By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Ron Batzdorff
LARRY DAVID IS THE PHILIP ROTH OF situation comedy, unafraid to reveal just how devious, petty, annoying, argumentative, selfish, boorish and insensitive he can be. Now that he has his own program, it's easy to see why he didn't cast himself as one of the characters on Seinfeld. With his rages and wolfish grins, he'd have been far too abrasive and sardonic a presence for a mainstream sitcom, even one of his own making. Next to him, George, Elaine, Kramer and Jerry look like cute comic-book characters in an Upper West Side time capsule.
In Curb Your Enthusiasm, now wrapping up its third season on HBO, David plays himself, the megarich co-creator of Seinfeld, the most successful sitcom in history. Curb's conceit is that he's still living off the proceeds while not doing much of anything about putting another show together. He'd far rather spend his time on such mundane tasks as shopping for a cell phone, investing in a restaurant, buying a shirt, puttering around with comedian pal Richard Lewis, or even trying out for a job as a car salesman -- apparently, a lifelong fantasy. (He's fired on his second day.) Last season, there was an episode in which he set about writing a sitcom with Jason Alexander, who played George on Seinfeld, but the nascent partnership quickly degenerated into a shouting match when the two men couldn't agree on whose office they should meet in. Welcome to Larry David's world, where the more minor the disagreement, the fiercer the fight.
Curb is set in ritzy West L.A., an eternally clement world of palm trees, houses, cars, shops and sushi restaurants. The sun highlights the characters' neuroses, while the ocean is rarely heard from. (One episode has a beach scene, but it revolves around Larry's horror at seeing his therapist in a thong.) Other L.A. shows, particularly urban crime dramas such as The Shield, Robbery Homicide Division and Boomtown, work the city furiously, scouring it for new locations, beaming down on it from helicopters, introducing new and ever more exotic ethnicities, crimes, perversions, narrative techniques, camera angles -- anything to whip what is essentially a relaxed metropolis into ominous, seething life.
David takes a very different approach: He simply lets the city be. His view of L.A. is that of the wealthy ex-New Yorker (like himself) who, after a decade or two in Manhattan, is quite happy to find the sidewalks unpopulated, the faces friendly, the weather designed and personally installed by God. In any case, if it's grief you're looking for, Larry can provide that all on his own. Trouble is his business. He's like one of those athletes who's on top of his game only when an entire stadium is hurling insults at him. Then he feels good. Cheryl hines, without whose sweetly sane presence the show might be unwatchable.(Photo by Ron Batzdorff)
In keeping with its laid-back surroundings, Curb can't be bothered with much overt fictionalization. David is Larry, a balding smirk on legs; Cheryl Hines is Cheryl, his demurely sexy (and, more important, sensible) wife; and Jeff Garlin is Jeff, his tubby, flashily dressed agent, an overgrown schoolboy whom no one has any qualms about calling fat. Deeper into the cast, there's even less fabrication, with Ted Danson, Richard Lewis, Michael York, Martin Scorsese and others all appearing as themselves. Most of the dialogue is improvised and the mockumentary-style direction is so unobtrusive it's hard to remember you're watching television, or HBO for that matter. There are plenty of stars, but David has dimmed their luster to the point where, oxymoronically, they become ordinary. They're celebrities seen from another celebrity's point of view.
For a show that's improvised (the actors work from a five-page script, rather than the usual 40), it's amazing how good the dialogue is. "The next guy I see throwing garbage in my garbage can, I'll kick his ass," a truculent homeowner tells Larry after Larry deposits an apple core in his trash. "I'll give that message to the next guy," Larry replies nonchalantly. There are also some supremely grouchy soliloquies, as when Larry is informed that his dentist, Dr. Blore, has inexplicably issued an invitation to dinner:
He's my dentist -- why's he inviting me to dinner? What are we going to talk about, my teeth? If we go to his house for dinner, we're going to have to invite him someplace, and if we don't invite him, then he's going to be offended. I invited you, why didn't you invite me? You know what I mean? We don't want to get into that game. I'll need a new dentist soon, no question about it. That's the end of this dentist, as far as I'm concerned. It's already ruined. Everybody's got to get together. The whole world's got to get together -- ugh.
THE FUNNIEST SHOW ON TELEVISION, Curbis also, in its way, one of the most realistic. Not in terms of the ingeniously ludicrous plots, but of the characters. In most TV shows, nearly everyone and everything feels at least somewhat fake, never more so than in the kind of police procedural (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit springs to mind) which prides itself on being gritty and authentic, but plays as if a Committee for Multicultural Awareness had sat in on every script conference, breathing down the writers' necks. But in Curb, a comedy not "about nothing," like Seinfeld, but "about Larry David, which is pretty close to nothing" (according to the man himself), everything feels utterly real in a slightly surreal, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky Southern California way. The situations may be absurd, the behavior exaggerated, but the characters themselves are almost always credible. If they weren't, the actors would never be able to extemporize so convincingly.