Larry Charles Steps Into the Spotlight
Larry Charles is an uncomplicated guy. An Emmy-winning writer on Seinfeld who has gone on to direct Borat and Bruno — not to mention Bob Dylan’s surreal Masked and Anonymous — he’s been one of comedy’s pillars over the last few decades, although he prefers not putting the attention on himself. Friends with Larry David since they both worked on the 1980s sketch show Fridays, where he also met Michael Richards, Charles is now in his late 60s, and as he talks about his latest film, the outrageous, R-rated Dicks: The Musical, he offers a blunt assessment of why it’s good.
“There are a lot of themes in this movie, about a lot of different things,” he says over Zoom, “but in the end what makes this movie palatable to almost anybody is it’s super-funny. You do not see too many comedies that have people howling in the theater. I like that, and I think, ‘Who doesn’t want that?’ If you don’t want that experience, then you shouldn’t be going to the movies, putting on the TV, putting on music. You should just be in a black box. This is the movie for anybody that doesn’t want to be in the black box.”
Charles still rocks his trademark flowing beard, which gives him the aura of a groovy comedy philosopher monk, although it’s a lot grayer than it used to be. Still, the man exudes a youthful energy, which no doubt helped when he met up with Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson, who wrote and star in Dicks: The Musical, based on their popular Upright Citizens Brigade show Fucking Identical Twins. The premise: Two obnoxious New York hetero alpha-male salesmen (Sharp and Jackson, who are both gay) discover they’re identical twins separated at birth, deciding to spring a Parent Trap on their single mom and dad (Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane) and reunite their fractured family. There are many songs. There is lots of swearing. There are insane puppets. Bowen Yang plays an out-and-proud God.
Setting fire to the patriarchy and musical theater with anarchic glee, Dicks relishes its impudence and its knowingly cheap-ass production values. It’s all about putting on a show and offending your uptight conservative relatives.
Charles wasn’t sure he was going to make any more movies. After 2012’s The Dictator, his third film with Sacha Baron Cohen, his next big-screen project was a debacle, Army of One, which starred Nicolas Cage and was basically buried. So he focused his energies on other work, including 2019’s Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy, which saw him visiting places like Iraq and Somalia to explore how humor can thrive in even the most devastated and imperiled corners of the planet. Then Dicks came his way. He was hesitant to get back in the directing chair, but Sharp and Jackson’s screenplay made him laugh — most scripts he’s sent don’t. As Charles recalls, “I told my agent, ‘I will do this movie. Just tell me what I have to (do) — I’m ready to do the movie.’”
He is not someone who necessarily enjoys talking about himself, so it is perhaps no surprise that he teams up with talented individuals that like to be more front-and-center. (He has continued his collaboration with Larry David as a regular director on Curb Your Enthusiasm.) But over the course of an hour, he was amenable to discussing the different highlights of his career, as well as look back at his New York upbringing, which helped inform his lifelong passion for subversive, provocative comedy. He was candid about the Seinfeld scripts that didn’t make it to air, detailing why they didn’t work. And he explored his friendship with Michael Richards, with whom he helped shape the iconic character of Cosmo Kramer — and shared what he thinks of Richards’ exile from the business.
Growing up, were you someone who was really into musicals?
I was a big movie freak. We didn’t have the money to go to Broadway very often. In my teens, I saw a couple of plays — like Jesus Christ Superstar, which I loved, and Lenny, based on the life of Lenny Bruce. As a kid, if it was a movie like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or Help! or A Hard Day’s Night, I loved certain musicals. And I watched enough movies to know Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. But I still wouldn’t consider myself a complete musical freak as far as that goes.
You’ve directed films and sitcoms, but Dicks: The Musical is your first full-scale musical. How daunting is directing something like this?
I’m looking for stuff that plunges me into the learning curve. I want to be freaked out, and I was a little bit at first, but I love the challenge of it. I got to reflect on a lot of influences, from John Waters to Rocky Horror: How do I recreate that experience? I was excited by the challenges of that — and even by the tight budget, (which) forced me to figure this out, do it by hand, and get a crew together that was really into it. It wound up being an incredibly fulfilling shooting experience, even though it was in the middle of COVID. We were all tested and wearing masks, but we still all bonded and got this movie done in 20 days. You feel the vibe of the shooting of the movie in the movie, which is what Borat had also — you can feel our energy coming off the screen.
Still, because you’re new to this world, I wondered how someone would think, “Hey, Larry Charles would be right to do a musical”?
These two guys Josh and Aaron — who did the original piece, which I saw — they’re from UCB, and they are used to working in that hardcore environment with a live audience and going for it. It really struck me when I saw the play how much they had that kind of Jerry Lewis/Sacha Baron Cohen crazy, unique comedy energy that is very hard to find. I really responded to it. And I think they both know that I’m somebody that cares about (the comedy). If I’m going to do a comedy, (I want) to squeeze it and maximize it and push it as far as they could possibly go. I think they wanted me because they thought that’s what this needed.
Dicks wants to push buttons, and a lot of your earlier work did, too.
I’m interested in the transgressive and the provocative and the controversial. But I also believe, in some perhaps deluded way, that there is a mass audience for this that just doesn’t realize it — they just need to be exposed to it.
I have pushed back against the idea that this is a gay movie or a queer movie or any label — I really don’t want a label to be put on this movie. What I want people to think about this movie is, “Do you want to see something really super-funny? Do you want to hear songs that you’re going to be singing when you walk out of the theater? When do you have that experience?” That’s what this movie’s about. Anybody, no matter what they believe, should be able to enjoy that.
Seinfeld or Borat might have initially seemed to be niche projects. But, instead, they blew up. Is that why you think Dicks has mainstream appeal? And how do you account for this instinct of yours that something is going to cross over?
Maybe it’s because of the point I’ve reached in life, but I’m much more accepting of the mystery. One thing that Bob Dylan said to me — I may name-drop, but I have to in certain situations because, really, this happened — he was all about trusting his instincts, always. He never questioned his instincts, and I as a younger person was constantly questioning every choice that I made. He didn’t question it — he just did it. If it worked, it worked — if it didn’t, it didn’t. He could let go of it — he could release it into the ether and see what happened.
I’m inspired by him and Larry David, who are pure instinct players, and so I trust my instinct on this. I kind of feel people are craving this and don’t realize it. What is that feeling? Where does it come from? Why does my particular brain chemistry register it? That stuff I don’t get at all. But I know that it’s fairly accurate, and that’s what I can go on.
So, what do you bring to this project? How did you approach directing musical numbers when you don’t have a background in that?
I want the audience to have a direct experience. I want to erase this barrier between the performers and the audience, as if this was a live show. So I went about figuring out different ways of doing that. Originally, every song and dance was performed live, without dubbing at all. My intention was to do a very punk-rock recording so that the flaws were there, but some of the stuff we wound up overdubbing — things happened over time that smoothed out some of the stuff. But a lot of that rawness is still there.
On top of that, besides looking at the classic, great musicals, I looked at things like Xanadu. Xanadu was a very interesting case — the director, frankly, didn’t give a shit. He’s shooting off the set. You can see crew guys in the background leaning over the railing — he wasn’t really paying attention, it got slapped together. But I thought, “That’s super-funny. That would make me laugh.” It’s something that you don’t see too many movies committing to, the idea of shooting off the set. (The producers) would say to me — and this is a low-budget movie — “We’ll fill in the background.” (I would say,) “No, no, don’t fill in anything.” That vibe — that sensibility, that aesthetic — was applied to this movie. It adds another layer of humor and fun and connection for the audience, because they’re seeing the process.
In 2016, you put out Army of One, starring Nicolas Cage. It sounds like it was a total disaster: The film was recut without you, and then the movie sank like a stone at the box office. I could imagine, after that film, you thinking, “You know what? I don’t need this.” Despite liking the Dicks script and songs, was it still a process of going, “Do I want to do another movie? That last one was such a bad experience”?
I was exactly in that place. I didn’t have, really, an ambition, and I felt like my own stuff was not being responded to. There was nothing out there that was being sent to me that I was excited about. I was thinking about doing other things in other mediums. I wrote a book, I did this Larry David documentary that got pulled at the last second — for undisclosed reasons at this point. So, I’m very busy and creative and prolific, but a mainstream movie? Yeah, I thought that was probably it. I already was wary going into (Army of One) and felt very burned by the whole thing — as did Nicolas Cage, by the way, which I think is an experience he has a lot.
But this came along, and I read the first page of the script and I was laughing out loud. I was going upstairs and saying to my wife, “I’m still laughing out loud on page five! I’m still laughing out loud on page 20!” By the end of the script, I knew I had to do it, and that was it. We spent the next year working on the script, by the way — there was a lot of work to get it (ready for production). But those guys are such great collaborators, and it was a fantastic shooting experience — even though it’s hard for me to get up in the morning and go to the set. My wife would have to drag me out of bed, just because I can’t do it anymore, on some level. But I was always happy to be there and I had a great time. It was really exhilarating — and life-affirming as well.
When filmmakers have an artistic and commercial disaster, like Army of One, it can be interesting to see what lessons, if any, they learn from it.
It’s one of the reasons I did this Netflix show (Dangerous Comedy). I had been to a lot of places around the world — I had seen crazy, poverty-stricken countries, war-torn countries — and I had seen comedy there. I thought, “That’s something.” I was looking at something a little bit more meaningful than just getting kind of burned by a producer — I didn’t want that kind of crass, commercial Hollywood experience. Like Sullivan’s Travels, I wanted to do something that could mean something, that could have some impact. I couldn’t find it in a narrative realm in Hollywood, but I could find it in this nonfiction realm.
I was able to explore that and apply a lot of the things I was thinking and learn a lot of lessons from being out there about what comedy could do, how people are connected. Those themes became important to me: Can I find transgressive material that also somehow has a unifying element to it? When I got back (from shooting Dangerous Comedy), I did other (projects), but it was this script, really, that gave me the path. It’s like, “If you do this, these other things can happen. People in the audience are going to feel what you want them to feel.”
But were there ever times with Dangerous Comedy where you thought, “Gee, maybe I could have done something a little bit easier that wouldn’t have put me in harm’s way”?
I’m not jealous about anything in life, except for the movies that get made in nice places. When will I ever set something in Hawaii? I’m always, like, in Somalia. Why am I doing that? But I also thought, “If I’m going to do something that’s truly dangerous, I have to go to the most dangerous places I’m allowed to go.” When we didn’t go to (certain) countries, it was because the government wasn’t allowing travelers at that time.
Something comes over me — since I was a kid, I have a lot of anxiety and a lot of fears, but somehow they completely dissipate when I’m actually in a high-risk situation. That’s when I calm down — I’m almost unnaturally, sociopathically cool in those situations. During Borat and Bruno, those were crucial personality traits to have — when people have guns, or they’re white supremacists, you need to stay on a certain level of coolness and never panic. The same thing was true with Dangerous Comedy — we had to stay cool, and we were able to do that. I had a very small crew, and I found it as a filmmaking experience incredibly invigorating. It was like a direct filmmaking experience that you just never have with a crew. That’s how we did Borat — we did it with just the people in the van — and there was something so liberating. To me that was filmmaking, and that’s what excites me about filmmaking, just being immersed in it like that.
When you started Borat, did you and Sacha Baron Cohen talk about expectations? Did he ever tell you, “Just so you know, this is what could happen during the shoot”?
I think he knew from our conversations that I was somebody who was ready. And that’s why he asked me, because he felt like I could handle it — and he expected me to handle it, too. Right from the get-go, I had responsibilities that I did not know going in, but I adapted very quickly to survive. We developed a system that really worked well for our purposes.
But I was pretty much unprepared, except that I’d seen the show. And I’d seen some of the footage they had shot (for the film) — Todd Phillips was the original director, and they shot for a couple of weeks before it kind of fell apart, but you could see what the idea was. You could see the tension, and you could see the power of it — and that excited me. So I had no fear about it — I really was ready to plunge in and see what would happen. This was the thing I’ve been looking for all along, so I was ready to seize that moment.
What were these other “responsibilities” you had to deal with?
The first thing we shot was with a presidential candidate, Alan Keyes. The idea was that I would come in and talk to Alan Keyes and say, “I have a visitor from another country. It’s a very poor, backwards country — they don’t have chairs there. They don’t really know any of the American institutions or rituals, so please be patient with him. He may want to give you a present or some sort of welcoming gift. He’s a very good person, but he doesn’t know anything about America — doesn’t know the language, really.” So I set all that up. Sacha comes in then — there’s a great trust that’s been established — and then the first thing he does, of course, is to kiss Alan and everybody else. If they go along with the kiss, it’s another psychological level of acceptance, of surrender. You’re looking for capitulation on a psychological level that they don’t realize they’re doing, but they're sinking into a trance. And then (Borat) pulls out a bone and says, “This is from my country. I want to give it to you.” He puts it in (Keyes’) hand and says, “It’s a Jew’s bone.”
Alan Keyes, who’s running for president, has just accepted a Jew’s bone on camera — he loses his shit, he goes completely crazy, freaking out. Sacha backs off but whispers to me, “You have to take care of this,” and exits, leaving me with Alan Keyes. There’s no way to prepare for this moment — I had to talk Alan Keyes into believing that it was all a big misunderstanding and to please go on with the interview. Eventually, I talked him down from the ledge, and we had the rest of the interview.
That was the first thing that happened (on my first day), so I realized, “Okay, this persona that I’m going to present, it’s almost like I have to have my spiel together and be ready psychologically for these people and read them” — which is something instinctively, for whatever reason, I was very good at. I could tell when (interview subjects) were unhappy. I could tell when they were completely deluded. I could tell when it was going great or when it was going badly. I was good with that. I could feel it.
You once gave an interview where you said, “I was in a certain position when I was growing up to observe a lot of insanity, a lot of surrealism, a lot of weird, dark humor and violence, and I guess it kind of stuck with me.” Can you tell me more about that?
The place I grew up was Trump Village — that alone says everything about the surrealism of life. All these lower-income housing projects opened at the same time between Brighton Beach and Coney Island — probably a dozen or more buildings, all 22 stories tall, 20 apartments on a floor, and everybody moves in at the same time. You’re basically creating a town. All these kids, it was like a Lord of the Flies demographic — it was just a bunch of boys basically released into a prison yard to fend for themselves. My parents had no concept of the savagery that was going on on the street below. And as one of the younger kids, I witnessed a lot. One of my best friends was a kid named Neal Lipschutz, who just retired as the executive editor of The Wall Street Journal — he and I, as kids in third, fourth grade, would stand together and watch some of the behavior. “The world is going crazy.”
Were the kids just really brutal in their violence against one another?
Brutal. But the sadism with the brutality meant that the more violent it got, the funnier it was to these guys — and, for me, seeing that those things joined. I loved the Three Stooges, so I was able to project onto that what was funny about this horrific reality.
Then by accident around the same time on Brighton Beach Avenue, there were a lot of used bookstores. I had a quarter, and I bought a paperback copy of Catch-22. That book is about war and people’s guts are flying out — and it’s a comedy. I’m like, “Wow, man, I did not know until this moment that all of this could be funny also.” So I started to see it everywhere: There’s a lot of brutality in the world, and in order to deal with the brutality and the suffering, about the only thing you really have is laughter. We don’t have the weapons to eradicate suffering, but we have the weapons to maybe process it and survive it.
One of your most famous Seinfeld episodes was one that didn’t get made: “The Bet,” in which Elaine considers buying a gun. You basically wrote an episode about the madness of gun ownership in America. You’ve discussed that episode’s shelving a bit in the past, but I wondered: Was there ever a conversation about how to rewrite the episode so that the people who didn’t like the subject matter — including Julia Louis-Dreyfus — would have come around to it? From everything I’ve read, it was just, “Nope, forget it, let’s just trash this idea.”
Larry and Jerry were extremely supportive of me, and my episodes tended to veer into violence and darkness, occasionally. They were super-supportive and loved that — they loved to have that aspect of the show. But in this case, I think what finally — no pun intended — “killed” that episode was that it wasn’t funny enough.
What you’re suggesting (about rewriting the episode) would’ve been a scenario had the table reading gone well. For instance, if “The Contest” table reading had gone poorly, then all the references to masturbation wouldn’t have landed the same way, and we might’ve struggled with that episode more from the censors and from the executives — instead, it was so hilarious that it just became part of the fabric. Here, there was no escaping the grimness of it and it wasn’t leavened by laughter. They believed — and I begrudgingly accepted this — that a fix could not be had.
Was it hard to let that episode go?
Well, the thing about Seinfeld was — like all my experiences at that time, (because) Larry was a mentor to me — I was learning how to be a writer. I’d never done a sitcom before. My first episode that I wrote for Seinfeld was also killed — it was very hard to come up with ideas that worked for a Seinfeld episode — so I had already dealt with rejection. One of the reasons that I had success on Seinfeld was that I was extremely resilient for whatever reason. I bounced back from rejections like that very quickly. Other people who worked on the show took it much more personally and could not really bounce back and never really were able to show what they actually could display, in terms of their creative talent. I was able to come back with a stronger episode as a challenge to myself, so it did not hold me back that way.
Now, subconsciously, what does all this rejection do to me? That, I’m not a hundred percent sure. My psychiatrist died a few years ago, so I don’t get into those questions anymore. (laughs)
What were any of your other rejected Seinfeld episodes about?
I wrote one that was called “The Salad” — not “The Big Salad,” (which) they did after I was gone. “The Salad” was basically George and Jerry and Jerry’s Black friend. Jerry had a very close friend, Mario Joyner, and I figured he would play the part. But they’re at lunch at the diner, and Mario orders a salad, and George says, “Wow, I’ve never seen a Black person order a salad before,” and everything gets going from there. I wrote the episode, but they just thought it was way too controversial to deal with, and instead of trying to fix it, it seemed better to put it aside and work on something else.
In “The Subway,” Elaine’s original story — in New York, you get on the subway, like at 57th Street, and you don’t realize it’s the express to Harlem. In those days that was, (scared) “Oh wow, I went to Harlem!” It was a big deal. So Elaine freaks out when she realizes that she’s hopped on the express to Harlem, and (the producers) were like, “No, no, no, we can’t do that.” And why was that? Because I was not as skillful in finding ways of making that palatable and funny (in) the way that Larry was able to do in “The Contest.”
In these episodes of yours we’re talking about, race is something you’re tackling. Did you think about race from a young age? Was that a byproduct of where you grew up?
I was very conscious of it. Trump Village, and that neighborhood in general, was basically a Jewish ghetto. It was mostly second-generation Jewish parents and kids of a certain age born in the ‘50s. That was my reality at first, but then integration happened, and kids were bused into the public school, and that became a new experience. I think about going to the library in my elementary school and getting two books — one was Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, and one was Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. A Latino author and a Black author. I don’t know why they appealed to me — they looked interesting. I read them, and it gave me an exposure to other cultures here in New York where I was growing up. Changed my mindset completely. I started to expand my view, and I wanted to get out of my neighborhood so I could experience it more directly.
If you wrote “The Salad” today, how would you do it so that it worked?
I think it would have to be completely rethought. The premise of George saying, “Oh, I never saw a Black person…,” you would have to establish — which I really didn’t do in the episode — this kind of rapport amongst them that could lead to that joke. This is really important in comedy — I don’t think I set it up properly. (George’s line) came out of the blue, which I thought was funny, but I think it had a less-lasting effect because of that. If I had set it up so it was earned, I think then it could have worked in that context much better. That’s the thing that was lacking.
You were nominated for an Emmy for writing “The Outing,” where a NYU reporter misinterprets some things Jerry says and writes an article outing him. How hard was that episode in terms of censors and the network?
If memory serves me correct, both “The Outing” and “The Contest” were originally suggested for the season before, and both were held off on — because of the nature of the content, the controversy of those episodes. So they reemerged the next season, and at that time, the show was a little more successful, and Jerry and Larry felt very strongly about the storyline.
One of the most challenging parts of “The Outing” was figuring out a way to talk about not being gay without being offensive. “Not that there’s anything wrong with it” popped up in the script, maybe once, and as Jerry and Larry read it, they were like, “This is it — this is the whole thing right here. ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with it,’ that’s got to be everywhere (in the script).” It became okay for (the characters) to say almost anything, because they were always qualifying, “Not that there’s anything wrong with it.” That became really powerful for the success of the episode.
It’s one of the most famous lines in any Seinfeld episode. Where did it come from?
I think it came from the natural reaction to saying something like that, realizing you might be offending somebody. With Larry David, everything was, “What would people really say in that situation?” It wasn’t about the jokes — it was about just being honest to the situation. That’s where the laughs came in Seinfeld.
I have to assume younger people, who are just now discovering Seinfeld, always want to ask you questions about the show.
I’m not nostalgic for the past, but there’s a lot of interest in it, I recognize that. One of the reasons I even left Seinfeld, because I could have stayed there forever, was I needed to do other things. I needed to explore, I needed to find out if I could be a director, I wanted to find out all these things. I’ve done a lot of stuff since Seinfeld, so people don’t necessarily immediately even associate me with Seinfeld, which I’m okay with. I could talk about Seinfeld all day — it was an amazing experience — but generally Seinfeld just comes up as part of my body of work, as opposed to the specifics of it.
I always wondered if you were in the ideal position: You worked on Seinfeld, but you’re not a celebrity like Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David. You can live a relatively normal life without being detected.
It’s interesting you say that, because in Bruno we were shooting at Fashion Week in Milan, and we kept on getting caught. Security was so tight — I would walk into the venue, and they would just immediately grab me. And Sacha said, “You’re getting too famous — it’s time to cut the beard off.” So I actually cut the beard off. Most people put a beard on for a disguise — I take it off. And that’s how we got back into Milan and were able to succeed there.
I do really crave the anonymity — I’m really about the work. Especially at this point in my life, I’m not interested in self-aggrandizement, in feeding the ego. I will promote the shit out of (Dicks) because I love it — I really, really want people to see it — but I don’t need to promote myself so much. I don’t feel it’s necessary. I’m about, “Is this going to allow me to get another job? Will I make another movie? I feel like this movie has that possibility of allowing me to make another one.” So that’s the extent of the fame that I need.
Because you don’t need the spotlight, I find it amazing that you started out trying stand-up.
I was from Brooklyn, my father was a failed comic. And I was also very self-destructive, in many ways. The only way I could imagine getting into show business was either by writing jokes or by performing the jokes — you didn’t need a camera or any accouterments to be able to do those two things. So I thought, “If I came out to California, did those two things, one of those things maybe would happen.” But performing was extremely difficult for me — I didn’t know who I was. I wrote really good material, but my performance sucked. So that’s when I (thought), “Let me try to sell these jokes.”
But I didn’t have somebody to call — I wasn’t a nepo baby. I was a parking valet, I was a bellhop. I pretty much saw not much of my future if something didn’t happen — I wasn’t skilled to do anything but (jokes). So I put myself on the cliff, and it happened that there was a net there when I jumped.
The Seinfeld lore is that you really helped shape Kramer’s voice. You and Michael Richards knew each other from Fridays, so how did those conversations go in terms of fleshing out Kramer?
A lot of it was my own necessity to express myself, and also knowing what Michael was capable of and not really being called upon to do on the show. I was dealing with Paul and John (in Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld), and I was George Harrison: “How do I get my songs on the album?” Michael was the unused instrument in the cast — he was supposed to come in for one scene, and he already created this door thing. I mean, that was the Michael that I knew from Fridays — he could take a piece of business and turn it into a comic tour de force. I knew there was a lot of richness and treasure there that was not being excavated — and I knew, for me to have a way in, I could express myself through Michael.
Michael and I — or Kramer and I — had a lot of things in common. Our paranoia, our conspiratorial thinking, our outside-the-box kind of thinking. The lone-wolf thing. A lot of that stuff really resonated and also reminded me of characters I knew in Brooklyn who were eccentric or weird. Also, I knew Kenny Kramer a little bit. For both Michael and I, we met at a place where, “This is an opportunity to do a story that takes him out of the sitcom world a little bit that he’s now trapped in.”
Was it therapeutic to put those aspects of yourself into Kramer? “If I make this stuff about me funny, maybe it’s not so bad”?
That’s very true. It’s an inadvertent form of therapy when you’re doing it right. And if you don’t do that on a show or a movie or anything else you’re working on, you are going to wind up with something very generic. What makes Seinfeld so special is the idiosyncrasy of Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, at times me as well, and other writers and people who contributed to the show. And the actors. It’s a unique set of circumstances, which doesn’t happen too often.
Michael Richards has been in exile, essentially, since his racist tirade in 2006 at the Laugh Factory. Do you two still speak?
Truthfully, I don’t talk to too many people. That’s the truth. And neither does he — never did. Our relationship was very close, but not in a socializing sort of way. We just had that bond, because we lived through some of those wars together. So, no, I haven’t spoken to him in a long time, and I think it’s tragic what happened. He’s really a very good-hearted person and super-talented, and not really being tapped into anymore. That’s the biggest shame of all, because I’m sure he has that hunger.
Is it annoying to have to answer questions about Richards and what he did?
Truthfully, no. I don’t shy away from any subject, really. And it gives us an opportunity — especially (since) we’re taking our time here a little bit — to explore (it).
You know, it’s so forgotten now — it’s a non-thing. And he’s become a non-person in a way, sadly, that it’s worth it to illuminate it, if it’s possible in some way. And knowing Michael, I think it is worth it. You hear Jerry and Jason and Larry, and anybody else who knows him, say the same thing: He is a super-talented person, very savant-like. He’s a savant-like actor who’s very much into his immersion, in a way very similar to Andy Kaufman, who is another very influential figure in all of this.
I think when he was on stage in front of the live audience that night — look, what he did was aberrant, offensive, in no way should be tolerated. But I also know that he was a comic on stage, dying, and he got desperate. And in an unconscious moment of desperation, that shit spewed out. Considering how many people are still out there performing, making money — profiting — who have done much worse, he seems to have earned a second chance of some sort.
There aren’t too many comedians, or anybody, who have been canceled as swiftly and permanently as he has for that particular transgression. You see comics with a lot of controversy, whether it’s Louis C.K. or Dave Chappelle or whoever it might be. And I’m glad they’re working, but I would say, at the same time, they have been through stuff that could be considered worse and are still thriving. So the fact that Michael just was in the wrong place in history — is a victim of history — is a weird fate to have.
When you make something provocative like Dicks, it’s destined to offend certain people. Do you enjoy that? Do you want it to piss off people that you’d like to see pissed off?
We had a few friends-and-family screenings for Borat, and my wife at the time and my daughters came to one. I was like, “Uh oh, this is where it’s going to go south,” but many of the women in that screening loved the movie — I thought, “Okay, I have to start questioning my assumptions about the audience.” Then my mother was living at a condo in Boynton Beach — she’s like, “On the opening day of Borat, I’m taking all the ladies from the condo.” And I’m like, “Mom, don’t do that — you’ll be the scourge of the condo.” She’s like, “Don’t be silly” — they went, and they loved it.
The Dicks trailer came out, and my brother is not politically aligned with me — I love him, we’re very close, but he supports other people than I do. He loved the trailer. All his family loved the trailer. All his friends, his Trump-supporter people, they all loved the trailer. So for me, I know that something that is funny and delivers the goods on an entertainment level, no matter what else it’s saying — you can debate what it’s saying, don’t agree with what it's saying, I’m okay with that — you’ll be laughing and singing the songs. That’s the trade-off that I want to make with the mass audience.
But does any part of you think, “Aw, man, maybe I should have worked harder to really offend them”?
It doesn’t bother me. I do get a kick out of that (angry reaction) on some level, but as I get older, it is less of a thrill than having people who would normally disagree with everything about this movie come out and love it — that’s actually converting people, maybe. That interests me.