How Larry David made the sitcom great again
‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ is back for its 10th season. For the first time in the show’s history, people appear to be agreeing with Larry David’s rants
One thing that separates Larry David’s onscreen persona, Larry David, from the many, many shows featuring comedians playing onscreen versions of themselves, is that David is obscenely wealthy. Co-creator of a show called Seinfeld, David’s personal fortune is an estimated $400 million (around ₹2,850 crore), and he appears just as well off in his show Curb Your Enthusiasm.
This may be good for David the creator, who develops the HBO series on his own terms, making new seasons whenever he feels like it, never beholden to a schedule. The show began in 2000, and 20 years later, we are watching the 10th season (new episodes come out on Hotstar every Monday).
The show’s creation is as unique. David and his cast (made up primarily of stand-up comedians and writers) make a half-hour episode out of a seven-page “outline" script, improvising the dialogue in every scene, while sticking closely to the plot. It’s a remarkable technique that leads to actors genuinely tickled by each other’s lines, resulting in a loose, limber spontaneity and—for the audience—the feeling that we are eavesdropping on friends catching up.
The wealth that allows such experimentation is, however, unhealthy for David the character, a misanthropic grouch who considers himself plagued by meaningless social niceties. Not only does his fortune enable him to act without consequences and ignore the way the world feels, it allows him to act on his vindictive impulses—like opening up a coffee shop purely to drive another one out of business.
In this new season, Larry David may be worse than ever. He strolls down the street talking with a friend, and, seeing a couple taking pictures of themselves in his path, snatches the selfie stick out of their hands and snaps it in half, his conversation continuing unimpeded. This is no surprise. The surprise, instead, may be that his friend doesn’t immediately call him out.
We have long witnessed David’s curmudgeonly ways, but this time something appears to have changed. For the first time, people appear to be agreeing with David’s rants. His complaints are being met with noticeably more “that’s true"s and “I know"s, with people seeing his point. Is the world finally catching up to David’s bitterness, making him merely one of many misanthropes? (Don’t answer that. The smashing of the selfie stick, I confess, felt to me like a joyous moment of wish-fulfilment).
David is older. Single at 72, he is aware he’s on the wrong side of the dating game, but his friend and agent Jeff Garlin—who is hilariously and perfectly mistaken for Harvey Weinstein in social situations in the first episode—reminds him he’s rich enough to offset his advancing years and ever-receding hairline. He attempts to court a woman while repeatedly checking on her enthusiastic consent, a wise move given that he is currently being sued for sexual harassment by his assistant for having asked about her tattoo, and using her shirt to wipe his glasses.
Yet David continues undaunted, cheerily donning a Make America Great Again hat in order to get himself ostracized from Los Angeles society and out of unwanted lunch meetings. He may be greyer (“a young old," he calls himself) but is decidedly not wiser, as evidenced by his argument with café owner Mocha Joe, who serves un-hot coffee on wobbly tables. David proves this readily by dunking his nose in the coffee mug, making an admittedly strong case. Joe bans David from his establishment, leading David to open a store next door. His motives are anything but unclear: David refers to his upcoming café as a “spite-store".
Seinfeld was a show with self-contained episodes, often mocking social convention, giving the incredibly relatable terms like “low-talker" and “sidler", with almost every episode (all of which are streaming in India on Amazon Prime) holding up as an individual nugget. Curb Your Enthusiasm often does the same (prepare to start using the phrase “side-sitting" once you catch up with the new season) but also involves ambitious and absurd season-long arcs.
My favourite is the fourth season, in 2004, where David prepares for an impossibly uphill Broadway debut in The Producers, while also trying to find a bedmate in order to cash in on a 10th anniversary present from his wife. The intricate dovetailing of plot lines, so applauded on Seinfeld, where the various character narratives merged by the end of the episodes, is far more impressive here, done in more freewheeling and long-form fashion—with one character at the centre of several chaotic plots. A character who refuses to conform, unless it suits him.
The ninth season, in 2017, featured David getting a fatwa and Salman Rushdie, the novelist who made the word fatwa a household term, advising him to embrace the perks of being threatened. It was a rollicking but uneven season, and I remember at that point just being glad David was making more Curb, even though some of the societal insights came straight from Seinfeld reruns. The new season is certainly more promising, with its first two episodes throwing up potentially compelling arcs as well as David’s take on workplace harassment and enthusiastic consent. There’s provocation and urgency here, and I look forward to seeing how David ties it all together this time.
The thing about David, the character, is that he never knows better—but always thinks he does. Be it his battles with David Schwimmer (Season 4), his ill-advised attempt at a Seinfeld reunion (a very special Season 7), or the time he swapped smoking jackets with Hugh Hefner (Season 5), David creates trouble because he wants gratitude and patience and affection from the world without himself granting any of those things. Cringe comedy is not what it used to be. In these overtly correct times, David’s gracelessness makes the sitcom grate again. Do poke your nose into Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s still cool.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
Twitter - @rajasen
FIRST PUBLISHED02.02.2020 | 09:20 AM IST