How does Ali G keep conning famous guests?

(Slate Magazine, Sept. 2004) (Link to story on Slate)


THE AMERICAN VERSION of Da Ali G Show recently wrapped up its second season on HBO, and, once again, a long list of prominent Americans have been embarrassed. Somehow, Sacha Baron Cohen, in the guise of a British would-be gangsta with a penchant for malapropisms and misunderstandings, managed to secure another passel of interviews with people like former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman (who conceded that, yes, whale feces "have got to be massive") and archconservative Patrick Buchanan (who said that Saddam Hussein "was using BLTs on the Kurds"). In one episode, Richard Kerr, a former deputy director of the CIA, found himself debating whether terrorists could drive a train into the White House.

How can so many supposedly media-savvy operators—even members of the intelligence community—still be so easily fooled? Don't these people have assistants with subscriptions to HBO or, at the very least, access to the outside world? These questions represent more than idle curiosity. Ali G managed just two seasons in Britain before being forced stateside to seek more gullible guests. A third season has yet to be scheduled here, and fans like me want to know if his techniques could possibly work one more time.

No one from Ali G would agree to speak about the show's methods, and even its former producers maintain a strict cult of silence about their work. But according to accounts from several people who have fallen for Baron Cohen's ruses—some of whom were too humiliated to go on the record—the come-on begins with a flattering letter sent to an unsuspecting target. Sam Donaldson says his letter was sent to his news assistant, bypassing ABC's more skeptical publicity department. Other guests are former officials or lone personalities without a dedicated PR staff to sniff out fakes. Buchanan, for example, handles his own press along with his wife, Shelly. "It all seemed very legitimate," he told me.

One source, who declined to be named, provided Slate with a copy of one such letter, which explains that an entity named Somerford Brooke Productions is creating a six-part series called "The Making of Modern America (working title)." Lauding the recipient's "unbridled reputation," the letter invites him to appear on a show that will "present issues in a fresh and innovative way that will engage young viewers." It says that the producers hope the show, ahem, "won't just be seen in the UK but world-wide."

In other words, it's all fastidiously accurate, but vague. The letter is so thorough that the URL in the e-mail address at the bottom actually goes to Somerford Brooke's fictitious one-page Web site. (Potential interviewees for Baron Cohen's libidinous Kazakh persona, Borat, say they have been contacted by United World Television, which maintains a suspiciously similar site.) The producers have even gone to the trouble to make sure Somerford Brooke and their other fronts are officially registered companies—all at the same address that houses FremantleMedia, the parent of TalkbackThames, which produced Da Ali G Show for HBO and Britain's Channel 4. Repeated voice mails left with the letter's purported author, Saeeda Khanum, went unanswered; one person reached at Talkback who had heard of her said, uncomfortably, that he hadn't seen her in months. "I don't know anything, mate."

While some of Ali G's marks agree to the interviews immediately ("I popped right away," Donaldson confessed), others take more massaging. One person who handles press for a political celebrity featured in the first U.S. season ("It does not reflect well on my professionalism to have been fooled") said that he turned down repeated entreaties for an interview. Only when a MSNBC producer vouched for "United World Productions" did he finally relent, to his regret. "We truly left there thinking he was the stupidest person ever," he said of Ali G. "I was very contentious."

That's why, even before the interviews begin, Ali G's producers start making excuses. As the guest signs a weighty but standard-looking release, producers explain that they have a rather unorthodox host, a supposed "British rap star" who, they assure, is very popular with the young-adult target audience. Then Baron Cohen bounds into the room, already in character, and the cameras start rolling. "I don't discriminate on the basis of clothing, as long as there is some and it isn't too dirty," Donaldson says of his decision to continue at that point.

But while producers can send out fake letters from official-sounding companies more or less indefinitely, the number of people who will stick around when this Hilfiger-suited oaf walks on camera is diminishing rapidly. That's why Ali G was forced to leave Britain in the first place. "[T]he character had reached such a saturation point that everybody knew who Ali G was, from eight-year-olds to 80-year-olds," the series' co-creator, Dan Mazer, told the BBC in 2003.

It's unlikely that Ali G himself can survive even a fraction of that exposure again. While The Daily Show, for example, manages to mine humor from fake-news features whose interviewees who are at least somewhat in on the joke, Ali G relies on his victims' reluctance to challenge his intellectual credentials or Brit-hop patois. The joke won't work when they know he's a fiction. The only way to save Ali may be to send him even further afield—to find yet another country as pompous and credulous as America. But that's a tall order.

More likely is a larger role for Baron Cohen's two other, often funnier, personae: Borat and campy Austrian fashion Nazi, Bruno. Both are too outlandish to score megawatt guests but make up for it by goading their charges into more outrageously offensive behavior. (Borat got a country and western bar to sing along as he belted, "Throw the Jew down the well/ So my country can be free," which ranked among the year's most caustically funny moments in television.)

There are hints that the show may indeed be headed in that direction. "The Borat character still has loads of life left in him, possibly more than Ali," Mazer told the Unofficial Borat Homepage last year, well before shooting the second U.S. season. Whether he still feels that way now is anyone's guess—his representatives would not return phone calls. But, as a fan, I can't help but hang on something else he said in that interview: "Borat will be back and he will loom large once more."

Sam Schechner wrote this piece in 2004, when he was a freelance writer. He is currently a reporter at the Wall Street Journal.