There’s been a lot of talk in the culture recently about whether or not it’s okay to laugh at certain things, with comedians often complaining that “you can’t say anything anymore” lest “the mob” come after them. There’s also been much discussion of whether its okay to derive laughter and entertainment from problematic people doing problematic things.
Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy, a new Netflix docuseries that debuted in February, blows all of that talk to smithereens. The series, consisting of four one-hour episodes, does many things, but above all, it shows just how piddling and stupid the “comedy is under attack” discussion of the last few years have been.
Charles, while not quite a household name, is a behind-the-scenes comedy heavyweight. He wrote for Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He directed Sacha Baron Cohen’s movies Borat and Bruno. In the film, Charles goes all around the world, and talks to survivors of extreme events, and in some cases the perpetrators of them, about what’s funny to them and how comedy works where they are.
A Non-Idiot Abroad
You may think you’ve seen this movie before. Versions of this have been tried several times in the past, usually with disastrous results, especially when the figure at the center is an obnoxious, ignorant dolt. One example was Religulous, with Bill Maher, which Charles himself directed. Another was Morgan Spurlock’s Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, also from 2008, which was even more pointless.
He mostly stays out of the way and only appears on camera occasionally, but he’s absolutely fearless about where he goes, and the questions he asks.
Albert Brooks, in 2005, made the semi-fictional Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World, but that film failed because it was not only toothless, but it defined “the Muslim world” as one small section of India.
Charles avoids all of those pitfalls. He mostly stays out of the way and only appears on camera occasionally, but he’s absolutely fearless about where he goes, and the questions he asks. Therefore, he ends up with lots of dynamite material.
One key takeaway? It’s nearly universal that all of the world’s terrorists, butchers, and warlords have one thing in common: They love old American movies and TV shows.
Meeting General Naked
Charles talks to former fighters for ISIS in Iraq and al-Shabab in Somalia. He interviews former child soldiers. And he speaks to a gentleman known as “General Butt Naked.”
The general, whose real name is Joshua Milton Blahyi, was a Liberian warlord, a man with thousands of murders to his name as well as a well-known cannibalism habit, who got the nickname “General Butt Naked” because he and his men used to fight while nude. You may know him from a particularly well-known Vice documentary a few years ago.
In a one-on-one interview, Charles asks Gen. Naked what human flesh tastes like, and then minutes later he’s reminiscing about how much he loves The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son…
In a one-on-one interview, Charles asks Gen. Naked what human flesh tastes like, and then minutes later he’s reminiscing about how much he loves The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son, before sharing that he’s a big fan of Bill Cosby’s old Kids Say The Darndest Things. It turns out, if you’ve got that many murders to your name, it’s hard to “cancel” Bill Cosby.
It all recalls The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s astonishing documentary from 2012, which depicted a group of men in Indonesia who had led death squads in that country in the 1960s, who were never punished at all for their crimes, and who are now invited to make Hollywood-style reenactments of them. They, too, loved Hollywood movies.
Charles also visits with a group of wounded American veterans, including one man with burns over most of his head, who have channeled their pain and trauma into dark-as-hell comedy.
In the third of the four parts, the director interviews the alt-right personalities known as “Baked Alaska” and “Weev,” and it sort of says something about these guys that they come across as the most loathsome subjects of a docuseries that also includes various murderers and terrorists, and at least one cannibal. But the director is also horrified to discover that Baked Alaska, a MAGA cretin who was on the ground in Charlottesville, sees Borat – which Charles directed – as a major influence on his work, due to the character’s combination of prankishness and anti-Semitism.
Dangerous World of Comedy really gets across just how stupid all of this “comedy is under attack” nonsense has been for the last few years.
Then there’s Brace “Piss Pig Granddad” Belden, a Bay Area leftist dude who resembles a nerdier version of Craig Finn, who decided to travel to Syria and fight ISIS along with the Kurds. I think I’d watch a four-hour documentary just about that guy.
And Charles explores the comedy scenes in countries like Nigeria, and reveals that just about every country in the world has a version of The Daily Show, and sometimes more than one.
Comedy That’s Truly Transgressive
Dangerous World of Comedy really gets across just how stupid all of this “comedy is under attack” nonsense has been for the last few years. We’re introduced to people who have done comedy in war-torn countries, or in repressive places, or while recovering from their experiences in war zones or other near-death experiences. After this, I’m not so interested in the whines of comics with nothing to worry about except for the prospect of a joke of theirs getting critiqued on Twitter.
Charles’ show, for whatever reason, hasn’t gotten much buzz, or promotion from Netflix, or made nearly as much cultural impact as the Who is America? show that was brought out by his old running buddy Sacha Baron Cohen last year. But those interested in how the world works, and how it laughs, would be well-served to set aside four hours to watch it.