"This is Spinal Tap" and IBM. The Blue Man Group and Intel. Internet Spongmonkeys and Quiznos. "The Office" totally, but totally, ripped off by Burger King.
Now, Ali G.
Ali G is British comic actor Sasha Baron Cohen, of "Da Ali G Show," on which-in the name of deflating pomposity and exposing hypocrisy, or just cluelessness-Cohen has turned scores of unsuspecting notables into laughingstocks. Duped into appearing on what they think is a youth-targeted public affairs show, they encounter Cohen, decked out in flamboyant hip-hop regalia, asking moronic questions absolutely deadpan. (Our particular favorite, posed to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop: "Does we really have bones, or is that just something the media wants us to believe?")
To watch is to wince, wince, howl with laughter. Pleasure and pain-a fine line.
Lo and behold, where comedy phenomena lurk, can Madison Avenue be far behind? In a new campaign from Spike DDB for the Thursday night NBA broadcasts on TNT, here's Cohen interviewing not Donald Trump, Richard Thornburgh or Mike Wallace, but Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Ben Wallace. And it sure is funny:
Ali G: Check it. I's here wif Steve Nash. So, you was last season's most valuable player, or as it's called, the MP3. What was that like?
Nash: No, I was the MVP.
Ali G: MP3.
Nash: Not the oth...no, I wasn't.
Ali G: You was the MP3.
Nash: No, I wasn't.
Ali G: No disrespect, but you is Canadian, so you doesn't even speak English, so shut up.
His genius is to be an utter nitwit in dead earnest without ever breaking character as the interviewee tries to deal with the absurdity. Some of the best comedy comes simply from the looks on their faces-such as Kobe Bryant's when Ali asks how many springs there are in an NBA basketball:
Bryant: How many springs? It doesn't have any springs in it.
Ali G: Well, how does it bounce then?
Bryant: Air. There's air in the ball.
Ali G: Well, there's air in this room. How come this room ain't bouncing?
The look of impatience and puzzlement on Bryant's face is just precious. So, yeah, Cohen pulls off in the spots just what he does in his show. And, yeah, even the Ali G-uninitiated will soon catch on. But will everybody be laughing?
Cohen's character does, after all, ridicule hip-hop language, style, gestures and so on. Isn't that a poke in the eye to a good slice of the fan base, not to mention the talent? Many of the league's stars-Allen Iverson comes to mind-are just as yo, yo as Ali, only they're not kidding.
In fact, the NBA just last week instituted a dress code to banish trappings associated with gangsta-ism. Maybe it was the right move; the league is entitled to protect its image. But let's just say the race and class tensions underlying the decision came through loud and clear: "Lose the bling. You're scaring off the white folks."
And now here comes Ali, hip-hop fool?
Out of the context of the NBA, Cohen is a brilliant satirist, fool-baiting his audience into paroxysms. But at this particular moment, the same shtick could be taken for race-baiting. The timing couldn't be more unfortunate.
Wince, wince, howl is fine only so long as the howls are laughter.
Review 2 stars
Agency: Spike DDB