by Alessio Franko
IN CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM’S eighth season, Larry David, playing his ever-thinly fictionalized self (we’ll call him “LD” and assume that the two really are separable), boards a plane to New York City, literally fleeing a tedious social obligation in Los Angeles. He eyes the drink that the woman next to him in first class has placed on her armrest, clasps it in his hand, and pushes it a quarter of an inch towards its owner — it was encroaching on his side. Back when this episode first aired in 2011, I would have called this the humor of the unreasonable, a perfect example of LD’s trademark, reckless disregard for anyone other than himself. But watching it this year, a possibly perverse thought popped into my head: How dare she leave that drink on his armrest to begin with!
Curb hardly needs an introduction — the improv-driven sitcom has been around since 2000, and though it has taken several hiatuses (the most recent one five years long), the HBO offices are ever ravenous for more of David’s material. Curb is currently wrapping up its ninth season, in which some televised riffing on the Ayatollah of Iran earns LD a fatwa from the man himself. Season 9 frays at the edges in ways prior seasons haven’t: Plot threads dangle unresolved, Elizabeth Banks and Bryan Cranston are squandered as a generic love interest and therapist, respectively, and brief dips into morbid subject matter feel unnecessary and out of place. Nonetheless, Curb has remained astonishingly consistent over the years, and Season 9 dusts off the formula good as new. Like its creator and star, who sports the same bald head and glasses he did twenty years ago, the show felt as old in its first season as it does today.
Curb owes its longevity in large part to its multivalent appeal, suitable to myriad comedic tastes. Populated by a stalwart core cast (Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, Richard Lewis, and later JB Smoove), a revolving door of recurring characters (Ted Danson, Bob Einstein, and Wanda Sykes, barely even to get started), and a constant stream of new faces in every installment, David’s Los Angeles balances the familiar with the exciting. Each episode works both as a lightning-round of delightfully cringe-worthy, worst-case social scenarios and as a Rube Goldberg machine guiding each subplot into a delicately contrived crescendo. It sustains its deft wit even in the midst of extreme vulgarity and physical chaos.
The official tagline for Season 9 is “Larry’s Back and Nothing Has Changed.” But while Curb itself stays the same, I have found new pleasures in it over time. I used to revel in LD’s inevitable comeuppances, but as I revisited past episodes this year, I could not see him as anything but a tragic, misunderstood hero. Outrageous and petty as the act seems, LD moving the drink squarely onto his neighbor’s first-class armrest echoes a still relevant line of post-Holocaust Jewish thought: Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. Jews, my elders have taught me time and time again, must stick up for themselves. She who doesn’t vigilantly guard her public dignity invites the world to push her around. Getting this same idea across has been the left’s main obstacle in defending the actions of today’s radical anti-fascists. No one understands the value of a good preemptive strike until they wish they’d already made one.
THIS IS NOT TO SAY that LD isn’t a jerk. Certain exchanges with his (now ex-)wife Cheryl demonstrate particular callousness. But being a jerk is not what motivates him. The subtext of all LD’s misadventures, be they self-serving or altruistic, is his fear of being “outed” as something, as anything —– a pushover, an idiot, a liar, a racist, even an “ass man.” Whether he actually is any of these things is beside the point; when, in Season 2, a man accuses LD of being a “self-loathing Jew,” LD comes back with the unforgettable: “I do hate myself, but it has nothing to do with being Jewish!”
The figure of the assimilated-but-still-alienated Jew has an obviously rich literary history. A scene from Season 9, in which Salman Rushdie (playing a suave version of himself) tells LD that the danger of his newly minted fatwa will draw women to him like a magnet, is lifted wholesale from Kafka’s The Trial. But David adds to Kafka’s self-destructive paranoiac a further layer of inner conflict. The Seinfeld co-creator is wealthy and in demand. He can afford, in every sense of the word, to burn bridges on principle. Comfy as LD has gotten in his opulent SoCal ecosystem of country club golf, hundred-dollar lunches, and palatial homes for two, however, he exhibits a tangible contempt for his milieu.
LD’s endless capacity to quibble over social etiquette is his inner Hollywood Bigshot and his inner Middle Class Brooklynite amplifying one another in their incongruity. With a low tolerance for insipid LA socialites, LD makes the most sense to himself when surrounded by those on the fringes of society. Over the years, he has befriended prostitutes, chauffeurs, an unmarried, burka-wearing Muslim woman, a group of autistic men, an exterminator, a terminally ill pre-teen, and a sex offender, often bringing them into his bourgeois spaces to scandalous result. David stands perhaps today’s sole torch bearer of the Marx Brothers’ comic assault on high society. In the words of Groucho, LD doesn’t care to belong to any club that would have him as a member.
In the Hollywood aristocracy, everyone’s got a project they are trying to sell you on, be it TV show, investment opportunity, charity gala, bar mitsve, wedding, or divorce. These affairs, invariably driven by games of money and status, are nonetheless pitched to LD as chances to do something “good,” to enrich someone’s life, or broaden his own horizons. If Curb has an antagonist, it is precisely this weaponized, means-to-an-end spirituality that Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek likes to call “western buddhism.” In another Season 8 run-in, a spurned acquaintance (Alan Zweibel) begs LD to try something new for once. “Life is like this,” he sermonizes, opening his arms wide. He then brings his hands back together: “And what you’ve done is made it like this.” LD looks at the inch between Zweibel’s hands and retorts, “I want to make that smaller.” To live and protect his truth from the vagaries of western buddhist opportunism, LD must become, In kabbalistic terms, all gevurah and no khesed: completely unable to go with the flow.
THERE IS NO DOUBT that Curb has fallen behind the times. Larry David continues to short-shrift the roles of his girlfriends and to look for story in antiquated ethnic stereotypes. But whereas, for example, Tina Fey devoted an entire, dreadful episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to spewing bile at her young, identitarian critics, David’s storycraft asks only to be taken at face value. The season in which LD finally offends the wrong person and ends up with a literal death sentence has no interest in mocking political correctness. To the contrary, the special snowflake who can’t take a joke is the Ayatollah, a powerful, hard-line religious conservative.
There’s something almost uncanny about how Curb survived the Bush and Obama eras and now enters Trump’s no worse for wear, as if a symptom that we’ve made deceptively little progress in the new millenium (maybe even since Kafka’s turn of the century). In the five years since Curb’s last new season, the nonstop buy-sell logic once unique to places like Hollywood has rapidly proliferated. Social media now bombards us with moralized entreatments and injunctions, online data monopolists tabulate intimate details about our identities and preferences to target us with advertisements, and even intellectuals in the academy have been reduced to self-promoters, spending as much time peddling proposals as they do executing them. Given this reality, LD’s solipsism can be optimistic: In a decade so defined by overwhelming saturation, there is something invigorating about a character who refuses to pick his battles.
And so my perception of LD has evolved, even while he himself hasn’t. Perhaps that’s because one of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s most profound lessons resonates for me now more strongly than ever: There is nothing that polite liberal society fears more than the individual who does not need to be told who they are.
Alessio Franko, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is pursuing a Master’s in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. He trained as an actor at HB Studios in his hometown of New York City and earned his Bachelor’s in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.