Does It Take a Visionary to Make Sacha Baron Cohen Funny?

Larry Charles knows funny

Sacha Baron Cohen may not be everyone’s favorite satirical comic (I think he’s hilarious), but he has undeniably carved out his own unique space in the pop culture landscape.  One of the keys to Cohen’s success is his steady collaboration with Larry Charles, who directed Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and Bruno.  This team’s latest project, The Dictator (opening May 11), is supposedly based on a novel written by the late Saddam Hussein.  Heh.  Sounds like something you might see joked about on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Hmmm.

The music alone in this clip qualifies it for the kick ass trailer folder:

Larry Charles is best known as the executive producer of Curb Your Enthusiasm and other popular, well-written series (Entourage, Mad About You, The Tick), and before those programs, he was a supervising producer of Seinfeld.   It seems he knows a little something about comedy and working with funny people.

But that’s television, an entirely different medium (one arguable more heavily populated with hacks than our beloved motion pictures).  While Charles is less well-known as a movie director, his ability to work with established, yet quirky independent talent, such as Cohen and Bill Maher (Charles directed the pundit’s documentary Religulous in 2008), favors him.  Some may argue that working with comics like these is child’s play, and all the director has to do is turn on the camera and let the funny man riff.  There may be some truth to that.

Still, just by watching the perfect timing of the jokes and funny bits in these films it is clear that Charles uses his considerable comedic knowledge to make the most of the material.  The resulting films are not Tarsem-like visual feasts to be sure, but they are laugh-out-loud funny, which is really all a comedy needs to be.

Larry Charles may have a vision, and he is certainly good at what he does, but I’m not ready to say he’s a visionary director – nor is he a hack.  For now, I think he should be in the VOH Lobby.


  1. HakSnider33 · April 2, 2012

    Interesting look at another type of filmmaking that generally doesn’t receive critical acclaim. Charles definitely has talent and there is artistry in the way Charles shot the scene that you’ve embedded above. However, I believe that even if some random guy such as myself had directed the scene, a comedic genius like Sacha Baron Cohen would still have been outrageously funny.

  2. Late Night · April 3, 2012

    You might think you could do this, but think again. This type of comedy is deceptively difficult to capture. Cohen’s genius is his ability to sell a character to an unsuspecting target. All of the humor relies 100% on the reaction of that target to Cohen’s outrageousness, and they only have one chance to get it. If the director misses the reaction, the joke is dead; there’s no going back for a second take. So a big part of Charles’ success is his ability to place his cameras appropriately to best capture the reaction of the “marks.”

    The other part happens in post: the way he edits the cutaways, the perfect timing used to get the most out of the funny reactions, is based on his extensive background in comedy. That Charles makes it seem effortless is indicative of the skill it actually takes to pull it off successfully.

  3. Mr Ridley · April 4, 2012

    Would that be like Simon “Hack” West’s ability to set-up multiple cameras to capture a variety of angles of a plane exploding in Con-Air, editing for impact (along with Cage’s slow walk away from the fireball) and calling it action “choreography?”

    Just kidding!

    I thnk the answer is somewhere in the middle between shaping and prepping beforehand for maximum impact vs simply letting it roll and hoping for the best that you have complete coverage for post.

    • Late Night · April 4, 2012

      That’s the thing: it might look like a matter of simply letting the cameras roll, but when you look closely, you see a location that is not conducive to more than 2 or three cameras. A full-on Hollywood style production crew would have given the game away to the unsuspecting target’s of Cohen’s humor. Further, it is apparent that even though Borat makes it seem like he’s talking spontaneously, it must have been scripted or planned to go after those people in the audience that he focused on.

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