At the moment, the idea of mythologizing the all-healing power of comedy is facing a bit of a backlash. Enter Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy, a documentary series from Netflix, helmed by the director of films like Borat and Bruno and legendary Seinfeld writer, which investigates how comedy functions in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.
Right off the bat, the show’s premise risks exemplifying a troublesome duality. On the one hand, it is extremely well-researched, and deserves credit for putting the spotlight on non-Western comedy in a way that is far more interesting than re-litigating American comedy’s cultural ubiquity again in the safest possible environment, as, say, a show where comedians ride around drinking coffee might.
Covering the comedy scenes in both Iraq and Liberia, the first part of the show is extremely successful when it comes to communicating the environment in which these comedians find their voices. In Iraq, where comedians can be assassinated for joking about the wrong thing, one TV host describes being kidnapped, and subsequently having to joke his way out of more extreme forms of torture.
The stakes are higher than any American comedian could comprehend. Even prank shows in Iraq are incredibly intense. They don’t make you think a zombie is crawling into an elevator or whatever. They make you think you are about to be detained at a military checkpoint. And it’s not just a matter of physical safety. With little industry regulation, Liberian comedy filmmakers sell their lo-fi films to distributors for a fraction of their budget, making it virtually impossible to make any money from comedy. This is all stuff that’s worth knowing, and Charles is determined to give you as thorough an understanding of it as he can in an hour.
But there is an inherent arrogance to this kind of show. Working around it is almost impossible, but addressing it is necessary, and the first episode largely fails to do so. “I have traveled through the comedy danger zone and lived to tell the tale,” says Charles. You’re left wishing the show would interrogate the problems involved in going to Iraq to investigate how interesting it is that people have produced comedy in response to the pointless war we started. At worst, Charles dips his toe into real, VICE-esque condescension, noting that “just like Americans laugh at American stuff, Liberians laugh at Liberian stuff.”
The last fifteen minutes of the episode really lose me. There is a slight fetishization of the danger faced by comedians in these parts of the world throughout the episode, but I have to say that I am absolutely, thoroughly uninterested in hearing what serial child murderer and cannibal General Butt Naked finds funny. This kind of angle doesn’t use a discussion of comedy to help illuminate the culture of a far-away country, it just humanizes someone widely regarded as one of recent history’s greatest monsters.
Still, it’s worth reiterating: you will not be exposed to these stories anywhere else, and Charles is using his platform to spotlight stories that will no doubt give an audience that’s, say, in cars, getting coffee, some necessary perspective.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @gr8h8m_t3chl3r or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.