The Reel Breakdown

‘The Dictator’ director Larry Charles discusses the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen, Larry David, and, yes, Bob Dylan

The Reel Breakdown

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(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Director Larry Charles, 56, may not be as immediately recognizable as his star Sacha Baron Cohen, but the pair have worked together on "The Dictator," "Borat," and "Bruno." Charles has collaborated with legendary comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David on "Seinfeld," David again on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and Paul Reiser in "Mad About You." And then there's his work with just plain legend Bob Dylan in the movie the two co-wrote and Charles directed, "Masked and Anonymous."

Charles chatted with Yahoo! Movies about going to the darker side of comedy with Cohen, humor as an ethnic survival tool and the Jewish comic holy trinity: Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.

Thelma Adams: You've always wanted to go to the more absurd side of comedy. With "Seinfeld," you wrote some of the darkest material like the second season show "The Bet," where Elaine gets a handgun, which was never filmed. Now, working with Cohen, are you satisfying your darker side?

Larry Charles: I've only gotten to the shady side. I haven't gotten to the dark side yet.

TA: What is the farthest you've pushed the envelope?

[Related: Sacha Baron Cohen: Five things you didn't know]

LC: There were scenes that I feel pushed things the furthest in "Borat" that the audience didn't feel that way about. Then, in the naked fight in "Borat," we knew that was funny, but I remember sitting in the back row of the theater with Sacha at the first screening and when that scene came on people reacted like they were watching a horror movie, hitting each other and screaming — and laughing. That scene defines a lot of what I've done.

TA: What's your partnership with Cohen? What does he bring, and what do you bring?

LC: First of all, there's a brain trust, besides Sacha and me. There were writers collaborating before I came along, and I'm lucky enough to be part of that. They're like Talmudic scholars. Sacha is a brilliant, fiery, incendiary mind, an intense intellect. He has a savant comedy quality that is singular and unique that puts him in the pantheon of great comic geniuses. Those things are very inspiring and I gravitate to the kind of projects and people that inspire me.

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(Paramount Pictures)

TA: "Borat" had the boldest anti-Semitic jokes outside of Iran -- the running of the Jews; Borat believing the cockroaches were spying Jews -- where do those ideas come from? And do we have to footnote that you and Cohen (and Seinfeld and David and Dylan) are Jewish?

LC: When we're dealing with anti-Semitism, and we're playing with satire, it has to be directed very sharply and precisely because the target is our perception of things, rather than the reality of things. For example, the way we imagine the running of the Jews, imagine in that country that has a history of anti-Semitism some crazy ritual like the running of the Jews, or some crazy ideas about life and magic and gypsies and curses and the idea that Jews could turn themselves  into an insect. There's an honesty that really connected and resonated with people.

TA: Why is Jewish humor so abundant?

LC: I think humor has been used by all oppressed minority groups as one of the tools of survival and Jews have developed a sharp sense of humor. African Americans and the Irish have used similar dark senses of humor as survival tools.

TA: You worked with Arsenio Hall on his show before you went to "Seinfeld." It seems like "The Dictator" recalls Hall's African-prince-in-America comedy with Eddie Murphy, "Coming to America."

[Photos: 'The Dictator' movie stills and premiere shots]

LC: I think we would be remiss as comedic historians if we weren't conscious of the long lineage of stories about doubles, foreign leaders coming to the U.S. These are plot lines that date back long before movies and TV. We were aware of that, and hoped that we could take the next logical step and reinvent it. We tried, like Mark Twain, to reflect this world we live in right now.

TA: I hadn't realized that you directed "Masked and Anonymous" with Bob Dylan. That movie has a great soundtrack, and is total lunacy. What was it like working with Dylan — was he funny?

LC: He's so funny but he has the driest sense of humor. It's very different from Seinfeld or Larry David. When you go back to Bob's lyrics, you notice all the play on words, the playful mind. But it takes a while before you get one of his jokes. Even in this movie, I said, 'Bob, people are going to misunderstand.' And he said, 'what's so wrong about being misunderstood?' He's a true experimenter in that respect, a true innovator. I bring that point of view to everything I do, work and life itself, like Larry David, like Sacha, a unique perspective, sometimes purposely, sometimes inadvertently, but I'm listening very carefully.

TA: When you go old school humor, are you a Marx Brothers fan, or The Three Stooges?

LC: I love The Three Stooges, Abbot and Costello, and the Marx Brothers. My Jewish trinity is Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. They had the biggest impact on me as I was growing up.

TA: What's your favorite Allen movie?

LC: The movie that had the most seminal influence the early funny one was "Bananas." I was just the right age to have my mind blown by that movie. There was something so anarchic, original and fresh. I was exhilarated by it. I saw it ten times. There was a point in my life that I could perform the entire movie.

TA: And what was your favorite Brooks?

LC: Brooks was somebody that I had heard before I knew him with "The 2000-Year-Old Man" and I remember thinking how funny it was. My Mel Brooks moment was "Blazing Saddles." It broke all the rules, was truly subversive, impolite, politically incorrect. There was something extremely cathartic about seeing all those movies.

TA: Growing up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, who was the funniest person in your family?

LC: My father had been a comedian before I was born. He had used the G.I. Bill to go to dramatic school. He was of the Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles era. He was very fast, funny, did great impressions and was on all the time. I was a good audience and I still am. I might enjoy these things more than any one. I love watching Sacha or Larry David do their thing. Lightening is striking. You can feel it on a cellular level.

TA: Did your father have a stage career? What did he do for a living?

LC: He recently retired at the age of 84. He drifted to many things, but he never found anything as satisfying as being on stage.

TA: He must be proud of your show business success.

LC: I think he's had almost unspeakable pride. It's so beyond what my parents imagined. They're old school Brooklyn Jews. It makes them burst with pride, and it frightens them, they can't admit how incredibly happy they are. They're afraid they'll jinx it.

TA: In Yiddish, there's even a word for that superstitious feeling — kenahorah. They don't want to curse their good fortune by mentioning their happiness aloud.

LC: I always remind them that it's temporary anyway — so you can't jinx it.

Watch 'The Dictator' clips:

Clip: Helicopter Tour Clip: Monkey on Roller Skates

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