Ali G, for the benefit of anybody who lives on Mars and can only pick up 20-year-old sitcoms on UK Gold, is the comic TV persona of Sacha Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge-educated Jew. Ali G is an illiterate idiot who lives in a fantasy world where he is a figure of importance who demands 'respect'. He wears slightly over-the-top street gear (hat, shades, jewellery, etc) and adopts a preposterously over-the-top street demeanour, which is constantly undermined by references to his 'hood' in Staines. Baron-Cohen interviews the great and the good and asks them outrageously facetious questions with a straight face, using his moronic, self-important persona as a cover.
This is the same trick that Caroline Aherne used for Mrs Merton, but the effect is more subversive and disorientating, because Baron-Cohen's victims find him harder to read. Is he black, or Asian pretending to be black, or white pretending to be black? Nobody is sure. One gets the sense that they are reluctant to laugh at him or tell him to piss off, for fear of appearing racist.
Of course, it's not only the interviewees who have difficulty getting a handle on him. Viewers do too. It is this uncertainty that provoked January's heated debate about whether we should approve of him or not, with various black comedians condemning his act as racist. 'Negative' portrayals of black culture are a sensitive issue, even when coming from ethnic performers, as black American comics have discovered. Coming from a white comedian, it can appear downright insulting.
Inevitably there have been comparisons with the bad old days of the 1970s, when Jim Davidson's 'Chalky White' ruled the airwaves. Superficially, there is some truth in this: Davidson, like Baron-Cohen, was holding up a ridiculous caricature of black people and inviting us to laugh at it. But the social context has changed completely since then. I grew up in the same part of south-east London as Davidson, at the same time. He was a local hero, and he closely reflected local views. The point of Chalky was that he was a Londoner who affected a Jamaican accent. In those days there was a lot of open racism and little mixing between blacks and whites. Some black teenagers adopted a 'black' persona and spoke 'patois' as a reaction against hostile white society. Whites took this as proof that they didn't want to fit in with 'our way of life'.
Go to south-east London now and you find a completely different situation. Black culture rules. Kids of all races speak a kind of black cockney and dress 'black'. It is this homogeneous culture that Ali G is addressing. Whether he is actually supposed to be black, white or Asian is irrelevant - every teenager can identify with him because he is instantly recognisable. A newspaper poll of the black community found that 86 percent thought Ali G was funny. It's hard to imagine such support for Chalky White back in the 1970s.
Ali G is, after all, a lot funnier than Chalky. He made an instant impact in a way that hasn't happened since Harry Enfield's Loadsamoney in the 1980s. He struck a chord because there was something true and immediately recognisable about him, even if it was difficult to define exactly what it was. (And it is interesting to note that the media furore didn't happen until well after Ali G's run on the 11 O'Clock Show had finished and his video had already topped the charts, suggesting that the 'controversy' means nothing to Ali G's intended audience.)
Like Loadsamoney, Ali G invites us to laugh with him and at him simultaneously. This invitation is extended to everybody, regardless of colour. Black kids find him funny for the obvious but often overlooked fact that they have a sense of humour just like anybody else. They are fully capable of appreciating the huge disparity between Ali G's posturing and the reality of his suburban life. Most important of all, they are probably more aware than anybody of the inherent preposterousness of macho rap culture. To ignore this is to believe, like the racists of the 1950s, that the black man is in thrall to the flashy trappings of wealth and incapable of appreciating any higher form of culture. It is to believe that every black youth is brainwashed by brutish gangsta rap and aspires to be some kind of cartoon avenger, joylessly raping and shooting his way through life. Merely to express such an idea is to expose the ridiculousness and offensiveness of it.
I look forward to Baron-Cohen's next move. Now that Ali G is famous it is hard to see him continuing. His targets will be forewarned and forearmed, as Mrs Merton discovered when her guests started to play along with the joke. Whatever he decides to do, I hope he keeps his nerve and follows his instincts. As Bernard Manning says, they can't stop us laughing. Respect to the Staines Massive.
Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000