On a basketball court between two Harlem brownstones, Mount Rushmore is redone. Alongside the likeness of George Washington sit the faces of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. Standing in front of the monument is one of Britain's hottest comedic sensations, Ali G. At the moment he's wearing a fire-engine-red Sean John shell-suit and a gold chain around his neck. America, he declares, is plagued with "racialism, even to da Native people. You know, what is dey called?" asks Ali G in his exaggerated mixture of working-class British, West Indian and Cockney accents. He then tries to belt out a Native American rebel call.
"Yeah, dem ones." Ali G is coming to America, bringing his brash, funny and sometimes offensive humor with him. "Da Ali G Show" premieres on HBO tomorrow night.
Since arriving on the British scene four years ago, Ali G has become a youth cultural icon, loathed by politicos, dismissed by cultural snobs as obnoxious, and by black intellectuals as racist and a cultural thief. Yet his television show and movie have helped revive irony-heavy British comedy, so much so that at his popularity's peak, young and old could be heard talking about "keepin' it real"; and according to British media reports, even the late Queen Mother reportedly once snapped her fingers demanding "respec."
Ali G grew popular peppering stiff Establishment figures with tawdry questions. (He once asked Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr., the former U.S. secretary of state, "Is it true that Reagan and Thatcher was doin' it?" And in the U.S. show, he asks Dick Thornburgh, the former attorney general and Pennsylvania governor, "What exactly is da law of cuttin' da cheese?"
Ali G is the alter ego of creator Sacha Baron Cohen, who rarely grants interviews either as himself or his character. He did, however, make a brief appearance in Madonna's "Music" video.
"I had a contract put out on me life," Ali G is saying by way of explaining his aversion to interviews. The man after him, he says, is Hasham B, who wants Ali G punished for having an affair with his wife. It's all in the head of Cohen, of course, who is just back from months of taping the HBO show in New York, Washington and Los Angeles.
Born into an affluent Jewish-Welsh North London family, the thirty-something Cohen was educated at the posh Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, and Cambridge, where he joined the Cambridge Footlights, the dramatic club that gave birth to Monty Python and other British comedic gems. On a campus of individualistic, often boisterous personalities, Cohen was the class clown, louder than most. His college thesis, "The Black-Jewish Alliance: A Case of Mistaken Identity," reportedly advocated greater cooperation between the two groups, and included an interview with Mississippi civil rights leader Bob Moses.
"He was a cultural polyglot, and that's the nature of Cambridge, your interests become quite eclectic," says Dan Mazer, who met Cohen in grade school and is producer and co-writer of the U.S. and British versions of "Da Ali G Show."
Cohen, he says, developed a deep affection for hip-hop culture, listening to music and studying black hip-hoppers and the white kids who emulate them.
"On the streets of London, you see hundreds of middle-class nice boys desperate to be Dr. Dre," Mazer says. "It's a worldwide phenomenon, the non-black person trying to act wigger."
Cohen poured it all into the Ali G character, which debuted on Britain's "11 O'Clock Show" in 1999. Soon Ali G had his own award-winning show and, last year, his own movie, "In da House."
"Da Ali G Show," part of HBO's new Friday late-night lineup, is a mix of three characters: Ali G; Borat, a TV reporter from Kazakhstan; and Bruno, a flamboyant gay Austrian fashionista and ex-supermodel reporter. All three crisscross the United States exploring its culture, interviewing diverse subjects such as lesser-known designer Lloyd Klein, Ralph Nader and Newt Gingrich. HBO's six-episode show has changed little from the British version. To do so would dilute Ali G's authenticity, producers say. Ali G trades in shock.
In one HBO scene, at the Great Expectations dating service, Borat observes that with American women, "you can't just go to her father's house and swap her for 15 gallons of insecticide." He tells the buxom, thigh-revealing dating service interviewer he wants a blonde, with "no history of retardation in the family and, if possible, plow experience."
"Just to let you know," interviewer Jenny Noel tells him, "us American women don't have plow experience."
"Not much, maybe one year," Borat says in an exaggerated Kazakh accent.
Noel asks if Borat is open to dating across racial lines.
"Yes," he says, "but no Jew."
"No Jewish," she notes. He curls up his nose.
In another scene, Bruno ambushes a white supremacist rally, and asks demonstrators how their skin got so white and "Do you use moisturizer?"
HBO executives are confident that U.S. audiences -- arguably more conservative than British ones -- will warm to the show. The cable company is distributing the show for London-based TalkBack Productions.
"People just like good shows, and that's what this is -- a good comedy show," says Nancy Geller, senior vice president for original programming at HBO. "People appreciate the British way of doing comedy."
The comedy is also political, raising questions about the morality of capital punishment, about race and ethnicity and sexuality.
"Every day on da streets you needs politics. Me uses a lot of dis stuff over here. Me sees meself as de George Bush of Staines," Ali G says over the phone, launching into a rant about a beef between the West Staines Massive and East Staines Massive, two fictional gangs in a working-class London suburb. He claims to be leader of the former. "It's like da beef you have with Iraq. We suspec da East End have weapons of mass destructions dat we suspect will be used in da manufacture of bombs."
The show has had its British detractors, some of their objections rooted in accusations of racial insensitivity and stereotyping.
In the Times of London last year, black British writer Zina Saro-Wiwa charged that Ali G had hijacked black culture. "He's not casting aspersions as to what it is and isn't to act black. In his act, it is a given: people in Britain associate being 'black' with acting like an ignorant gangster. If you don't fall into this stereotype, you are considered inauthentic."
But Ali G's allure lies in his ability to defy categorization, says Marian Salzman, author of the forthcoming book "Buzz," which devotes an entire chapter to analyzing the comedian's popularity and, she says, his subsequent oversaturation in British society.
"He offends everyone equal opportunity. So as a consequence he offends no one," Salzman says. "He's a voice against political correctness at a time when we're on PC overload."
Mazer says Ali G is all about the reactions he evokes. "If anything he exposes racism," he says. "The people who assume he's something he isn't . . . [show] their inherent racism. He criticizes that part of the middle-class who try to be something they're not."
Told that his opening line about Native Americans might be viewed as insensitive in the United States, Ali G quipped, "There is racialism all over. Tell me, you think this is going to get a lot of controversy? Will they come after me with their bows and arrows?"
"I ain't makin' fun of no one," Ali G continues. "I'm just bein' me, keeping people laughing. My motto is whether it's white, brown or Pakistani, we all come from the same place."