"Things are funny or comedic because they mix the real with the absurd," explains Buzz Aldrin semi-patiently late in an interview with the seemingly daft host of Da Ali G Show. Aldrin is referring to a lame bit of moon-themed humor, but he could just as easily be discussing the subversive humor of Da Ali G Show star Sacha Baron Cohen, a deadpan chameleon who, masquerading as a series of absurd alter egos, conducts real interviews in which he volleys ridiculous questions at real-life luminaries who aren't in on the joke. Cohen perfected this dynamic in his native Britain before taking his trio of clueless interviewers to America for an HBO show whose hilarious first season has just been released on DVD.
Cohen's remarkable series of guests includes Ralph Nader, Newt Gingrich, C. Everett Koop, Marlin Fitzwater, and James Baker, all of whom qualify as brilliant enough to rise to the top of their respective fields, but not quite savvy enough to see the satirist behind the moronic façade. Da Ali G Show turns American luminaries into stooges, but Cohen disappears so effectively into his characters that it's easy to see how they get duped. The fact that such an ostensible halfwit passes as a plausible representative of youth culture is worrisome in itself, but the guests' gullibility also reveals the massive generation gap and the automatic respect now conferred on anyone followed by a television crew. Besides, Ali G's blissfully idiotic questions have a logic of sorts, though it's a child's faulty logic. He takes a set of assumptions that are correct and reasonable under one set of circumstances, then applies them to places where they become surreal—and, more often than not, fall-down funny. After all, Jesus and Santa Claus are both Christmas icons, so why not ask a group of religious experts why Jesus always went round with all them reindeer?
In addition to his dim-witted but affable would-be B-boy, Cohen also portrays Borat, a Kazakhstani reporter who runs roughshod over American taboos, and Bruno, an effeminate Austrian fashion reporter. Where the humor in Borat and Ali G's segments draws from the gulf in awareness between the interviewer and the interviewee, the humor in Bruno's pieces derives largely from the fashion world's willingness to embrace the ridiculous fashion victim as one of its own. When Bruno refers to a fashion show's glibly condescending "white trash" theme as being about "rubbish people," a clueless fashionista burbles in agreement.
Like The Office, another superior European phenomenon that thrives on deadpan idiocy and simmering tension, Da Ali G Show is both prototypically British and strangely universal. Plenty of British exports get lost in translation, but the trip overseas has only sharpened the surreal culture clash at the heart of Cohen's comedy.