Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is edited by everyone who wants to make an entry in it, can be outrageously wrong, but it is often surprisingly reliable. If you look up Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator and star of “Da Ali G Show,” you will find him categorized under “English comedians” and “Jewish comedy.”
Baron Cohen is an English comedian, and he is a Hebrew-speaking, reportedly kosher-keeping Jew, but asking how his comedy is Jewish is asking a difficult question. Like the Marx Brothers, he presents little in the way of overt Jewish material, and yet he leaves you with the inescapable feeling that you’re watching a darkly funny view of “Life among the Goyim.”
For the uninitiated, “Da Ali G Show” revolves around three characters. The principal one, Ali G, is Baron Cohen’s parody of a white wannabe-gangsta rapper who not only adopts all the appropriate clothes, gestures and locutions but also convinces himself that he is black. This character, whose name is really Alistair Graham and who hails from the London suburb of Staines, hosts an MTV-like show for British youth, for which he interviews all sorts of people, including famous politicians and pundits, to whom he addresses the most innocently idiotic questions in the history of television.
The other two characters are: Borat Sagdiyev, an extremely affable, irrepressibly antisemitic and chauvinistic Kazakhstani journalist doing an American tour for his viewers back home; and Bruno, a flamboyant fashion reporter for an Austrian gay television show. (The future of Ali, Borat and Bruno is uncertain; after two seasons on HBO, they were too well known to continue luring people into interviews.)
The most obviously Jewish element of the show is Baron Cohen’s stubborn desire to test the waters of antisemitism through the persona of Borat, the Kazakhstani journalist. Two of Borat’s “Jewish skits” are now infamous. In one, he interviews an old Texas hunter, whom he gets to slip, with surprising speed, into an uncensored display of Jew-hatred.
The second, and most talked-about, episode is one in which Borat visits a bar, gets himself onstage with a guitar, and engages a small but gregarious audience in a sing-along that begins as a simple lamentation of his nation’s economic difficulties but then turns into “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” Most of the people keep right on singing to the new lyrics.
The peculiar gift that enables Baron Cohen to pull off a stunt like this is the same one that enables him, in the guise of Ali G, to get famous people to sit down and answer his hilariously inane questions. (Gore Vidal having to explain that he is not a writer and a hair stylist; Dick Thornburgh that a hung jury has nothing to do with genitals; Buzz Aldrin that he walked on the moon, not the sun.)
His gift is a Peter Sellersesque ability to become totally invested in a character. Ali, Borat and Bruno all work so well at drawing people into conversation because they share a childlike simplicity. In this talent for impersonation, Baron Cohen presents an interesting contrast to Larry David, whose “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is all about himself. “Da Ali G Show” is strangely other-directed. It is all about us: people trying to interpret each other in a thoroughly globalized and media-thick culture.
That is why intelligent people answer Ali G’s ridiculous questions and indulge Borat’s lewd, scatological, and outrageous remarks. Today’s culture is one in which we expect to encounter people of the most diverse backgrounds, and in which the mass media (especially TV and the Internet) present us with a mind-boggling assortment of esoteric data and bizarre spectacles. In a social universe like this, we’ve learned that virtually anything can happen, we know that the world is much bigger than our ability to grasp it, and we’re taught that the strangeness, or even absurdity, of others is no reason to be immediately critical of them. In addition, we are deeply accustomed to the omnipresence of “the camera” — which means that we are usually happy to be filmed or videotaped and we automatically accept “the interviewer” as a legitimate person, regardless of how incompetent he or she may actually be.
Within this kaleidoscopic scenario, Baron Cohen has perfected the art of the foil: He sets up a contrast that allows people to display themselves. Ali G’s high-profile interviewees are often shockingly playful and good natured once he has transplanted them from their bizarre, public-relations universe into his bizarrely down-to-earth world. As for the rest of us, the un-famous who end up on the other end of Ali G’s or Borat’s or Bruno’s microphone, we often come across well too — as nice, friendly, decent folks. But, no less than the famous whose sins are on public display, we show ourselves capable of saying anything to please a flattering interviewer, or of singing a poisonous song with a charming stranger.
Now, back to the question, is this Jewish comedy?
We might say that Ali G embodies, however oddly, Baron Cohen’s curiosity about the black-Jewish relationship, which was the subject of his undergraduate history thesis at Cambridge. In Borat, we see the recycling of one of the most basic stereotypes in the Jewish imagination: the viscerally antisemitic Slavic peasant (Borat frequently speaks about plowing in the old country). And in Bruno, we have a more-than-coincidental interest in the homosexual, whose social vulnerability is so reminiscent of the Jew’s. But all this is armchair sociology.
“Jewish comedy” can mean comedy based on Jewish references, but it can also refer to comedy rooted in a sharp sense of Us versus Them — “Life among the Goyim.” If we take “goyim” loosely to mean people who are strange, often affable, and potentially dangerous, then, yes, “Da Ali G Show” is Jewish comedy and we, in our digital phantasmagoria of a world, are all goyim, all on camera, all the time.
Andrew Heinze’s most recent book is “Jews and the American Soul: Human Nature in the Twentieth Century” (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is now completing his first novel, “The Manhood of Arminius Hirsch.”