Before HBO, Baron Cohen had a show on Britain’s Channel 4, where Ali G wreaked havoc on an English upper class conditioned by hundreds of years of colonial history not to walk away from the savage in front of them, no matter how strangely he was behaving. In America, the show took a more self-critical tone, as upstanding police sheriffs and Sam Donaldson attempted to school this dim foreigner before he hurt himself or someone else. But the gag was more or less the same — everyone was in on the joke, except the person with a microphone in front of his face.
In retrospect, it’s striking what a ’90s project this was — the last gasp of an alternative-minded culture that believed in a sharp divide between a small number of people who were in the know and the vast, ignorant, lamestain mass of everyone else. The show was brilliant because it so effectively corralled the cynicism of the moment under the guise of dim sincerity. (Ali G surely helped invent Stephen Colbert, whose show premiered a year after Da Ali G Show went off the air.) Baron Cohen spoke nonsense to power in a funny accent, and we loved him for it. The joke eventually exhausted itself, though, and so Baron Cohen retired Ali G, right as we, his audience, were retiring the delusion that we were somehow superior to the rest of the big, dumb mid-aughts culture in which we were even then enthusiastically participating.