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Funny or die

A conversation with comedy veteran and Bob Dylan collaborator Larry Charles

Larry Charles and Bob Dylan on the set of Masked and Anonymous.


You’d be hard-pressed to name somebody who wrote more great comedy in the last 50 years than Larry Charles. After starting out in stand-up and writing sketch in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Charles wound up on the writing staff of a little show called Seinfeld, where he breathed frantic, paranoid life into Jerry’s kooky neighbor, Cosmo Kramer. 

After Seinfeld’s iconic 180-episode run through the ‘90s, Charles went on to direct many notable boundary-pushing satires and documentaries, most notably Borat, the 2006 mockumentary that netted $262 million internationally as well as inquiries from the Secret Service and the FBI. The film’s star, Sacha Baron Cohen, often dealt with these and other domestic law enforcement officers without breaking character as the Kazakh public access reporter Borat Sagdiyev.

Charles is also the director of 2003’s Masked and Anonymous, which he wrote with Bob Dylan, and a recent Netflix series, Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy. The Bob Dylan Center is sponsoring a screening of the rare Masked and Anonymous as part of this year’s Circle Cinema Film Festival, which will be followed by a conversation between Charles and the author and poet Robert Polito. 

Larry Charles: Matt.

Matt Carney: Larry, thank you for making the time for me, I really appreciate it. 

Charles: My pleasure.

Carney: You’re coming to Tulsa next month. Have you been here before?

Charles: I drove through Oklahoma, including Tulsa and every place else really, a couple of times, but I’ve never spent any quality time in Tulsa. 

I drove through both when I was a young man driving across the country in the late ‘70s, and also when we did Borat. We spent a lot of time in Texas, and occasionally would shoot a scene in Oklahoma.

Carney: In southern Oklahoma?

Charles: Yeah. We did a scene in a bank that didn’t make it into the movie, but we drove through Oklahoma quite a bit. 

Carney: What do you remember about the bank scene? 

Charles: There’s a million scenes like this that didn’t make Borat, but we basically robbed this bank. 

Carney: What? 

Charles: We were invited in after hours by the president of the bank. Borat, me and our small little crew with black bags, who knows what’s in them, are they cameras or guns? This guy doesn’t know. Security is gone, he’s opening the door for us, he’s letting us in and around the bank. We go into his office and basically if we had pulled out guns at that point we had a perfect bank robbery. And I often say that we could get away with a bank robbery in these situations. We leave places very giddy because you realize that security is just an illusion.

Carney: [laughter] I think a lot of is based on goodwill, trust and a social contract too.

Charles: You’re right and that’s a mistake. Goodwill and trust are powerful forces in human nature, but they are easily manipulated. We manipulate them for satire and to expose hypocrisy, but other people manipulate them for much more insidious reasons.

Carney: That’s an incredible story. And you said that there’s a million like them that didn’t make Borat, which I revisited earlier this week, and thinking about the repository of scenes you must have on hand must be mind-boggling. 

Charles: It is. It’s still boggling to me. There’s hours of incredible stuff that, for one reason or another, just couldn’t make it [into the final cut of the film].

Carney: When you think back on Borat and all these scenes, is it hard to suss out Sacha [Baron Cohen] from the Borat character? Since he was conducting production meetings in character and you all presented him [as Borat] to these people you met? 

Charles: You know, there’s an alternate reality that a movie like that requires and everybody had to play their roles. And you never knew when you had to play your role, but Sacha was the inspiration by being so immersed. So if you wanted to be successful in this alternate reality, you had to be part of that. So one of the ways we did that was for me to interact with him as Borat very early in the day. Then I didn’t have any question about whether or not I was working with Sacha or Borat. I was dealing with Borat until I was not. 

That made my take on the reality stronger to communicate and convey that to the people we interviewed. You have to believe the product you’re selling. 

Carney: What’s Bob Dylan’s sense of humor like? What does he find funny? 

Charles: He has a very dry, very esoteric sense of humor. If he thinks something’s funny, it’s funny. And if he don’t, that’s your problem. Which is very different from most comedians. Most comedians are seeking the greatest amount of laughter they can amass. But he doesn’t care about that. He has a fantastic sense of humor, he just doesn’t care if anybody else gets it. 

Carney: Watching Masked and Anonymous, I noticed that it had in common with both Borat and your Netflix special, these unvarnished shots of unsexy, real-life violence.

Charles: Yes.

Carney: Do you as a filmmaker feel particularly interested in violence and danger? And if so, why do you think that is.

Charles: Let me back up a few steps if I may. I agree with your premise that those three shows and movies share that in common. Another thing that Masked and Anonymous shares with Borat that very few people know is that there’s a much longer cut of that as well. My original cut of [Masked and Anonymous] is three-and-a-half hours long. 

Basically, I was coerced for a variety of reasons to cut it down to the commercial version. The version that Bob and I intended is a much larger, more epic tapestry than the movie that went out. That longer version has much more humor, and much more stuff that reflects that side of Bob. It also has 11 more songs with a great band. We shot about 22 songs, and only half of them got used. 

And you asked about the violence. I’m very interested in a number of things but among them is the juxtaposition between what’s funny and what’s not. I’ve been exploring that line in my work from the beginning, even before I was a professional, I found that fascinating. And I’m trying to see where those two things merge, what they have in common, what’s the source of those things. I’m trying to excavate the essence that’s underneath comedy and tragedy.

Carney: I listened to your interview on Chapo Trap House recently and they return to that idea a lot, the juxtaposition between what’s funny and not. They often point to Facebook, that Facebook made us insane by pulling all of us into the same room even though we all have different ideas. 

Charles: I was just talking to my wife about this. It’s about corporate control over what you think, buy and feel. That’s what Facebook and these social media companies are all about. They’re no different from any other large corporation. They want to know who you are so they can exploit you somehow. That’s why bringing people together in a community, or dividing them, they have no moral judgment about that. 

Carney: Is it true that you and Bob pieced together the script [to Masked & Anonymous] from scraps of paper he’d scribbled on while on tour? 

Charles: It started that way. The first time I met him he had this really cool, embossed box. He spilled all this scrap paper out on the table and said “I don’t know what to do with this.” I started picking them up and it’s like hotel stationery from Norway or wherever. And [written on them] are all these little aphorisms, phrases, names or a line that could be a line from the song, and I said “Oh this could be the name of a character and this could be a line that the character says, and this could be a different character,” and he said “You can do that?” and I said “Yeah!” That’s like William Burroughs, or how you write songs. He will just take these pieces and juxtapose them and see if any greater truth emerges from it, in almost unconscious fashion. So that was the process that began the screenplay. But there needed to be structure, there needed to be bridges and segues, so we eventually took those scraps that we cobbled together and followed in a stream-of-consciousness way and that eventually became our 150-page script.

At the end of the day, everybody—the costume designer, the cinematographer, the gaffer—everybody needs to know what to do and the script is their blueprint. So you need to eventually produce a script. The logistics of the movie demanded it. It was a very hard movie to get made. It was very low-budget, and we had a very tight schedule. The first time we scheduled the movie, he’d scheduled his tour to start the day after the movie ended [shooting], and legally you can’t do that because you need time in case you had to do reshoots. So we had to reschedule it after his tour, and it was a 20-day schedule and you had all these people—like Jeff Bridges— flying in, doing their bit and then going on to another movie. So everybody was joining in to do it, but it was a tight schedule.

Carney: I read that all these accomplished actors appeared in it for union wages just to meet Bob. Is that true?

Charles: Absolutely. I actually kicked back my salary for the production, but I think most people did it for nothing. They did it to hang out with Bob, which is a very magical thing, by the way. It’s a magical, mystical, unforgettable experience and I consider myself fortunate in that respect. 

Carney: You directed a bunch of very accomplished actors in this film. Do any of those scenes stand out to you as especially fun to shoot?

Charles: Yes. First of all, the musical numbers were exhilarating to shoot. Bob and I talked a lot about how to shoot those, and we’d watched these old 1950s country and western shows—Porter Wagoner and those kinda guys—and they would sing and the camera would be one shot, moving through the set and moving amongst the musicians. So shooting the songs in one take and choreographing the take was exhilarating. 

Also, watching Bob’s process versus all the other actors. Bob’s not a trained actor, so he had his own methods to sculpt his performance. Sometimes he would be so into the scene—I remember one with John Goodman, Jessica Lange and he in a trailer and he’s listening to them go at it and he was supposed to jump in, but he missed his cue—he didn’t say anything! “Oh, I just enjoyed listening to them,” [Bob said.] He was into the scene like he was watching it!

There was a lightheartedness on set that made even the heavy scenes fun and surreal to be involved with. Directing people like Jeff Bridges, Ed Harris, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, it was crazy and fun and it was like riding the highest wave you possibly could. 

Carney: Would you care to add any subtext to that scene with Val Kilmer in it?

Charles: Have you seen the Rolling Thunder Revue movie that Scorcese just did? It’s a documentary on Netflix. 

I bring it up because there’s a current interview with Bob cut into the footage and one of the things he talks about repeatedly is the concept of masks. He wore this white kabuki makeup during Rolling Thunder and he was like, “There weren’t enough masks! We needed more masks!” 

And I was thinking about the day he came to me and said, “I came up with a title for the movie—Masked & Anonymous.” And I remember being super-disappointed at first because he had Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft—really simple titles that were really impactful. And I said “Can’t it be called something more like Love and Theft?” and he said “No, it’s gotta be called Masked and Anonymous.” 

And I realized myself how important that concept is. For Bob—like the Greeks doing their plays—wearing the mask is the way to reveal the truth. The mask allows him to say the truth that he couldn’t say without the mask, and I think he’s saying that about society in general, that we don’t have enough masks and thus we don’t get enough truth. We have people pretending to be truthful but they’re not. And the mask might give them the protection to be honest when they can’t be. 

So I think it’s an effective scene for him. And if you look at the many guises of Bob Dylan, from the folk artist to the born-again Christian to the born-again Jew, the country Bob, the rock Bob, the Dead Bob, all these different Bobs, you see he’s constantly trying on masks in order to transmit or convey some kind of truth. I hope your tape recorder’s working, Matt.

Carney: Growing up as a young Protestant boy in suburban Tulsa, I had the Rolling Thunder Revue live bootleg series and the cover had him with the white facepaint—

Charles: Yes. 

Carney: As a teenager it struck a chord with me because it was very different from what most modern rock stars were doing and even his contemporaries back then.

Charles: Exactly, the thing about Rolling Thunder that comes through is that he was a rock star taking an anti-corporate path. The whole idea of the tour was to not use Ticketmaster or stadiums, and to make it accessible to everyone, which at the time I thought was quite radical. He wants to explore the things that no one else will explore, and the masks are a motif to express that.

Carney: It seems to me that celebrity has great power in Bob’s imagination and I’m curious if you agree. Would you care to speculate on that?

Charles: I think there’s a couple of different answers to that. On one hand he’s very interested in legends and myths. There’s the song “Catfish” about the Yankees pitcher, Catfish Hunter, for instance. Bob’s always looking to de-mythologize, re-mythologize legends and myths in search of a new metaphor. So whether it’s “Hurricane” or the more obscure “Catfish” or “Blind Willie McTell,” I think he’s again using them as masks for himself, talking to society. I think all those things are true of his songs.

Carney: I noticed watching [Masked and Anonymous] Bob’s always performing for and being watched by these very ethnically diverse groups of people. What’s the significance of that?

Charles: The concept there is that they’re ethnically diverse, but they’re also of the masses. Think about Venezuela today and this concert they want to put on during the breakdown of the Venezuelan society. That’s really what Masked and Anonymous is, it’s this concert going on while this third-world America is breaking down outside. So these people who sought refuge in this tent community [outside where the concert is happening in the film] are refugees from this war that’s destroyed their country and is experiencing fascist takeover by Mickey Rourke. That’s the subtext of the takeover of the crowd.

Carney: I was kinda thrown by it because I read it as speaking to the internationally popular, widespread appeal of his work. 

Charles: To go back to your celebrity question that connects to this, he’s playing Jack Fate, which is, again, another mask. It’s a—and I think people would be surprised to learn this— surprisingly biographical film for Bob in the sense that all the information he gives you is coded, and you have to interpret the code. 

When we confirmed that we got all these celebrities in the movie, I thought ‘Well that kinda works for Bob.’ He’s fascinated by legends and we’re gonna have these actors who are so famous in the roles. So to have that duality and that mask and that layer was really rich.

Carney: Would you care to speculate how Bob feels about journalists?

Charles: I think he feels about journalists the same way he feels about everybody. He doesn’t make any judgments, but he doesn’t feel any obligation. 

When we shot the movie, I spent two years with Bob Dylan. Talk about a life-changing experience! We’d be outside on the set and everybody always wanted something from him. He has the ability to just shut down right there. I mean, he would not answer people’s questions while he was looking right at them. Talk about an uncomfortable moment. It was brilliant, like an Andy Kaufman-type thing. People would come up to him and he had to shut down because it was overwhelming. It would be too much for him to give everybody what they wanted. 

There’s a great moment in Don’t Look Back where he’s in the limo and this girl’s screaming at him for an autograph and he says, “I’d give it to you if you really needed it.” That to me, is Bob, in a nutshell.

Carney: How did you first encounter Bob? Not in person, but by his music or reputation?

Charles: When I was a little kid in the mid-60s, he had “Like a Rolling Stone” and some other hits, and to me growing up in Brooklyn, it did not strike me the way that The Beatles did or The Rolling Stones or The Who did, I was into much harder music as a teenage boy growing up in Brooklyn. I had a friend though, who’s now a deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal, and he had a much more refined musical taste than I did. And he had Desire and Blood on the Tracks, and almost every song on both are just great, so from there I was able to go both backwards and forwards and get into him.

Carney: As a teenager I was into much of the same rock music that you were into, but for me it was a throwback. I’m 30 now, but you had the real thing. 

Charles: I have children around your age! My first concert was Led Zeppelin, and that was what I really into. 

Carney: My dad played Blood on the Tracks in the car as a kid, so that’s comfort music for me.

Charles: When Bob came along and started singing in that nasally tone, my father said, “Well that’s not singing!” That’s how radical he was. The Beatles were fun and easy and ingratiating. Bob Dylan was never ingratiating! He was uncompromising from the very beginning and because of that he’s a revolutionary! No one sang that way before him, and you think of all the rock stars that do it now. It’s as influential a voice as Elvis Presley in its way.

And that’s part of the mask! You listen to Nashville Skyline and he’s in a country warble. Or you listen to, y’know, Rolling Thunder, he’s spitting it out with this intensity. There’s many different Bobs. 

Carney: I want to know more about the Ladies of Native Comedy you spotlighted in your latest Netflix special [Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy]. Adrianne Chalepa is from Anadarko, Oklahoma. How did you get in touch with them in the first place?

Charles: My research staff found them. We planned out the Middle East trip and the Africa trip, and then I wanted to show some examples of what would be dangerous comedy in America. And I immediately thought of Native Americans. As a kid, there was one Native American comedian, his name was Charlie Hill and his opening was “Hihowareya, hihowareya,” and I realized that it’s a group so easily prejudiced, biased and slurred against that it’s second nature. So I found out that wherever I looked in the world—every strata of society in the entire world, there were comedians— there was humor, so of course I Googled “Native Americans comedians” and sure enough Adrianne, Auntie Beachress [whose real name is] Tonia Jo Hall, Deanna [Mad], and all these guys I interviewed that didn’t make it into the show. 

They’re all easy to contact! If you Google them, they all have websites and tours, but they tour in places that Anglo comedians don’t play. And the places that the Anglo comedians play largely aren’t available to them yet, with few exceptions. So it’s easy to contact them, they’re very into talking about their situation, and I met some other comedians—Tito Ybarra who’s basically a powwow comedian. And Rob whose last name name I can’t remember right now, he had a Native American weatherman character that he does in these videos. I couldn’t fit them into the show, but the three women were great because they’re not just Native American comedians—they’re highly educated women with strong opinions about society, so I found them fascinating to talk to about all sorts of stuff. 

Carney: I thought it was a very populist, ground-up way of doing a documentary that’s largely absent from mainstream media.

Charles: Well the mainstream media is undergoing such an evolution right now, it’s almost impossible to define it because there are people who are popular on social media or on tours for comedy who sell out and have millions of followers that the quote mainstream media has no idea about. So what is mainstream media today? In the ‘60s, 50 million would watch a hit show, but today if you get a couple million people to watch a show it’s a hit. All these metrics and definitions are loose.

Carney: You’ve worked in the business a long time and produced great work on both sides of the internet divide in history. 

Charles: Thank you. 

Carney: Do you think the online distribution of entertainment has fundamentally changed how jokes are written and produced? Or is it more nuanced than I’m making it sound?

Charles: They’re all factors. Language itself is undergoing a revolution at the same time. You see that in how people express themselves on social media. You can’t really express yourself accurately there and be grammatically correct, y’know. Those two things are now kinda exclusive to each other in order to accommodate the number of characters and hashtags and capitalizing all that. You’re forced to rejigger the whole language to fit that. It’s produced a slang and shorthand that’s now very [socially] acceptable. How that affects humor is a fascinating question. Because it gets to the idea of the structure of humor—what is funny? Why is it funny? What makes people laugh? 

Technology always plays a role. And there’s always been technology and there’s always been people complaining about the new technology, whether it’s the Gutenberg press or social media, there’s always been a group that’s not happy with it. But the technology itself doesn’t have morality, it’s really what the society imposes on it that makes it moral or amoral. In this case, a more democratic way of distributing people’s work is fantastic. But on the other hand, most of the companies have swooped in and gained corporate control. So most of the means of distribution that aren’t the usual channels are still owned by large corporations.

Carney: The language changing reminds me of Boonk from your documentary. How was it interviewing him? What [from the interview] didn’t make it on to the screen?

Charles: His interview is pretty intact, frankly. He is who he is. He is unapologetic. And I say so in the show, but I thought more deeply about [his risky stunt humor] than he has! I was more worried about the consequences [of his jokes] than he was. So his interview was relatively intact. 

I don’t know if you remember Ahmed Albasheer in Iraq. I filmed about three hours of interview with him that we used 20 minutes on. So many of the details of his life that were so harrowing—the walk with so many family members and his own imprisonment and torture—I had to shave it down to manageable lengths. And again I had hoped from Netflix that I’d be able to show longer versions of these eventually, but I just don’t know if that’s going to happen or not. 

And then there were a number of interviews, Matt, that were—I interviewed this amazing Palestinian comedian in Palestine, and he was fascinating. I talked to his family and went to a stand-up comedy workshop that he holds for young Palestinians hurt by the war, in a bombed-out building. It was amazing, but I could not fit it into the format. So I have a few pieces like that—that was the most special one that didn’t make it into the show, and I’d love to get it out some way. And I’m trying to figure that out.

Carney: Are there any contemporary working comedians or writers whose work you admire that you wanted to fit into Dangerous World of Comedy, but couldn’t?

Charles: Yes. There was a Muslim comedian in France—and for much of the reason that it didn’t work out was that, as I always do, for much of my career, I had a very low budget and a very tight schedule. So I couldn’t just go anywhere I wanted. We really had to plan out where we’d have the most impact. So that’s why I chose the Middle East and Africa. There were just more dangerous places in those two areas than anywhere else in the world right now. I couldn’t go to Russia. I’d love to talk to the new Ukrainian president, who’s a TV comedian. I’m in contact with a number of Venezuelan comedians. I’d love to ask how they’re surviving there. I talked to Trevor Noah on the show, but the idea was that I was hoping to actually go to South Africa, because it’s a comedy hotbed, but also still racially segregated with hostilities and tensions rising there. But again, I couldn’t go everywhere. So yes, there were comedians in China, Korea, all over the place, that I just couldn’t get to. 

The Muslim comedian in France was jailed for making antisemitic jokes and I was curious to talk to people like that who are, again, juxtaposing the comedy and hate.

Carney: What did you learn about comedy from producing this special that you didn’t already know? 

Charles: I did have new insights from this experience. First of all, growing up in America, with the comedy I grew up with, I didn’t think of comedy as a healing tool. In most of the world, where people have oppression and they don’t have any rights and they lack resources or hope or a future. Comedy is essential in those places. They need to laugh like they need to breathe and eat. And when you walk in those worlds—for me it wasn’t clear until I was there. These are people willing to die for the right to vote. The stakes are different. We’re a complacent country and our humor reflects that. These countries have much more desperation, and their humor reflects that. Not just in the hard edge of it—which is true sometimes—but also in the softness of it, in order to give people respite from the horrors of their daily life. And that element of comedy is something you don’t really see [in the U.S.] very much. 

At the same time, Western comedy is the dominant mode of comedy in the world. Everywhere you go, everybody knows Eddie Murphy or Dave Chappelle. They are certain comedians who are the dominant, influential comedians around the world. And all comedy structure—setup- punchline-jokes, routines, sketches—most of that stuff is Western-oriented. It’s not American-oriented because you’ve got Britain and France as co-creators of that comedy form, but westernized European comedy structure is the structure that is dominant in the world. And everybody now is doing their variations of it. You go to Nigeria and they have their reference points and they also have the money to produce stuff. You go to Liberia and they have no money. They’re shooting their version of it on iPhones. 

Carney: Have you watched Tim Robinson’s Netflix special?

Charles: Is he the comedian with the sketches? Yes. I did watch a couple of his episodes, they were hilarious, they really made me laugh.

Carney: He broke through to me, I found it very fresh and funny, and I think it’ll still be very funny in 10 years.

Charles: Most of the things I’ve worked on, and the people I’ve worked with like Sacha and Larry David, that is ultimately above everything else, their main criteria. It’s not always mine, but I’ve been lucky enough to work with them, but they’re looking to make the funniest thing possible. And that means laughter that’s beyond logic. Laughter that is kind of a reflex reaction to what you’re watching. And I think Tim’s show has that quality also. He makes you laugh on a level—you’re not even conscious why you’re laughing sometimes. 

Carney: It’s sort of like here, where country music is very popular. And there’s ways of doing country music that hit you on that reflexive level, but also there’s the big, dumb pop star way of singing about beer brands and truck brands and stuff like that.

Charles: Yes, exactly. And that’s the thing, Matt, a lot of comedy today is not funny because it is like that. It’s corporate-branded comedy, it’s demographic comedy. It’s what people think other people find funny rather than what they themselves think is funny. And so you get a lot of stuff called comedy that never actually makes you laugh.

Carney: I revisited Borat this week and it looms very large in my memory. I was 18 or 19 when I first saw it, and it rocked my world.

Charles: That’s a good age to see it.

Carney: I’d forgotten about all the scenes in New York where Borat transgresses on New Yorkers’ social norms, and I found it very funny that their reactions were much richer, bigger and funnier than the southern folks’ reactions to him, [the latter of which] loom larger in my memory of the film for some reason.

Charles: The scenes in New York were very transgressive. We stayed one step ahead of the police. Washington, D.C. also. Those two cities were much more high-risk adventures, really. Getting on the subway with the live chicken. I don’t know if you’ve seen The French Connection, but we were getting off and on trains, staying one step ahead of the police for six hours, switching out chickens. We had to keep the chickens alive, also, in the sweltering summer heat. Those scenes were really tough. When [Borat] was chasing people in the street, those were really interesting scenes. He takes a dump at Trump Tower. That wasn’t in the script. Sometimes we were in between scenes and just decided to stage stuff and got stuff like that. “Wow, look, it’s the Trump building. Why don’t you just go over there and take a shit?” and we’d shoot it!

Carney: Yeah you guys were ahead of the curve on that one. 

Charles: Yeah, exactly. In Washington we were driving around in the ice cream truck, going down one-way streets the wrong way, in busy places like K Street. We went to the Watergate Hotel and the FBI stopped us. They kept track and we got stopped 150 times by various law enforcement entities. We got stopped by the Secret Service in Washington when we were in the ice cream truck because we were circling the White House. Here’s this guy in a big, black mustache with curly black hair driving an old ice cream truck and there are four guys in the back with big, black bags. So there was an urgency to those scenes because if something happened to Sacha, he’d probably get deported. His visa was shaky at that point.

Again, the Secret Service thing didn’t make the movie, but there’s a whole scene with him dealing with the Secret Service person as Borat. So there’s a lot of stuff like that. 

Carney: Here in Oklahoma, it’s kind of a place where the South meets the Midwest. There’s a little of each, but neither overrides the entire culture. What’s your read on people from this part of the country? What do you think is funny about us?

Charles: First of all, what I like about Texas and Oklahoma, because I spent so much time in Texas,I don’t have a lot of stereotypes about it. I know for every Ted Cruz there’s a Beto O’Rourke, for every asshole there’s an awesome person of some sort. But Oklahoma doesn’t have that identity yet for me. 

When I think about musicians I’ve loved, there’s a lot of Oklahoma—and Tulsa particularly— connected to that. And it seems like Tulsa now is almost like sort of a new Austin, with a great college and arts and culture. I’m really excited to come. I think about Leon Russell and Woody Guthrie and the fact that Bob’s archives are there is a massive statement about what’s important to the people of Tulsa. 

And I know also that you guys have been through incredibly insane tornadoes and environmental disasters and have survived that, so I think whatever preconceptions people have about Tulsa, I left behind. I’m very interested in what’s going on now there.

Carney: Have you seen the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man?

Charles: Yes. Fantastic movie.

Carney: That ending scene with the tornado looming toward the school—I don’t know why but I’ve always felt very attracted to that as part of our identity. Impending disaster that may be there when you leave school for the day. 

Charles: It’s sudden and it’s something you have to surrender to because it’s too powerful to do anything about. 

Carney: It is a very repressed, Protestant authoritarian environment here. When I was in high school I was very inspired by Borat and this risky humor that [Sacha] did for the film. 

Charles: I’m very happy to hear you say that, and I thank you for saying that. That’s the best kind of news to hear about a movie like that. During the making of it, I was inspired [in that same way], and I think that comes through. You feel as special as we felt making that movie. You can’t manufacture that. I’m glad you felt inspired by that, that’s fantastic.

Carney: One last question for you. Did you give yourself a cameo as the guy getting crucified at the end of Borat?

Charles: Yes I did. Nobody else could do it, really. Sacha really enjoyed putting me up there, after all the torture I put him through. 

Carney: [Laughs] Every actor’s fantasy, I’m sure.

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