Sorry, Sacha Baron Cohen fans. Those of you champing at the bit for a ”special” or ”collector’s” edition of his Emmy-nominated HBO series are bound to be disappointed by Da Ali G Show: Da Compleet Seereez. This four-disc set boasts no never-before-seen deleted scenes, new commentary tracks, or unprecedented insight into the British chameleon’s comedy of discomfort. To coincide with Baron Cohen’s hit movie Borat, HBO has simply repackaged the same previously released first- and second-season DVDs that may very well be on your shelf already. It’s a shameless marketing trick. But it’s also an excellent opportunity to look at the origins of the Sacha Baron Cohen phenomenon in — as Borat would say — U.S. and A.
Of Baron Cohen’s three alter egos, ”wanksta” U.K. journalist Ali G gets the most airtime. (No shocker: He was the comic’s first ticket to stardom in Britain, and his name is the show’s title, after all.) The barely literate, wannabe-Jamaican hoodlum with a thing for bling sits down with the likes of Newt Gingrich, Ralph Nader, and James Lipton and befuddles them with his brazen stupidity. ”Is it evah worf fighting a war ovah sandwiches?” he asks conservative stalwart Pat Buchanan, after repeatedly referring to WMDs as BLTs. (Buchanan says yes.) What’s astonishing about Baron Cohen’s humor — whether delivered via Ali G; blissfully racist, misogynist Kazakh TV reporter Borat; or the flamboyant Austrian fashion correspondent Brüno — is not so much how outrageous the comedian himself is, but the reactions he elicits from his unsuspecting targets. The crowd at a honky-tonk bar in Arizona sings along to Borat’s ”Throw the Jew Down the Well.” Brüno gets a fashion-show casting director to call Osama bin Laden’s look ”cool.” But sometimes, the comedic money shot is simply an interviewee’s silent look of confusion, disbelief, or horror. (The sight of an animal doctor lowering his head and shaking it, over and over, after Ali G fails to understand the difference between ”veteran” and ”veterinarian” is pure 14-karat.) This is comedy of interaction; the funny depends on making others — including us — squirm. But the shtick can start to feel tired. Or worse, it simply doesn’t work, as when Ali G delivers a raunchy speech to the Harvard graduating class of 2004 in one of the extras. Because everyone is already in on the joke, the routine mostly falls flat.
As Baron Cohen’s success grows, the big question is how he’ll keep finding people to dupe. In 2008, he’ll bring Brüno to the big screen. We can only hope there are fashionistas self-absorbed enough not to recognize the man behind the bleached faux-hawk. Otherwise, who’s going to praise Saddam Hussein’s style?