As he stood in front of a packed movie theater with his long beard and longer hair, sporting a porkpie hat and tinted glasses, Larry Charles looked like a lost member of ZZ Top. It was August 2006 in Traverse City, a resort town in northern Michigan, and in a few minutes Borat, the Sacha Baron Cohen smash that Charles directed, would be screened for its first audience. Though the movie would officially premiere a few weeks later at the Toronto International Film Festival, Charles agreed to debut it at the festival his pal Michael Moore throws each summer near his home.
Before Charles had left for Michigan, nervous lawyers at 20th Century Fox, the studio behind Borat, had given him a list of things he was forbidden to say. “It’s an outlaw movie,” Charles explained to the crowd. “We made it like bank robbers. We’d go in, shoot and escape. So there are things I’m not supposed to say, legally.”
He uncrumpled the memo and began to read. No. 1: “That any of the persons appearing on camera were in any way tricked, duped or misled.”
“All right, I won’t say it,” said Charles. Another no-no: “That we knew in advance that people were likely to get angry.”
“I had no idea!” he exclaimed.
After he had worked through the list, the film began to roll, and the audience soon descended into the kind of roll-off-your-seat laughter that would sell $261 million in tickets. The movie was made for just $18 million—making it so profitable that the studio’s corporate parent, News Corp., singled out the film in its earnings reports alongside big-budget features including Live Free or Die Hard and the Fantastic 4 sequel.
Charles and Bill Maher on the set of their new documentary, Religulous
But sitting in his West Hollywood production office more than a year later, Charles, 51, is still wearing the same suit he wore that night in Michigan and sounding as modest as ever. “We had tremendous luck with finding people and the scenes coming off well,” Charles says. “The film had a kind of a blessed existence that I can’t explain.”
When it was clear that Borat was going to be a giant hit, Charles was deluged with studio offers to direct what he calls “big-budgeted bad comedies.” He sent all the scripts back. “I have a moral qualm with a $100 million movie,” he says. Instead, his next project is a $2.5 million snarky documentary called Religulous.
His friends aren’t surprised. “I don’t think he likes to be ordinary,” says Larry David, cocreator of Seinfeld, for which Charles, one of David’s closest friends, was a writer. As Moore puts it: “I think Larry will be remembered as one of our great satirists. That’s the field that he toils in, creating satire for the masses.”
Charles grew up among those masses, coming of age in the Sixties in a giant Coney Island housing project built by Donald Trump’s father. When he went off to college at Rutgers in the early Seventies, a professor told him that if he wanted to be a writer, he should drop out of school and hit the open road. “Look at me,” Charles recalls the professor telling him. “I could have tenure next year. Instead I’m going to quit and finish my novel.”
Charles took the advice, and he and a buddy began touring hotel lounges and seedy bars as the opening comedy act for a Top 40 cover band. When they were fired over payment disputes, Charles found himself back in New York, where he bumped into his old professor.
“I’ve been traveling the country being a writer,” he told his teacher. “How’s your novel?” Charles recalls him responding, “I took tenure.”
Charles ended up back in Brooklyn, crashing with friends. One had an extensive porn magazine collection, which inspired Charles to write his own humorous, bawdy tales; when he and his friends got high, he would read the stories out loud for their amusement. This prompted him to send a humor piece to a local porn mag, Screw, which published it. “My grandmother in Florida was so proud,” he says. “She’d go to card games and say, ‘Look, my grandson is published.’”
His Screw pieces led to a brief gig writing porno novels in what Charles describes as a sweatshop with typewriters. Later, he took a job as a bellhop at a Catskills resort, and by 1976 he had saved enough to move to Los Angeles. For a year he parked cars and, in between shifts, loitered outside a stand-up club trying to sell jokes to comics. In 1980 one of his customers was hired onto a late-night comedy show called Fridays and recommended Charles for a job.
On his first day in the writers’ room, he met David, a Brooklynite from nearby Sheepshead Bay. “I heard his accent; he heard mine,” David says. “And we were best friends immediately. It was like we had known each other for 10 years.”
Fridays was canceled after three seasons, and it was years before Charles could get another steady TV job. In 1988 he began writing for The Arsenio Hall Show. For six months, not one of his jokes made it on air. Standing outside the show’s offices smoking a cigarette one day, Charles—who by this point had gotten married, acquired a mortgage and had his first child—knew he was about to be fired.
“I was looking up, going, ‘What should I do? Give me a sign,’” he says. Just then, he saw a Mercedes convertible driving toward him. Jack Nicholson was at the wheel. The movie star slowly passed the soon-to-be-unemployed gag writer. “He looks at me,” says Charles, “and I look at him. And for whatever reason, we both just burst out laughing. And he says to me, ‘Yeah, it’s funny,’ and just keeps on going.”
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.”
Movie set photo: Alexandra Lambrinidis