Respect! The best interviewer working in television today is not the host of Nightline or Meet the Press. His name is Ali G, and he favors bright-yellow jumpsuits, Hilfiger skullcaps and wraparound shades. Sure, Ted Koppel is tough. But has he ever asked former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh to explain the distinction between "legal" and "barely legal"? Ali G has also queried a British drug expert on the type of acid "that actually makes you fly" and whether the worst side effect of Ecstasy is that it makes users actually like house music. When a police officer refused to allow him to cover a protest up close, he asked, "Is it 'cause I is black?" (He is white. The officer appeared confused.)
Ali G is the alter ego of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, whose fake talk show has been a hit in the U.K. for years. As Ali G, a wanksta of the highest order who speaks in a bizarre patois drawn from British, West Indian and hip-hop culture, Cohen hilariously bombards unsuspecting, extremely puzzled interview subjects with questions so dumb they make Carson Daly look like Jim Lehrer. American audiences will finally get to check out the man himself with the premiere of Da Ali G Show on HBO, in which Ali G is unleashed upon the likes of Newt Gingrich, Ralph Nader and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. "They said they were doing a new show for the BBC about the virtues of representative democracy, targeted to young people," says the press secretary of one of the ambushed politicos, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They did not say, 'You're going to be interviewed by this person called Ali G.' I thought he was the sound guy. Then he started doing the interview. I was thinking, 'Is this guy really this stupid?' Because he never went out of character. Never. I wanted to walk out when he asked my client how to pronounce his name."
The show also features field reports from Borat, a Kazakhstani journalist attempting to learn about American culture, and Bruno, a flamboyant Austrian fashion reporter. Both characters are also played by Cohen. "We nearly got arrested in Sedona, Arizona," recalls Ali G producer and co-writer Dan Mazer. "They have this cage built to channel the music of angels and Sacha, as Borat, was in it simulating a sexual act. The police showed up. They interviewed us separately, and then I walked over to Sacha. He was still Borat. He was saying to the police, 'I do not understand. I have no access to facsimile machine. We do things differently in my country. 'That was one moment I thought, 'I have utter respect for you.' Because I was shitting myself, and I wasn't even the one masturbating."
Cohen himself has never been interviewed out of character. But Ali G called from London, where he was putting the final touches on the HBO series.
Tell me about the neighborhood where you grew up.
Well, American gangsta culture actually started in Langley Village, near Windsor Castle, in the hood of Berkshire. The media's tried to keep this quiet, yo? But Tupac Shakur's granddaddy, Alan Shakur? He lived near the ghetto of Englefield Green, which at the moment is a police nogo zone. There's some playa haters who say it's because there ain't been a crime there since 1952, but we know it's because playas is shooting themselves, innit? Me own posse, the West Staines Massive, don't fear no one, and we have sent a letter to the Crips in L.A. asking them if they wants to twin themselves wif us. We ain't heard back yet.
Do you think you might be compared to Eminem when your HBO show debuts?
Yeah, a lot of people might say, "Yo, he's like a black Eminem."
So you're not feeling him?
I mean, you got to ask why ain't I as successful a rapper as Eminem. Me tried for years to break into the record industry and you always heard the same things, like, "You ain't got no riddim." "You literally cannot rhyme." "You has a terrible voice." "You look like a prick." But we all know the real reason: It's racialism, innit? Tell me, have you ever seen a black man succeed in the world of rap? I rest my case.
How did you become a talk-show host?
Originally, there was a TV show in me hood, and me started kinda dealing to some of the people there, just little bits and bobs. And one time, me gave 'em something that was a little bit too strong, and one of the newscasters had to call in sick. Me took over, one thing led to an other, and then soon me was hosting me own show.
Is it hard to be a role model?
What does that mean?
To have kids looking up to you.
Yo, I don't do it with kids. What is you trying to ask? I ain't no wacko Jacko.
Have any of the people you've interviewed gotten really upset?
For real. Me interviewed this fellow, Newt Gingrich? He got well eggy when we asked him why his head was so massive. He reached his hand into me pants, grabbed ahold of me Hilfigers and gave me a wedgie. He's got a massive head. It's so big, it's like it's on a child's body.
What have been some of your favorite interviews so far?
Well, me got a lot out of me interview with Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Not only did me take from him his knowledge, but also his VCR and his laptop.
You played a limo driver in Madonna's video for "Music." What was that like?
It was mad. She loved me massively long limo. You know what. I is talking about? When I say limo, I talking about me cock.
Basically, we got a little bit mashed, one thing led to another. Me ain't saying nothing, but next time you look at little Rocco, imagine him wif a little goatee beard and yellow sunglasses, aiight?
Who do you think killed Tupac?
Well, firstly, you can't be thick, right? He ain't dead. I mean, the proof is, if you rearrange the letters of Tupac Shakur, you get U Trap Cak Sh. There's a spare U, which refers to the CIA, obviously. As if that ain't enough proof, my man Jezzy F., check this, right? He saw him in Wool-worths in Langley Village, buying a mini stepladder. Probably because he's got some shelves up high where he's got all the evidence about him being alive.
What about Biggie?
Yeah, he's dead.
'Cause I've asked around. No one has seen him for ages. Plus, he's a big man, so he's well easy to see, ain't he? You can't hide him.
Good point. Have you had feuds with other rappers?
No doubt. There's a long-standing feud with the East Staines Massive. They run by Hassan B. It started when he accused my mum of having sucked off his uncle. Have you heard of 50 Cent?
I fired shot number nine.