Charles calls the encounter “one of the great epiphanies of my life. It’s like, yeah, it’s absurd. That one person is a success and one’s not and the randomness of it all. I’ve got to be not so serious about it, stop trying so hard to alter my fate.”
The approach served him well: Soon afterward, he got a call from David asking if he’d like to work on Seinfeld.
One episode that David calls emblematic of Charles’s style was “The Bris,” in which the gang visits some friends and their new baby in the hospital. George tries to get the hospital to pay damages after a mental patient leaps to his death and lands on George’s car, and Kramer tries to uncover the government’s secret “pig-man” conspiracy.
“His episodes occasionally did not go down too well with the company because they were so edgy,” says David.
After the success of Seinfeld, Charles worked on Mad About You and Entourage before making Borat, which has given him the money, time and sway to concentrate on his own projects. “There’s so much crap in the world,” he says. “I try to be involved only in things that I think need to happen. In that sense, I like to flatter myself, delude myself into thinking that I’m not really part of the system.”
It would be a tough line to swallow coming from nearly any other Hollywood filmmaker. But it helps that, rather than rushing to land the biggest paycheck his post-Borat heat could leverage, Charles instead reassembled the small crew that made Borat, secured $2.5 million from an independent company and teamed up with Bill Maher to shoot Religulous, which skewers organized religion. It’s scheduled for a summer release.
In the film, Maher and Charles travel to the Temple Mount in Israel, Orlando’s Holy Land Experience theme park, and an Islamic clothing store in London, where Maher, in his signature know-it-all deadpan, tells the proprietor, who’s standing next to a mannequin in a burka, “It’s almost like religion was created as a way to keep women in their place.”
Charles acknowledges it’s somewhat ironic that after his meandering—one might even say miraculous—route to success, he’d be a champion of atheism. “I kind of stumbled on a path and said, Oh, look, a path!” he says. “Religulous is all about how there’s no God, but I could make a pretty good argument for a higher being.”