We’re All Larry Davids Now

Who isn’t suspicious of other people, overtly worried about hygiene, and trigger-happy with a bottle of hand sanitizer?

Steve Granitz / Gregg DeGuire / Getty / The Atlantic

In the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which concluded in March, Larry David opens a “spite store”—a new coffee shop located next door to Mocha Joe, a rival establishment that banned him for excessive complaining. The primary goal of Latte Larry’s is to put Mocha Joe out of business. But that doesn’t mean David can’t implement a few design tweaks of his own, including heated cups, a total ban on defecation in the bathrooms, and most important, a bottle of Purell on every table. “In case there’s any handshaking to be done, you know, I just say … a little squirt!” David explains.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (available on HBO) completed filming long before the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States, but that particular innovation felt hilariously prescient on David’s part. Of course, various obsessions have been baked into his onscreen persona for years—hyper-attention to germs, uneasiness about personal contact, and an inherent distrust of other people’s cleanliness. The line between the “Larry David” of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the real writer-actor has long been a blurry one, a distinction David has poked at, most recently in a cheerfully irascible PSA recorded for the California governor’s office, urging people to stay home.

“I basically want to address the idiots out there … You’re socializing too close, it’s not good, you’re hurting old people like me,” David says, pontificating from a comfortable chair in his home. “Well, not me—I have nothing to do with you. I’ll never see you.” To David, the order to stay at home and socially distance is a glorious affirmation of his entire approach to humanity: “You’re passing up a … once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stay in the house, sit on the couch, and watch TV!” he crows. “If you’ve seen my show, nothing good ever happens going out of the house, you know that. There’s just trouble out there. It’s not a good place to be.”

The jokey video is no more than a helpful nudge, an assist to Governor Gavin Newsom’s efforts to keep Californians indoors to try and flatten the curve of infection from COVID-19. But given that my socially distant lifestyle also encouraged me to catch up on the latest season of Curb and find out what happened to Larry’s “spite store,” the PSA helped me realize that we’re all Larry Davids now: suspicious of other people, overtly worried about hygiene, and trigger-happy on the bottle of Purell (if you even have one).

Before March, crossing the street to avoid someone walking toward you on the sidewalk might have seemed rude or suspicious; now, cautiously avoiding close personal contact on any stroll around the block is the norm. That shift eliminates one of David’s ultimate fears in Curb Your Enthusiasm, the “stop-and-chat,” where bumping into an acquaintance outside might necessitate a longer conversation simply out of politeness. In one episode from the most recent season, David wore a Make America Great Again baseball cap to scare his left-wing friends away from socializing with him, calling the hat a “great people repellent.”

For decades, David has built a comic persona around the little foibles that come with in-person human interaction. Those idiosyncrasies surfaced in multiple characters in his sitcom Seinfeld, which he co-created with Jerry Seinfeld; there, Seinfeld’s character was known for his excessive neatness and his discomfort with physical contact, such as a “kiss hello.” Curb Your Enthusiasm, though, took that itchiness even further. David is certainly disturbed by physical contact, but it’s really every layer of socializing that he struggles with, from the various protocols of the service industry to dinner-table banter with his closest friends.

The transgressive joy of watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, of course, is that David is far ruder and blunter than anyone would dare be in real life—even David himself, who has spoken about the differences between the character he plays and his actual behavior. Fans “think that I’m going to be as brutally honest as the guy in the show, and that I’m not nice,” he once remarked. “But I am nice, which makes me sick! I wish I wasn’t.” Still, over the course of the show, David says he’s only grown closer to his fictionalized doppelgänger. “Every day confirms, more and more, he’s right! He’s right about everything; he’s rarely, rarely wrong,” he said to Time on the launch of Season 9.

As I methodically wipe down packages that I bring into my home, walk in the road to stay away from people, and fixate on the noises my neighbors make stomping around their apartment, it’s hard not to feel like a Larry David acolyte. But just as these recent weeks have been an inadvertent affirmation of his grouchiness and uncharitable view of human hygiene, I live in hope that sometime in the future we’ll be able to firmly repudiate it, and go back to a world of stop-and-chats and warm hellos. The bottle of Purell on every table, though? That might be sticking around for a while.