Larry Charles is turning his razor-sharp wit on world religion - and no one will be spared

If you ever wondered who dreamed up Cosmo Kramer, the hipster doofus with a mistrust of authority at the centre of one of American television's most successful comedies, Seinfeld, then look no further than Larry Charles, a Jewish-American comedian with an encyclopedic brain and ZZ Top beard.

Charles bestrides the upper echelons of the US comic fraternity, cutting his teeth as a staff writer on Seinfeld before joining the equally colossal Larry David to direct Curb Your Enthusiasm, about to launch into its seventh series. With the direction of Sacha Baron-Cohen's Borat film in 2006 under his belt, Charles has now confirmed his ascendancy into the joke-makers' A-list. Everything he touches immediately morphs into a metallic clutch of Emmies or Golden Globes.

The 52-year-old funny man is set to appear at London's BRITDOC festival, kicking off on Wednesday. He is down to talk about Religulous – a documentary about religion crafted with fellow veteran US comic Bill Maher – its title a fusion between the words "religion" and "ridiculous". The movie sees Maher travelling to numerous religious destinations, including Jerusalem and the Vatican, to interview a raft of outlandish zealots, including "Jews for Jesus", polygamists and Satanists. Its release is scheduled for the US in October, with other countries to follow.

"This has been a subject that I have been interested in since I was a child. Since then, it has variously consumed and obsessed me. As it turned out, Bill was obsessed by the same subject," he explains. "My grandfather went to temple every day and was a very pious man. Me, after my bar mitzvah, I was done with it. My father taught me how to be a jokester about it all, though. He would sit there during Passover and make jokes and puns with Hebrew words."

Jewishness is central to his comedy and his worldview. "You can't dismiss any seminal influence. I grew up in Brighton Beach, New York, where essentially everyone is Jewish. I grew up thinking the whole world was like that. Obviously, Jewishness gives you a historical background, and a comedic one. The movie moguls who started the movie business tried to create an idealised gentile world. The idea of a white picket fence world is a Jewish creation. So it's pervading American culture and I know it has had an impact on me and my work."

He is not the first comedian to take on religion. Does he not feel that religion is an easy target? "It is," he says. "Everybody knows a joke about a priest or a rabbi, and it is good to incorporate an irreverent take on that. But at the same time it is very complex, it is very intricate, and is a moving target. But there are very few examples of people using it in a commercial medium. I am surprised no one has done it before, apart from maybe the Pythons. And, like them, I want to offend everybody. I don't just want to offend one group. In that sense I am not discriminating against anybody."

He knew that he and Maher, who share a similar background, would get along easily. "In fact, up until we worked on this project, the pair of us had undergone parallel lives without meeting each other," he says. We'd even slept with the same women.

"Then when the project came around it was easy for us to get along. We got the money together quickly and started shooting quickly. No notes or meetings."

For Religulous, Charles brought his knowledge of improvisation, something that he incorporated forcefully into his direction of Borat. "Bill had written an outline as had I. And then I synthesised the two. We planned the shoot based on that. I am a believer in not trying to impose too much before shooting takes place. You need to let the process happen. Let that be the movie. Although I had in the back of my mind a sense of structure and tone which I wanted to include. "I was able to bring that to Borat. Sacha [Baron-Cohen] has this push and pull tension and dichotomy between control and anarchy. I like that tension, it is good for film-making. It makes for more spontaneity. It makes film-making more urgent and real. I learned that from [Jean-Luc] Godard or [Werner] Herzog or Michael Moore doing a very non-Hollywood, non-corporate, very handmade form of movie-making."

He adds that YouTube has brought a new dimension to his work. "I am an encyclopedia freak and YouTube is like an encyclopedia of video. It excites me that on a whim you can type anything in and there's a film about it on there. It is amazing to me. I am of an age where computers are not second nature. But it has confirmed my belief in making films handmade and taking them direct to the consumer."

Charles says other projects he has in the pipeline are too secretive to discuss. He denies that he is directing a new National Lampoon movie, as has been rumoured, and confirms that a recent collaboration with rapper Kanye West for HBO was canned by the network after a pilot was shot. He does, however, say that since being introduced to British comedy in detail by Baron-Cohen, he has become a massive fan. "I think it's amazing and singular and a lot of people [Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais, among others] have been drafted over here. What is great is that stuff from an iconoclastic point of view is given a forum. This is much harder in the US where television is more mainstream. Here, it's harder to produce little jewels. In the UK, it's not about economics, it's about creativity. In terms of Little Britain [broadcast on HBO in September] what I find interesting is being able to juxtapose scatological humour with serious satire, and I think those two things can co-exist. I am always looking for that."

BRITDOC is running from 23-25 July at Keble College, Oxford. For more information see www.britdoc.org

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape