Since "Saturday Night Live" began airing, only one show made a serious run at unseating its cultural significance as the go-to sketch comedy series: ABC's "Fridays."
Starting in 1980 -- a year that would see Lorne Michaels leave "SNL," hurtling the show toward the brink of cancellation -- "Fridays" ran for two seasons, and would help launch the careers of Michael Richards and Rich Hall. (In the film "Man on the Moon," Jim Carrey, playing Andy Kaufman, reenacts one of the most notorious moments from "Fridays.") But, more important, "Fridays" began the collaboration between Larry David and Larry Charles -- two men who would go on to work on two television shows that you may have heard of: "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
These days, Charles is the director of Sacha Baron Cohen's movies: "Borat," "Bruno," and, now, "The Dictator" -- the first scripted collaboration between Cohen and his director. Here, Charles discusses the inner workings of Sacha Baron Cohen's process and why the two decided to tell the story of a (seemingly) brutal dictator in a narrative fashion (as opposed to Cohen's patented guerrilla style). He also speculates on how come Larry David doesn't want you to see "Fridays."
Was there any thought to doing at least some of this movie in an unscripted style, like "Borat"?
Well, first of all, there's unscripted and then there's what we did in the other movies -- which is technically not strictly unscripted. It's such a unique entity unto itself. Unless you go out with real people and you do those guerrilla tactics. Be that as it may, we were really interested in keeping it as spontaneous and as urgent as those movies were. We wanted to give Sacha some real world experience with the character because that's a way in the process to start to understand how the character behaves. So, we did a series of interviews in a hotel room -- very "Borat" and "Bruno" like, actually. We had random people come in to sit down and talk to him, knowing nothing about it, that were absolutely hysterical. Those were totally unscripted.
OK, that's interesting. Then why not think, Maybe we should just do that?
Well, the only thing was that we also wanted to take a step in a new direction. We didn't want to rely on that same formula -- we wanted to expand the formula.
And you would have been criticized for doing that again. "Oh, this again."
In situations like this, you really can't win anyway. There will be people, now, that will complain that it's not like the other movies, and there will be people who complain about the opposite. I sort of accept that. The key to me is, are we delivering the goods, ultimately? And I think, for sure, they do with this movie -- hopefully as much as they had with the other movies. But, you never have the element of surprise that you have in something like "Borat." You always have expectations that are very hard to meet.
Some boundaries are pushed with a few of the jokes. Were there any that didn't make it in because they went too far?
Well, no [laughs]. I never think that, actually. I usually think, great, you know?
I had a feeling the writer of the infamous, never-aired "gun" episode of "Seinfeld" would have that answer.
Yeah, I'm really happy when that happens. And then we deal with the consequences later -- that's how I look at it.
What about the actors? Did Sir Ben Kingsley ever give you a look that said, "You want me to do what?
Well, the thing with Sir Ben ... By the way, you have to address him as "Sir Ben." I'm from Brooklyn, so I'm walking around saying, "Sir Ben, Sir Ben, Sir Ben," so I don't mess things up. In the movie, of course, he is Aladeen's uncle. So, every now and then, I'd slip and say, "Uncle Ben." And that was usually a little bit of a momentary disaster. But he was the most gracious, good-natured, good-humored person. He never flinched for a moment. He's an actor, an adventurous actor and he wanted a challenge like this. He was very, very gung-ho from the very beginning.
[THE FOLLOWING QUESTION CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT "THE DICTATOR"]
And you got Edward Norton to agree to a short but compromising role.
Again, Ed Norton is somebody who has really enjoyed our other work and is a fan. A lot of people come to us -- it happens on "Curb," too -- a lot of people come to us indirectly and say, "If you ever have anything for me, I'd love to be on 'Curb.'" Or, "I'd love to be in a movie." And, every now and then, something comes up that seems absolutely appropriate. That whole story about the Chinese businessman's sexual predilections, that story kind of evolved during the scripts and the shooting. And we reached out to Ed and he showed up, no questions asked.
You brought up "Curb Your Enthusiasm." I've always wondered why certain actors play a character and then others play themselves. Like, why does Ted Danson play himself but Michael McKean plays a character?
I wish there was a policy. I really do. But, it's completely random, frankly. When we think about a character, sometimes there's so many characters that have to be characters -- and, sometimes, we say immediately, "Wouldn't it be great if Michael McKean played that?" Sometimes we might have casting sessions where Michael McKean might get the part. Other times, we try to find people who aren't as well known and you wind up with someone like Michael McKean. That's why he is Michael McKean, because he's so good.
It is somewhat random. I mean, Ted Danson could have wound up playing a character, but he wound up playing himself. In terms of awareness, I'm always surprised of how things don't resonate like they used to. I like to take an informal poll of people I work with under 30 and just ask them who Jack Benny is. And I get an almost uniformed, unanimous blank stare. Most people under the age of 30 have no idea that he was the massive comedian of the time. So, the idea that you and I might know Michael McKean -- we know a lot of people that a lot of other people don't know. When I should have been studying, I was memorizing all of these actors.
You had nothing to do with the movie "Ali G Indahouse." Do you look at that movie and think, Boy, I wish I had gotten a chance with that character? Because that film wasn't near as successful as "Bruno" or "Borat."
You know, I know how hard it is to make a movie. And I know how tough it is to capture his characters in a movie. I think that they sort of figured that that was the way to do it, that first time. I think Sacha is just so smart, that he really was able to capitalize on what was wrong with that process and make that massive U-turn and break through that new ground as a result. And that's his genius: the problems that might have existed in that movie, he figured them out and broke them down and then came up with a strategy moving forward that's incredibly exciting.
I'm fascinated by the show "Fridays." Was that a good experience for you?
It's interesting, because I met Larry David on "Fridays." And he's ten years older than me. Although we totally bonded from day one and became close friends -- he became my mentor back then -- we had extremely different experiences of that show. I was 22-years-old, my last job was as a bellhop. And, now, here I was, a writer on a live television show. I was writing sketches about anything I wanted to write about. You know, making ten times more money than I had ever made in my life. It was great. I had an incredible time. It was really fun. I learned how to be a writer on that show. I met incredible people -- musicians like The Clash. I got to really use my imagination and stretch myself and experiment. So, I had a fantastic experience on that show. I loved being able to comment on what was going on in the world -- and combining this fun entertainment value with very heavy, dark, often non-humorous things an trying to make comedy out of that.
Obviously the Andy Kaufman sketch is the most notorious, but I still think even sketches like Larry David's "Temp" are really great.
Yeah! That's what I say to him, too. I tell him how great he was. I wrote with him on that show -- I wrote sketches that he was in, and he wrote sketches that he was in and was in other peoples' sketches. He's a great actor. He's a great comic actor and he did some great pieces on that show. Combined, just a DVD of just his pieces would be hysterical. And Michael Richards, too, for that matter.
I'm under the impression that Larry won't agree to let "Fridays" be released on DVD. I know people, including myself, really want to see those sketches again.
You know, Michael -- I can't speak for Michael on why. But, in Larry's case, he just feels ... He's a quality-control freak. And it's just hard for him to think about his experience as something that he had quality control over. Again, I and many other people think that so much of the stuff that he did was great, but he's hyper-critical about stuff like that. He doesn't feel comfortable putting something out that he can't completely put his stamp of approval on.
I've heard Louis CK say similar things about "The Dana Carvey Show."
Well, you know, Sacha is the same way as well. And I'll say that all three of those guys have an incredible integrity. They're very, very passionate about what they believe and how it should work. They are sort of savant-like, in that this is what they do. They don't have any choice over it, in a sense. This is what they have to do. And that leads to an uncompromising integrity, which I deeply admire in all three of them, actually.
Mike Ryan is senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.