Filming 'Dangerous World of Comedy' for Netflix Was a Moving Experience for Larry Charles
Larry Charles with a street performer known as Special Forces - a former Liberian child soldier who uses entertainment to feel better about the world.
Larry Charles has made a career out of making people laugh on television with Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and on the big screen with Bruno and Borat. All these past experiences helped shape his new Netflix documentary-style series Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy.
The award-winning writer, director and producer ventured to some of the most war-torn and oppressive places around the world to explore how impactful comedy can be for varying cultures.
“Comedy to me is a wonderful metaphor to examine society,” Charles said. “That’s really its purpose, to a large degree, and being very honest about its assessments."
The New Yorker traces the early inspiration for the series to the presidential election of Donald Trump.
"That was a catalyst," he said. "I thought, 'Wow, I see very ominous changes on the horizon.' He seems to be isolating the country. He is kind of putting out a very racist white supremacist agenda. I thought the world was going in a really bad direction. I felt so powerless thinking, 'What can I do about this?'"
And so he traveled to Iraq, Liberia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and around the United States looking for answers. Charles went deep into the trenches, speaking with everyone from local performers to war veterans to warlords on the streets in the black of night.
The filmmaker pored over research before pitching the idea. He met with Hollywood power players the Russo Brothers, who helped shepherd the project to the streaming service provider.
From there, he Googled some of the most potentially hazardous destinations and “Comedy” to gauge where was feasible to go. The show’s team met with a threat security assessment expert to help map out an itinerary. The small production crew was accompanied by security, but that didn't stop Charles from feeling the political and social unrest.
“We’re in Iraq going to Kirkuk, being decimated by a battle with ISIS,” he recalled. “… There was a lot of chaos. You realize you’re in helmets and bulletproof vests and in an armored car. You’re having to deal with a war in progress. That was sort of scary, but somehow, I didn’t feel afraid for my life. Though I was conscious what was going on around me. My senses were very heightened.
“In Saudi Arabia, people are being arrested. All kinds of things are going on there. It just happens, and people are gone. A comedian I interviewed there, who is known as the Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia (Fahad Albutairi) has recently been detained and kind of disappeared. His wife (Loujain al-hathloul), who is one of the women-driving activists, was also jailed. Both of them were recently jailed, and nobody knows what their fate is right now.”
Charles certainly had his expectations going into this endeavor. He found individuals who, despite their surroundings crumbling around them, used comedy to satirize, critique and comment on what was going on in their respective countries. However, through the process of hearing their stories, he found the creative outlet meant so much more.
“I met a lot of those who take comedy and do it very heroically and risk their lives,” Charles said. “But what surprised me was the degree comedy served as a tool beyond critiquing the government, beyond satirizing the cultures of these countries. It takes on the role of healing in these war-torn places and post-war-torn places, and as a tool for survival.
“I wasn’t really expecting the emotion that accompanied the use of comedy in these environments. I wound up being extremely moved. Most of my assumptions were mistaken.
"It was a much deeper experience than I expected it to be. I welcome that. I didn’t want to know what was going to happen. I was happy when my expectations were upended, and it transcended what I would have imagined.”
Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy, streaming now on Netflix