Cohen Brother

The U.K.’s white rapper brings his head games to HBO.

Ali G and Newt Gingrich
Wicked geezer and massiv geezer

As it was with Crank Yankers (Comedy Central), so it will be with Da Ali G Show (HBO), which premiered for a limited run on Friday night at 12:30 a.m. EST. Wearing one of three imbecile guises, British star Sacha Baron Cohen will heckle guests for six episodes, and our fellow Americans will strive to keep things coherent and nice. In that striving will come moments of mighty humor.

As Ali G, a white rapper in yellow and diamonds, Cohen interviews actual important people (Boutros Boutros-Ghali, James Woolsey, Newt Gingrich), who have evidently been told that they can reach youth or black people by appearing on his show. Famous—all too famous—in the U.K., Cohen is stateside to work his magic undetected, for now. Having witnessed years of boxers-or-briefs questioning of candidates by dodo teens, the suit set now seems to accept these sit-downs as obligatory.

As Ali G, Cohen rhymes in out-there Caribbean/British slang, and his guests straighten their ties and make good-faith efforts to address his concerns. (“When is it legal to murder someone?”) As Borat, a buffoon reporter from Kazakhstan, Cohen trolls for Americana, flaunting malapropisms and boorish sexuality that recall the old Turkish online “I Kiss You!!!!” gag. As Bruno, an Austrian fashion reporter, he reprises (with revisions) Mike Myers’ Dieter.

What Cohen’s characters lack in originality, they make up for in execution. Ali G, Borat, and Bruno barrel into semihard news, confounding the format by asking brainless or impudent questions. Having asked Buzz Aldrin, “What was it like to walk on the sun?” Ali G now asks James Woolsey who shot J.R. from the grassy knoll. He also confuses Sept. 11 with 7-Eleven—a joke that also showed up on Absolutely Fabulous recently—and anthrax with Tampax. (Some of these ditzy jokes might’ve also worked for Suzanne Somers or Donna Dixon.)

On Friday night, Ali G pressed former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh about justifiable homicide. “Wot if they call yo mum a ho?” “You can’t use as a defense any kind of verbal provocation,” Thornburgh explained. “Wot if they say, ‘Yo mum is a ho, and I know because I done it with her’?”

Granting that such slander can be very frustrating, Thornburgh nonetheless maintains that murder is not the solution. Good man.

Later, as Bruno, Cohen speaks with Paul Wilmot, a former Calvin Klein PR chief. After a dull catechism about celebrities, Bruno extracts an amazing performance from the fashion man by encouraging him to send deaf kids a message about safe sex. Wilmot faces the camera, looks sincere, and begins to expound on sex’s dangers, only to be told that he has to convey his message without words for the benefit of the hearing impaired. The straight-faced pantomime that follows is one of the funniest things to appear on television in a long time.