Do you think three years actually is a lifetime? I’ve made that joke a few times since finishing The Shield, but I’ve noticed how many people observe that many sitcoms reach their golden age in season two or three before descending into exaggerated parodies of themselves in season four; Scrubs is the easiest example to point to of this. It’s like the third year of doing something is when it really starts to make sense – when it’s solidified into an idea that we all comprehend. I found myself thinking of that while watching this season of Curb. Larry (character) still hasn’t changed an iota – he’s still a neutral figure of destruction, causing chaos whether he acts selflessly or selfishly and just as apt to go one way or the other. I’m particularly intrigued by a whole subplot in which he’s infuriated by a subpar wash of his car in which he’s fairly certain they stole something out of it, only to be delighted when he runs into the workers at a restaurant later.
It’s the people around him who are starting to act differently. It feels like everyone, even the guest stars, has a much stronger sense of what the show is and are developing more nuanced ways of reacting to Larry than the straight rage we usually see. Jeff Garlin has developed into his perfect scene partner, perfectly spotting when is the best time to egg Larry on and when it would be funnier to play complete bafflement to him; I know there was a point where David stopped showing him scripts to stop him coming up with funny lines beforehand, and I know we must have passed it because he nearly breaks character at one point when he finds out a woman he’s introducing Larry to is a fellatio teacher. That’s a reflection of the fact that Garlin has become completely comfortable escalating David in whatever way necessary, without even having to think about it.
But I also feel like the guest stars are a little different. They’re not just David’s good friends playing rhythms they’ve been playing with him for decades and they’re not just working actors playing straightforward improv games off a particularly insane man, although we do also have those; we have people walking into the Curb universe with preconceived notions of how it works and new ideas to bring into it. Ben Stiller does some of the most interesting work, bringing his highly-developed comic persona – Stiller’s basic mode always struck me as him deliberately shutting out exactly what he’s thinking, leaving only a visible contempt for interrupting whatever it is he actually wants to do, making him a dangerous scene partner. It’s very funny in the context of Curb, where he’s obviously trying to put his rage at Larry aside at every second and keeps having it pulled out of him by Larry’s neediness.
I also like the incredibly young Anton Yelchin we get – he ends up being one of the few people Larry has met who is assertive without being aggressive, managing to escalate Larry’s rage simply by a) not giving any ground and b) letting him work himself up into it, and this is even funnier given he’s in either little pyjamas or a Superman costume when we watch him do this. There’s also Russel Means as Wandering Bear, who makes me cackle by just being a nice, thoughtful person – “You don’t need to talk like that. You’re a better person than this,” makes me cackle in the context of saying it to Susie.
It puts the show’s larger ambitions into context for me. Almost every single scene has the exact same process aimed at exactly the same goal: generating absurdity through basic improv techniques. The larger structural tricks David plays – in this season, the overall plot about Mel Brooks pulling a Springtime For Hitler on The Producers by hiring Larry, something he hides until nearly the final scenes of the season – feel like opportunities that pop up as that process develops. It reminds me of my use of humour in these essays; I’m not trying to be funny, but if the chance to say something funny pops up, I’m not gonna avoid it. I like that if you chase one thing to the exclusion of all others and you follow a clear process that will get you there as efficiently as possible, an opportunity to get a whole bunch of other things will emerge. Amazing what you can get when you decide it’s optional.