Dan Mazer studied law at Cambridge, but from the moment that he discovered it was nothing like the American TV crime drama LA Law, he knew he had no future as a legal eagle.
“I loved that show and thought I could be like Harry Hamlin and go out and solve crimes,” he says. “Within an hour of the start of my first lecture, I realised it’s all about attention to detail, of which I have none. It’s all about scientific focus, of which I am entirely bereft. I would be the worst lawyer on earth.”
Instead, Mazer became one of this country’s best comedy writers, earning acclaim for his groundbreaking Ali G, Borat and Bruno collaborations with Sacha Baron Cohen. He has now turned his hand to directing, with the self-scripted I Give It A Year. A kind of Relate version of a Richard Curtis movie, the film injects British romantic comedy with a much-needed dose of reality, as it mines mismatched Josh’s (Rafe Spall) and Nat’s (Rose Byrne) marriage for rude laughs, sharp observations and embarrassment.
Believing that comedy comes from truth, Mazer wanted to create a film that felt relevant to his own life. He has been married to the comedian Daisy Donovan, whom he met while working on Channel 4’s controversial satirical news programme, and original home of Ali G, The 11 O’Clock Show, for seven years — “and it’s great, I love it”, he says. “But it’s really difficult.”
The first year of any marriage can be especially hard, he believes. For men, sometimes, it is as if something switches in their head and a relationship suddenly looks like a prison sentence. “Before we got married, there was some part of me that thought: ‘Oh, old Dan going out and getting drunk and sleeping with lots of women is going to be dead’. And I never did that anyway. But there’s just some part of every man, I think, that reacts against that limitation of possibility.”
I Give It A Year is possibly the first romcom to make you root for a couple’s divorce. If this sounds subversive, it is. And that is the way Mazer likes it. “I’ve always tried to do something different and not go along with the flow. My plan is to make something that feels unique, rather than fall into line with other stuff.”
He found the perfect co-conspirator in the iconoclastic Cohen. They first met at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Elstree, aged 11. “He was in the year above me,” recalls Mazer, “so I always looked up to him as an older boy, and trailed in his wake. But he has always been a very charismatic individual that people have paid attention to.”
Unlike the Hammersmith-born future Hollywood star, Mazer did not join the Habonim Dror Jewish youth movement. “I was brought up in Ruislip, so I was kind of a less full-on, hardcore Jew.”
The director Larry Charles felt that Cohen was on a mission that came from his background when they all worked on the Borat movie. “I don’t think it was necessarily a pro-semitism mission in any sense,” argues Mazer, who shared an Oscar nomination for the film’s screenplay. “What we wanted to do was uncover bigotry in a funny way, and one arm of that was antisemitism.”
Borat, the boorish Kazakh journalist, began mainly as a voice. “And then I remember the meeting we had where we went: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if he was virulently antisemitic?’ The first port of call has always been to be funny. And then to derive some sort of satire from that is, I think, really important.”
Mazer was raised in an environment booming with laughter. His father introduced him to Phil Silvers and the Marx Brothers as a child, and when he was dying, they watched Seinfeld together. “We bonded over a kind of mutual love of comedy and he was incredibly funny.”
As a 10-year-old he looked forward to shivahs, because “everybody would sit round and have a good laugh at each other, which is just a really odd scenario,” he admits. “The default setting for our family was to laugh at things, and I think that’s sort of a Jewish sensibility.”
Elaborating, Mazer reveals his “weird philosophy” about Jews and humour. “We don’t really like to fight. We’re not necessarily the bravest people. So where other people might resort to violence, I think we verbalise it and that sharpens our comedic senses.” Moreover, “at the age of 13, when we’re at our most vulnerable, our least attractive, we’re forced to perform and make a speech in front of all our friends and family, which is kind of the most mortifying thing imaginable, and that hones that instinct at an early age as well, I think.”
Mazer’s and Cohen’s instincts were certainly whetted to perfection. This is not to say that everyone finds them funny. The Borat and Bruno films were steeped in controversy (the backlash included lawsuits), with some critics claiming that the film-makers picked on easy targets. Mazer is adamant that they were “rigid and diligent” about who they set up.
“The idea is that there should always be a rationale about exposing this person and that we can stand up for it and justify it in any way. We always wanted to expose bigotry and prejudice in some sense with all those people, and I think we basically did that with everyone.”
That said, he admits to having “doubts” about their use of the aged Jewish owners of a bed-and-breakfast in Borat. “They weren’t doing anything wrong and they were a nice old couple. So that would probably be my one moment where I think: ‘Did we need to do that?’”
Whether he and Cohen can pull off another Borat/Bruno-style operation, remains to be seen. Mazer certainly is not ruling anything out. “People were saying since series one of The 11 O’Clock Show: ‘You’ll never get away with Ali G any more’, and we always found a way. If the will is there, maybe we’ll find a way to do it again.”