G spot

In a crowded field of candid cameras -- from Moore to Kutcher, "Jackass" to "Joe Schmo" -- Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G) works it like no one else.

Published July 16, 2004 9:00PM (EDT)

James Broadwater is flustered. A Mississippi Republican running for Congress, he's canvassing with a man he thinks is a television reporter from Kazakhstan named Borat. As the two go door to door, shaking hands with constituents, they stop to introduce themselves to a woman walking by.

Broadwater: I'm running for United States Congress in District 2.

Borat: He is a strong man. He will crush his opponents and he will be powerful like Stalin and not tolerate people who are bad.

Broadwater: Well, actually, I wouldn't compare myself to Stalin ...

Borat: Will you vote for my friend?

Woman: Well, I probably will, but I don't ever tell people who I vote for before I vote.

Borat: If you do not vote for him, he will take power!

Woman: Well, it depends on whether he gets enough votes or not.

Borat: I will not leave until you swear on the eyes of your child that you will vote for him.

If you're not already familiar with British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, a prankster and provocateur whose startlingly real alter egos and shrewd tactics make Michael Moore look like a slow-moving animal, his HBO show, "Da Ali G Show," returns Sunday for its second season. It again stars Cohen in his three guises: the aggressively misguided Borat, Austrian fashion journalist Bruno and hip-hop dim bulb Ali G. They are men who speak broken English and are largely unfamiliar with American culture, and yet they seem to be able to bring out the best -- and worst -- in everyone they encounter.

Their interview subjects have ranged from Newt Gingrich to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, but you would think that this time around, Cohen would have a lot more trouble luring in public figures. Not so. The first two episodes alone feature such big names as ABC's Sam Donaldson, former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and former Los Angeles police chief Darryl Gates, and upcoming episodes feature Noam Chomsky and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman. And nobody appears to have been in on the joke.

How Cohen attracts high-profile guests to his show -- and how it's possible that these individuals and their publicists aren't familiar with his routine -- is anybody's guess. But interviews with prominent people are far from the main draw of "Da Ali G Show." Cohen's unbelievable skills at improv and physical comedy call to mind Peter Sellers and Charlie Chaplin. When he shows up as Borat to taste wine with some older gentlemen, he embodies this stiff, formal man who's prone to passionate outbursts. He tosses back several glasses of wine until he's very drunk, but never breaks character. "You look like Premier Brezhnev, but more good," he gushes drunkenly to the men as he's leaving. "Very good man! Not just in head. Head, nothing! Heart everything." Later, as Bruno interviewing a pastor who "converts" homosexuals, Cohen folds his legs under him and holds himself with a loose, bored air that's utterly different from Borat's forced, aggressive gestures. The two characters look so completely different despite minimal costume adjustments that it would be easy to believe that Borat and Bruno are played by different actors.

While the quality of trickery on "Da Ali G Show" is beyond question, the antics are nothing new. You can't swing a fake dead cat without hitting a prankster on TV these days, from the self-destructive lunatics of "Jackass" (and their offspring) to Andy Dick's "Apprentice" parody, "The Assistant." While the first season of "The Daily Show" pushed its stunts far past the "Candid Camera" level of good, clean, family fun -- and made more than a few viewers uncomfortable in the process -- by now audiences are so familiar with manipulative shows like "Big Brother," "My Big Fat Fiancé," and "Scare Tactics" that simply toying with people doesn't raise an eyebrow.

Still, most reality shows manipulate their contestants' emotions so clumsily, the results are hardly watchable. On ABC's "The Ultimate Love Test" (Wednesdays at 10 p.m.), a couple is split apart, with one partner flown to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, while the other watches images of his or her mate drinking fruity drinks with attractive strangers and ex-lovers on a video screen at home. When did the filthy fun of Fox's "Temptation Island" give way to a show that amounts to undiluted emotional torture? It's frankly a miracle that more sketchy behavior and violent crimes, like the 1995 murder of a talk show guest after he admitted he had a secret crush on another man on an episode of "The Jenny Jones Show," aren't the natural fallout of messing with people's lives so heedlessly.

Even the craftiest of the elaborate prank shows, "The Joe Schmo Show" (Spike TV), left viewers with mixed feelings when the prank was revealed. Matt Kennedy Gould thought he was appearing on a reality show, only to discover that the entire thing was fake. When he found out, he appeared thrilled, but also fairly upset, and heartbreakingly ended up shouting at his best friend on the show, "Tell me you're not an actor!" (Of course, he was.) This season, the producers made the mistake of picking a very intelligent woman, Ingrid, to fill one of two dupe roles. She quickly figured out the show was fake, but didn't seem all that pleased about it when they let her in on the secret, aside from expressing relief that she wasn't "going crazy."

Ashton Kutcher's second season of "Punk'd" has also taken on a more dangerous flavor as it tries to re-create its buzz. Instead of mildly teasing stars with impudent valets or aggressive strip searches by security guards, Kutcher has begun to throw more threatening situations into the mix. On a recent episode, Jennifer Love Hewitt was meeting with a producer who supposedly wanted her to star in a movie with Brad Pitt. As if that cruelly unrealistic scenario weren't enough, the producer mentioned that he was in financial trouble, before two thugs showed up, looking ready to bust some kneecaps, and refused to let Hewitt leave. She promptly broke down, looking scared for her life, and the usual miffed "reaction shot" after the "Punk'd" team rushes in to reveal their prank was clearly pasted in after she had a few minutes to compose herself. Once the tears were dried, she gamely asked if this meant she wasn't going to be in a cool movie after all. We still know what you did last summer, honey.

Not only are Cohen's pranks far more subtle and artful than such crude and merciless booby traps, they take their aim at those whose hypocrisy or double talk make them a fair target. Take Broadwater, the congressional candidate, who must have felt free to cut loose during an interview with Kazakh TV.

Borat: So, which is the party of the homosexuals?

Broadwater: They tend to go to the Democratic Party.

Borat: I want to go to this place heaven. Which religion must I choose to go there?

Broadwater: The Christian Bible says that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven.

Borat: If people choose the Jews, will they go heaven or hell?

Broadwater: Well, I would have to say that they would go to hell.

Now compare the way Cohen brings the rotten core of Broadwater's beliefs front and center to the interview that current public enemy/liberal poster boy Michael Moore has with Charlton Heston at the end of "Bowling for Columbine":

Moore: Here's my question: Why is it that [Canadians] got all these guns lying around, but they don't kill each other at the level that we kill each other?

Heston: I think American history has a lot of blood on its hands.

Moore: Oh, and German history doesn't? British history?

Heston: I don't think as much.

Moore: Germans don't have as much blood on their hands?

Heston: Ah, they do, yes.

Moore: The Brits? They ruled the world for 300 years with the barrel of a gun. These are all violent people. They have bad guys, they have crime, they have lots of guns ...

Heston: Well, that's an interesting point, which can be explored, and you're good to explore it at great length, but I think that's about all I have to say on it.

It is curious how, instead of inspiring Heston to speak -- and potentially giving him even more rope to hang himself with -- Moore seems more intent on embarrassing him. If Moore himself could explain the surplus of gun-related violence in America, he'd do so in his film instead of offering up some vague riffs on the culture of fear. While Moore's interviews with members of Congress in "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- especially his great ambush interviews in front of the Capitol -- made more sense, bringing the realities of the Iraq war to those who allowed it to happen, it often seems that his aim is to repeat the "Roger & Me" stunt of making people get fed up, so that he can film them walking away.

Footage of embarrassed or harassed human beings ultimately just makes them seem frail and pitiable. When Heston hobbles away from the camera, it's tough not to feel a little sorry for him, especially watching it now, knowing that at the time Heston was beginning to show the early stages of Alzheimer's. Not dissimilarly, it's difficult to enjoy watching Jennifer Love Hewitt fall apart, or watching shy boyfriend Frank at home in a crappy apartment in Downey, Calif., slumped on the couch as a video of his girlfriend and her ex frolicking on the beach loops endlessly in front of him.

Cohen by contrast inhabits such strangely naive characters, who seem genuinely receptive to the opinions of their subjects, that he manages to cajole the most strident views out of them. The mix of cultural rubbernecking and pure silliness that results is both entertaining and eye-opening.

When Bruno interviews Pastor Quinn, the "converter" who teaches young people of the evils of homosexuality, the results are unforgettable. In order to establish where, exactly, homosexual behavior crosses the line ("So, hypothetically, according to you, I can admire a man's penis in the shower, but the moment I put it in my mouth, some sort of line has been crossed"), Bruno asks Quinn to weigh in on various lifestyle choices by responding "ach, ja!" if they are OK, and "nicht, nicht" if not.

Bruno: So. Showering with a friend. Ach, ja or nicht, nicht?

Quinn: Absolutely not. It's forbidden by God's word.

Bruno: Which one is it, ach, ja or nicht, nicht?

Quinn: Nicht, nicht.

Bruno: So. Watching "Will und Grace."

Quinn: It's ungodly. Nicht, nicht.

Bruno: Being fabulous.

Quinn: What does that mean?

Bruno: You know, just being fabulous.

Quinn: That's nicht, nicht because 1st Corinthians 6 says that's an effeminate lifestyle. That's forbidden by God's word.

Bruno: Eating brunch.

Quinn: If you're eating brunch with Christian friends and there's no one else around that's gonna seduce you into sin, it's OK. It's "ach, ja."

Bruno: Eating very, very chocolatey stuff all the time.

Quinn: If in fact you are doing it because that's part of a homosexual lifestyle, nicht, nicht. If you're eating chocolate dessert after a meal and you're doing it with the fellowship of Christian friends, ach, ja.

Cohen's strategy is pure genius. First he convinces Quinn that he's very interested in his views, and that his expertise is fully respected. Then he invites Quinn to pass judgment -- what could be more tempting for a pastor than that? Finally, he asks that Quinn employ Bruno's lingo in passing judgment, so that, instead of having to hear this flatly hateful rhetoric, audiences share in the joke.

While the new wave of televised gags may feature elaborate setups and layers of complicated lies, most offer little more than tripping someone and pointing a camera at them as they hit the ground. That's not to say Cohen can't go overboard; there is a feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you watch him, particularly as Borat, who tends to cross the line with strangers much more aggressively than any of Cohen's other alter egos. But when he's dealing with a candidate who tells him Jews end up in hell, or a pastor who says that "Will and Grace" is immoral, he's not just fooling them, he's exposing them, and that takes real talent.

Besides, who else but Ali G could make Pat Buchanan call weapons of mass destruction "BLTs," or get him to joke around about "having a little puff" before coming on the air?

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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