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.

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.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In