It’s been 20 years since the birth of Ali G, the abrasive alter ego that helped introduce the world to comedian/lawsuit magnet Sacha Baron Cohen. By donning shiny FUBU gear and sitting down for irreverent interviews, Baron Cohen was able to send up comfortably middle-class dudes appropriating culture and pompous public figures at the same time.
He’s broadened his style, his acting resume, and his appeal, but Baron Cohen has kept the costumed apery alive with his latest show, Who is America?. This is where it all started.
Here are 10 facts about the series that gave us Borat, Brüno, and the gold chain-sporting "chav" from the mean streets of Staines.
1. IT STARTED AS A GAG ON THE 11 O’CLOCK SHOW.
Before Ali G, Sacha Baron Cohen crafted a similar character called MC Jocelyn Cheadle-Hume for a sketch on a short-lived youth show called F2F. After realizing that people would interact with Cheadle-Hume as if he were a real person, Baron Cohen developed Ali G using BBC Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood as one part of the recipe. The character premiered in 1998 on The 11 O’Clock Show (now famous for launching several careers), with an interview style that was jaw-dropping and gutsy from the start.
2. IT’S REALLY TWO SHOWS.
Since Channel 4 gave Ali G his start, and HBO took the baton, there are two distinct flavors of the program. The first season was a bit more like a traditional talk show, with monologues, scripted sketches, musical guests, and a studio audience providing the laughs. The second and third seasons, which aired on HBO, not only set the series more firmly in the United States, it dropped the scripted bits, music, and canned laughter.
3. THE SIMPSONS PARODIED ITS OPENING.
Ah, the definitive mark of cultural importance: a Simpsons gag. The bold opening titles designed by Garth Jennings start with a naked Ali G whose clothes fly toward him in an exaggerated, stop-motion style. In “Ice Cream of Margie (with the Light Blue Hair)," Homer gets dressed a la Ali G.
4. ALI’S REAL NAME IS ALISTAIR LESLIE GRAHAM.
The foundational gag of the character is that he’s a suburban kid affecting black British and British Jamaican culture with no respect or context. He’s got the privilege to try on the clothing and slang as a hobby, which is why that name and his hometown (the pleasant London Commuter Belt city) are satirically perfect.
5. EACH PERSONA HAD ITS OWN SATIRICAL PURPOSE.
Baron Cohen played Brüno, Borat, and Ali G in uniquely stupid ways for specifically smart reasons. Each was able to draw out the vulnerabilities of different types of interviewees either by making them feel safe or antagonistic. Ali G was paired with politicians and business leaders because of the juxtaposition of seriousness with buffoonery; Borat’s idiocy preyed on people’s condescension and fake politeness toward non-Western foreigners; and Brüno’s flamboyant homosexuality lifted bigotry to the surface of conversations. People felt they had to spar with Ali G, but Borat and Brüno made them feel (wrongfully) that they had the upper hand.
6. SETH ROGEN WROTE FOR THE SHOW.
In the second season of the second incarnation of the show, Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg came along for a ride through Ali G’s safe sex education, Borat’s conversation with an Oklahoma congressional candidate, and Brüno’s fashionable chat with Leon Hall. It was an early break for both of them: it was Goldberg’s first TV gig as a writer and Rogen’s second after acting in and writing for Judd Apatow’s sleeper powerhouse Undeclared.
7. THEY GOT A CONSERVATIVE POLITICIAN TO SMOKE “WEED."
Neil Hamilton was a Tory MP until a bribery scandal and a general election loss in 1997. Two years later, he appeared on Da Ali G Show, accepting a joint that may have been real but was probably a prop. “Of course I tried it,” Hamilton told the BBC. “I’m always one for new experiences.”
From 2016 until August 2018, Hamilton was the Leader of the UK Independence Party in Wales, so the weed (real or fake) didn't seem to do too much reputational damage.
8. THE INTERVIEW GOAL WAS TO AVOID MAKING THE GUEST LAUGH OR LEAVE.
The challenge of Baron Cohen’s confrontational comedy is the necessity to push the limits without sabotaging the entire segment. He needs an involuntary comic “straight man” or none of it works. Lean too far into absurdity, and it might fall apart. Play it safe, and it won’t be interesting. Interviewees also can’t key into the joke, or the whole exercise becomes unintentionally staged. “The goal is: Don’t let the guest laugh, and don’t get him to walk,” one crew member explained to The New York Times while watching Baron Cohen interview former CIA director R. James Woolsey as Ali G.
9. THEY’VE HAD TO RUN FROM INTERVIEWS.
The most dangerous it’s ever gotten for Baron Cohen and his co-conspirators came years into the gag when Borat sang a fake national anthem at a rodeo for a huge crowd, but they were taking risks of bodily harm since the beginning. For the first season at HBO, Brüno interviewed armed attendees at a white supremacist rally in Georgia, and things went downhill quickly.
“I can’t remember what the trigger question was, but all of a sudden the guy we were interviewing exploded,” producer Dan Mazer told The New York Times. “He started physically attacking the cameraman and reaching for his gun. We legged it like no one’s ever legged it.” They all got good at spotting when an interviewee was headed toward the end of their rope.
10. ALI G PITCHED ICE CREAM GLOVES TO DONALD TRUMP.
Donald Trump claims that he knew immediately that it was all a goof, but he spent an earnest seven minutes with Ali G that was edited into a two-minute segment where the Staines goatee enthusiast flatters Trump’s idea for ice cream that doesn’t drip before pitching specialty gloves to wear since you can’t make ice cream that doesn’t drip (unless you’re NASA). Trump was one of dozens of businessmen and politicians Ali G got the best of.