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Absolutely Absurd: The World Of Larry Charles

Emmy-winning director and producer Larry Charles has a penchant for the ridiculous — witness his credits, which include Borat, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Now, Charles wants to turn his latest film, Religulous, into an HBO series.


Other segments from the episode on October 16, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 16, 2008: Interview with Ryan Lizza; Interview with Larry Charles.


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Lizza's 'Brief' Take On A Biden Vice Presidency


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Why did Barack Obama choose Senator Joe Biden as his running mate? Why did Biden accept? What did they agree the role of the vice president should be, and what vice presidents did they model that on? That's the territory covered in the article "Biden's Brief" in the current edition of The New Yorker. It's written by our guest Ryan Lizza, the magazine's chief political correspondent.

For 36 years, Biden has represented Delaware in the U.S. Senate, where he's chair of the foreign relations committee. Biden ran for president in the 1988 Democratic primary and was a candidate again this year before dropping out of the race in January after the Iowa caucuses. Ryan Lizza spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Ryan Lizza, welcome back to Fresh Air. When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were battling it out in the Democratic primaries, and after Joe Biden left the contest himself, he remained neutral, he didn't endorse either Clinton or Obama. And I wondered when it came time for Obama to pick a running mate, was it an asset that maybe Clinton supporters might have seen him as more acceptable since he wasn't someone who had endorsed Obama early and spurned their own candidate, Hillary Clinton?

Mr. RYAN LIZZA (Chief Political Correspondent, The New Yorker): That's a really good point. I think that Biden was a bit of a bridge to the Clinton world. So I mean, you don't want to overstate it, but Biden has had a long and very good and positive relationship with both Clintons. I mean, I would guess, and maybe recently this has changed, but up until recently I would guess that Biden spoke more frequently to both Hillary and Bill Clinton than Barack Obama did. So, the fact that he stayed neutral may have made him a little bit easier to swallow for some of the Clinton folks.

DAVIES: Now, Biden is a 36-year veteran of the Senate, you know serving from Delaware, and has held important positions, chaired the judiciary committee, was in all the cultural battles over Supreme Court nominations and then more recently, of course, has headed the foreign relations committee. To what extent do you think Obama valued his relationships in the Senate as an asset to his administration?

Mr. LIZZA: That was something that Biden dwelled on with me at length when I asked him about what kind of role he would have as vice president. He said that Obama has asked him to start thinking about their first hundred days, and to start thinking about legislative strategy, and to think about the agenda that they would put forth if they win. And obviously, that's you know, very, very important, what pieces of legislation go first. Do you do health care first, do you do energy, how much do you concentrate on Iraq and Afghanistan? And he says that Obama has asked him to start thinking about that.

When I talked to him, he didn't sound like he did a whole lot of thinking, but you know, it was still early in the process. And Biden made a couple of comparisons. We talked a little bit about the example of Lyndon Johnson who - another senator turned vice president, and we talked a little bit about Hubert Humphrey, also a senator turned vice president. And Humphrey actually went back to the senate after he was vice president. Since Biden's been around so long, Biden got to the Senate in 1972, he actually knew Humphrey when Humphrey came back to the Senate. Humphrey was sort of a mentor to Biden, and so he learned first hand what Humphrey's life was like as vice president.

DAVIES: Well, you know, the Lyndon Johnson comparison is an interesting one because...

Mr. LIZZA: Yes. It's not a great one in some ways.

DAVIES: Right. Well - but Lyndon Johnson was, you know, a veteran of a Senate, really understood its relationships and was a power there, was majority leader, and then became vice presidential nominee to a young charismatic John Kennedy.

Mr. LIZZA: Yes.

DAVIES: I mean, the parallels are really interesting, that...

Mr. LIZZA: Absolutely. That's what I thought of as soon as he said it. But what I thought was strange about the fact that Biden would mention Johnson as an example is that Johnson was a miserable vice president. I don't mean he was bad, I mean he was miserable as vice president. He hated the job, his staff and the President Kennedy staff didn't like each other, there was lots of bitterness left over from that election, you know, that the sort of Ivy League almost snobbish Kennedy aids looked down on Johnson as a sort of Texas hick, and he was miserable in the job. He wasn't - I don't think he could say he was a very successful or powerful vice president. And he was kept out of the loop on a lot of very important decisions, there were lots of things that were eye opening to him when Kennedy died and he had to take over. And so Johnson really went from sort of the peak of his power as majority leader to just a sort of depressed, powerless figure in Washington and in the vice presidency.

Now, things have changed about the vice presidency since then, so it's very unlikely that Biden would have a similar experience. But, one thing that Johnson learned was that his influence over his fellow senators changed drastically once he was out of that majority leader position. And so I think that that's one thing that Biden needs to be aware of is that he's - in our conversation, he talked a lot about the personal relationships he'd built up over the years in the Senate and how he was going to sort of rely on those to help Obama pass his legislation.

On the other hand, there have been vice presidents who came from outside of Washington, Spiro Agnew is a great example. He was probably one of the least effective vice presidents, governor of Maryland, he came in and he tried to make - one of the roles he tried to have was to lobby the Senate and to really go up to the hill a lot and lobby for President Nixon. And he was resented, he was disliked, even Republican senators resisted his efforts, and that was partly because he wasn't a member of the Senate club.

DAVIES: You know, as Joe Biden has considered the role he might have as vice president, you note that he didn't want to be a shadow secretary of state, didn't want to interfere with someone who had a line responsibility in the government and that he understood the Mondale rule, obviously referring to Walter Mondale. What was that?

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. You know, Mondale and Carter really invented the modern vice presidency. Mondale was the first vice president to have an office and staff in the West Wing. And after he and Carter won, Mondale and one of his aids, guy named Dick Moe, wrote a very lengthy memo and that it almost might be described as the sort of founding document of the modern vice presidency. And this memo sort of described the history of the office, explained why previous vice presidents have been so miserable in the job, and it made a series of proposals for enhancing the status of the vice presidency.

And Carter very enthusiastically adopted most of Mondale's proposals. In fact, Mondale didn't even recommend that he move into the West Wing, but Carter did, in fact, invited him in there anyway. And Mondale's chief insight was that to be an effective vice president, you should not saddle yourself with tasks, with commissions, and that previous vice presidents have - had done that because the job was so ill-defined and they wanted to have something to do. They wanted to have some sort of job description. So they would run blue ribbon commissions or they would take on sort of small-bore assignments. And Mondale's insight was that that just bugged you down in the bureaucracy and that made you less effective, and that really what you wanted to be is nothing fancier than a general adviser to the president. You wanted to be the last person in the room talking to him. And that was the sort of key insight in the memo that he wrote to Carter in 1976.

Mondale and Biden saw each other at the convention this year in August, at the Democratic convention, and Biden told Mondale that he had read and studied the memo. So Biden really had done his homework, and in describing to me his conversations with Obama, it was very clear that that's exactly how Biden saw his role, as a general adviser to Obama. Now, doesn't sound like a big deal, but that's how you can actually be more influential.

DAVIES: You know, there was a piece in The New York Times, when in August, when Biden emerged as the nominee, by Patrick Healy and Michael Luo and they said that in this piece that Biden had a times acted as a blunt speaking provocateur to Obama challenging the younger politician's ideas and assumptions. Do you know whether that describes their relationship?

Mr. LIZZA: It's something that Obama had said publicly as well. And remember, there's probably no more important issue to Obama's victory in the primaries, than the fact that he came out very early against the war. I mean, that was really the crucial distinction between Obama and Hillary Clinton, and I think you can make a pretty powerful argument that if Obama had not been against the war, he wouldn't have prevailed in the primaries.

Biden, of course voted for the war, so on the biggest issue in the Democratic primaries, they were on opposite sides of that debate. You know, there's a lot of ideological consensus in the Democratic party right now, but when Obama says that he wanted to pick a running mate who would challenge him, it's not just spin. I mean, there is some evidence that that has been sort of Biden's role.

And Biden said to me, I mean, one of the stories he told and I don't think he said it by accident, he said when Hubert Humphrey, his Senate colleague, who had come back from being Johnson's vice president, where he was really abused by Johnson and really had a tough time as vice president, Biden told me the story that stuck in his mind from his conversations with Humphrey was that Humphrey for the rest of his life regretted that he had not stood up to Johnson on the war in Vietnam.

In fact, Humphrey had become a loyal soldier selling the war to the American public when in his heart, he thought it was a huge mistake. And when he came back to the Senate and met Joe Biden, he was still haunted by that decision. And Joe Biden told me that something that he would never forget, he would never forget Humphrey's sort of disappointment in not standing up to his president.

DAVIES: You know, this model of the vice president as an important senior adviser on a wide range of issues, in some ways describes Dick Cheney doesn't it?

Mr. LIZZA: Absolutely. You know, most effective and powerful vice presidents since Mondale have sort of lived by the rules that Mondale set out. Now of course, Mondale himself did not serve in an administration that was very successful, and yet, he's still considered by historians to have been an effective vice president.

DAVIES: You know, one question about the vice presidency, you know, you've noted that a lot of vice presidents have taken on these particular tasks or commissions because the job is so ill defined and that there isn't...

Mr. LIZZA: Yes.

DAVIES: A clear role, what about presiding over the Senate? I mean, is that or...

Mr. LIZZA: That's right.

DAVIES: Can that be a big job?

Mr. LIZZA: It can. It's interesting. I mean, and you know in the 19th century, the vice presidency was a bit more of a legislative job, who did the part of the Constitution that describes the job as the president of the Senate, was given more emphasis in the executive responsibilities. I mean, since, you know, in the modern era, as the federal government expanded during FDR and then into the Cold War, the vice presidency became much more of a legislative job and much more of an executive position. And then that was really, truly formalized once the vice president moved into the West Wing.

You know, so there is some - there is a tiny germ of truth to that argument that Dick Cheney tried to make not long ago in one of the lawsuits he was involved in that he is - well, you know, the vice president is - has one foot in each of those branches, that's a unique position in that sense. And how much time the vice president spends over there in the Senate has really changed. But the guys that have come from the Senate have tended to spend a whole lot more time there. You know, go back to that example of Spiro Agnew, sort of getting kicked out of - literally almost being kicked out of the Senate because the senators didn't respect him and didn't want him there, lobbying him.

DAVIES: You mean, they would ask him to leave meetings?

Mr. LIZZA: Well, there was one - there was one famous example, I think it was a Republican senator who told Spiro Agnew, Spiro Agnew would come up there to lobby him on an issue and he said, you can't lobby me on an issue. I'm a member of the Senate. You're not a member of this branch of government. And he said, I have a new rule, if you every lobby me on an issue, I'm going to vote the opposite way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIZZA: Senators, you know, ex-senators haven't had as tough a time as Agnew had.

DAVIES: You know, I've covered him a bit on the campaign trail and he is a energetic, impassioned speaker and...

Mr. LIZZA: Yes.

DAVIES: And a natural with people. Loves to shmooze and work, you know, diners and bus stops. But you write that his style does not play well in the modern media environment. What do you mean?

Mr. LIZZA: Well, here's what I experienced when I was out with Biden, and this was mostly in September. What tended to happen was, he didn't have many national reporters following him around. This was this September of - when Sarah Palin was all the rage, and he was really the sort of forgotten candidate through most of the time that I was out on a trail with him. There was, I think Pew did a study and they looked at how much coverage each of the candidates was getting each week, and all through September, Biden never cracked like six percent. Whereas Palin, one week was as high as 60 percent.

DAVIES: That's six percent of media coverage. Right, right.

Mr. LIZZA: Exactly, all the coverage. So anyway, what was happening is, and I think this has changed just a little bit very recently, but what was happening is that he was mostly gaining coverage only when he made a mistake, only when he made a gaff. For instance, one day at a rally, you know, he pointed to a local state senator who is in a wheelchair and hence, you know, asked the person to stand up. You know, another...

DAVIES: Oh no.

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah, and well, you know, I thought he did recover well, but Biden is a guy who, you know, political consultants value message control and discipline and repeating the same thing over and over again. And Biden truly prides himself on being available to the press, saying what he thinks and not being controlled by spin doctors. And so, in the modern era where - if you're someone like Biden who is not the story, the only time you're going to break through is when you make a mistake.

Very recently, in the last week, I think he started to change that. I think he started to get a little bit more coverage. The campaign is sort of, as I pointed out, the sort of glowing local coverage that he's getting, and since the debate, I think he sort of turned the corner on some of those gaffs that were defining him in September.

DAVIES: You know, the most famous gaff of Joe Biden's career was in 1988 when he was running for president, and he adopted the biographical story of the British politician Neil Kinnock as his own without attribution, although he had attributed it at earlier moments in the campaign. And that led to a whole series of other stories that which he appeared to have exaggerated his credentials or had apparently plagiarized something, and he had to leave the race. I'm a little surprised the Republicans haven't brought some of that stuff up more in this campaign.

Mr. LIZZA: I'm surprised, too. And, you know, one of the - to me, what's fascinating about the Biden story is just this cycle of defeat and redemption that he has experienced in his life. He won his Senate seat when he was 30 years old. He had a beautiful wife, children, and bought a new house in Delaware, and in between being elected and being sworn into office, his wife and 13-month-old daughter were killed in a car crash.

So a person at the peak of his profession and then suddenly brought low by a terrible tragedy. He didn't want to serve out his term in the Senate but was convinced by other senators to stick it out and of course, did. And eventually remarried, rebuilt his life, and became a successful senator, was talked about from day one as a potential vice-presidential candidate. Thought about running in 1980, he thought about running in 1984 and of course, ran in 1988, again, at the peak of his profession.

A very hot candidate in that election and then brought low by a plagiarism scandal. He had been running around the campaign trail quoting a British politician, and at a very important debate in Iowa, he quoted the British politician, but unlike other instances, he didn't cite the politician. He used the politician's lines as his own.

DAVIES: And they were very personal, they amounted to Neil Kinnock's family heritage in overcoming poverty and he essentially told the story as his own, right?

Mr. LIZZA: Exactly. So the criticism was both that he stole these lines from another politician, without attribution, and that the information in the lines did not apply to him. And then, that didn't actually forced him out of the race, but there were a series of stories that came out in the wake of that and the accumulation of all the stories made him decide that he had to get out. What was happening at the same time, was he was presiding as a chairman of the Judiciary Committee over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. And part of his calculation was that that if he didn't drop out of the presidential race, the scandals surrounding him were also going to damage the Bork hearings and his ability to stop Bork from becoming a Supreme Court justice.

So again, he goes back to the Senate now. You know, with his reputation in tatters, branded a plagiarizer and a fibber, and he's written about this, and he basically spent from 1988 to 2008 rebuilding that reputation. I can't think of a politician who has been around as long as Biden who has been talked about as a presidential or vice-presidential nominee for as long as he has, and has been knocked down as many times as he has, and yet, he's now at the cusp of becoming the vice president. It's a very - it's a really remarkable story.

DAVIES: You know, he also has the unique position in this campaign of being the counterpart to Sarah Palin, who is just a unique figure in American politics, and clearly her nomination threw the Democrats off their game for a while, and if they attacked her or criticized her, it seemed to backfire. And you know, I think the conventional wisdom I've always heard from political consultants is that it's always very dangerous to attack a woman in a race. How has Joe Biden handled the challenge of running against, if you will, Sarah Palin?

Mr. LIZZA: Well, I think the debate is all the evidence you need to understand his strategy, and it's basically, ignore Sarah Palin. You know, one of the rules in politics is that if your opponent is having a tough time and the press is doing all of your work for you, just stay out of the way and let the press do it. There's no reason for you to pounce. And if you look at the vice presidential debate, Biden passed up opportunity after opportunity to go after Sarah Palin.

He basically ignored her and at every turn, he either defended Obama's record, made a positive case for himself and Obama, or attacked John McCain. And in a sense, it was as if, you know, there were pleasantries exchanged between Biden and Palin. But for the most part, he pretended that she wasn't on that stage. And, you know, I think most people agree that that was an effective strategy, and the sort of instant polls and focus groups that were taken after that debate suggested that he came out ahead of her.

DAVIES: Well, Ryan Lizza, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Mr. LIZZA: Ah, thank you so much, David. I really enjoyed it.

GROSS: Ryan Lizza is chief political correspondent for the New Yorker. His article about Joe Biden is in the current edition. He spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies who is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Absolutely Absurd: The World Of Larry Charles


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Sometimes a line in a TV show or movie is so good, so right for the moment it becomes a catch phrase, not just for a character but for the culture. Like the expression, "not that there's anything wrong with that," from a now classic episode of "Seinfeld." That episode was written by my guest, Larry Charles. He was a writer and producer on "Seinfeld." He also directed the movie "Borat," directed episodes of Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," has written and produced several episodes of "Entourage," and he was a producer and writer for "Mad About You."

Charles directed the new movie, "Religulous," Bill Maher's satirical documentary about religion. Charles and Maher talked about "Religulous" on our show two weeks ago, just before it opened. Larry Charles stuck around to record and interview about his other work. We're going to hear that now.

Let's start with the famous, not that there's anything wrong with that, episode from "Seinfeld." Jerry, George, and Elaine had been talking in the coffee shop when they noticed a woman staring at them. To give her something more to stare at, Jerry and George pretended to be gay, not realizing that the woman staring at them was a reporter who was about to do a story on Jerry. In this scene, the reporter has come to Jerry's apartment to interview him. George is there, too. Neither Jerry nor George recognizes her.

(Soundbite of TV Show "Seinfeld")

Unidentified Woman: OK, let's see. Are you just a comedian or do you do anything else?

Mr. JERRY SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Well, right now, George and I are writing a pilot for NBC.

PAULA MARSHALL: (As Sharon Leonard) Oh, so you also work together?

Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JASON ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Jerry, did you wash this pear?

Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Yeah, I washed it.

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) It looks like it hasn't been washed.

Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) So wash it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) You hear the way he talks to me?

PAULA MARSHALL: (As Sharon Leonard) You should hear how my boyfriend talks to me.

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) What? Let me ask you something. What do you think of this shirt?

PAULA MARSHALL: (As Sharon Leonard) It's nice.

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Jerry said he didn't like it.

Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) I didn't say I didn't like it. I said it was OK.

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Aww, you said you didn't like it.

Mr. SEINFELD (As Jerry Seinfeld): Oh well, so what if I don't like it? It's not like the end of the world or something.

PAULA MARSHALL: (As Sharon Leonard) So how did you two meet?

Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Oh actually, we met in a gym locker room.

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Actually it was in gym class. I was trying to climb the ropes and Jerry was spotting me. And then I kept slipping and burning my thighs, and then finally I slipped and I fell on Jerry's head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) And we've been close ever since.

PAULA MARSHALL: (As Sharon Leonard) Do you guys live together?

Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Live together?

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) No, I've got my own place.

Unidentified Woman: Oh. And do your parents know?

Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Know what?

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) My parents? They don't know what's going on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Oh God, you're that girl in the coffee shop that was eavesdropping on us! I knew you looked familiar!

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Oh no. No!

(Soundbite of laughter)

PAULA MARSHALL: (As Sharon Leonard) Oh, I better get going.

Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) There's been a big misunderstanding here.

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Yeah.

Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) We did that whole thing for your benefit. We knew you were eavesdropping. That's why my friend said all that. It was on purpose. We're not gay - not that there's anything wrong with that.

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) No, of course not.

Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) I mean it's fine if that's who you are.

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Absolutely.

Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) I mean I have many gay friends.

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) My father is gay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Look, I know what I heard.

Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Heard? It was a joke.

Mr. ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Look, you want to have sex right now? Do you want to have sex with me right now? Let's go. Come on, let's go baby. Come on!

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

GROSS: That's a scene from "Seinfeld." My guest, Larry Charles, wrote that scene. Did you have any idea that "not that there's anything wrong with that" would become one of the classic phrases from television?

Mr. LARRY CHARLES (Writer, Director, Producer): You know, it's ironic because we at various times on the show tried to inject the phrase into an episode that we thought would become a catch phrase and those never caught on. And yet at the same time, inadvertently, this one and others like "yada, yada, yada" became catch phrases, but there was absolutely no contrivance, no intent to do that. It just sort of happened organically and we should have known it would happen organically and not because we forced it.

GROSS: How did you come up with the phrase? Can you talk a little bit about your memory of writing this episode or that particular line?

Mr. CHARLES: Well, interestingly enough, both "The Outing" and "The Contest," the masturbation episode, were both thought of really the season before. And NBC was very uncomfortable with both stories, and we were still struggling in the ratings at that time, and so both of the shows were actually put off. And finally, those ideas came up again. We knew they were strong ideas. We wanted to make those ideas work, and of course, Larry brilliantly wrote "The Contest," which - without ever using - I mean, it was amazing, that episode about masturbation, there was absolutely no notes from the censor.

And then we wanted to do "The Outing" and we tried to think of how we can have people be horrified at the thought of being accused of being gay without being offensive to gay people. And we sat around and we thought about this idea of going - what would allow you to go crazy and be aghast at the thought of being accused of being gay is something to sort of mitigate it. And so the expression, not that there's anything with that, came up. And then we realized we could use that expression over and over and over again. It would allow us to get very comical with the denials as long as we would follow it with, not that there's anything wrong with that.

And so we used it a lot in the script. It seemed very funny. The rhythm of it was very funny also, which is kind of another level of it. Besides the actual verbiage itself, there's kind of a rhythm to it that really makes you kind of laugh almost inadvertently, unconsciously. So, it just wound up having this kind of power to it that we didn't really intend.

GROSS: So you said that you tried writing catch phrases hoping that one of them would catch on.

Mr. CHARLES: Right.

GROSS: What were some of the ones you tried to write, hoping they would catch on, that didn't?

Mr. CHARLES: There was one episode where, and I'll tell you the truth, I can't remember which episode it is now. But Elaine says something like - I think there was supposed to be a code word, she says, these pretzels are making me thirsty. And we thought, oh, that might catch on, you know. And again, it just didn't click, you know. It just didn't work, it just didn't happen. And again, we realized that contriving that was kind of a mistake. We couldn't make that work that way. And what happened was eventually, the audience sort of chose their own catch phrases from what we wrote.

GROSS: But "these pretzels are making thirsty" kind of did become a catch phrase. A lot of people said that one.

Mr. CHARLES: Yeah. But it's not - it doesn't, I guess it doesn't have the resonance for some reason. There's kind of a - like an interesting sort of philosophical resonance to "not that there's anything wrong with that," you know.

GROSS: Yes, yes.

Mr. CHARLES: It allows you to sort of be really offensive about something as long as you back up and say, not that there's anything wrong with it, so it works with a lot of contexts. Whereas, "the pretzels are making me thirsty," seemed to have a more limited application.

GROSS: So what was it like for you, you know, you've written for Jerry Seinfeld, playing a character who is not Jerry Seinfeld but is similar in some ways to Jerry Seinfeld. And you've directed Larry David playing Larry David, a character similar to, but not exactly himself. So, what's it been like for you to write and direct for people who are playing versions of themselves and you have to make it a kind of different and may be larger version of who they are?

Mr. CHARLES: Well, I've always loved the idea of blurring fiction and reality. I'm a big fan of Jean-Luc Godard and I always was interested in how he sort of blurred that line. And I think I try to apply these kind of experimental ideas to these more traditional forms, you know. The sitcom had certain rules.

We had never done sitcom before when we did "Seinfeld," and so we didn't know those rules. And so we were allowed to sort of break those rules because we just didn't know any better. And one of the things that I wanted to try was to sort of play with this idea of how real, how documentary-like the show was. But of course it was a sitcom and it had certain sort of format, rigid format rules.

And when Larry decided to do "Curb Your Enthusiasm," it kind of deconstructed all those rules of the sitcoms. It sort of threw all those rules away and stripped away the artifice from it. So that you could not tell what was real and what was not real from that show.

GROSS: Well, I want to play next a scene from a Larry David show that you directed.


GROSS: This is from "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And this is a very famous scene. Larry and his wife, Sheryl, are celebrating their 10th anniversary and he reminds her that before they got married, she promised that if they stayed married for 10 years on their 10th anniversary, she would allow him to sleep with another woman.

(Soundbite of TV show "Curb Your Enthusiasm Show")

Ms. CHERYL HINES: (As Cheryl) All right. Well, all right. Then I said you could have sex with somebody, and you should do that, it's our 10th anniversary.

Ms. LARRY DAVID: (As Larry) I'm joking around. I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to...

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) No, no, no. No. You should. I said it 10 years ago. You should go out and have sex with somebody.

Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) No, no, it's nice but...

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) No, no, no. No. No, no, you know...

Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) That's sweet that you wanted, you know...

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) I'm insisting on it.

Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) Keep your word and everything.

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) No. Because if you think you can have sex with somebody else then you should do that.

Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) What does that mean?

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) Hey lady, I'm Larry David. And my wife said I could have sex with somebody tonight.

Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) I mean, first of all, I'm insulted. OK. Even if I wanted to, you don't think I'm capable.

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) No. I don't think you're capable of it. OK. That's why, I think you...

Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) So, if I do this. Just so, there's no misunderstanding here. It's OK with you.

Ms. DAVID: (As Cheryl) If you find somebody and say hey...

Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) I don't want to hear any crying afterwards. And says, oh, I can't believe you did that. No, why did you do that...

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) No, I will not be crying.

Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) Oh, boy. Alright. Well, thank you. Thank you for my 10th anniversary present.

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) You're welcome.

Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) How long do I have to do this?

Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl) Well, you have until our anniversary and that's it. Good luck.

GROSS: The scene from the Larry David "Curb Your Enthusiasm Show," that was directed by my guest Larry Charles. Can you tackle about directing this scene and what your reaction was when you first read it?

Mr. CHARLES: Well, I mean, I have directed a lot of scenes from "Curb" and so, to me, my criteria is, it funny does it help the story, is there enough stuff for the actors to play in? And I think that - this was, you know, Larry comes up with these amazing premises. And not only did it work within the scene, or within the story, or within the episode, but they worked for the entire arc of the season as well. And that was one of them.

And again, we allow ourselves to play on those situations. That's the fun of doing "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is we can take it down one path and see if it leads to some sort of gold. Or if it doesn't work, we could back up and go down another path. And sort of continue to explore the chemistry of the scene until it starts to feel right.

GROSS: Did you talk to Larry David about writing this scene? Was it something that - it whether a fantasy of his or did he just come up with this for the character of Larry David?

Mr. CHARLES: Well, he often draws on his real life. I mean, he keeps a little - which he's used in the show also, and he's lost in the show, he keeps a little pad in his pocket and he's constantly jotting down these kind of awkward - what Edith Wharton might have written in her time, you know. They're very socially awkward moments, and he's very interested in that kind of behavior. And so, he has a million ideas, and he'll just come up to me and say, what do you think about this? And I'll laugh, you know. And then we know it's a good idea.

GROSS: I want to ask you about directing the movie "Borat." This was your first experience, I think, directing in the real world, bringing a fictional character Boratin to real life settings...


GROSS: With people who didn't know what was going on, who thought that Boratwas a real person.

Mr. CHARLES: Well, I wouldn't say they didn't know what was going on. I would say, I would put it this way more, that he - we created a reality and as far as those people were concern, that was the reality. He was a reporter from Kazakhstan. That reality is created. That is an ultimate reality that's created, and in fact people will sometimes turn to me when he would asked strange question, and go, is this real? Is this real? And I will say, yes, it is real. But to myself, I will say, well, it may not be the reality that you think it is, but it is real.

GROSS: Did you feel like you were deceiving them?

Mr. CHARLES: No, not all because again, they believed -they were - they believed that they were in a reality with an actual journalist from Kazakhstan and they were answering that person's questions. They were not forced to say anything under those conditions, they choose to say what they said. So no one's arm was ever twisted in that situation.

GROSS: I love the film, but I mean, a lot of people in it end up pretty foolish.

Mr. CHARLES: Well, that's their doing, not our doing. I mean, first of they could have said...

GROSS: Well, it...

Mr. CHARLES: Keep in mind, they could have said no to being in a movie in the first place. There's a certain hubris and ego involved in thinking that you're interesting enough to be in front of a camera. So, you know, when we are looking for people to be in "Borat" we're asking a lot of people to be it. Most people are going to say no, and then a few people might say yes, but then not pass the vet or the screening process or whatever. And one or two make it through the entire process and wind up being in the movie.

So, there's a lot of steps along the way before this person winds up in the movie, and they have many opportunities to back out or not do it. Or even in the middle, in the middle of the interview, they can step away, and usually don't. So there's kind of a human psychology at work there that's deeper than just as deceiving people.

GROSS: At least a couple of the people sued. It's actually...

Mr. CHARLES: Many, many, many lawsuits.

GROSS: Yeah, yes. What have you learned about lawsuits and release forms that you applied to making the new films "Religulous"?

Mr. CHARLES: Well, I'm proud to say that just last week, all the final "Borat" lawsuits were dismissed. And in fact I believed it set a precedent in the New York Court system. So the good news is that I'll be able to use the "Borat" precedent when we start getting sued on "Religulous."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It must be very reassuring.

Mr. CHARLES: Very satisfying.

GROSS: Did you change the release forms? Were there release forms?

Mr. CHARLES: There's always release forms. But there's different kinds of release forms. I mean, first of all every state has different laws, there's some states were you can use hidden cameras, some states you can't. There are some states where...

GROSS: I didn't know that.

Mr. CHARLES: Yes. There's different - in different countries, there are different laws, as well, as far as this stuff is concern. So the releases would reflect the laws. We have a lawyer on retainer, a guy named Russell, he lives in India of all places, and we have these long conference calls with Russell about what we can and can't do, you know. So, the release forms are completely legal and they are completely binding and ultimately the lawsuits had no merit, they were all dismissed.

GROSS: So, is it the same release form you use for "Religulous"?

Mr. CHARLES: Essentially the same one, yes. I mean, there might have been certain little details that were different, but basically, yes. I mean, we were making - one of the advantages of "Religulous" is that it's actually a documentary, at least technically, and which allowed us to sort of have a slightly different release.

But also, like for instance in the naked fight in "Borat," we don't need the releases of all the people in the room. If you get the release of the hotel and you get the release of the organization, that was considered a release for all the people in the room, and they you hold up a sign saying, you know, we're going to be filming here and if you don't want to be filmed, you should step out.

GROSS: Of all the wild scenes in the movie "Borat," which was the most challenging or confusing for you as the director trying to navigate between the needs of the movie and working with real people who weren't in on a joke?

Mr. CHARLES: Well, I would say that the healing scene inside the Pentecostal church was perhaps the most daunting scene, in a sense, because there was a couple thousand people in there. We really didn't know what was going to happen. It's truly - you're truly entering hostile territory. You're in Mississippi, you're inside a church, people are very, very serious. People are speaking in tongues and rolling around on the floor. And I'm saying to the head of the church, you know this guy is going to come in, he's a reporter, he's despondent, he's down, he comes from a dodless country, he's - I think he's ready to accept Jesus. And they say we'll help him, and he comes in, and indeed they wind up bringing him up to the stage and healing him.

And I remember watching him being brought up to the front and I was just so exhilarated. I couldn't believe that it was leading to this moment and that everything that we'd hope would happen was actually happening, was extremely complicated, logistical, you know, thing to sort of organize. And yet, when it all starts to click and come together, it's extremely, extremely exciting moment.

GROSS: So, what was the reaction of the preacher when he found out that the movie is a comedy?

Mr. CHARLES: I don't know that he's ever found out. I don't know. I don't know what his reaction was.

GROSS: I guess he's not one of people who sued you.

Mr. CHARLES: If he - I don't think he is one of the people that sued us, actually.

GROSS: Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of movie "Borat")

Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN : (As Borat) I want you to help me save me, please.

Unidentified Man #1: Ladies and gentlemen, the gentleman here, standing right here next to me, his name is Balak(ph). Would you greet him with a great big Jesus name for just a couple of minutes? Jesus.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Thank you. I have no friends. I am alone in this country, nobody like me. My only friend Azamat, he take money and my bear and leaved me alone. Not only this, the woman I love, the reason I travel across the country, she have do something terrible on a boat and now I can never forgive her. Is there anybody who can help me?

Unidentified Male: Yes. The one that can help you is who we preached about tonight, Jesus.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Do Jesus like me?

Unidentified Male: Absolutely, Jesus loves you.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Do Jesus like my sons?

Unidentified Male: Jesus loves your sons.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Do Jesus love my retard brother Bilo(ph)?

Unidentified Male: He loves your brother Bilo.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Do Jesus love my neighbor Nushuktan Tulyiagby(ph)?

Unidentified Male: Yes. He loves everybody.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Nobody loved my neighbor Nushuktan Tulyiagby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Can Jesus heal the pain that is in my heart?

Unidentified Male: Jesus can heal your pain, brother.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Make him heal the pain that is in my heart.

Unidentified Male: Lift your hands and begin to worship. Would you lift your hands for him as we pray in the name of Jesus. God, forgive me of my sins.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) God, forgive me of my sins.

Unidentified Male: Forgive me, God. Cleanse me.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Cleanse me.

Unidentified Male: Cleanse me Lord in the name of Jesus.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Cleanse me.

(Soundbite of people speaking in tongues)

Unidentified Male: Yeah, let that tongue go, here it comes, we're gonna speak in tongues, now let it go. Let that tongue go.

(Soundbite of people speaking in tongues)

Unidentified Male: Yes, God, yes, God, yes, God.

(Soundbite of people speaking in tongues)

GROSS: That's a scene from the movie "Borat" directed by my guest Larry Charles. He also directed the new satirical documentary about religion, "Religulous." Now, one of the famous scenes from "Borat" is when Borat is chasing his obese and naked producer through a hotel, like, down the elevator, through a ballroom...

Mr. CHARLES: Right.

GROSS: I'm assuming that the people in the ballroom - and there was a conference going on, like a convention of some sort, didn't know what was going on?

Mr. CHARLES: Well, as I said, we didn't need individual releases in that situation, we had the hotel's release, and we had the organization's release, and that essentially released everybody in the mortgage brokers' convention. So, no, of course they didn't know what was going to happen.

GROSS: So tell me what it was like to be the director in that scene.

Mr. CHARLES: Well, first of all we were very low-tech basically. So I had a series of monitors that I kind of had to juggle, this series of single monitors, and we had about five cameras around the perimeter of the room to capture whatever might happen because again, in these situations, you have one shot to get it. These are one-take movies, essentially. You know, you don't go back and say to the mortgage brokers, oh sorry, would you mind if the naked man ran in again?

So we had to get it right the first time, and so I made sure that it was covered from many, many different angles. We made sure that our security was somewhere that could rescue them if it got out of hand, and it did. And we also - part of my job is to scout, not just to scout the location, but to almost case the joint more, have an escape route and all that kind of stuff. So we were very well-organized on what we do, you know.

GROSS: What got out of hand and how did you get around that?

Mr. CHARLES: Well, people got very angry in the wake of the incident, and they were - got very violent with Sacha and Ken, and we had to have our security swoop in and save them. They were about to be beaten. And then when my crew got into their van, we all dispersed in the wake of this, and then we're supposed to meet back at the van and - but what happened was that some of my crews were pursued to the van by irate mortgage brokers, who could be very dangerous, people don't realize this. And...

GROSS: This is a mortgage broker conference, that's why.

Mr. CHARLES: This is a mortgage brokers' conference in San Diego and they chased the van and stopped the van from leaving and started kicking at the van. Now, what's ironic here is we haven't broken the law, but as soon as they start kicking the van, they're breaking the law. So we could turn around and press charges on them, and that's one of the things - when the cops come we're sort of relieved because we know we have our ducks in a row, we know they've - they're the ones that have broken the law. And they are forced to back off at that point.

GROSS: Why were they irate? Because there was somebody obese and naked in the room, or because they thought that you had played them and taken advantage of them by not bringing them in - not letting them in on the joke?

Mr. CHARLES: Well, I didn't really poll them afterwards...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHARLES: What they are upset about, but...

GROSS: Fair enough.

Mr. CHARLES: It may have been some combination thereof. I think they were more upset with someone disrupting the convention than they were with us filming it.

GROSS: I see.

Mr. CHARLES: And it was only a small group of people that got - that got that irate, really. But they did get irate. They have been drinking a lot, you know, and they got irate, and I understand that. I can relate to that. You know, it's like you could be angry about this. It's valid, you know. But they often, in these situations, people often cross the line and why they're breaking the law themselves.

GROSS: Larry Charles, the first time I saw your name it was probably in the late 80s as the co-author of a Richard Belzer book about how to be a stand-up comic.

Mr. CHARLES: Right. Yes.

GROSS: So it made me wonder, like you've been in comedy for decades but usually, or maybe always, like behind the scenes even in the book. Like you're the - you're like the ghost.

Mr. CHARLES: Yes. Right, right, right.

GROSS: Did you ever do stand-up yourself?

Mr. CHARLES: I did stand up in the late 70s, and I found that I had great material, but I couldn't be the best version of myself on stage. And I think that's the key to being a great comedian, you're the best version of yourself on stage. When you hang out with Jerry Seinfeld, he's a funny guy, but he may not be the funniest guy at lunch. But when he gets on stage he's the funniest guy. The same thing with Bill, you know. So I found that I could not be that best version of myself on stage.

I found that I had trouble, another element of being a great comedian is to make the same material sounds spontaneous night after night after night. And I found myself getting bored on stage when I would do the same stuff over and over and over again. And so I didn't have the right mentality at that time to do it but I found that I had good material, and that people liked the material despite my mediocre presentation. And I used to take my jokes and stand outside the comedy store, and when I saw a comedian that I recognize, I'd try to sell him a joke for ten bucks, and that's really how I got started.

GROSS: Oh, can you give us an example of a joke that you sold?

Mr. CHARLES: I remember selling a joke, one of the first jokes I ever sold was to Jay Leno, actually. It was about Delta Airlines. It was like Delta - at that time their catch phrase was, Delta, the airline run by professionals, and what do the other ones have? Amateurs? You know, something like that. You know, not a great joke. I was the - you might remember I was a child actor. I played the embryo in "2001," you know. I had - I had some cool jokes, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHARLES: And I started to sell those jokes to comedians, and one of those comedians wound up getting on the TV show, and that's how I got hired onto a TV show.

GROSS: What - was that "Seinfeld"?

Mr. CHARLES: That was actually "Fridays," a show called "Fridays," where I met Larry David and Michael Richards.

GROSS: Oh. That was like a late night variety show on Friday?

Mr. CHARLES: Yes, yes. It was on ABC in the early 80s. And it was a Friday night, late night. It was before "Nightline" actually. When "Nightline" came on is when our show went off the air. The - ABC News wanted to put a show on then and it was "Nightline." And...

GROSS: And I bet you felt, they'll be sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHARLES: Huh! Well, the fact of the matter was we were - at that time it was the weakest time, it was the lowest ebb of "Saturday Night Live" actually. But NBC owned "Saturday Night Live," it was very invested in it. ABC did not own "Fridays" and therefore was not as invested in it. They owned "Nightline," and they wanted their show on in their time.

GROSS: So, do you ever have the urge to be in front of the camera or on stage now?

Mr. CHARLES: No, I don't actually. I mean, inadvertently things happened, like in "Religulous" I wound up on camera a couple of times where I'm talking to Bill off camera, you know. And I've done a couple of cameos on "Seinfeld" or whatever, but no, I don't really - I really enjoy what I do, and I feel really fortunate and grateful to do what I do. And I don't really have the need to become in front of the camera. I really admire people that can be so great in front of the camera like Larry and Sacha.

GROSS: Well, it's been a pleasure talking with you. I want to thank you very much.

Mr. CHARLES: Thank you.

GROSS: Larry Charles directed Bill Maher's' new satirical documentary "Religulous." You can download podcast of our show on our website,
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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