In-Your-Face the Nation

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There are too many competent interviewers in talk TV. From David Letterman's grumpy-uncle persona to Jay Leno's Chamber of Commerce bonhomie to Larry King's slow-pitched softballs, there are plenty of formats on which guests can happily plug their products or agendas. What TV needs are more bad interviews — unpredictable showdowns that don't glide to a safe three-point landing.

Enter Ali G, a tracksuit-wearing "hip-hop journalist" and the alter ego of British comic Sacha Baron Cohen. Da Ali G Show (HBO, Friday nights, 12:30 a.m. E.T.) is a little like This Is Spinal Tap, if the doltish rockers were asking the questions. In one of a series of artfully staged (but real) newsmaker interviews, Ali asks former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros BoutrosGhali: "Which is the funniest language? It's French, innit?" When he asks a panel of religious leaders, "Isn't God just an overhyped David Blaine?" you swear one of the panelists, a Dick Cheney — look-alike priest, is about to pop him.

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What makes Ali (Mr. G?) hilarious is his straight-faced belief that he's smarter than his subjects. Touring the U.N., he seizes on a place card reserving a seat for JORDAN. How, he demands, can the body give so much power to one basketball player? Later he asks why Africa is not represented. Pointing to the G section, an official notes that Guinea is in Africa. "So you claim," Ali sneers. Check and mate!

Ali G follows Real Time with Bill Maher (Fridays, 11:30 p.m. E.T.), the new vehicle for the pundit manque who expanded the possibilities of the bad chat show with Politically Incorrect, the issue-oriented roundtable that exploited the comic possibilities of letting, say, Tom Arnold hold forth on Kosovo. The live show was not available for preview, but it will in part adapt PI's discussion format, with more serious guests and fewer B-list stars. That fits the earnest air of Maher-tyrdom the host has cultivated since PI was canceled, after his controversial post-9/11 charge that the U.S. was cowardly for bombing enemies with cruise missiles. Let's hope Maher doesn't screw up Real Time by making it responsible.

Meanwhile, Maher's replacement at ABC, Jimmy Kimmel Live (weeknights, 12:05 a.m. E.T.) is by no conventional measure a good talk show. Kimmel, the former co-host of Comedy Central's The Man Show, is not a strong interviewer. He does not even seem to like his job; he trudges into the theater every night like a weary sales rep who can't wait for Miller Time. The show's booking pull is so feeble that, by its third week, Kimmel had his former Man Show partner, Adam Carolla, as co-host.

And yet the likable Kimmel is learning to make the amateur-hour feel work for the show. On the best nights, it's like a party on the verge of going out of control, as when Kimmel, Carolla and rapper Snoop Dogg — all drinking vodka on camera — deep-fried a ventriloquist's dummy and an audience member's watch during a cooking segment. And what Kimmel lacks in smoothness, he makes up for in audacity. It's unlikely another late-night host would casually ask Snoop if O.J. was innocent or guilty, or ask rap mogul Master P if he'd let his 13-year-old son — rapper Lil' Romeo — sleep at Michael Jackson's house. (Yes, there's a pattern here; much, maybe too much, of Kimmel's humor is about the frisson of a white boy going one-on-one with big, scary rappers.) It's not always comfortable, and some night it may all blow up on him. But that's a good reason to watch. A bad talk-show host, it turns out, is not such a bad thing to be.