Has it really been 10 years since Sacha Baron Cohen exploded onto British TV screens as Ali G on The 11 O'Clock Show? Back in 1998, who would have thought the Jewish comedian would become a global superstar, or that his most popular character wouldn't be Staines-based gangsta rapper Ali G -- but a misogynist, racist Kazakhstan reporter called Borat?
These New Hero Of Comedy documentaries about the cream of British comedy talent don't offer much beyond an hour of clips and talking heads (all with not a bad word to say, obviously), but I'm quite enjoying them. It's nice to be reminded the UK still impacts global comedy with Cohen one of the best examples, and deserving of the "new Peter Sellers" tag he's often given.
Of course, the problem these documentaries face is that each subject's career spans only about 10-15 years. Therefore, there wasn't much here the average fan didn't already know about Sacha Baron Cohen...
The British years: Ali G becomes an overnight sensation in the UK on a late-night comedy show in '98, he earns his own series that makes him a pop-culture icon, before cashing-in with a fun-but-sloppy film, and appearances in music videos for Madonna and Shaggy.
The American years: Cohen takes Ali G to the States on HBO, supporting character Borat makes a bigger impact, quickly becoming a cult hero and star of acclaimed docu-comedy Borat (which earns $260 million worldwide and causes controversy with real Kazakhs), co-starred in a Will Ferrell comedy, appeared alongside Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd, and is currently preparing another docu-comedy as gay fashionista Bruno.
But we know all that. More interesting to me were Cohen's years before Ali G was hatched, learning that he was a student of Phillipe Gouler -- a French modern drama teacher who has classes "embrace their inner idiot". Cohen soaked up Gouler's teachings and started presenting low-budget cable shows seen by nearly-nobody -- although I have a clear memory of seeing him host a debate on F2F in '97.
As usual with the New Hero series, there wasn't much insight into the pre-fame family life or post-fame private life of its subject. It didn’t even mention he dates actress Isla Fisher! Instead, we were left to piece together a perception of Sacha Baron Cohen from what his friends, colleagues and admirers said. As expected, they all agreed he's a courageous and determined comedian, blessed with incredible self-belief, who has remained down-to-earth and hasn't succumbed to the glamour of a Hollywood lifestyle. As if you didn't realize from his work.
The choice of interviewees were quite interesting. Obviously the writers/producers who worked with Cohen creating Ali G and Borat were there, but I found it strange to hear comedian Paul Kaye wax lyrical about Cohen's greatness. Mainly because the documentary was quick to single out satirist Chris Morris as a major influence on Cohen, with no mention of Kaye's comedy alter-ego Dennis Pennis – who blurred the line between reality and fiction with assaults on celebs a good 3 years before Cohen covered similar ground.
It was also interesting to see how Americans embraced Cohen's humour; particularly in how they elevated Borat from Ali G "supporting" to world phenomenon. For Americans, Ali G was just a funny-accented idiot – but in Britain his success had depth because middle-class British youths often try to ape US culture. The funny disparity between middle-England and US ganglands just clicks better outside of the USA.
Sure, Americans have "wiggers" in their society (so the "is it 'cos I is black" jokes weren't lost), but the humour of Ali comparing Surrey's Staines to the ghetto's of Los Angeles' Compton was lost by geography. No wonder Americans found it easier to laugh at Borat -- a sexist, racist, culturally-backward, foreign reporter. Borat's attacks on class in the UK shifted focus onto race for American audiences, and the rest is history.
This was ultimately another entertaining hour, but these documentaries are little more than ego-stroking clip-shows at heart, and only the first 10 minutes offered any fresh perspectives on Sacha Baron Cohen as a person. There's a reason documentaries celebrating peoples' careers only work when they're at least middle-aged – as Cohen's career is still in its adolescence, and we don't really need reminding of it, or the impact he's had so far. But, for fans of Cohen's characters, I'm sure they appreciated classic clips from Ali G and Borat's infamous interviews.
7 March 2008
Channel 4, 9.00 pm