Skip To Content
Film & TV

‘Curb’ Director Larry Charles Feared Getting Comfortable, Now He’s Swapping Jokes With ISIS

In many ways, Larry Charles has stuck quite close to his creative associate Larry David. They met as writers on the show “Fridays” in the 1980s, collaborated as writer-producers on “Seinfeld” through the ‘90s and continued their partnership well into the new millennium with Charles’ directing on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” But while David, at least as a character, is a creature of habit who contorts himself to avoid social discomfort, Charles fears growing too cozy in his Malibu milieu.

“I didn’t want to wind up being complacent, safe and secure,” Charles told The Guardian in a February 20 profile. “That isn’t why I got into comedy. I wanted to seek out what’s funny in different environments. I wanted to ask a member of ISIS what they laugh about.”

Charles’ desire to get out of his comfort zone led him to create a new series for Netflix, “Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy,” in which he journeys to international danger zones and bright-red states to ask former terrorists, warlords and current alt-right personalities what they find funny. The endeavor is part Sacha Baron Cohen (for whom he directed 2006’s “Borat”) and part Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” using humor as a point of connection where the late chef used food.

“I was a big fan of Bourdain,” Charles told The Guardian. “Like me, he’s an older white man trying to be cool in these different situations. And he was. Ultimately, the lesson that I learned, and that he learned, is how similar everybody is.”

In the Netflix docuseries, Charles has a tete a tete with Joshua Milton Blahyi, aka “General Butt Naked” a former Liberian warlord (now a priest) known for commanding a brigade of child soldiers and running into battle sans uniform and underwear. He tells Charles about war crimes involving underage infantry before mentioning Bill Cosby’s TV show “Kids Say the Darnedest Things” gets him chuckling.

“[T]o me it’s not that far removed,” Charles told The Guardian of these two, seemingly conflicting interests: Innocence and the most abject human depravity. “I never thought, when I was a child, that connection would be made. But here it is.”

In his sojourns to war-torn countries, Charles came to the conclusion that life in the face of death may be humanity’s greatest source of humor. We all fear death and its inevitability, he posits, but we also fear being made the butt of a joke, as one former member of al-Shabbab featured on the show discovered when his neighbors teased him for falling so easily into the ranks of a terrorist organization.

“People often feel that’s the worst thing that can happen to you,” Charles said of being an object of fun, “which means – in a Seinfeldian, Curbian sort of way – it’s also the funniest thing that can happen to you. That’s why I’m always looking for comedy that really isn’t funny. You say, ‘That’s not funny.’ Then you move it 10 degrees and suddenly it’s hilarious, because it’s catharsis.”

But there’s a moment in the four episode series where Charles is faced with a not-so -funny prospect: That of having influenced a visible internet troll. The alt-right comedian “Baked Alaska” has a sit-down with Charles and admits that “Borat” – particularly the title character’s anti-Semitic views – helped inform his comedic sensibility.

“That threw me,” Charles told The Guardian. “But I know one of the secrets of “Borat”’s success was how many people took it literally. Some people didn’t see it as a satire – they just saw a rude guy speaking their language.”

Charles, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Trump Village, wouldn’t want to make “Borat,” a reaction to George W. Bush’s presidency and its “cultural imperialism,” in a Trumpified climate, he admitted to The Guardian. However, when asked if he felt he should have taken greater pains to let audiences in on the joke of Baron Cohen’s character, he demurred.

“I don’t think so, in the same way that a poet is not responsible for explaining what a poem is about,” Charles told The Guardian. “You can’t control that. It’s the consequence of freedom.”

Charles also entertained the notion that Trump might himself be the result to free speech’s extremes – but not so much as apathy.

“We tend to be very apathetic about what’s going on, and Trump is emblematic of that because he’s apathetic too,” Charles told The Guardian. “He also tries to be funny, but he’s a bad comedian.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at [email protected].

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.