Pushing the Boundaries
In the pilot episode of Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy, the director of Borat and former Seinfeld writer timidly asks a reformed Liberian warlord known as General Butt Naked, “What does human flesh taste like?”
The General answers that it tastes like pork. This is the moment when a two-drink minimum seems like a great idea.
Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy is a four-part documentary series on Netflix that explores the art form of comedy as it responds and exists in relation to turmoil. Charles’ travel guide is a laundry list of areas that many would find too depressing and tragic to mine for humor. He visits with an Iraqi comedian whose parents fled for their lives, he gets inside the minds of veterans dealing with trauma, he talks to Native Americans in Minnesota about the cruelties of life on a reservation and, on a dark street in Monrovia, he talks to General Butt Naked, who commanded child soldiers but cites Bill Cosby’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things” as a laugh riot.
This is the draw of Charles’ show. It is an unflinching look at people operating in worlds that were shaped not always by their own design and finding the humor in it. Most of these locations are either active or former war zones affected by years of colonialism and US intervention. The fallout from those fraught relationships leave scars like those of Bobby Henline, a combat veteran turned stand-up comic who had half of his body burned when his unit’s Humvee was bombarded in Iraq. Or, of those Special Forces, a former child soldier in Liberia who performs and reenacts war scenes on the street with all the broad gesturing fit for a stage play.
In the second episode, Charles probes his subjects for an understanding of their motivations to perform and how it helps them cope with the after effects of war. In the process, the viewer finds that American veterans can commodify comedy in a way that other countries cannot. For example, veterans in the United States like Henline have avenues to turn their experiences into a form of careerism. In war-torn Liberia and Somalia, the economic and political situation is too dire for comedy to become a form of monetized entertainment. Comedy in these places is done because some people there see it as, to use Charles’ description, “a higher calling.”
This self-examination of the American enterprise of comedy is also on display in Charles’ third episode, which explores that most taboo of comedic subjects: race.
In this episode, the interviewees include two alt-right Internet personalities, Weev and Baked Alaska, whose brand of humor lives on 4chan message boards and YouTube. Both Weev and Baked Alaska do nothing subversive or intelligent. It’s mostly Punching Down 2.0. Their form of comedy is pissing off the perceived power structure which, in their minds, is one that discriminates against white men. It does not deviate from the same white supremacist grievances that have infected American society since its founding. Charles understands this as he manages to sit through an interview with Weev where he recites a deeply anti-Semitic screed full of spittle.
But, the “dangerous comedy” of Baked Alaska does have inspirations and for Charles, it’s personal. He cites Borat as an inspiration, viewing the satirical aspect of anti-Semitism in the film as literal. Outside of the Netflix show, Charles has argued that it’s not his responsibility as an artist to clarify the intent of the material he worked with alongside Sacha Baron Cohen.
He does concede that Borat as a film could not be made in the same way, but he argues it’s because of the cultural imperialism in the moment of the Bush years rather than any sort of acknowledgement that the jokes could be refined. Like Charles’ subjects of former terrorists, Lobster boosters and Nigerian superstars, he too has faults and contradictions.
The final episode of this dangerous world of comedy focuses on gender and sexual identity. A majority of the episode’s run time is dedicated to rape culture within Nigeria, the male comedians who profit from it and the female comedians who are under intense economic pressures to choose their words carefully in combating it.
Charles devotes his time in Nigeria to dissecting the male comedians and rightly challenging their material. The critical lens of these interactions presents the viewer with one of the series’ most moralizing episodes in a run of television that started with a warlord describing the taste of human flesh, followed by a US veteran named Donny O’Malley saying that “sick humor” such as rape is therapeutic despite thousands of sexual assaults reported by the Department of Defense in the US military, and later, an al-Shabaab terrorist describing the only time spent laughing was dragging bodies tied to a truck. Nowhere were these ideas of humor challenged in the same way that Charles asks of the male comedians in Nigeria.
Can we assume that Charles refined his examination as the series continued and realized that maybe none of this is as funny as he thought? Or, is a subject as traumatic and demoralizing as rape off limits when it’s coming from the mouths of those who have not suffered in war time?
It’s hard to tell. Just as Charles proves throughout the show’s four episodes: there are disparities between the traditional American enterprise of comedy and what that same enterprise allows to flourish outside of its neatly-defined borders.