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BPR Interviews: Larry Charles

Image credit: Matt Carr | Getty Images

Larry Charles is a comedian, screenwriter, director, and producer whose directorial credits include Borat, Bruno, and The Dictator starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Religulous starring Bill Maher, Army of One starring Nicholas Cage and Russell Brand, and Masked and Anonymous co-written with and starring Bob Dylan, among others. Charles served as second in command on groundbreaking sitcom Seinfeld’s first five seasons. He led character development of Cosmo Kramer and really does have a friend named Bob Sacamano. He later rekindled his working relationship with Larry David, directing in nine seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm. A small selection of his other writing credits includes Mad About You, The Arsenio Hall Show, Entourage, and New Girl. Charles’ most recent project, Netflix docuseries Dangerous Comedy, saw him travel around the globe interviewing dangerous people, from war criminals to terrorists, about what makes them laugh. 

Amelia Spalter: Let’s talk about those ice breaker activities where an overly enthusiastic facilitator asks you to say your name and a fun fact. When you’re in those situations, what fun fact do you say? 

Larry Charles: I’m never in that situation. And even if I were, I’m not the kind of person who would answer just because someone asked. 

AS: I like that. You’d probably be the first person in the history of the ice breaker activity to answer “pass.”

LC: I think Larry David is probably first.

AS: True. So, being the second person in history to pass could itself be your fun fact. But let’s talk about something a little less fun; you recently interviewed a cannibal warlord named General Butt Naked, who committed countless atrocities during the Liberian Civil War. How did you find him and get him to agree to be interviewed?  

LC: I had seen another documentary, when Liberia was in the middle of that civil war, and I was gripped, I could not believe it. There were so many things in it that were amazing and mind-blowing, but probably the most amazing and mind-blowing was General Butt Naked. 

As I was beginning to conceptualize the project that became Dangerous Comedy, I kept thinking the crew of this other documentary going into Liberia during the civil war was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. As soon as I made a decision to do the show, I knew I’d like to go back there and meet Butt Naked. I kept up with his story and knew that he’d become kind of an evangelist and had been forgiven, so he was at the top of my list of people I wanted to talk to for this show. 

AS: The closest I’ll ever get to interviewing a cannibal warlord is interviewing someone who interviewed a cannibal warlord so, what was it like being face-to-face with him?

LC: I don’t really get scared or anxious in these situations. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh man, this is crazy,” but I was very aware that we were on a dark street in Monrovia with a controversial person, and that on a certain level, I had to surrender control. The surrendering of the control is part of what makes me calm down. I just talked to him, really. I kind of launched into it with the cannibal questions. And he was, as you see, very matter of fact about answering them.

AS: Yah, you asked straight out “what does human flesh taste like” and without missing a beat, he said “pork ribs.” 

LC: He actually gave a lot of context. Not all of it is in the interview that was cut into the show, because he talked a lot more about his childhood. He had a very strange, surreal, uniquely African, abusive childhood. He’s a good guy, like a lot of the soldiers in Liberia, who were doomed to a life of war and violence.

AS: From the short time I’ve known you personally, I’m guessing this is going to be a no, but was there any initial hesitation over including the cannibal questions?  

LC: I felt like if I was going to go this far, I had to ask those questions, because it was a fucking pain in the ass to get to Liberia. The interviews were the reason I was going there, so I had to be true to myself and say, “There’s no point in doing this if I don’t go all the way with it.” So, I didn’t really have hesitation. I had awareness that there could be consequences to a lot of the questions I asked throughout the series. I was aware, in this case, that there could be consequences of another sort, being in the middle of a dark street in Liberia while asking these sorts of questions. But this is what I had chosen, and I had to play it out to the end.

AS: As a diehard fan, I’m glad you lived. But as a viewer, I’m glad you took the chance, because I could not have anticipated most of his responses.    

LC: Exactly. I mean, I asked him what makes him laugh and he said he loves Kids Say the Darndest Things. That bookend to the interview was so unexpected and perfect.

AS: Yeah. I’ll never look at Kids Say the Darndest Things the same way for two reasons now. Dangerous Comedy is rife with so many moments where you’ll have to rewind because you won’t believe what you’ve just heard. What was the most surprising thing you came across over the course of filming?

LC: In the entire series, a recurring thing that kept surprising me, was the lack of anger. I was angrier about these countries’ plight than the people who lived there were. Not that they’re not trying to make it better or that they don’t care. They care a lot. They are willing to die for their causes. But they don’t have anger behind it. They’re not bitter. Most of the people that I met on this trip were generous, sweet people who just wanted a simple life, very, very analogous to any American family. This lack of anger really moved me. To be in these situations — to be refugees, to be on the run, to be thrown in jail or tortured — and not be bitter or angry but to try to make things better and help heal things in the moment through comedy, was very inspiring. 

I was stunned by many of the interviews as I conducted them. Like General Butt Naked, but also Ahmed Al-Basheer and a lot of other people who were telling me their stories. I’m thinking about my own life versus their life. How lucky I am, and how amazing it is that they are here, still doing what they do. Every person I spoke to was a reminder of all the reasons I was doing the show.

AS: Ahmed Al-Basheer’s story was a standout among an already outstanding group. He hosts a Daily Show style comedy program that regularly mocks ISIS, and ISIS abducted and tortured him. He literally joked his way out of captivity, and when he was released, he went on the air and joked about the kidnapping. When you asked him if he was tortured by ISIS, he said, “eh, a little.” At first I thought he was joking. 

LC: He is and he isn’t, because he saw people tortured worse, but he was definitely tortured. And as you hear in the interview, he actually utilized humor to save his own life. Again, another unexpected revelation. 

AS: Speaking of the unexpected, was there anything so strange or disturbing that it could not be featured in the series? 

LC: No, nothing more disturbing or strange than what you saw in the show. But there were many sequences, and in fact, entire countries, that Netflix just left out. I went to Turkey, which isn’t in the series. I was actually chased out of Turkey. 

I went to Palestine, and one of my best interviews was in Palestine, with a Palestinian comedian who I’m still in touch with. I’m in touch with a lot of the people that I spoke to. I went to his house; I met his mom and his brother. But there just was no room for it. It was a big, long piece. He runs a workshop where he has kids come and do stand-up to work through some of their trauma from all the violence that takes place there. Again, a very inspiring person who’s using comedy to really try and affect change. I regret that that did not wind up making the show. I have all this material and I don’t know what I’ll do with it.

AS: Hold on, you were chased out of Turkey?

LC: Turkey is a very interesting place. I wish I could have stayed longer. I talked to a bunch of TV actors, which is what caused all the controversy. It was very much state-run TV, and I was asking about censorship, and it was the first country we went to, and the first interviews I had done. I think I was a little too aggressive. They were taken aback. Before we knew it, we were surrounded by a lot of people asking a lot of questions. So, we had to hightail it out of the country, unfortunately. 

AS: You said you don’t get scared easily, even when making small talk with terrorists or being chased out of a country. Was there any point during the making of the series that you felt in real danger?  

LC: I don’t like to leave until I make sure I have everything, because I know I’m never coming back. A lot of what I film I have to get on the first try, because I’m never going to have another chance. I try to really impart that urgency to my crews. I never leave until I’m ready, if possible. There have certainly been times, working with Sacha Baron Cohen, where we actually, literally, did physically run away. We had to. But in this show, no, I didn’t have to run.

I’ll tell you when I was scared, but it wasn’t like, “I’m scared, I should run away.” When we were in Somalia. Mogadishu is just a city of rubble and chaos and violence. We got caught in a couple of checkpoints with lots of heavily armed soldiers. You realize, you’re just in a car, you can’t defend yourself. If they had decided to open fire or a bomb went off, there’s absolutely nothing you could do about it. So, I felt like, “Well, gee, maybe this was a mistake for me to come here.” 

When I originally pitched the show, I thought, “I’m just gonna roll the dice and talk about ‘I want to go to the most dangerous places.’” When it came to Somalia, I thought I’d talk about doing it, and then the State Department would stop me. When they said okay, I was very surprised. 

AS: Shifting from work to home for a second, one of your kids, Pearl, has begun to make a name for herself in the music industry.  What has it been like for you to watch your daughter embark on this journey? 

LC: Pearl is a completely unique person who has evolved on this path. She’s so talented, but she’s also courageous. She’s booking her own tours, she goes out on the road, she’s hiring the band, she’s driving. I’m just super proud of her and I hope that she gets what she wants out of the experience. It seems like she has so far.

AS: She’s such an eclectic artist, how would her music best be described in one sentence?

LC: I would call it a psychedelic pop folk rock.

AS: Woah, well, Pearl is definitely the future. Let’s loop around to the past. On Seinfeld and beyond, you were known for championing the darkest most surreal storylines. Why has this been a theme throughout your career?

LC: I think it has something do with my childhood. There’s a part of it, of course, that I can’t explain. Why does somebody see things the way they see them? I was in a certain position when I was growing up to observe a lot of insanity, a lot of surrealism, a lot of weird, dark humor and violence, and I guess it kind of stuck with me. 

AS: You do a lot of high-risk filming, even for a comedian. What is the most nerve-wracking shoot you’ve ever been a part of?

LC: They’re all very different and yet, there’s a lot of overlap. For example, going to Nigeria or Liberia or Somalia. I was also in Ghana and Kenya and Saudi Arabia. These are places where you don’t see people like me. And I’m a fairly outspoken person. I went to all these places totally openly, not trying to sneak around and do anything furtive, but I was still in a situation where somebody could grab me or authorities could take me in. 

With a lot of these places, things can change in a second. Before and after we were in Somalia, there were a number of massive bombings that killed hundreds of people, right where we were.  That was scary, especially in retrospect. When I got home to my wife and my kids, I realized how freaked out all of them were. I was a little oblivious to the potential consequences of going. 

But when I was doing Bruno, for instance, even more than Borat, we were the subjects of hostility and the targets of violence. Between Borat and Bruno, we had hundreds, literally, close to 200 if not more, stops by local sheriffs, the police, the Secret Service, and the FBI. We were chased by angry mobs. We were chased by a stone-throwing mob in Jerusalem, which is actually in the movie. 

But you see, it’s in the movies, because I wanted to shoot it and get it. If I’m running away, I wanted to make sure someone else was filming it, so that we had it all. But it is scary. We did scenes with people with guns in the dark. There was a lot of danger with little things that could go wrong very easily in a movie like Bruno, and also in a totally different way, go wrong on a series like Dangerous Comedy.

AS: You mentioned earlier there were situations with Sacha’s projects in which you literally had to run away during the shoot. Those of us who have seen all of these movies can probably guess which scenes these were, but could you go into a bit more detail?  

LC: You have to understand, when Sacha walked down the street as Bruno in places like Texas or Berlin, he would pretty much invite people to come up and jostle him or curse him out or push him or shove him. So, we were in a lot of situations where people felt very comfortable being violent towards him. In Jerusalem, we looked for the most Hasidic neighborhood we could find, and he walked down the street in Hasidic hot pants. We didn’t anticipate people coming out of their storefronts and their houses, screaming and yelling and picking up rocks, and starting to throw them at him, and at us, the crew. I actually got surrounded by some guys in yarmulkes brandishing rocks at me. We were all cocked and ready to throw what we had; I had a clamshell monitor. I said, “I don’t what’s gonna happen to me, but I promise you, I’m gonna crack one of your skulls with this thing.” I backed away slowly and I was able to get away. But there were a lot of those close calls. 

We went to a guy named Glenn Miller’s house for Bruno. He was a white supremacist. It turns out, he was also a murderer. We had a very violent scene with him which we did not put in the movie. He wound up on death row a few years later. We spent a lot of time around bad people. We talked to a terrorist in the occupied territory in Israel, for example. We had a lot of situations where it’s, “wow, one thing goes wrong and we’re dead.” You just sort of get into a cognitive dissonance where you can’t do your job and think about that possibility, so you let it go. And then it surges back in once it’s over, usually with the exhilaration that you survived.

AS: Do you have any passion projects that have not been produced or have not aired yet? 

LC: Oh my God, many. Hopefully, in the next year or so, a couple of things will come to fruition that will be also very exciting and very pure. Filmmakers are defined by the projects that get produced, but if you ask any filmmaker that you admire to talk about their work, they’ll tell you about all of the projects that don’t get made. The failures or the unrealized projects are almost as insightful into who the artist is as the things that get produced or the things that are successful. I have tons and tons of unproduced, unrealized stuff. I have pilots. I shot a Kanye West pilot and it’s kind of in the black market… No pun intended. I’ve done a lot of cool stuff like that that nobody’s ever seen. The Bob Dylan movie, we didn’t even talk about that. I’m not even sure you were aware of that.

AS: Of course I am! Can I humbly suggest more people may be aware of it than you think and just don’t realize you were involved since your real name isn’t on it anywhere, Mr. Rene Fontaine? 

LC: Nobody’s seen that movie, I appreciate the fact that you are aware of it and you know that much about it, thank you. But I just had a meeting this week with someone asking me, “Do you have any experience with music?” and I was like, “Obviously, you haven’t seen my Bob Dylan movie.” 

AS: I can’t believe HBO thought the Kanye West Pilot was “too hard core.” Who wouldn’t love to see Kanye in something scripted? 

LC: Well, you could almost say that he would not have met Kim Kardashian or become this sort of Christian martyr if he’d had a successful show, you know? It’s one of those, The Man in the High Castle kind of situations, alternate history.

AS: Speaking of history, several centuries from now when they’re writing the comedy history books and the last few decades are condensed down to a page, what comedians do you think will make it in?

LC: That’s a tough one. There are very few comedians, unfortunately, that have had a massive enough cultural impact. There’s only a couple of people I know who really fit that category. Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce are obviously poets of comedy and sort of like, the pantheon. In recent times, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David had a massive impact on the culture that we still feel in comedy. I think if we’re going to study any comedy, hundreds of years down the line, it might be something like that.

AS: Some say the lack of culturally impactful comedians in recent times can be attributed to a newfound fear of saying the wrong thing. What do you think about cancel culture? Is there amnesty on stage? If not, how far is too far? 

LC: I’m for free speech, I’m for complete freedom of speech. I don’t believe in any kind of censorship, but I also believe in consequences. So, if you want to get up on stage and say rude or ill things, you have to be willing to deal with the consequences. I don’t want to hear excuses. If you want to be bold on stage, then you can’t be cowardly when the consequences come out. To me, if that were true, then all things are equal, and anybody could say whatever the hell they want just by dealing with the consequences. 

In America, it might mean that you’re not going to get that pilot or you’re not going to get that special, but in countries like Somalia, you might be tortured or killed, and that’s the difference. The cancel culture is a very indulgent, luxurious culture. There’s choice involved. People in America have comedy careers. That’s almost unheard of around the rest of the world. When I think of the life and death urgency in those other countries, cancel culture is a minor issue.

AS: Interesting that you say “if” we’re studying comedy, because you’ve said before that comedy is on the endangered list. Are you concerned the artform will die out?

LC: I wouldn’t say I’m concerned, but what I observe is the same thing everybody else observes, people don’t know what’s funny anymore. They don’t know when to laugh. They don’t know when it’s comfortable to laugh. But I also see that as a problem of white patriarchal comedy, and I think that era of comedy is coming to an end. What you have is this kind of fracturing of the comedy scene, this fragmenting, it’s these little islands, and each island has its own voice. If you like Louis C.K., and there’s plenty of people who still do, you’re probably not gonna like Hannah Gadsby, you know what I mean? I believe we’re on the cusp of a new comedic language that’s maybe more inclusive, that’s maybe not so patriarchal, and is still funny to the audience. That’s the optimistic scenario. If not, we’re gonna evolve out of laughing and we will be a humorless species.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.