The Joy of Vex

The godless charm of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm
Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times/Contour by Getty Images

In my dream, a long-fingered witch was zapping me with heart attacks (“Feel that? Feel it coming?”), and then, disconnectedly, I was in a car with Larry David, driving through Brooklyn. As we entered an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, Larry said, “Oy gevalt! It’s Passover!” and piously bowed his head. “Larry,” I said, surprised, “I didn’t know you cared about this stuff.” And in my dream Larry David replied, with great solemnity: “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in Jews.”

Not a bad line, right? Pret-tay, pret-tay good, as Larry himself might say. The unconscious—mine, anyway—is rarely so aphoristic. Even better, it’s a line that happens to be true: Larry David, culturally speaking, is indeed both a figure of pioneering godlessness and a loyal celebrant of the traditions, religious and comic, of his people. I say godlessness because atheism won’t do here: too programmatic, too broomstick-up-the-ass. From the post-moral peevishness of Seinfeld (which he co-created) to the flying yarmulkes of Curb Your Enthusiasm (which he created and stars in), Larry has been in a class of his own, spinning a kind of hilarious materialist fairy tale that depends for many of its effects upon the vacuum left by a just-departed divinity—a God who has bolted from the room like Groucho Marx, cigar smell and a hanging one-liner the tokens of His absence.

Curb Your Enthusiasm begins its eighth season on HBO in July, and once again Larry faces his old adversary: the universe. Which is to say, a field of omnipresent, inhuman intelligence that conspires impishly against him. Does he generate this field himself, out of his own crazy, bald, Van de Graaff head? Hard to say. Whatever its origin, it is comically ruthless, assaulting him with unlucky coincidences, coarse puns, karmic blowbacks, and punctual hoistings by his own petard. In one of the new episodes, a man breaks a vow of silence to shout out a terrible secret about Larry; in another, he is on the verge of winning—winning!—a golf tournament when his team and a crowd of onlookers suddenly collapse into violent disputation. While Larry’s world has always been Judaically infused—bat mitzvahs, mezuzahs, trips to the synagogue, counsel from the rabbi, etc.—religion cannot comprehend it. Another new episode finds Larry’s enigmatic friend, the stone-faced Marty Funkhouser, hoarsely “rededicating [his] life to Judaism.” Staring at Funkhouser’s yarmulke, Larry asks, “When are you gonna come back to Earth?”

Video: James Parker comments on scenes from the HBO show

Eight seasons: not a bad run for a show that seemed, at first look, little more than a weirdly detached riff on the success of Seinfeld. Barely a year after that show ended, here was Larry David, gangly and not especially telegenic, playing “Larry David”—a man in a kind of showbiz afterlife, freewheeling in the wake of his blockbuster sitcom. Crucially, we had shifted coasts. The Seinfeldians were New Yorkers, deep in the city’s hive, burrowing along their lines of obsession; they rode the subway, they took yellow cabs; they had jobs to go to (George and Elaine did, at least) and rents to pay. But Larry was in electric Larryland—affluent without limit, bowling along the horizontals of L.A. in his Prius. He played a lot of golf and went to a lot of restaurants. At his side was a gleaming, gorgeous, assertively banal wife. Like he’d made Seinfeld and gone to heaven.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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