Larry Charles' Dangerous World of Comedy review: An illuminating journey towards what makes us human

Anupam Kant Verma

Mar 27, 2019 15:55:59 IST

Larry Charles used to be a staff writer on Seinfeld. He went on to direct The Dictator, Bruno and Borat, the last a worthy 21st century comic achievement. His satirical style is frequently absurd, wears its heart on its sleeve, is ribald, real and confrontational, and ruffles feathers across the political spectrum. There is a dangerous quality to his work, which appears to have found its natural, perhaps even more perilous extension, in Dangerous World of Comedy, the Netflix series.

Larry Charles Dangerous World of Comedy review: An illuminating journey towards what makes us human

Poster for Larry Charles' Dangerous World of Comedy.

In the four part series, Charles travels to countries ravaged by war, tyranny and authoritarianism in a bid to understand what makes their people laugh. He meets stand-up comedians of varying degrees of fame in each country, their success or lack of it a telling sign of the state of affairs in their land. He goes from Iraq to Liberia, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, back home to the USA, where a racist, alt-right comedy scene has sprung up alongside the protectionism endorsed by the new president. There are moments of boundless joy amidst the darkness of censorship and tyranny, moments of hope for ethnic minorities, newly represented by comedians using stand-up to tell their stories, interviews with racists, misogynists and bigots, with soldiers using comedy as therapy to pull through the fog of war, even mass murderers confessing their love for sitcoms. LCDWOC encompasses them all. Barring a few missteps attributable to cultural differences, the show is an illuminating journey through the heart of darkness towards what makes us human.

In the first episode, Charles posits that Americans have managed to colonise stand-up comedy. It is an important statement, especially when considered in the light of the events of the rest of the show. He frequently asks comedians in war-torn countries about the American shows they grew up watching. Most of the countries he visits remain unique cultural experiences to him. His knowledge of their politics and society is often determined by articles and documentaries, as is the case with Liberia. But that relative ignorance results in exchanges that are terrifying, hilarious, penetrating and memorable by turns. The intriguing interview with the female stand-up comedian who wants to shed light on the liberty that the hijab gives her and the fundamental notion of freedom of choice is a case in point. Charles is visibly surprised. But the cultural gulf separating these two comedians separated by age, gender and race illuminates the uniqueness of the human experience that alone makes this show watchable.

Charles’ stated goal to understand what makes people laugh often leads him to pitch-dark places. On one side of a dim-lit road at night in Liberia, he interviews General Butt Naked, a feared, ruthless warlord during the civil war that tore a nation apart. This man who killed hundreds of men, women and children, often in spectacular fashion, confesses his love for American kiddie shows, before proceeding to tell a distasteful joke as an example of what made his troops laugh during the war. It is a terrifying moment in the show, precariously balanced between the necessary and the dispensable. The general belongs behind bars. But he roams the streets freely, sometimes giving sermons about how he’s now a changed man. The very act of interviewing a ghastly man about the kind of jokes he likes is an act that can divide audiences. But that’s the kind of work Charles revels in.

Later, he meets alt-right anti-Semitic trolls who consider themselves comedians, a couple of whom even idolise Charles. Then there are the Nigerian male comedians who’ve become successful household names on the back of a string of rape jokes and skits that some of them continue to perform to this day. In a post-truth world, the essential truth of comedy as an act of rebellion and healing appears to be mangled and subsequently co-opted by racists, trolls and misogynists alike. Standing in stark opposition to these abominable voices are souls like Hatoon Kadi, whose skits and acts in Saudi Arabia are a part of the slowly proliferating comic culture in a land that has systemically oppressed its women. Then there are the Native American stand-up comedians, women being their brightest stars, who have found in stand-up a powerful new way of sharing the treasure trove of their ancestors’ stories with Americans in particular and the world at large.

The people Charles interviews represent a broad spectrum. He wants to know what makes people laugh. And what makes us laugh reveals a lot about us. The structure of a joke is usually the same all across the world. But what can often be lost between the set-up and the punchline are the perilous lengths traversed by individuals to make a living while batting for hope. By shining a light on the select few pushing against the hate and the tyranny while simultaneously giving people in their ravaged countries reasons to laugh and forget their worries for a while, Charles accomplishes a cross-cultural feat that is worthy of your time.

Rating: 4.25 stars out of 5.

Updated Date: Mar 27, 2019 15:55:59 IST