Thursday, November 1, 2007

Ali G in HD: A Holy Land Saga

HBO is running a high-definition “Da Ali G Show” marathon, and I’m brushing up on all the sketches that I already knew. Over the last year and a half, I’ve memorized every line, incitation, gesture, facial expression, and outraged, unwitting guest presented by Ali G, Borat Sagdiyev, and Bruno. There are some segments—the religion roundtable, Pastor Quinn, dinner etiquette, Pat Buchanan (WMD/BLT), the campaign trail, clubbing in Miami—that I can’t watch anymore, because by the time they’re thirty seconds through I’ve completed the rest in my head.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s genius is mostly comic, especially in his exploitation of the awkward moment. No one, not even the estimable Vince Vaughn, is more adroit at creating, maintaining, exacerbating, and being comfortable with awkwardness. His brilliance also lies in his normalcy, since, unlike Woody Allen or Andy Kaufman, Cohen is completely sane. He’s intelligent (he graduated from Cambridge), reasonable, and, on the surface, pretty unremarkable. Comedy, for him, is a calculated, quasi-mathematical process, a system of actions and responses that he meticulously plans, yet—and this is where his brilliance is most apparent—he is also a master of extemporaneous comedy. When “gay converter” Pastor Quinn quoted from the Book of Romans, Bruno immediately chimed in, “Great, I love Romans,” and when a high-society woman asked Borat why his sister was a prostitute, he said, “Because she like to make money, high five!”

The social import of Da Ali G Show, however, has nothing to do with comedy. Never has a show so acutely and blatantly revealed prejudice and bias, nor has a single program ever exposed those prejudices in such a variety of cultures, from outback Arizona cowboys to anti-nuclear activists, to priests, rabbis, and atheists. Most of all, he illustrates that religion can be a two-headed monster, one that preaches sound morals (as in the religion roundtable) while simultaneously perpetuating prejudice and irrationality (like the homophobic Pastor Quinn).

We can all identify with how Cohen, a somewhat observant Jew, feels about faith—there’s something incongruous and confusing about the way we tend to think about our spiritual lives. Religion, to me, is moving to a tiny swath of land smaller than New Jersey, that has been a nexus of murder, hate, and mortal danger for thousands of years, under the faith/hope/knowledge/conviction that, one day, a man will reveal himself to be the savior, the dead will be brought back to life, and the enemies that lie three countries deep on her borders will be magically vanquished—and then, once you get there, complaining that that it’s hard to get a good steak.

It’s funny, really: keeping up a singularly religious worldview is extremely difficult, so that a lot the decisions we make with clarity eventually get muddled by late buses, bad weather, rough toilet paper, and weird street signs. In other, non-religious arenas, you’d eventually reach a compromise, some balance of quixotic idealism and pressing realism. But religion doesn’t work like that, and adherents to all faiths find themselves bouncing back and forth between two opposing extremes. Above and beyond pure comedic timing, Cohen capitalizes on peoples’ tendency to get extremely defensive about their beliefs.

Which begs just one question: what’s up with so many nuns working part-time as strippers?

Stay Subpar, Israeli Meat
DJ Da Ali G Show

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