Who is the man behind Borat, and now Brüno? Sacha Baron Cohen is the guy starring in the semi-improvised movie about Brüno, the gay Austrian fashion expert he invented on Da Ali G Show; he’s the one who will participate in such already famous scenes as the one in which he makes a baby wear a T-shirt that says “Gayby.” But the man directing Brüno, which comes out (no pun intended) on July 10, is Larry Charles, who directed Cohen in Borat as well. He also wrote some of the best episodes of Seinfeld and helped make Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage into hits. The one thing he hasn’t done yet is create a successful project of his own: every high-profile film and TV show he does is somebody else’s. Charles describes himself to Maclean’s as “a Bodhisattva of comedy,” using the Buddhist term for someone who wants to help other beings achieve enlightenment. “I’m putting off my own nirvana to help others reach their nirvana.” In this case, nirvana is achieved by letting Sacha Baron Cohen do ridiculous things in front of horrified onlookers.
Not that Charles, a distinctive comedy writer with an equally distinctive appearance (a cross between a hippie and Bob Odenkirk’s parody of Charles Manson on the old Ben Stiller Show), lacks his own ambitions as a filmmaker. He didn’t work with Cohen on Da Ali G Show and took over Borat only after the star fired the original director, Todd Holland, but Charles isn’t just a director-for-hire on Cohen’s comedy franchise. Instead, he sees these movies as a chance to “push the boundaries of where a studio comedy could go.” Even after Brüno was slightly edited to avoid an NC-17 rating, Charles proudly says that “it’s the dirtiest comedy ever made. That’s a feather in my cap.”
He seems interested in the almost clinical question of how offensive a joke can be before it turns people off, whether it’s the nude wrestling scene in Borat or the already infamous Holocaust and Hitler jokes in Brüno. People shouldn’t “try to create agreed-upon boundaries,” he says. “The audience is a good barometer of this stuff.”
This kind of willingness to push the audience—even to the point of pain—has always been a trademark of Charles’s comedy, even when he’s working under stricter limitations than a mere “R” rating. On Seinfeld, where he was the first staff writer hired (he’d worked with creator Larry David on the sketch show Fridays, and was known to the staff as “the other Larry”), he wrote the darkest episodes of the series, in which characters are arrested for mass murder, chained to a bed and robbed, or mistaken for the leaders of a neo-Nazi group. Charles then moved to running the show Mad About You. He turned it from a cute, harmless urban comedy into an incisive look at the realities of marriage—complete with fights, divorce threats, and unexpected pregnancies. He even managed to turn Dilbert into an animated show that was more despairing and depressing than the original comic strip. Never comfortable with escapist comedy, he thinks even Seinfeld now seems a little too rigid and formula-ridden compared to some of the things he’s done since. “Seinfeld was, in a sense, a transitional show,” he explains. “It was very much tied to the classic sitcom tradition, and at the same time it deconstructed the rules of that format, leading to shows like Curb.” Whatever he’s doing, he wants to do more.
That means that when Charles takes over a project, be it Mad About You or Borat, it often winds up becoming darker and more ambitious in scope than the original version. When Brüno appeared on Da Ali G Show, he was mainly used to make fun of the superficiality of the fashion world. Charles says that fashion is still a part of the new movie, but that it’s also a “very densely layered” film that “skewers and lampoons and satirizes many aspects of our society: fashion, homophobia, celebrity, fame.” He’s become increasingly interested in the idea of using movie comedy to deal with big, serious issues. Charles’s first feature film was Masked and Anonymous, a confusing but very politically charged comedy-drama with Bob Dylan, and his only film in between the two Cohen projects was Religulous, his anti-religion documentary with Bill Maher, in which director and star went around the world trying to expose religious believers as superstitious fools who have gotten the planet in a mess. Cohen’s films are more commercial— Charles says that he layers in “subtle and broad humour, and very absurd humour, so the result hopefully is that a large audience finds something funny in the movie.” But the political and social issues are still there; they’re just funnier because the star is someone funnier than Bill Maher.
One of the most anticipated scenes in Brüno is the one in which the title character participates in a cage match in front of an enthusiastic crowd. The audience enjoys the fight, but is disgusted when Brüno makes out with his opponent; we love violence but are repelled by sex. Charles has been dealing with our confused attitudes toward homosexuality as far back as 1993, when he wrote a Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George deny being gay, but then mechanically add “not that there’s anything wrong with that”; if that story were unscripted, it would fit right into the world of Brüno. And while he doesn’t mind if audiences don’t get the point (“whatever connection they make with the movie that makes them laugh is fine with me”), these bigger themes help give structure and weight to the stories, which could otherwise be overextended versions of Ali G sketches.
But though that approach works for Borat or Seinfeld or the many episodes of Curb that Charles has directed, it doesn’t translate into much success for any Larry Charles material without someone else’s name on it. Though he’s created original TV pilots and scripts, few have been picked up. Instead he makes most of his money by subordinating himself to the creator of the original property (or to a writer/star like Bill Maher). He says that he has a talent for figuring out what can make a good idea better: “With Entourage, I knew what it needed to be great. With Mad About You, I knew what was missing, and I knew I could fix that. I approach things with the hope of being the piece of the puzzle that allows them to reach their full potential.”
That may be one of the keys to understanding his contribution to the Cohen franchise: he didn’t create the characters or the concept, but he can help make them better. With Brüno, his job is to take a character “who never existed before or after those sketches” and give him some kind of inner life, the way Borat became kind of a sympathetic—or at least interesting—character in spite of his awfulness. “We need to give him an arc, a story, a narrative propulsion,” he explains. Going back to the days when he helped flesh out Kramer on Seinfeld, his specialty is taking someone else’s creation to new heights.
And though someone else will get the credit for the final product, these projects at least give Charles an opportunity to test the comedy techniques he’s become interested in. Charles, like David (who insisted on doing Curb Your Enthusiasm without formal scripts), became unsatisfied with the careful, pre-planned nature of most Hollywood comedy. He thinks that comedy can be better “when you release the reins of the normal filmmaking process.” In Brüno, Charles can create “a very spontaneous experience on-camera” because he has only one chance to get many of the scenes on film. In this world, being funny requires intense planning, but also leaves a lot up to chance once the cameras are turned on. “When we’re doing scenes at real locations with real people,” he says, “someone may step into the scene and suddenly become the focus of the scene. And we have to, on the fly, be able to shift our plan right there at the moment and sort of seize this new direction.”
The other thing Charles is trying to do in Brüno and Borat is figure out how today’s technology can serve the cause of comedy. Charles is in love with the ease and mobility of digital video, which he says has “advanced tremendously even since Borat” and allows him to make these movies with speed and freedom. Even the BlackBerry, which we don’t usually think of as a cinematic device, has become what he calls “one of the most crucial elements of the filmmaking process.” Because of the way these movies are shot, Cohen and Charles are sometimes physically “not anywhere near each other for hours. The only way we communicate is through BlackBerries.” On Seinfeld or Mad About You, Charles figured out new approaches to sitcom scripts; now he’s using movies as an experimental lab to see how unscripted comedy can be made more spontaneous.
The experiment may be over; Cohen has run out of Ali G characters to adapt into movies, and Charles is on his own again. But despite his recent success, he still isn’t getting a lot of projects greenlit; he wrote a dark comedy about Motley Crüe (which would have been his second umlaut-related film) that got caught in development hell. But Charles remains adamant about not settling into a comfortable niche: though Brüno is a follow-up to Borat, he says he tried to make it “an almost completely different movie in many ways. It moves differently, it’s designed quite differently. We care about the fans. We tried as much as possible not to feed them a retread.” Charles doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as the guy who directs and produces someone else’s projects, reminding us that “I have done many less successful things that were not like that.” But until he creates his own hit, he’ll get fulfillment by making sure that more famous people never repeat themselves.