Bob Dylan's 'Slapstick' Period Revealed: 'He'd Gotten Deeply Into Jerry Lewis'

TV producer and writer Larry Charles explains how the pair sold a TV show to HBO before immediately abandoning it

Bob Dylan performing in 1992. The singer was set to co-write and star in a slapstick TV comedy, but abandoned the project after it was approved. Credit: Larry Hulst/Getty

Producer and writer Larry Charles has revealed that he and Bob Dylan conceived a surrealist comedy series for HBO in the Nineties that never came to fruition. "He'd gotten deeply into Jerry Lewis, and he wanted to make a slapstick comedy," the TV vet said on the podcast You Made It Weird (via Dangerous Minds). Moreover, Charles revealed that "he wanted to star in it, almost like a Buster Keaton or something."

Charles, whose credits include Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Borat, ultimately went on to co-write the 2003 movie Masked and Anonymous with Dylan, who also starred in the movie alongside Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz and John Goodman. But in discussing the comedy that was never made, Charles offered a revealing look into Dylan's life.

The TV producer recalled meeting Dylan in a smoke-filled cubicle in the back of a boxing gym the singer owns in Santa Monica, where things got off to a fittingly surreal start when he requested his assistant bring them coffee. Charles said he wanted an iced coffee, while Dylan wanted "a hot beverage."

"So they bring a hot coffee for him, like a cappuccino, and they bring the ice coffee for me and they put them together in the middle of the table, and he immediately grabs my ice coffee and starts drinking my ice coffee," Charles said. "And I'm watching him drink it and I'm not touching the other thing. I don't want the other thing. And finally he almost finishes my drink and he goes, 'Why aren't you drinking your drink?' And I'm like, 'You're drinking my drink.' And he laughed and that broke the ice. It's like a test. Like, he drank my drink. How would I react?"

Charles recalled Dylan bringing a box of scrap paper with phrases written on it and dumping it on the table. "I realized, that's how he writes songs," he said. "He takes these scraps and he puts them together and makes his poetry out of that. He has all of these ideas and then just in a subconscious or unconscious way, he lets them synthesize into a coherent thing. And that's how we wound up writing also. We wound up writing in a very 'cut-up' technique. We'd take scraps of paper, put them together, try to make them make sense, try to find the story points within it. And we finally wrote...a very elaborate treatment for this slapstick comedy, which is filled with surrealism and all kinds of things from his songs and stuff."

The TV producer convinced Dylan to accompany him to the pitch meeting and between the way both he and the singer dressed that day, they played up the surrealism. "I probably was having a nervous breakdown and didn't realize it, but I wore pajamas everywhere I went," Charles said. "I was so comfortable. It was great. [Bob] shows up for the meeting at HBO in a black cowboy hat, a black floor-length duster, black boots. He looks like Cat Ballou or something. He looks like a Western guy who's carrying six guns.... My hair's super long, beard down to my belly button in fucking pajamas, and Bob Dylan's dressed like a cowboy from a movie."

HBO's then-president, Chris Albrecht, attempted to break the ice by showing his original tickets to Woodstock, to which Dylan said, "I didn't play Woodstock," and then moved to look out the window of the office for the rest of the pitch.

Despite the awkwardness, Albrecht decided to greenlight the project, but it was never meant to be. "We go out to the elevator – Bob's manager Jeff, my manager Gavin, me and Bob – the three of us are elated we actually sold the project and Bob says, 'I don't want to do it anymore. It's too slapsticky,'" Charles recalled. "He's not into it. That's over. The slapstick phase has officially ended." Shortly after that, Charles and Dylan went on to make Masked and Anonymous.

In other subjunctive Dylan news, producer Glyn Johns recently revealed that the singer wanted to make an album with both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. "He asked me if I would find out whether the others would be interested," Johns wrote in his book Soundman. I was completely bowled over. Can you imagine the three greatest influences on popular music in the previous decade making an album together?" Ultimately, the producer recalls that Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger opted not to do it.

Dylan, who recently issued the entirety of his Basement Tapes recordings from the late Sixties, is currently on the cover of Rolling Stone. The magazine's in-depth look at those legendary sessions uncovered a number of illuminating facts about that time in Dylan's life, including the revelation that his motorcycle accident inspired the singer to quit drinking and doing drugs.