You have this friend, Lewis, in desperate need of a kidney donor. After discovering that you’re a “match,” you rig a game of eenie-meenie-miney-mo so that your other hapless friend will be forced to undergo surgery. But it doesn’t work. And so, hopelessly desperate, you hatch up one last, perfect plan. You do a little digging and find out that the man who is in charge of the kidney consortium can be “gotten to.” Your private detective gives you a name: Ben Heineman.
So what do you do next? You ram into his car and leave a note with your name and number. When he calls, you pretend to be an Orthodox Jew in order to buddy up to Heineman. You invite him to a friend’s ski lodge, and you borrow your manager’s wife (since your own wife is too shiksa to play the part). There, sporting a kippah and muttering nonsense Yiddish under your breath, you mention that your friend needs a kidney. Do things go according to plan? Well, not exactly. In the end, you’ve alienated everyone around you, and you’re back to square one: Lewis needs a kidney.
There are, statistically speaking, two types of people in this world: those who think this scheme is pure and utter nonsense, and those who detect a glimmer of feasibility. If you fall into the latter, you might in fact be Larry David. Or, as in my case, you might just be his staunchest supporter.
I have been a disciple of LD since I first saw an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm at age 12. In hindsight, it was a wildly inappropriate choice for a child. I vividly remember inviting a classmate to watch the pilot together—“The Pants Tent,” in which Larry wears a pair of pants with an unfortunate “bulge” of material. My friend turned crimson red, while I doubled over with laughter. It wasn’t the sexual innuendo that made me howl, but the myriad ways in which Larry got himself into messes, seemingly unintentionally. He was constantly offending someone, getting called a “piece of shit” or a “bald asshole” by both friends and foes. As Rick Marin described the series’ first season in the Times, “In Mr. David’s world, no bad or good deed goes unpunished.” At the end of an episode, he might be attempting to jump out a window to escape an angry mob or fleeing a group of furious mourners at a funeral. And yet, despite these comic mishaps, through which Larry seems destined to add insult to injury— “I’m a schmuck, I do schmucky things,” he admits—he seemingly comes out the other end unscathed.
In the star-studded shtetl of Curb’s Los Angeles (which is really just full of spiteful New York transplants), Larry does mess up—and how!—but he somehow remains intact. What’s more, he always ends up with loyal friends: Jeff (Jeff Garlin), his most faithful manager cum henchman; Leon Black (J.B. Smoove), the show’s unlikely alt-hero; and, in previous seasons, the delightfully bizarre Marty Funkhauser (played by the late, great Bob Einstein, whose raspy voice will forever haunt my dreams). Larry doesn’t always recognize this gift of friendship; think of the moment when Marty, furious at Larry, says, “If you weren’t my best friend, I would take my bare hands and pop your head off your neck.” Larry turns away incredulously, scoffing, “He’s not my best friend!”
But perhaps it is this fierce kinship that has always given me hope, that someone as compulsive, egotistical, and obsessive as Larry could still be deserving of love and acceptance—if only among equally selfish and narcissistic company.
To know Larry, I believe, is to love Larry. And after 15+ years of nearly daily screenings of Curb, I can safely say that I know the on-screen Larry better than I know myself.
Probably you are familiar with Seinfeld, the sitcom par excellence created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. Supposedly a show “about nothing,” Seinfeld proved radical in numerous ways: each episode had a taut, tightly wound plot—with numerous overlapping leitmotifs—that would, at the end of the day, magically resolve. It featured characters (some inspired by real-life friends of Larry David) whose milieu, as critic Leslie Fiedler once put it, represented “the gradual breaking up [of] the Anglo-Saxon domination of our imagination.” (Later, when Curb premiered, an annoyed viewer would comment on the HBO site: “please retire this tedious program…a bunch of screaming jews apparently ad-libbing IS NOT FUNNY.”) The characters on Seinfeld were egotistical and utterly obnoxious; there would be no grand epiphanies, no lessons learned.
But if the Jerry Seinfeld of Seinfeld was able to retain some charm, the Larry David of Curb inhabits a different role: one of perpetual disappointment and resentment. Chris Albrecht, former chair and CEO of HBO, described Larry’s attitude toward life as: “I know, I should have had the chicken.” Larry’s on-screen persona feels keenly the daily injustices of the quotidian. His complaints are numerous: he feels anger towards “sample abusers” at the ice cream parlor, people who cheat at Scattergories, and those who would dare attempt a “stop and chat” in the middle of the street.
There is even a term for this: the “Larry David Moment.” Indeed, so all-encompassing are the obsessive and neurotic gripes of Curb’s creator and protagonist that any of those banal interstitial moments we experience daily—and I mean any of them—could make you ponder, “What would Larry do?” But although the average viewer might indeed experience these awkward moments—be it an unwanted lunch invitation, or a conversation with a snippy parking attendant—they might simply sigh and move on. Larry, however, overreacts to the nth degree. He simply cannot let things go, and the “banal moment” quickly descends into a protracted nightmare.
How would I react? À la Umberto Eco, Curb invites endless textual cooperation from the spectator; HBO apparently recognized this in one marketing attempt, creating the slogan “Deep down, you know you’re him.”
I don’t have to dig very deep at all to find my own, personal parallels. Larry’s incessant and compulsive complex surrounding hygiene and order, for example, profoundly resonated with my younger self. When I started watching Curb as a child—and, indeed, throughout my adolescence—there was a particular chair in the house that only I could sit on. It wasn’t out of greed or avarice, but rather, an intense desire to control my surroundings; if anyone dared sit on the chair, it felt like a psychic betrayal. This illogical behavior extended to other spheres of domestic life; the sound of my father chewing food drove me insane, and a certain kind of white, overhead lighting catapulted me into a dark, depressed state.
In the episode “The Smoking Jacket,” the storyline hinges on such obsessions with cleanliness. Larry, his manager Jeff, and his bizarre, mouth-breathing cousin Andy go to the Playboy Mansion, where Hugh Hefner insists on trying on Larry’s father’s red smoking jacket—one that is seemingly identical to his own (Hefner’s turns out to be a knockoff). But when Hefner goes to the bathroom for an interminable period, wearing the jacket, a disgusted Larry swaps his father’s jacket with Hefner’s knockoff. Since most Curb thematic devices come in patterns of three, the joke repeats itself when two other characters spend too much time on the toilet; Larry is horrified by the thought of everything they might have tainted.
This might seem crude. After all, who would write an entire episode around the premise of unwashed hands and bathroom etiquette?
But to 15-year-old Catherine, it felt like finding a long-lost friend in Larry. Here was someone who got it.
For the first six seasons of the show, Larry’s mania was counterbalanced by his staid, unruffled wife, Cheryl (played by a subtly brilliant Cheryl Hines). The classic straight man, Cheryl was blonde, chipper, and composed. She tolerated Larry’s antics, apologized to others for his obnoxious behavior, and mostly enjoyed the perks of a life of leisure in West LA. There was also a part of her that even preferred the morose side of her husband. In the episode called “Shaq,” in which Larry accidentally trips Shaquille O’Neal during a game, thus injuring the star player and incurring the wrath of every single Angeleno he encounters, Larry flourishes in his newfound role of leper and outcast. Suddenly, no one will have anything to do with him; upon realizing that he can finally be free of the inanity of daily social interactions, he descends into devilish glee: “Everyone, coffee on the house!” he announces at a Starbucks, much to the chagrin of his aghast wife. “I miss the old Larry,” she sighs.
The turning point in the show occurs a few episodes into season six. Around this time, David’s real-life wife, Laurie David, famously left him; in Curb’s most startling mise en abyme, Cheryl dramatically walks out on Larry in the episode “The TiVo Guy.” (The separation is triggered because Larry hangs up the phone on Cheryl in her moment of real need, claiming that the TiVo guy required his full attention.) For the rest of the season and beyond, Larry devises numerous far-fetched plans to win her back but, much to the surprise of many both on- and off-screen, he is never successful. This would not be the first time that Curb experimented with the territory of autofiction, but it would undoubtedly be the most uncomfortable shattering of the fourth wall to date.
At the end of season six, in the episode “The Therapists,” Larry’s most intricate, insane plan (at least, up until that point) implodes in devastating fashion. Larry’s new, inept therapist, the ironically named Dr. Bright (played by a bumbling Steve Coogan) advises him to give Cheryl an ultimatum: she has a day to decide to move back in with him, or the offer’s off the table. We then watch—in horror—as Larry botches his attempt at reconciliation and Cheryl walks out in disgust. Determined to resolve this horrendous mistake, Larry decides that he must land in the good graces of Dr. Slavin, Cheryl’s own therapist, so that she, in turn, will convince her patient to return to her husband. Dr. Bright agrees to pretend to rob Cheryl’s therapist; Larry then “saves the day” by stepping in.
In a “normal” show, this intricately improbable—and implausible—structure would collapse like a row of dominoes. But David keeps building, layer on top of farcical layer, so that Cheryl’s therapist actually starts to fall for the “heroic” Larry; naturally, his solution is to pretend he has early-onset dementia to dissuade any further emotional attachment. Astonishingly, the plan actually seems to work until the very last shot of the episode: Cheryl and Larry, fleetingly reunited, sit atop a Ferris wheel when her phone rings. It’s Dr. Slavin; she’s been tipped off to Larry’s outrageous scheme. As the couple ascends into the air, Curb reaches its creative apex. We watch, hands over our eyes, as Cheryl turns silently, her mouth gaping, towards Larry. The jig is up. All hope of the two permanently reuniting evaporates.
I don’t laugh so much as I watch the scene today; the initial hilarity has given way to something deeper and darker: the recognition that Larry—and by extension, those who identify so strongly with him—might end up alone. Earlier in the season, after the disastrous intervention by the TiVo guy, Cheryl shouts, “Not everybody is like you—there are normal people out there!” What’s more, Cheryl complains, is that she can no longer lie to people by claiming that there’s a side to Larry that they simply don’t see: “And then I just realized today: there’s no other side.” Larry attempts to interject, “There’s another side!…There are a lot of sides—I’m complex!” Cheryl, undeterred, packs her bags and leaves. I’m reminded, these past several months, of my own shrill behavior, my inability to just let things go: the nitpicking, the insistence on “order,” the tendency to alienate and push away those I hold dearest. There are a lot of sides.
But while Larry might be single, he is never truly alone; Jeff, Leon, and Richard Lewis are just next door. And in the razor-sharp world of Curb Your Enthusiasm, that’s still prettay, prettay, prettay, pretty good.