Can a gangsta rapper replace a gangster?
At the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles this week, HBO will introduce a new lineup, including “The Ali G Show,” a comedy chat program starring a faux gangsta rapper from London. “Ali G” was a huge hit in the United Kingdom and is being brought in, according to executives with knowledge of the deal, to help build the next generation of buzz-worthy shows.
The HBO series will debut Feb. 21, executives said. Representatives at AOL Time Warner’s HBO declined to discuss the show, and executives at Talkback Productions, which created the original series for Channel 4 in London, could not be reached.
Ali G is actually Sacha Baron Cohen, 30, a Cambridge-educated Jewish comedian who grew up in the tony suburb of Hampstead and created his rapper persona to spoof white hip-hop kids. Ali G is the leader of a fictional gang called the West Staines Massive.
As host of the raucous late-night talk show “The Ali G Show,” he has interviewed politicians and celebrities, skewering them mercilessly to the delight of his many fans. Virtually unknown in the States, Ali G has created his own pseudo hip-hop vocabulary (“Look at the batty on dat”), which has caught on with Britain’s youth.
He also has recorded music, including the single “Me Julie” with reggae star Shaggy. Last year Ali G starred in the film “In da House.” The movie bombed, however, with fans and critics and his star has been on the wane in the United Kingdom. Recently, the editor of influential black magazine Untold in London accused him of being a “racially insensitive” figure and the “new Al Jolson.”
Ali G and HBO are said to have inked a multi-episode deal. HBO hopes the show will pick up viewers who are straying from the subscription cable network following last season’s lukewarm performance of “The Sopranos” and the expected demise of “Sex and the City,” which is heading into a possible final season.
“They need to grow the next generation of buzz-worthy television shows. They need to groom the heir apparents,” said Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming services at Aegis Group’s Carat. She cautions, however, that Ali G may be “too hip for the room.”
“We are relying too much on comedy and formats that are coming from across the pond,” Ms. Brill said. “The innovative ideas, on the network side, are not happening on our shores, because the nets insist on owning everything, including the studios that produce the shows. There isn’t any diversity. All the networks are doing outreach to the U.K.”#