The Joy of Vex

The godless charm of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm

And still—this was the show’s hook—he burned. Still he grated. In so frictionless an environment, Larry was obliged to make his own friction—to become a one-man friction factory. Parts of him, or parts of his condition, we recognized from Seinfeld: his barking Costanzan indignation, his Krameroid manners. Dry cleaners were argued with. Waiters were made to feel awkward. Customs and conventions were submitted to a nonstop Seinfeldian interrogation: What is the cutoff time for late-night calls? How long must you stand at a graveside? Let me ask you a question … Let me ask you something … Let me ask you this … As dogs to lampposts, so Larry to any kind of socially proscribed speech: jabbering away, asking his questions, he insulted gays, black people, incest survivors, Christians, parents, women, the disabled. Tipping, that elementary act of economic lubrication, was relentlessly balked at. Life itself, to be felt at all, had to be something like a rash. (Skin irritation has been a vigorous motif over the seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm—itches, redness, chafed penis-ends, ticklings in the anus, garments that rub maddeningly.) Larry was thrown out of houses. He was cursed. But he kept going, unabashed—even achieving, at moments, a sort of hectic equanimity. (I think of him at the wheel of his Prius, cheerfully bellowing the lyrics to Stephen Sondheim’s “Gee, Officer Krupke.”)

Curb Your Enthusiasm is full of disasters and crudities, and swearing too, but the irony is that Seinfeld—three-wall, laugh-track, sitcom-happy Seinfeld—was actually the darker show. The Seinfeldians lived their lives in triumphant immunity to the transcendent: nothing, not love, not prison, not sex, not death, could break the spell of triviality that bound them all together. Buried in the jazzy bass-clicks and synth-parps of the Seinfeld theme was the authentic snickering of dead souls. “You know, I could have killed you,” Elaine tells a telephone engineer who has been working in her apartment, in an episode called “The Maid,” “and no one would have known.” “I could have killed you and no one would have known,” he retorts.

The puffings of buffonic tuba that announce Curb Your Enthusiasm, on the other hand, tell us that we are entering the big top. Larry the clown will go down, get up, go down again, in a species of affective slapstick. His wife will put up with him (at least until she leaves him in Season Six); his friend Richard Lewis (played, of course, by his real-life friend Richard Lewis) will roll his eyes, wring his hands; his manager, Jeff Greene (played by Jeff Garlin), will puff and shrug. And round and round we go. Is nothing sacred? Of course it isn’t.

Larry has had his brushes with Meaning—notably in Season Five, when a near-drowning produced the brief sensation of a purpose-driven life—but they never quite take. Serenely preoperative on a hospital gurney, in a quiet rapture of virtue as he prepares to donate a kidney to Richard Lewis, he is complimented on his calmness by a male nurse. “God will watch over me,” says Larry. Mutters the nurse: “He didn’t watch over the last guy.”

Curb Your Enthusiasm could run for another eight seasons, because the opportunities afforded by this character are basically endless. He moves in fits and set pieces, and if they repeat, so much the better. In Season Eight, you will see Larry rail at a man whose car is taking up two spaces, calling him a “pig parker.” You will hear Larry declare that it would take $3,000 to make him see Eat, Pray, Love. And you will watch Larry and Jeff further develop their thin/fat double act by driving around New York, shouting, in a small car fitted with a prototype periscope.

“Let me ask you this question,” Larry says, taking his terrible ease in a restaurant, to the veterinarian sitting opposite him. “In veterinary school, do you tend to focus more on the dog, let’s say, than the cow?” Panic flashes humidly in the young man’s eyes, the familiar panic of one about to be caught in Larry’s swath of social disaster: At what point should he take umbrage? An insult is coming, something awful, but will he know it when he hears it? He braces himself. We all brace ourselves.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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