What makes Islamic State terrorists laugh? What tickles a Liberian warlord who’s murdered hundreds of children, or an Iraqi intellectual who’s been kidnapped and tortured?
Laughter, it is said, is a universal language. All those people laugh at something. (For example, the favourite TV show of the Liberian warlord who saw the error of his ways after he made a human sacrifice of a three-year-old girl and regretted it is – seriously – Kids Say the Darndest Things.) One American veteran started a digital comedy channel filled with some truly grotesque stuff I personally don’t find funny at all – but, of course, it isn’t made for me. It’s not my world.
Rather, these are part of Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy, a series of stories told in a new four-part Netflix documentary series. It’s the latest project by the Jewish writer-director whose twisted mind brought us some of the darker episodes of Seinfeld, as well as several Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes and the Borat movie.
That hefty resumé has granted Charles the international clout to globetrot through profoundly dangerous countries – Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Liberia, Saudi Arabia – to interview comedians, comedy club owners, TV stars and all-around dangerous men about what makes them chuckle.
It’s a brilliant idea. Charles is the Anthony Bourdain of comedy, a counterculture baby boomer with a pronounced New York accent who casually chats with cool people in faraway places, breaking down cultural barriers with his humanity and genuine curiosity.
Unlike a typical travel show, however, these hour-long episodes are not divided by country, but by subject. Episodes focus on survivors (of the Iraq War and the Ebola outbreak in Liberia), soldiers (American veterans and Liberian former child soldiers), race (on both sides of the American political divide) and gender (in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria).
This directorial choice underscores the show’s central theme: we all laugh, therefore we’re all human. (Well, except for a former ISIS guy who glumly reveals that nobody in ISIS ever really laughs.) Rather than dividing episodes by country, Charles emphasizes the similarities between Liberian child soldiers and American veterans. He draws post-traumatic connections that strike at the core of how people survive and overcome tragedy.
But while Charles espouses an egalitarian view of comedy, he doesn’t always practise it. To Charles, professional comedy’s moral imperative is clear: in the episode on race, he draws a through-line from the socially progressive and dangerous acts of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin in the 1960s and ’70s, to the politically charged black, indigenous and female comedians of 2019. He glad-hands these subjects freely, in turn mocking the right-wing trolls he interviews with quick editing and cheap “gotcha” moments.
I have no desire to defend those guys, whose blunt comedy veers toward outright racism, but the way Charles mocks them nonetheless feels a bit icky. One comic, who uses the pseudonym Baked Alaska, at one point sounds confused, citing Borat as one of his biggest influences and telling Charles that he felt like “if anyone’s gonna get me, it’s gonna be you.”
For a moment, Charles had the opportunity to engage this troll directly about how he missed the point of Borat; how Charles and Sacha Baron-Cohen, both Jews, were mocking anti-Semitism by making Borat himself a punchline and a conduit to reveal America’s classist, racist underpinnings.
Instead, Charles freeze-frames the video with a record-scratching noise and narrates, “Oh s–t, really?”
I wish he tried to understand their mindset instead. It belies his central thesis and feels too cheap, too easy for a series that wilfully tackles danger and hardship. Comedy, after all, is a universal language: even if we can’t agree politically, hopefully, we can all laugh about it.