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Jewish Journal

Larry David: Curb your curmudgeon

by Danielle Berrin

June 25, 2014 | 2:30 pm

Columnist Danielle Berrin and Larry David.

He is nothing if not a mensch, Larry David declared — about himself. 

How else to explain why the salty star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” was willing to forgo an evening on the couch watching Turner Classic movies and admiring Doris Day (“She hot,” he panted) to make a rare public appearance? 

He did it as a favor to his longtime friend, veteran comedy writer Carol Leifer, who’d worked under him on “Seinfeld” and invited him to appear June 19 at the Writers Bloc salon series to promote her memoir, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying.” 

With this pair, it was impossible not to cry from laughing. 

Their joint history on the iconic show, from 1993 to 1996, served as the evening’s fodder, edging out Leifer’s part-memoir/part-business-advice book, perhaps as a way of bringing to life certain favorite chapters. But, really, the talk between these old friends about favorite comedy characters revealed more about their own real-life character. 

The pair’s easy rapport made for a candid conversation, and 37 years of friendship ensured that Leifer was allowed to ask, tell and reveal things David might never have offered. Their synergy was symbiotic; David expertly clung to character as the irascible and curmudgeonly comic while Leifer tried to upend his prickly presentation with flattery and praise.

“Larry David,” she began, throwing back her honey-blond hair and turning to face him. “You’ve had a very profound effect on my life.”

A little bit stunned by the sentiment and sincerity, David could only raise his eyebrows.

Moi?” he replied. “I haven’t even affected my children’s lives.”

His self-deprecating shtick was on full display, along with an ample dose of his acerbic, irritable and altogether intolerant stage personality. But try as he might to appear obnoxious, Leifer insisted on exposing his goodness and virtue.

“What a lot of people might not know,” she said, “is that you’re a very, very, very great boss.”

“Well,” he said wryly, allowing a long pause to serve as the punch line. 

“And,” she continued, “In the profound-effect-on-my-life category, you also — you might not remember this — but for my 40th birthday, you got me golf lessons.” Leifer’s first date with her current partner, Lori Wolf, took place over golf. “And so I also feel,” she added, “that you may have inadvertently also made me a lesbian.”

Score. But Larry David isn’t one to be one-upped.

“Well,” he said, “you wouldn’t be the first one, because there have been many that I’ve driven to it.”

Every time he put himself down, she’d lift him up.

Leifer explained how rare it was to work with a showrunner like David, who would involve writers in every aspect of the production process, from casting to props to editing. He was unabashedly enthusiastic if he liked a writer’s pitch. “He’d go, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! We’re doing it! We’re doing it!’ ” she exclaimed, jumping out of her chair as he used to do. And if he didn’t like it, he’d sling a really rough insult, like, “I could see that being on another show.” Leifer said she especially admired the sensitivity with which he fired people. 

“You made it very easy,” she recalled, explaining how he’d dismiss an actor who wasn’t right for the part. “You’d take them aside and say, ‘I think you’re great, it’s just not working here. We’ll do something else.’ Do you know how few showrunners do that?”

“Really?” David asked, evidently surprised. “That’s awful. But you can’t go down with an actor who is not right for the part. I would fire my mother in a second!”

The opportunity to go behind the scenes of a favorite show and hear straight from the lips of the creator about David and Jerry Seinfeld’s shared office, the dreaded visits from NBC executives and how they came up with those crazy, random ideas week after week was as exciting for fans as it was edifying for aspiring comedy writers. 

“You really encouraged people [to use] ideas from real life on comedy pitches,” Leifer said to David.

“Nothing excites me more, to this day, than a good idea,” he said. “[But] you don’t sit down and try to think of ideas, especially for a show like ‘Seinfeld,’ because you won’t be able to. They just have to dawn on you when you’re in the shower, or when you’re in a restaurant, when you notice something.” 

He recalled one time when he and Leifer went for dinner, and he purchased a “big salad” for an editor who was working late. After dinner, Leifer handed the editor the salad without saying who it was from.

“I bought the big salad, and Carol took the credit for it!” David exclaimed.

That little anecdote became the premise of the 1994 episode “The Big Salad.”

Leifer was visibly energized to be in the presence of the one comedy idol she appears to admire as much as her deceased optometrist father (who wished to be a comedian). And at times, it seemed as if she still wanted to make her comedy parent proud.  

“I still think of ‘Seinfeld’ ideas,” Leifer confessed. “It becomes part of your DNA. Like, I went to the Hollywood Bowl recently and saw a network president sitting in a box, enjoying his dinner. And I said to [my partner] Lori, ‘I should probably go and say hi.’ So I went over to him, and he didn’t stop eating when I was talking to him! There was something about the coleslaw that was so mesmerizing, he couldn’t put his fork down.”

“Yes, that would pass,” David said. “That would be on the show.”

Near the end of the evening, Leifer asked David what he makes of the fact that people consider “Seinfeld” a Jewish show. 

“You know, Jews are very possessive about that,” he said. “They can’t understand how anybody else could possibly enjoy it. Sometimes people stop me on the street and they’ll go — ‘I’m a Jew’ — [like] I never would have guessed. …”

For many in the audience, it likely came as a surprise that the kitchy Jewish stereotypes that pepper David’s work are actually the complete opposite of the Jew he is in real life. 

Afterward, he stayed and signed autographs, posed for pictures and listened to stories until every last person in the room got their Larry David face-time. Among them was Reva Solomon, an artist, who told David she was a temp at Castle Rock Entertainment when he and Jerry were pitching the pilot for “Seinfeld.” She was tasked with typing the pilot’s final draft. 

“It was very exciting to share that story with Larry David tonight after all these years, and have him shake my hand and ask my name,” Solomon said. “I’ve been holding onto that story since the ’80s!” 

The real Larry David patiently listened. He was gracious, he was grateful, he was sweet. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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