Ali G: da Harvard Massive

On June 9, 2004, Harvard’s Class Day Ceremonies received a speech from Ali G.

This could be different.

There’s a very well established showbiz principle that a performer can push the boundaries of acceptability much further if it is perceived that the material is said or done by someone else. Ventriloquists have known this forever and have long delivered, with impunity, outrageous material via their dolls.

Rod Hull was an English comedian who made a good living, routinely submitting people – mainly chat show hosts – to serious physical assault on live Television. He did it by carrying an Emu puppet which viciously did the attacking. YouTube has several videos of it. If he’d done it without the puppet he’d have been arrested.

Some performers exploit exactly the same principle by – so to speak – climbing inside their dolls. For instance I think it’s fair to say that Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson use material that Barry Humphries could not for himself get past the lawyers. More significantly, for a student of audiences like me, I don’t think Barry Humphries would get the laughs with that particular material either.

Here is that process by Sacha Baron Cohen. Before we consider how funny it is my immediate interest is in the quality of the performance. The characterisation is total, as it is/was with his other characters like Borat and Bruno. It seems to amount almost to self-hypnosis, and makes me suspect that if a crazed lunatic broke out of the audience and attacked him he would defend himself in character.

Is it funny? This is a time capsule, performed fifteen years ago, and it’s interesting to consider how it stands up. It’s fascinating how much parents and university staff of that time are seen to enjoy the show. I was already a bit old for Ali G’s stuff when it was new so I surprised myself here by laughing out loud a couple of times. Riding on that ventriloquist principle he was the height of dangerous edginess at the time, and I’m a sucker for edge and danger in humour, but today’s students are reputed to be very different.

Live and let live: they’re entitled to their tastes so long as they leave me out of it. I believe there’s an adjective – Woke – about which I know very little and couldn’t be bothered to learn because it doesn’t concern me and everything I hear on the subject seems vacuous and bores me rigid; but don’t today’s students get exercised by something they call cultural appropriation? Wouldn’t most of a student audience today need PTSD counselling after a show like this?

I wonder what Sacha Baron Cohen is doing these days.