CS interview: Larry Charles on the Dangerous World of Comedy
Following his work around the world on hit comedies Religulous, Borat and Brüno, Larry Charles has teamed with Netflix to give audiences a deeper look at how dangerous it can be to be a comedian both here in the U.S. and especially overseas with his new four-part docuseries. We recently got the chance to discuss the series with Charles and the full trailer for the series can be viewed in the player below!
ComingSoon: Where did you get the idea for this series?
Larry Charles: It wasn’t like a kind of eureka moment, I’ve had a number of strands running through my head for years that were sort of like telling me to follow certain instincts. I had become very disillusioned with the fictional filmmaking I was doing, there were too many cooks, the studio system was just too overpowering, too many producers, I couldn’t control the finished product and I thought it really hurt the results of those things that I worked on and I was profoundly disappointed. One of my best experiences was doing Religulous, which was non-fiction and had a very small crew and in fact we did Borat in a very similar way, we filmed it like a documentary and we had a very small crew and those people all fit into a van. I wanted to strip away all of the artifice and apparatus of infrastructure from the filmmaking experience and have a more pure filmmaking experience, if possible. I wanted to make something that was urgent, I feel like in this [Donald] Trump world that we’re living in, we’re getting more isolated, Americans are less interested in the world and I had spent a lot of time in the rest of the world and I thought it would be interesting for people to learn something about that and be exposed to it and see how similar it is to their own lives. I’ve spent a lot of time in these foreign countries doing commercials and movies and no matter how oppressive the regime was of the country I was visiting, there was always comedy and ultimately we would create mayhem and havoc in these countries, like Jordan, but then we would get to go home and we would be rewarded and receive accolades for our work. But the comedians in all of these places had to stay there and I wondered what it was like for these comedians to have to stay behind in all of these places. What was it like to practice comedy in such a repressive environment? So I started to Google the most dangerous places I could think and comedy, so I Googled Somalia and comedy, Iraq and Comedy, Syria and comedy, and every single time there were comedians everywhere. I thought these people are working under these crazy conditions, people being killed or imprisoned or tortured or threatened for their comedy. I thought I’m kind of uniquely qualified to bring that story back and so that was the various strands that led to that idea.
CS: With all of your travels working on films such as ‘Religulous,’ did you discover any of the comedians while shooting on location or did you discover them solely through online research?
Charles: I didn’t return to any of the countries I had visited on my other shoots, we went to brand new countries either I had never been to or had never really done any research on the comedy in those places. So, for instance, I’ve been to Israel numerous times and I know a lot of Isreali comedians, but this time we went to Palestine, although that segment isn’t in the show right now. I went to places I hadn’t been before, we were able to get into Saudi Arabia and got into Iraq very freely, but we weren’t able to get into Syria. We were in Mogadishu, again very tough to get into, but we were able to sort of pull that off. It was based on my research and going on YouTube, because a lot of the comedy in these countries don’t have 900 channels like America or have live venues, a lot of the comedians are using social media as a way to get their messages across to millions of people. People in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia are consuming comedy in very large numbers and a lot of it is social media because you have state-run TV quite often in these places. So none of these comedians were comedians I knew, they were comedians I had read about and were curious about and wanted to meet to find out what their lives are like.
CS: There were a lot of personal stories coming from the comics, such as the U.S. Army veterans, in the series, how do you feel watching and hearing these very personal tales?
Charles: Well it’s funny because I didn’t go in to this project thinking this is going to be an emotional roller coaster or heart wrenching, that never occurred to me at all, I thought this was going to be a hardcore comedy. We’re going to talk about hardcore comedy, we’re going to talk about politics, we’re going to be hearing comedians critiquing the government and doing hard-nosed satire that got them in trouble. So I got to these places and although that is very much a constant in these places, governmental critiques, satire of politics, very important elements in a lot of these countries like Iraq or Nigeria. By the same token in all of those places that have been through a war or are undergoing a war right now or are recovering from a war, a large stream of comedy was designed to lighten the mood and alleviate some of the trauma from the experience. Because the comedians themselves have been through a lot of what the audiences have also been through, and I’m including torture, murder, imprisonment, murdering of families, so comedians would experience this just like everybody else and they felt the obligation, or calling even, to continue to do their comedy and to spread that word and try to make things right somehow. Comedians are moralists so they want to try and figure that out, and I found that out all over the world and it caught me by surprise.
CS: Speaking of countries currently in war, you did interview the ex-warlord in Part 1 and the ISIS general in Part 2, what was that experience like? Was there any nervous concerns you had going into that?
Charles: Yes, very much. The warlord, General Buttnaked, he’s a veteran and a survivor of the Liberian Civil War, it was kind of an surrealistic, absurdist civil war, the atrocities, the violence, the level of degradation is so deep that it’s almost unimaginable when you hear descriptions of it. This guy, General Buttnaked, is one of the most important purveyors of this violence, but he survived the war and he’s gotten redemption now, but we met on a dark street on the first night we got to Monrovia and I’d never been there before and we were on the street where the war broke out, where battles had been fought, where he had fought himself. It was a dark street, very little electricity, lot of people kind of hovering around in the shadows, that was very nerve-wracking. There were other nerve-wracking moments, but that was our first night in Liberia.
CS: How did you center yourself during those moments?
Charles: The ISIS thing we came into was in Kirkuk, the ISIS prison, and Kirkuk was just a battered city, there were bullet holes in everything, if it was still standing there were bullet holes in it. We met the ISIS prisoner and I wasn’t really scared, but the Battle of Mosul [was raging] and Mosul was falling while we were there and I could see the smoke from that battle from where we were, so I was anxious about that. But I’m very single-minded when I do the Sacha [Baron Cohen] movies and everything like this, and I’m not really stepping outside of myself and thinking, “What are you doing, are you crazy?” It’s only after or before that I think that, but my only goal is to get it on film, because I know I’m only going to have one chance, so I don’t really get too nervous too often. I kind of get off in some ways on the heightened anxiety of the situation and I kind of get calm in those situations. I will admit that in Mogadishu, we were trapped in a traffic jam and there were dozens of guys in different colored camo[uflage]s with machine guns and everybody was moving and looking in and nobody knew whose side anybody was on, and at that moment I thought, “What am I doing here?” We obviously lived and we were lucky, it was just lucky, and I feel like a lot of the time I just had to be lucky in order to survive.
CS: The third part saw you dive into a lot of contemporary humor, including the new anti-comedy and the popular Boonk, do you see any negative trends that can come from comedians such as him?
Charles: No, I think there’s actually a kind of vitality in that. I think the comedy scene in a healthy way has broken apart into many different fragments and I think that’s a result of all of these different things, such as political correctness and social appropriateness. Watching the culture shift has forced comedy to shift with it and it’s kind of unmoored in the same way that the culture is unmoored, so you have a lot of different voices, a lot of different tones and a lot of different textures in comedy now, all valid possibly. But eventually I would imagine, like idealistically the culture itself, will synthesize out of a new voice of comedy that we really can’t imagine, like when punk came along or when Richard Pryor came along, it’s never predictable. I feel like these different voices will eventually synthesize into some form of unified strand.
CS: While you cover progressions in race, gender and the LGBTQ community, did you ever think of just covering how PC has affected the comedy world?
Charles: You know, I tried, but there’s only so much I could do in this show, but yes that’s a very interesting subject to me. Again, we’re sort of in the midst of it right now, watching the Louis C.K. saga unfold and there’s a lot going on and so I think to get a distinctive impression of it, I think it takes a little more perspective than we have on it right now. I am dealing in the show with anti-comedy and with the different values and different countries and what’s appropriate in one country might not be in another, but in terms of a larger piece about political correctness in comedy, I think that was too much for a show like this to hold.
CS: What was it like interviewing the alt-right comics in the third part of the series?
Charles: There’s a case where I was trying to make this connection between the 1960s anti-comedy, such as Abby Hoffman or The Yippies, and even the anti-comedy of Andy Kaufman, who I had the good fortune of working with, with this right-wing, alt-right comedy. It’s very prank-oriented, which [sees] getting people [very] pissed off funny as a theme, and look it’s very adolescent and I like it, I like to get people pissed off too, and I think that’s really the foundation of all that humor and I wanted to explore that idea. Weev, who presented himself as more of a comedian, really is just kind of a ranting racist essentially, but his rant is one of the most fascinating things of the show, I thought.
CS: It was interesting seeing him try to spin that web of thought for yourself and the Netflix audiences.
Charles: It was very almost tourettey the way he went off on that one harangue. At first I thought I should really be countering him or arguing with him, but really I just reached that conclusion that I should just let him hang himself and I don’t have to say anything and sometimes that’s the best strategy.
From the creative mind behind comedic classics such as Borat and Bruno, Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy explores the vast depths and varying definitions of comedy in different cultures all around the world. From Russia, China, India, Iran, Nigeria Turkey and more, Charles travels to the unlikeliest of places and speaks to the unlikeliest of comedians to unearth just how dangerous and how meaningful the world world of comedy can be.
The series is executive produced by Charles and Joe Russo, Anthony Russo and Mike Larocca, under their nonfiction label, Roam Pictures, and is set to debut on the streaming service on February 15.