‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and the Lasting Appeal of Larry David

January, 24 2020

Welcome to Chai Brow, Moment’s weekly arts column exploring contemporary film, TV and podcasts from a Jewish lens.

The evening of October 15, 2015 will go down as a landmark moment in TV history. Saturday Night Live was trotting out the candidates for its Democratic presidential debate sketch, and it needed to introduce the newly ascendant Bernie Sanders to the world of comedy. Suddenly there he was, shuffling to the podium: that familiar bald dome, those telltale glasses, the grumpy slouch we’d come to know and love, now stuffed inside a baggy suit that seemed to somehow fit perfectly, and now yelling about American politics instead of golf and wood stains. Larry David was here. And Bernie Sanders was, too. They were one and the same.

The fabled Sanders impression, one that’s continued unchanged into this election cycle, has cemented David’s status as that rare breed: a multi-generational comedy icon. And he’s leveraging his cultural ubiquity to full effect with his HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm, which aired its 10th season premiere on Sunday and has been an irregular presence on the network since 1999.

Somewhere in the last two decades, Larry David eclipsed his work husband Jerry Seinfeld as our most relatable Jewish TV humorist. Where Seinfeld’s rants always felt a little tongue-in-cheek and insincere, like Jerry was just testing out material for his act, David’s onscreen alter ego “Larry” is dead serious about calling out his dinner party hosts for serving tap water or keeping dogs from eating out of human bowls. He knows he’s an alienating presence and simply doesn’t care, not even when it comes to issues like the Holocaust or ruining a friend’s bat mitzvah. It’s a kind of Jewish nihilism played for cringey laughs, except the cringes have gotten smaller over the years as the laughs have stayed the same. Maybe that means our social values are eroding right along with Larry’s.

Perhaps winking to David’s rejuvenated fame playing a crotchety old Jewish leftist, Curb’s season premiere sees Larry wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. Not because he supports Trump, but rather the exact opposite: He realizes that wearing the red hat in a liberal enclave like Los Angeles is a surefire “people repellant.” Strangers keep their distance on the street; friends he can’t stand will cancel their lunch plans rather than be seen with him. For Larry, this is heaven. Political principle will lose every time to his desire not to be bothered in public.

Curb isn’t going full-on Daily Show quite yet. After a previous, geopolitics-heavy ninth season that made Larry the target of an Iranian fatwah, the premiere (mostly) shrinks its star back to small, petty concerns. Larry breaks a tourist’s selfie stick, scolds a pregnant woman for “jostling the fetus” by running on a treadmill and gets banned from old frenemy Mocha Joe’s coffee shop for questioning the structural integrity of his scones—all within the first ten minutes. But Larry’s ever-tenuous line between justified (if excessive) outrage and just plain old being a jerk gets demolished, too, as his behavior becomes so hostile that two women find cause to accuse him of sexual harassment.

In addition, the show makes a meal out of series regular Jeff Garlin’s visual resemblance to Harvey Weinstein: He keeps getting mistaken for the sex predator at parties and insulted to his face. (This gag is a complex one in itself since Garlin’s character is a morally bankrupt philanderer and cheat who works in Hollywood; he’s basically like Weinstein without the rape.)

I’m not sure the show intends this #MeToo subplot, which seems likely to extend as a season-long arc, as a serious examination of how one man’s thoughtless, insular actions can be misconstrued as genuinely harmful. Both of Larry’s “victims” display hostile irrationality toward what he clearly thinks are simple misunderstandings: His clumsy attempt to grab an hors d’oeuvre at a party leads to him accidentally grazing a caterer’s breast, while his assistant becomes uncomfortable when he cleans his glasses on her shirt without asking.

But these cases are instructive in a way that’s much deeper than this sitcom formula lets on. For all that we like to think of David as a voice for the people, able to say what none of us have the courage to, it’s also always been true that he is specifically a voice for himself and his own world of wealthy, middle-aged, showbiz Jews. He isn’t able to see beyond his own ridiculously tiny worldview, and that creates the show’s comedy, but also an unavoidable tension when we have to consider the possibility that it’s not always good to make people uneasy—especially when you have social power over them.

Larry isn’t going to learn his lesson, of course. That would defeat the purpose of the show. But we certainly could. Somewhere buried in his character is a lesson for Jews who don’t want to come across as privileged or contemptuous of other people’s struggles. “Your own personal Larry David” is a regular wish-fulfillment fantasy on the Internet. Be careful what you wish for. 

Author’s note: Sadly, this will be my final column for Chai Brow. I’ve accepted an exciting new job as editor for the Detroit Jewish News, where I will be overseeing the editorial and digital strategy for my historic hometown publication and will have to cut back on my freelance work as a result.

I’m enormously grateful to the editors of Moment for giving me this space to sound off on so many great aspects of Jewish culture, and I remain confident that whoever steps in to carry on the column will continue in the Chai Brow tradition. Thank you so much for reading!

Top photo: HBO

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