Larry Charles

Biography

A bona fide counterculture figure who later struck gold as one of the most successful and lucrative comedy writers in the history of show business, Larry Charles grew up in a Coney Island housing project designed and built by Fred Trump (father of Donald), and attended Rutgers University in the early '70s. Harboring a serious interest in a career as a full-time writer, Charles took a professor's advice by dropping out of college and hitting the standup circuit as one-half of a two-man comedy act that regularly opened for a Top 40 cover band. (Throughout, Charles authored many of the routines.) When that gig flopped due to payment disputes, Charles hearkened back to New York and wrote satirical sex stories for Al Goldstein's Screw magazine (then in full swing), then later took a job as an author of porno novels in a Gotham sweatshop.
It was only upon moving to the City of Angels, however, that Charles' fortunes began to shift; he began to hang around outside of comedy clubs and sell jokes to various standup acts, one of whom happened to be Larry David. David offered Charles an assignment writing for Fridays (1980-1982), ABC's now-forgotten answer to Saturday Night Live, which Charles gladly accepted. Unfortunately, that program failed to connect with an audience and folded after two seasons -- leading to almost a decade without work for Charles. A friendship blossomed between Charles and David, however, and when David secured a development deal for Seinfeld (1989-1995), he instantly brought Charles on board to script innumerable episodes. The story of that program scarcely needs to be retold; it turned into one of the most eminently successful prime-time series in the history of the medium, revolutionized the sitcom format, and turned David, Charles, and their leads into multimillionaires for life. In the meantime, Charles' reputation as a comedy writer took hold; he authored episodes of the decidedly less-controversial Mad About You at about the same time, and moved into directing features. Though Charles' first outing behind the camera -- a deeply eccentric Bob Dylan vehicle called Masked and Anonymous (2003) -- flopped with audiences and drew much critical scorn, his second effort, fully entitled Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) more than made up for it and represented the second great coup of the writer's career after Seinfeld. One of the most inventive comedies of the early 21st century, it starred the inimitable Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev, a sweet-natured but culturally inept (and violently lecherous) traveler from Kazakhstan making his way across the United States in search of "dream girl" Pamela Anderson (Baywatch). Charles and Cohen's genius lay in staging and shooting largely unscripted scenes with average and unsuspecting Americans, who were led to believe that Borat was in fact a real person and filmed in reaction to Cohen's outrageous behavior. Sequences had Borat engaging in such antisocial behavior as letting a chicken loose on a public bus, walking through a posh hotel lobby with his pants half-down, and -- finally -- attempting to kidnap Anderson by tossing a burlap bag over her at a book signing and carting her away (a event that the actress may or may not have been "in" on but that Charles branded as completely spontaneous and unplanned). The project set new records in terms of profitability; on a budget of 18 million dollars, it grossed in excess of 261 million dollars. Unsurprisingly, he also directed many episodes of David's HBO improvisational sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm at about the same time. After Borat, Charles was reportedly "swamped" with offers to helm Hollywood comedies budgeted at around 100 million dollars each. Ever the iconoclast, he turned down all of these offers and partnered up with friend Bill Maher (Politically Incorrect) to make Religulous, a satirical documentary skewering the religions of the world and both touting and celebrating atheism. That film bowed in the summer of 2008. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi

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