Outside the box
Sacha Baron Cohen may now be a multi-millionaire Hollywood star, but he started out doing skits on late-night TV comedy shows. The character that really got him noticed was Ali G, the white suburban twit who thought he was a rapper, tried to talk like a Jamaican and proudly paraded an ignorance of culture and current affairs that was simply breathtaking.
Ali G first appeared on Channel 4's '11 O'Clock Show' in the late 1990s, and by the early 2000s was sharing his own show with that other and far more lucrative Cohen creation, Borat. His hilarious cod interviews with everyone from David Beckham to Tony Benn got Ali G noticed in the States and Cohen retired the character in 2007 just as his film career was really taking off.
Now, though, it appears he's bringing him back. As part of a deal with Fox's FXX comedy channel in the US, the 42-year-old writer and performer has agreed to record a series of new Ali G skits that will air before re-run episodes of 'Da Ali G Show' as part of a special season Fox is calling 'Ali G: Rezurrection'. And Cohen has left the door open for a possible whole new season of Ali G material.
Mr Cohen is not short of a few bob. In 2012 he became one of Hollywood's highest earners after raking in an estimated $20m (€15m) from his hit comedy 'The Dictator'. But his recent work has not been kindly received by the critics, the general consensus being that films like 'The Dictator' and 'Bruno' lack the wit and brilliance of his early creations.
Ali G certainly was brilliant. With his ghastly tracksuits, blinging jewellery, silly hats and pinheaded observations, Alistair Leslie Graham (to give him his full name) seemed to embody everything that was awful about contemporary British culture. His interviews used his own foolishness to test the patience of politicians and celebrities to hilarious effect.
He once mistook the late author Gore Vidal for hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, asked the venerable political philosopher Noam Chomsky to explain the subtle difference between bisexual and bilingual and annoyed Donald Trump so much that the property magnate stormed out in a huff a minute into their interview. In my favourite Ali G interview of all, then-mayor of Belfast Sammy Wilson was asked if he was Irish. When the DUP politician answered sternly, "No, I'm British", a perplexed Ali G replied: "So, is you here on holiday?"
The new Ali G is unlikely to have mellowed. When Cohen briefly appeared as Ali to pick up a gong at last year's British Comedy Awards, he caused visible unease by making lewd jokes about Kate Middleton and Jimmy Savile.
Amazon yesterday entered the ever-changing world of television with its first original TV show, 'Alpha House'. The new series, a comedy starring John Goodman, will be available on the Amazon Prime Instant Video site, which is exclusive to members of the Amazon Prime internet shopping service.
The first three episodes were uploaded yesterday and further episodes will be released each week.
It's a potentially seismic development in a constantly evolving market because it shows just how diverse the ways in which we source new programming will become within a few years. The move is part of Amazon's philosophy of the "flywheel effect", by which the addition of attractive extras such as TV shows to its core business (shopping) will only increase the online customer base. Amazon must be pretty confident, because 'Alpha House' costs up to $2m an episode to make.
The show is written by Gary Trudeau, creator of the long-running 'Doonesbury' newspaper cartoon strip, and is set in a Washington DC house that serves as a crash pad for four very different Republican politicians. John Goodman's character, Gil John Biggs, is a former college baseball coach and now a North Carolina senator who struggles with the nuances of Washington and is prone to embarrassing gaffes.
The show takes potshots at the Tea Party hardliners and rather predictably lampoons Republicans rather than Democrats, but Amazon is hoping 'Alpha House' will establish it as a new player in the original content market and emerging rival for Netflix.
The difference with Netflix, however, is that television is its core business. The company's concentration on streaming an ever-broadening array of new and classic TV shows and movies to subscribing customers had made it a real force in recent years, and a few weeks back it reached a major milestone when it announced it now has more than 40 million subscribers worldwide.
The announcement came on the back of steady growth in North America and more dramatic gains internationally. And while the success of its original drama, 'House of Cards', at this year's Emmys gained a lot of attention, comic drama 'Orange is the New Black' has proved an even bigger hit. It stars Taylor Schilling as an accidental drug mule serving 15 months in a women's prison, and has been renewed for a second series which will be streamed on Netflix next year.
Further new dramas are planned and Netflix is constantly expanding its repertoire. It has even branched out into serious documentary and has bought the rights to Jehane Noujaim's award-winning documentary about the Egyptian popular uprisings, 'The Square', which will also be shown early next year.
Finally, how are the mighty fallen. Remember 'Jon and Kate Plus 8'? Back in 2008, the show became a huge overnight hit on the TLC channel and turned its unlikely protagonists into stars.
Probably the only interesting thing about Jon and Kate Gosselin was their combined gift for procreating in ever-increasing multiples. They had twins in 2000 and sextuplets in 2004, and in 2007 were chosen by the Discovery Health Channel for a series of one-hour investigative specials.
They quickly led to a plodding but very effective reality show called 'Jon and Kate Plus 8', which really took off when it moved to TLC in 2008. The show itself was fairly anodyne and taught me more than I will ever need to know about toilet-training an infant. But it was the apparent disconnect between the happy family portrayed on-screen and the reality of the Gosselins' life that most fascinated a prurient public.
By mid-2009, the Gosselins were probably America's second-most famous family after the Obamas, but not always for the right reasons. Tatty celebrity magazines published lurid claims that Jon was playing away and Kate was a fame-obsessed harpy.
Pennsylvania authorities launched an investigation into possible child exploitation during the series – the paparazzi snapped photos of Kate apparently smacking one of her eight little darlings. Then came an even more damaging YouTube video of her refusing to share water with her thirsty chicks.
The show staggered on for a couple of seasons after Jon and Kate divorced in 2009, but was canned in 2011. And where are they now?
Kate is battling furiously to stay in the public eye, and has published a couple of books, but her ex-husband has not fared as well. He currently waits tables at a smalltown restaurant, and in a recent interview bemoaned his fate and the negative effects the show had had on his children. Who knew being a child reality TV star would be bad for you?