October 4, 2001
Jew’s-Eye View TV
Larry David's first show since 'Seinfeld' enters its second season in fine, fretful fettle.
Larry David is notoriously prickly. Still, at a recent HBO press conference for "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the television series starring the comedy writer as himself (the second season premiered Sept. 23), he made a game effort to be brightly quotable. "I might be the first bald man to actually be starring in a television comedy since Phil Silvers," David began.
"Charles Dutton!" the reporters fired back. "James Coco! Michael Chiklis! Herschel Bernardi!"
"All right, so I'm not," said David, whose sigh indicated that he found the press conference barely endurable. Someone asked what the new show was about, since "Seinfeld," which David co-created, was famously about nothing. "I would describe it as a show about Larry David," he responded, "which is pretty close to nothing as it is."
"Seinfeld" was also tacitly about a Jew's-eye view of life, and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" ramps that up several notches. The infuriating ways of other people in "Seinfeld"now erupts in "Curb Your Enthusiasm" into personal disasters of surreal proportions.
These can be roughly divided into two types. Appalling encounters with other Jews, such as David's porn-addict manager and the manager's meddling, straight-out-of-Portnoy parents, are annoying but routine, similar to Tevye's quarrels with fellow villagers. (The Pacific Palisades-Brentwood-Santa Monica borders of a successful Hollywood writer's world can be as insular and provincial as a Sholom Aleichem shtetl.) But in these cases, David sometimes manages to get the last laugh. An infuriated neighbor berates David for whistling a Wagner tune outside a movie theater ("You wanna know what you are? You're a self-loathing Jew!"); David hires an orchestra to play Wagner on the man's front lawn in the middle of the night.
"I do hate myself," David protests angrily to the neighbor, "but it has nothing to do with being Jewish, OK?"
Appalling encounters with gentiles, on the other hand, are excruciating moments of mutual misunderstanding. In an upcoming episode, David meets a charity donor named John Tyler, a pale, humorless guy who's driven up from Fullerton (a particularly bland Southern California suburb) to claim his auctioned "lunch with the celebrity." The scene is basically an object lesson of the mutual irritation that can happen when a mile-a-minute Jewish brain encounters an I-don't-get-it gentile from Squaresville, USA.
"John Tyler!" David exclaims. "Like the president. President Tyler. Shall I call you Mr. President? Tippecanoe and Tyler, too. You know what Tippecanoe was? You don't know? If I were named after a president, I'd know everything about the president.... I'm related to King David."
"Really?" Tyler asks, looking blankly nervous.
"Yes. So a president and a king, at the same table."
"It's a family name, really," Tyler says.
"Yeah, five brothers and sisters. You know, Irish."
"You ever catch your parents having sex?" David says, trying to keep the conversation going.
"Me either! I know they did, but ... you wonder when."
David is allowed to go off on these riffs now, because on cable he doesn't have to deal with mass-market network concerns. The late Brandon Tartikoff, NBC's programming head during the early days of "Seinfeld," once described the sitcom as "too Jewish." Here he can play it the way he wants.
"I feel aggravated that I am missing what other people are getting," he complains in ungrammatical exasperation to his wife in an upcoming episode, explaining why a day at the beach for him is just a tedious purgatory of heat and schlepping. "Jews buy 85 percent of all sunblock," he theorizes, slathering some on. "I have never seen a gentile ask for, or put on, sunblock."
While that observation may be questionable, it is unquestionably David's burden to constantly get what other people miss. Only he would have the misfortune to encounter at the beach (along with the sun and the ennui) the horrific sight of his dignified, gray-haired therapist wearing nothing but a thong -- a riff that may have been stolen from a once-famous New Yorker cartoon by the late Peter Arno.
Wherever he gets his ideas, it's no longer from a roomful of comedy writers. On "Curb Your Enthusiasm," David plays an improvised half-hour slice of pseudo cinema vérité. "I just thought this could be a lot fresher and more spontaneous and unusual," David said during the press conference. "Also," joked supervising producer Robert Weide, "Larry can't be in a room with more than two other people at the same time, so that sort of nixed the whole idea of a staff of writers."
As it happens, one of the central mysteries of "Seinfeld" -- why were three of that extremely Jewish quartet of characters supposedly gentile? -- evolved from casual, almost improvisational whims rather than careful consideration. Take George Costanza's Italian last name. "We didn't have any idea we were doing a show!" David said. "We were doing a pilot, and Jerry knew a guy named Costanza, and it was, 'Oh, we'll call him Costanza.'"
"Curb Your Enthusiasm" addressed the Jewish issue early in the first season, when David's wife organized a dinner party that, naturally, he did not enjoy. "The next time you have one of these things, I want some Jews here," the on-screen David complains to his wife, played by actress Cheryl Hines and called "Cheryl" on the show. (David's real wife is a former David Letterman talent coordinator named Laurie.)
Still, David has mellowed since the bitter-lonely-guy period of yore. Now 54, he's a family man with two daughters, ages 5 and 7. Also, after garnering an estimated $100 million from one of the biggest hits in television history, he lives in the moneyed beach enclave of Pacific Palisades, a far cry from his grueling stand-up days in New York. In fact, a shorthand way of describing "Curb Your Enthusiasm" might be as "Seinfeld" with an older, married George Costanza in the lead. "Right now, and I don't say this often, I'm very pleased with what I'm doing," he said.
So, does David hope for another 10-episode order from HBO? "I'm fine either way," he said. "It's one of the few times I'm in a win-win situation." Of course, he could always go back to stand-up, something he hasn't done since 1989, just before the "Seinfeld" pilot. In those days, he was notorious for throwing the microphone down and stalking off the stage when audiences didn't get his jokes. But his swan song, for some reason, went well. "So I left with a good taste in my mouth," David said. "One of the few times in my life."