I’m one season into watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David’s followup show to Seinfeld, and I’m shocked to find it oddly life-affirming. I’ve never been much of a cringe comedy kind of guy – regular readers may remember that my trip through a few seasons of The Office included a runner of tracking when my second-hand embarrassment for Michael Scott’s antics became too much to bear and I would have to pause the show to collect myself before moving forward. It could be that I’m in a different place now, more able to take awkwardness in stride, but I do think David’s take on cringe in Curb is something different. Beloved Soluter Miller once remarked that, while Larry (character) has been seen as a purer and more concentrated expression of David’s personality than George Costanza, George is also constantly in a much more desperate state of existence whilst Larry is permanently comfortable. This is true, but I think it goes even further than that – at least at the start of the series*, Larry is married, and he has a wide circle of friends and hobbies.
*I am aware both Larry and David got divorced much later.
There are three basic creative decisions driving this show: the plots are tightly structured, the dialogue is heavily improvised, and the basic concepts are lifted from David’s life. Trying to analyse any specific element on its own is like trying to find the egg in a cake, with all these elements swirling around and bouncing off each other, but I’ll give it my best shot – the combination of structure and free dialogue gives even minor actors a level of control over their character that’s astounding even by long-running TV standards. One of the common weaknesses with comedy of idiots is actors overselling their characters as idiots. In Curb, the actors have been given a goal and free reign on how to achieve it, and it gives each scene a sense of naturalism where you feel like the character really is trying to win (or at least end) the argument.
Lifting the plots specifically from David’s life creates two effects. The first and lesser is that, while Larry is desperately trying to save face at all times, David comes off as fearlessly putting his vulnerabilities on display. Whether it’s stupid or sympathetic, these are things he did and this (sometimes) how he reacted. I’m particularly struck by how this season treats race – there’s an episode where Larry bumps into a line producer from Seinfeld and she points out he never hired her back, accusing him of racism. The episode never finds any closure on the racism angle – neither redeeming Larry in some way by revealing how Not Racist he is, nor doubling down on his defensiveness. It’s just a scene about Larry trying to avoid one awkward situation and stumbling into another. There’s a later episode where he makes a bad racist joke and sees it blow up in his face. Again, the fact that the actors have control over how their characters act affords them a level of dignity, at least in how they see themselves.
The more important effect is that the plots are generally spawned by love and sympathy in some way. I was particularly struck by this in the episodes with Richard Lewis – there’s one scene where, in the middle of a blow-up argument, Lewis remarks, “That’s funny! I’m trying not to laugh, but that is funny!” However much the two of them argue and however little Larry likes Richard’s girlfriend, they enjoy each other’s company and actively seek it out. The same goes for his marriage to Cheryl – so many episodes and even scenes start off with Larry lovingly joking with her, and many plot turns are motivated by him trying to do right by her – going to parties because she wants to, making nice with people he can’t stand to get her something. The improvised rapport between actors – them sometimes breaking – helps enormously here.
What’s really weird is the fact that the show is really fucking funny is the important final factor into why it’s life-affirming – that, in fact, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m repeatedly reduced to tears of laughter by what happens, this would just be mildly pleasant. I find myself strongly identifying with Larry’s behaviour – belittled and humiliated on a frequent basis; desperately trying to cover up mistakes and seeing, to his horror, that the coverup is worse than the crime; obsessing over what turns out to be the entirely wrong detail except at times when it turned out he was exactly right to obsess over that detail; above all, being exasperated by the arbitrary personal rules other people make up for him only to run headfirst into your own arbitrary personal rules (I’m with Larry, the cutoff is ten). Drama, at least from an Aristotelian perspective, is about the things that matter.
Comedy, at least my favourite comedy, is about the things that don’t. Ego, personal taste, face – these things not only don’t last, they pass in an instant. It doesn’t actually come up in Curb much, but I’ve never really liked being patronised and historically, that’s what sets off my most Larry-like moments. Part of life for me has been trying to figure out if there’s a way of living in the world that involves neither complete despair nor becoming one of those patronising assholes as some kind of defense mechanism. I think for a lot of people, that patronising behaviour comes from either a need to control the world or an unthinking belief that you do, neither of which I possess nor particularly want to. I don’t want to be better than other people or the comic foil to their antics. At the end of the first episode, when Larry has been caught out in a lie with Kathy Griffin, he just stops, and I find myself cackling. That’s a different perspective: maybe this petty shit is funny, not annoying or embarrassing.