Try having a conversation about Dame Edna Everage. It's not easy. You recount your favourite Dame Edna moments and you recite your favourite Dame Edna put-downs, but you keep stumbling over the issue of whether to call the Dame "he" or "she". Is it silly to say "she" when you know it's really Barry Humphries beneath the wig? Or is it perverse to say "he" when you're discussing a female character? It's a puzzle. It's also, of course, what makes the act so interesting.
Whatever frisson you might get from watching fictional characters talk to each other in a drama, or real people talk to each other in a documentary, things can get much more thrilling when a fictional character is conversing with real interviewees. You don't know if it's Barry Humphries who's insulting his guests or Dame Edna who's insulting hers. And if it's the latter, does that mean the guests shouldn't take offence? Radio 1 got caught in this web on Monday. Ali G was on Sara Cox's Radio 1 breakfast show, and, true to form, he was even less politically correct than Shaggy, his new duetting partner. He referred to Gareth, the runner-up in Pop Idol, as "spasticated". Cox, he said, was a "ho" who should "think of lezzing it" with Zoe Ball. Not surprisingly, the interview came to a hasty halt.
Radio 1 spokesmen issued an apology. "The regrettable outburst was typical of Ali G's style, despite our talking to him about guidelines," they stated, adding that "Ali feels very sorry about it too." In other words, they behaved as if Ali G were a person, not a creation of a comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen. It's like the BBC excusing Emu's attack on Michael Parkinson by saying the flightless bird was distressed by the glare of the lights.
This isn't the only time that Ali G has given the media an identity crisis. The character first appeared on The 11 O'Clock Show, Channel 4's topical satire strand. The idea was that he was a white boy from the home counties who hoped that by donning a yellow shell suit, wraparound shades, Mr T jewellery and a Tommy Gear hat, he could pass himself off as a black Jamaican gangsta. A parody of the most heinous sort of yoof TV presenter, he was convinced of his own coolness, and if anyone pointed out the differences between South Central LA and Englefield Green, Ali G wasn't listening.
On The 11 O'Clock Show, he was a roving reporter. His interviewees didn't realise they were being hoaxed and, faced with an earnest, not very bright young man, they'd do their best to treat his questions respectfully. An eminent zoologist would be asked if the theory of evolution meant that his nan had had sex with a monkey; an economist would have to ponder whether supply and demand meant that "I supply it and me Julie demand it". Cohen's ability to deliver these questions with a straight face made for deliriously embarrassing viewing.
In March 2000, after three series, he moved on to Da Ali G Show, a Channel 4 vehicle that averaged 2.4 million viewers. But the character was already being attacked as a malign stereotype. The media whipped up a debate about whether Ali G was meant to be a black character or, as his defenders argued, a white wannabe. Surreally, some pundits argued that Ali G was a British-Asian who wanted to be black. Felix Dexter, the black comedian, compared him to Al Jolson, saying Cohen "allows the liberal middle-classes to laugh at black street culture in a context where they can retain their sense of political correctness". On BBC2's Late Review, Tom Paulin frothed that he belonged to the same evil tradition of denigrating caricatures as Britain's Irish jokes. Cohen himself refused to be drawn. Making a mockery of those who discuss their divorces in OK! magazine because, they claim, the publicity is vital to their careers, one of the most phenomenally successful performers of his generation got where he is today without ever opening up to journalists about his private life or opinions.
But he's not mysterious or reclusive, and a fair amount of background details are on record. He grew up in north-west London. He attended Haberdashers' Aske's public school with his two brothers. He studied history at Cambridge, where he is remembered more for his suitably over-the-top roles in university productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Tamburlaine the Great than for his appearances in Footlights revues. However, one Footlights contemporary, Dan Mazer, is now his producer and co-writer; another, novelist Will Sutcliffe, contributed to Da Ali G Show. He and his older brother ran a comedy club, and Cohen did all the things that comedians do while they wait for the big break. Magazines have reprinted pictures of his catalogue-modelling; the TV series Before They Were Famous has unearthed footage of him conducting phone-ins on TV shows.
Having clocked up some time doing links on the Paramount Comedy cable channel, he put himself forward as a hoax interviewer for The 11 O'Clock Show. In his audition video he played Borat, a reporter from Kazakhstan with an Ali G-ish line in disarming innocence. Producer Harry Thompson steered him towards a more youth-oriented character, and in 1998 Ali G was born.
Right from those first 11 O'Clock Show segments, he was as much an object of satire as the people he interviewed – a man unaware that there was anything risible about "bigging up" the West Staines Massive or the Langley Village Posse. In his own series, his foolishness was emphasised further: he was shown frowning over a Jamaican phrasebook, trying to decipher the patois of the black DJ. And you might argue that it wouldn't matter what colour the character was intended to be. The point is that he's from Surrey, and he acts as if he's from Jamaica. Whether he was black, white or Asian, he'd still be pretending to be something he's not, and that self-delusion, whether it's puffing up Basil Fawlty or Captain Mainwaring or Del Boy Trotter, is what makes British TV's best comedy characters.
In his interviews, Ali G's guilelessness works as a counterbalance to his rudeness. Because he's so loveably naive, he can get away with asking an ex-member of an LA gang whether the Crips might be interested in joining the West Staines Massive for some orienteering and abseiling. On Comic Relief night, he could get away with asking Mr and Mrs Beckham for their views on anal sex. Now, though, Ali G fans must be wondering if he can get away with it for much longer. In 2000, he co-starred in the video of Madonna's "Music". Last November he hosted the MTV Europe Music Awards. And now he's releasing, "Me Julie", the Shaggy duet he performed at the Brits on Wednesday. Funny as these skits are, they dilute the reality of the character. After all, home counties wannabes don't get to hang around with pop stars, and they don't get to rap with real, live Jamaicans. Madonna and Shaggy may be a long way from the cutting edge, but they're closer to it than Egham high street.
Maybe, with a cash-in book on the shelves last Christmas and a movie out next month, Cohen is about to move on. Advance word on Ali G in Da House, is positive, but because a film has less room for improvised interaction and unsuspecting stooges, it can't play to his strengths. With Cohen addressing scripted lines to actors, it will help banish the confusion about whether Ali G is a real person or a fictional character. And when you lose the confusion, you lose some of the frisson. Just ask Dame Edna.Reuse content