. He visits a "freedom festival," chock full of the stereotypical rednecks upon the backs of whom Jeff Foxworthy built a career, who repeatedly insist that America is the land where everyone is free to do whatever they want to do. Except, of course, walk down the street holding hands with their same-sex boyfriend. That's when it's time to "get your faggotty crap" [sic] out of our country. Nor should the irony of Brüno's crashing the sidelines at a University of Alabama football game be lost on the viewer: Brüno's "sissy" cavorting draws vitriolic abuse from the fans, whereas the sissy cavorting of the official 'Bama male cheerleaders draws none.
This tactic -- letting people's own words and actions speak to their individual prejudices and ignorances -- is what turns Da Ali G Show from grade-school humor into Swiftian brilliance. Seeing Borat (in a Season Two episode currently showing on HBO, and therefore not included in this package) sing a "Khazakhstani country music song" with the lyrics "In my country, there is a problem...and the problem...is the Jew," followed by a rousing chorus of "Throw the Jew down the well!," makes us laugh at the absurd and completely unexplained anti-Semitism of the lyric. Seeing a bar full of Arizonans gleefully singing and clapping along is what makes us pause and think.
Speaking of Arizona, a great Arizonan once said, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." Well, Da Ali G Show sure takes care of the extremism and vice parts of that statement. But it also makes us think about liberty -- what it really means, and what it really entails -- in its own satirical way. In that sense, it's a lot like its intellectual and thematic predecessors, such as South Park and All in the Family; a series that uses humor (and, like the former, a good helping of scatological and sexual humor) to indirectly address controversial issues.
Da Ali G Show is absolutely NOT for everyone. It is very coarse, profane, and explicit in its humor. It's a show clearly meant for adults, despite the conceit that Ali G is the host of a teen show. If you're not prepared, or willing, to be directly confronted with these kinds of issues (sex, homosexuality, drugs, et cetera), stay far away from this show.
This particular Season One package is a bit disappointing as a "package" as well. The most scandalous flaw is the lack of commentary for Episodes 2 through 6. Cohen and producer/writer Dan Mazer give a fascinating commentary for the first episode -- we learn details that add to the enjoyment of our viewing, such as the fact that Borat stinks. (Cohen says he wears the exact same suit whenever he plays Borat, sans deodorant, and never washes it between filmings.) But one commentary and they're gone. There's only about three hours of episode material here -- they couldn't spend three hours in a recording booth to talk about these shows? Inexcusable.
The other extras -- two unaired Borat pieces and the full version of the "Spyz" pilot that Ali G attempts to pitch to producers -- are as entertaining as the aired material. But again, there's just so little there. Given that this is a two-disc set, to have only about 15 minutes of extra material in total is a sin. Especially since Cohen and Mazer talk about the "hours of footage" shot for each episode as part of their commentary. Well...where is it?
The picture quality on the discs was good, but I found the colors to be a bit overdriven. They came out very saturated on my screen. However, there wasn't much color bleeding as a result of this saturation, so it was more of an aesthetic negative than a real problem.
An old rhetorical strategy, reducto ad absurdum, involves taking a disputed point to an extreme, whereupon an absurd outcome results. For example -- if someone were to argue that anything that could conceivably harm a person should be banned, one could point out that sex itself could harm a person (via AIDS); ergo it would have to be banned under that rule. And the human race would cease to exist in a generation. Debating lessons aside, Da Ali G Show is a perfect example of another way in which this strategy can be implemented. All of Cohen's characters are absurd, and they push people towards extremes on a regular basis. It may seem like idiocy, but in the end, when you stop to think about it, it's revealing a heck of a lot about the people on the receiving end of that idiocy.
In 1729, an Irishman named Jonathan Swift focused sharp attention on the plight of the starving and destitute Irish, who were definitely not flourishing under English rule. How did he do it? By writing a dead serious and well-constructed argument (A Modest Proposal) that impoverished Irish families should cook and eat their own children, thereby killing two birds with one stone: hunger, and perpetuating poverty. It was absolutely ludicrous (but pretty darned funny to read) -- but it precisely mimicked the patronizing "oh, those poor wretched souls" attitude prevalent among lawmakers in the London of that day. Hence, it got people thinking, and launched Swift on the road that led eventually to Gulliver's Travels, a more comprehensive satire on the human condition. It's refreshing to find that this spirit of anarchic satire is alive and well 275 years later, and living in the mind of a tall Englishman of Jewish heritage with an HBO deal. Check him out before everyone catches on to the joke, and the whole thing comes crashing down.
Review content copyright © 2004 David Ryan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary with Sacha Baron Cohen and Series Producer/Writer Dan Mazer (Episode 1 only)
* Borat at the Hamptons Horse Show (Unaired)
* Borat at the American Patriotism Event (Unaired)
* Glossary of Ali G Jargon
* Official Site (UK)
* Official Site (USA)