From the 'show about nothing' to his new sci-fi sitcom about a sci-fi film fan, Larry Charles consistently defies the rules of entertainment.
Odd man in
From the 'show about nothing' to his new sci-fi sitcom about a sci-fi fan film, Larry Charles consistently defies the rules of entertainment. "Our show is a show about us, depicting contemporary American life through the prism of a do-it-yourself, homemade aesthetic that will mix mediums to produce a modern mosaic of triumphs, glories and absurdities that we all experience and recognise."
With this convoluted and not-entirely-serious description, NBC announced its new comedy show in Variety this week. This "TV-channel-does-job" news item was immediately picked up by The New York Times and hundreds more news outlets because the man behind the new show - and that ridiculous quote - also worked on the greatest TV comedy shows ever broadcast. Despite all this, many people have never heard of him.
Larry Charles is an occasionally bearded (think unreconstructed ZZ Top), exceptionally smart writer, director and producer from New York. After Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, he was the writer who helped turn Seinfeld into the most successful sitcom ever - and its star into the richest man in comedy, according to Forbes magazine, which put Seinfeld's earnings last year at $83 million (Dh305m). Charles has also written episodes of the popular sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the first two series of hit US show Entourage. He directed the Sacha Baron Cohen movies Borat and Bruno, too.
"He is comedy A-list" says Matt Coppa, the entertainment director at the New York-based Star magazine. "He is wildly respected in the comedian community." According to The Sunday Times TV writer Stephen Armstrong, Charles is also a strange man whose new project - a sci-fi show about people in a small town making a fan film of their favourite sci-fi show - is characteristically odd. "There is an adage in show business: never make a TV show about a TV show," Armstrong says. "But Larry Charles wants to do the undoable. Making a sci-fi TV show about making a sci-fi TV show? That's really 'I'll see your geek and raise you two nerds'. But anything he does is worth seeing, and sometimes he hits the funny bone of a mainstream audience."
Charles' desire to go against prevailing sitcom orthodoxy helped Seinfeld become such a massive success. "There is a code to every show and if you crack that code then you can flow," Charles told The Other Network Writers Room in 2007. "For Seinfeld, we'd write 30 scenes in one script and they'd say: 'You can't do this. Sitcoms normally have five scenes an episode.' And we'd say: 'Why not?' And that was the essence of the show - lots of interconnected stories."
On Seinfeld, Charles displayed his other great talent: writing grotesque characters who represented Freud's instinctive id. In this case, it was Seinfeld's neighbour Kramer, a character based on a real person and given life by Charles. After Kramer, Charles found it easy to direct Cohen's classic clown in 2006's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. "The code of Borat is enter the real world and see what happens," Charles says. "I had a great assistant director, and something would happen - a fight would be about to break out or the police were coming - and his instinct was try to fix it. I would say: 'No! Don't fix it. Just let it happen.' This is when it's gonna get good. If you want a great scene, just stand there and watch."
Born and brought up in the largely Jewish area of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, Charles's first foray into professional writing came when he was a teenager. In the 1970s, Charles worked as a stand-up comic alongside performers such as Emo Phillips, who, like Cohen, viewed their job as something closer to performance art than gag-telling. It was around this time that he befriended Seinfeld and David. Charles's contributions to Seinfeld won him an Emmy and, like the rest of the Seinfeld team, propelled him into making feature films. But his 2003 debut, Masked and Anonymous, written with Bob Dylan (under the pseudonyms Rene Fontaine and Sergei Petrov), was a flop.
"I thought it was a great movie but it was just vilified in the press," he says. "I was called an idiot. People were questioning my sanity. That was a very depressing time." But Borat, his next film, was much more successful. In his first attempt at the sci-fi genre, he came up with the cartoon superhero series The Tick. Along with his new show for NBC, Charles is also developing an ensemble comedy starring the Curb regular JB Smoove, and penning another sci-fi project with the Charlie's Angels director McG.
It's a busy time. But, according to Armstrong: "Whatever he does is always worth the price of admission."