This Charmless Man

Seinfeld without Seinfeld? The humor may be surlier but it's just as annoyingly addictive

Like a lot of people, I came late to my Curb Your Enthusiasm obsession. The idea sounded so weak, so unenticing: Seinfeld without Seinfeld? An entire series based around Larry David, model for the repellent George Costanza character? I finally caved in a few years ago and watched a Curbmarathon, an intoxicating and addictive megadose of surly humor. Maybe the show requires that kind of total immersion to get you past its initial strangeness—in which case the recently released DVD of the first season could be a mass-conversion tool for the burgeoning cult of Larry. Curb has no laugh track, the dialogue is improvised, and the pacing lackadaisical. This is comedy at its most minimalist and uncomfortable, at times resembling a Beckett or Pinter play, lightened only by the edgiest of laughs.

Larry David's TV alter ego is transparently modeled on his real life: a middle-aged man living comfortably on his Seinfeldfortune, married to an attractive younger woman, with lots of spare time on his hands. The couple is childless, but in a sense Larry himself plays the child and his blonde shiksa wife, Cheryl (Cheryl Hines), the reproving mother. Where Seinfeld and his pals were overgrown adolescents who covered over their emotional disconnectedness with wisecracks and trivia, Larry regresses even further: He's like a bratty toddler who hasn't learned to put anybody else first. He won't sing "Happy Birthday" at a party ("I just feel self-conscious singing it," he whines), and offends his manager's wife by refusing to tour her new house. Curb's painful comedy follows that stubborn self-absorption through to its inevitable moment of disgrace, over and over again.

Larry is childish, but not childlike. His view of the world is thoroughly disenchanted, and he has no enthusiasms beyond the occasional game of golf. A running theme of the show involves his encounters with children, whom he finds vaguely threatening. Not without reason—they invariably play a role in his comeuppance. Last season, Ted Danson's daughter knocked out Larry's teeth while trying to poke a piñata, and this time around he's already been humiliated by Cheryl's young cousin and taunted by his manager's daughter, among others. It's not just children, though—Larry unconsciously resents anyone dependent (including animals, the retarded, and the disabled) who might compete for our sympathy. They, in turn, wreak havoc on his life.

What's wrong with this picture?
photo: John P. Johnson
What's wrong with this picture?

One of Curb's key mysteries is Larry and Cheryl's aloof, chilly marriage. Larry once confessed to his manager, Jeff (Jeff Garlin), that he never does anything too sexually perverse with Cheryl so that "if we got divorced tomorrow, there's nothing she could say." When the couple does get naked, it usually results in minor injuries, like the pubic hair that lodged in Larry's throat while he was trying to pleasure Cheryl. Their kooky, tender repartee hints at affection, but most of the time Cheryl plays the long-suffering spouse. As Larry bumbles into yet another mess, you have to wonder: What's the glue that holds them together? And what does she do with her time? In earlier seasons, Cheryl dabbled in environmental activism (like David's real-life wife, Laurie), but now she seems to have given that up and just hovers like a vapor, deadpan on demand.

The big change in season four, which started a few weeks ago, is that Larry's got a job. After seeing him sing karaoke, Mel Brooks hired him to co-star with Ben Stiller in the Broadway cast of The Producers. That doesn't mean Larry's going to make much of an effort, though. While Stiller rehearses his heart out, Larry balks at having to learn complicated dance routines. "Nobody knows what's going on down there," he complains to the hapless choreographer, gesturing to his feet. The pairing of these two nebbishes— Stiller's persona only slightly less obnoxious than Larry's—is inspired. On first meeting, Larry's refusal to shake hands immediately after Stiller sneezes results in a classic Seinfeldian argument about whether it was a dry sneeze or a wet one.

Sometimes Curb feels like the nastiest TV show ever, and it's hard to see why we still find it funny. Maybe because Larry's need to violate etiquette and say the unsayable appeals to our own sneaking sense that the rules governing social life are silly and hypocritical. One of the best sequences in the current season revolves around Larry's use of the telephone in a doctor's exam room. After he's caught red-handed, an excruciating battle of wills ensues as the doctor chastises Larry for breaking this unwritten rule and Larry obstinately insists, "The rule doesn't make any sense." The doctor replies, "It makes sense to us." Typically, the comedy is pushed beyond the discomfort point, and the scene seems to go on and on. Of course, the doctor he's pissing off is about to insert a hypodermic into his head, but even in this vulnerable situation, Larry can't resist making a not so veiled comment about a "big prick"—and he doesn't mean the needle.

Since this is a comedy, Larry's anti-authoritarian streak and self-centeredness usually get him punished. The plots are structured so that we end up feeling sorry for him as all the moralizers and nitpickers gang up on him yet again. His inflexibility and inability to tell white lies seem faintly heroic. Larry never bends, but he also never learns—just as well, since personal growth often means the death of comedy. (Just look at Frasier after Niles and Daphne got together.) The only way for a series like Curb to develop is to intensify the basic premise, which is why this fourth season has upped the wince factor to genuinely painful levels. Long may Larry David screw up.


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