David and Golgotha

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, Curb is 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.

You don't receive many critical kudos for accurately portraying a mostly white, mostly Jewish milieu on television, but that's what David does here, starting with Larry's marriage to the delightful Cheryl (without whose sweetly sane presence the show would probably be unwatchable). She works part time for a nonprofit environmental organization -- the perfect conscience-salving job for a childless Hollywood housewife who doesn't have to do any actual housework. What exactly is the status of this marriage? It's quite possible to believe that Cheryl's in love with Larry, though she often looks at him with the slightly puzzled wonderment of someone who's fallen for a crabby but oddly endearing alien. "Loving you is my job, Larry," she admits in an inadvertently profound comment on wedlock.

Then there's Larry's little corner of Hollywood: therapists, rappers, masseurs, basketball stars, acupuncturists, actors, agents, lawyers, movie executives, secretaries, cable repairmen, head waiters, dentists, au pairs, chefs -- the mainstays of the entertainment and service industries are all present. When Larry closes the door of his therapist's office, there's Rob Reiner, sitting in the waiting room. When Larry tells someone he's going to the desert because of a terrorist threat, the first question is, "Where do you stay in Palm Springs?" It's a classic L.A. moment. (He stays at the Four Seasons.)

The show beautifully captures the entertainment industry at middle age: the massive homes (fortresslike front doors, entertainment centers but no books); coarse language (Larry ridicules a friend for saying "freaking" instead of "fucking"); obsession with clothes (people are constantly inquiring as to the wool content of each others' sweaters); and risibly soft parenting (when Jeff, who's allergic to dogs, tells his 7-year-old daughter that she has to choose between him and their pet German shepherd, she chooses the dog and Jeff moves to a hotel). It's a world of immensely rich people who have nothing better to do than find things to argue about, particularly gifts, which constitute a peculiar obsession of the show. (A wedding present is rejected because it's overdue, a shirt returned because it has a small hole, sponge cakes angrily thrown out because the recipient is overweight.) And after Larry refuses to give two teenage girls candy on Halloween on the grounds that they're too old to be trick-or-treating and haven't bothered to dress up, he wakes up the next morning to find his garden draped in toilet paper and the words BALD ASSHOLE spray-painted on his front door. The moral seems to be: No good deed goes unpunished, nor does any bad one.

Ethnically, it's a very white L.A., just as Seinfeld was a very white New York. But there are differences. (For one thing, Cheryl's best friend, Wanda, is black.) The characters in Seinfeld lived in a mixed neighborhood, but fraternized almost exclusively with their own kind, while those in Curb live in a mostly white community that's effectively sealed off by the wealth of its inhabitants. Perversely, David chooses to address this "problem" by having his character constantly getting into trouble with black people, at least one of whom -- a line producer he once turned down for a job -- pointedly brings up the paucity of color on Seinfeld as proof that he's a racist. So many TV shows earnestly try to bring blacks and whites together that it's almost startling to see one that emphasizes interracial awkwardness. A recent episode opened at a party celebrating Wanda's engagement to a rap star; while Cheryl seemed perfectly at ease in the otherwise all-black crowd, Larry stood around stomping on some bubble wrap.

Embarrassed by their lives of privilege, the whites on Curb can only hope that their impeccable politics will save them from censure. When Larry makes a gauche joke about affirmative action to Richard Lewis' black dermatologist, Lewis tries to placate his outraged doctor pal by explaining that Larry couldn't possibly have meant any harm because he's a liberal -- as if that explained everything. (He's a liberal with a leaky id. "I say stupid things to black people," he admits.) Later in the same episode ("Affirmative Action," from the first season), while facing an impromptu tribunal on racial sensitivity at the dermatologist's home, Larry desperately tries to win over the doctor's angry friends by joking that not only is he in favor of affirmative action, he thinks white people "should be sleeping on the streets eating crumbs" for at least 200 years.  

Of course, Larry gets into trouble with everyone, including his fellow Semites, one of whom accuses him of being "self-hating" when he overhears him whistling a tune from Wagner. ("I do hate myself, but it has nothing to do with being Jewish, okay?" Larry replies, and later hires a small orchestra to play Wagner on the man's front lawn.) Nor is he above pushing a few political buttons himself. When a police officer comes to his house following the trick-or-treat fiasco (which was perpetrated by the Wagner-hater's daughters), Larry works himself up into a fury and tries to have the "Bald Asshole" graffito classified as a hate crime. "We're a sect, we're a group," he shouts. "You can't call us bald assholes! What if we were gay? Then it would be gay asshole?" The officer, pointing to his own gleaming skull, says that even though he's bald himself, he's not offended. Larry isn't buying it. "With all due respect, officer, you are not bald, you have chosen to shave your hair," he replies sternly. "That's a look you're cultivating to be fashionable, and we don't really consider you part of the bald community."

CRITICS LIKE TO STRESS HOW "DARK" Curb is, even going so far as to hang Sartre's sourpuss motto, "Hell is other people," as an existential banner over the show. What they forget is that, even for Larry, other people can be fun too. Though he'd probably agree with the notion that we'd all be better off if we just stayed in our rooms, there's nothing he likes more than getting together, trading insults and joking around. (In fact, it's not clear that he likes anything else, except, perhaps, for sex.) And though almost every episode ends in disaster, for the simple reason that Larry is a one-man universe of bad karma, a human banana peel, almost every episode begins with him in a cheery, upbeat mood, ready to trade quips with Richard Lewis or shoot the breeze with his agent over lunch. He's undoubtedly a very strange person. When he told Cheryl in this season's opener that he was going to invest in a restaurant so he'd have a place to hang out and talk to people, she reminded him that he doesn't actually like talking to people. "I don't like talking to people I know," he corrected her. "Strangers I have no problem with."

It's a classic Larry David line, and I thought of it recently as I was reading an article by Frank Furedi, a British journalist, about the growing trend for solo living in the West. According to a study cited by Furedi, more than 50 percent of households in Munich, Frankfurt and Paris contain just one person. In London, nearly four out of 10 people live alone, as do the same percentage of Swedes. What's more, people have fewer friends and see a "best" friend less frequently than they did just two decades ago (though presumably they stay in touch through the telephone and e-mail).

I don't know the statistics for L.A., but I doubt if they're very different. On Sunday nights, with The Sopranos on at 9 and Curb following immediately after, there are neighborhoods in the city that become so quiet it's as if the entire population has entered a witness-protection program. (By now, The Sopranos must have broken up more Sunday-night gatherings than any television show in history.) Given the choice, most people would rather spend time with fictional characters than with their messy flesh-and-blood counterparts. That may always have been true -- think of those serialized 19th-century novels -- but never before have there been so many fictional characters to choose from.

So who are these people on Curb whose company we seek out so faithfully? Are they really friends, or do they just talk to each other because, massively self-absorbed though they are, they're in the same business and can't stand their own company all the time? What the show tells us is that we're all isolated from each other into separate groups, with very little in common. In Larry's world, what unites the Japanese-American with the Anglo- or Jewish-American is that the former is very good at making sushi and the latter likes to eat it. Nor do things get much better within a particular community. "What do I have in common with the Jews?" asked Kafka. "I don't even have anything in common with myself."  

Larry David would second that. No one can say what goes on inside that head, and the more he reveals about himself, the less you really know. Which is just how he wants it. When Jeff worries that his wife will talk about his sexual peccadilloes in a nasty divorce settlement, Larry boasts that he's never been so foolish as to confide in his own wife. "I just treat her like an acquaintance," he says of Cheryl. "You think I want her blabbing about me to people? If we got divorced tomorrow, she'd have nothing to say."

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