Kochavim / Stargazing

Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2001 /7 Mar-Cheshvan Teves, 5762

Catherine Seipp

This Larry David show is about something --- "Larry David"

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- LARRY DAVID is notoriously prickly. Still, at the HBO press conference for "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the series starring comedy writer Larry David as comedy writer Larry David, he made a game effort to be brightly quotable. "I might be the first bald man to actually be starring in a television comedy since Phil Silvers," David began. Charles Dutton! the audience fired back. James Coco! Michael Chiklis! Herschel Bernardi! "All right, so it's not," sighed David, who visibly found the whole situation barely endurable. "OK." Someone asked what the new show was about, since "Seinfeld," which David co-created, was famously about nothing.

"I would describe it as a show about Larry David," David responded, "which is pretty close to nothing as it is."

"Seinfeld" was also tacitly about a Jew's-eye view of life, and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (the new, second season premiered Sept. 23) ramps that up several notches. David's constant, silent scream about other people and their infuriating ways (always at a seething roil on "Seinfeld") erupts each episode into personal disasters of surreal proportions.

These can be roughly divided into two types. Appalling encounters with other Jews, such as David's porn-addict manager and the manager's meddling, straight-out-of-Portnoy parents, are annoying but routine, like Tevye's quarrels with fellow villagers. (The Pacific Palisades/Brentwood/Santa Monica borders of a successful Hollywood writer's world can be as insular and provincial as a Sholom Aleicham shtetl.) But in these cases, David actually sometimes gets the last laugh. An infuriated neighbor berates David for whistling a Wagner tune outside a movie theater ("You wanna know what you are? You're a self-loathing Jew!"); David hires an orchestra to play Wagner on the man's front lawn in the middle of the night.

"I do hate myself," David protests angrily, "but it has nothing to do with being Jewish, OK?"

Appalling encounters with gentiles, on the other hand, are excrutiating moments of mutual misunderstanding. In one episode, David meets a charity donor named John Tyler, a pale, humorless guy who's driven up from Fullerton (a particularly bland Southern California suburb) to claim his auctioned lunch-with-the-celebrity. The scene is basically an object lesson of the mutual irritation that can happen when a mile-a-minute Jewish brain encounters an I-don't-get-it gentile from Squaresville, U.S.A.

"John Tyler!" David exclaims. "Like the president. President Tyler. Shall I call you Mr. President? Tippecanoe and Tyler too. You know what Tippecanoe was? You don't know? If I were named after a president, I'd know everything about the president...I'm related to King David."

"Really?" says Tyler, looking blankly nervous.

"Yes. So, a president and a king, at the same table."

"It's a family name, really," says Tyler.

"I feel aggravated that I am missing what other people are getting," he erupts in exasperation to his wife in a recent episode, explaining why a day at the beach for him is just a tedious purgatory of heat and schlepping. "Jews buy 85% of all sunblock," he theorizes, slathering some on. "I have never seen a gentile ask for, or put on, sunblock."

But it's David's additional burden to constantly get what other people miss. Only he would have the misfortune to also encounter at the beach (along the the sun and the ennui) the horrific sight of his dignified, gray-haired therapist wearing nothing but a thong.

On "Curb Your Enthusiam," David plays himself, without benefit of a room full of comedy writers, in an improvised half-hour slice of pseudo cinema verite. "I just thought this could be a lot fresher and more spontaneous and unusual," David says, over coffee at HBO headquarters. "Also," joked supervising producer Robert Weide at the press conference, "Larry can't be in a room with more than two other people at the same time, so that sort of nixed the whole idea of a staff of writers."

As it happens, some of the still discussed mysteries of "Seinfeld" - why were three of that extremely Jewish quarter of characters supposedly gentile? --- evolved from casual, almost improvisational whims rather than careful consideration. Take George Costanza's Italian last name. "We didn't have any idea we were doing a show!" David says. "We were doing a pilot, and Jerry knew a guy named Costanza, and it was, oh, we'll call him Costanza."

So then why were the princessy Elaine and Kramer not Jewish either? "Elaine wasn't Jewish," David says thoughtfully. "I knew she was from Maryland, and at least in my head she wasn't Jewish. Costanza's half-Jewish. And Kramer ... hmm ... so maybe he wasn't a Jew? He said he wasn't Jewish -- that was in the show? I wasn't there [at that point.]"

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" addressed the Jewish issue early in the first season, when David's wife organized a dinner party that, naturally, he did not enjoy. "The next time you have one of these things, I want some Jews here," the on-screen David complains to his wife, played by actress Cheryl Hines and called Cheryl on the show. (David's real wife is a former David Letterman talent coordinator named Laurie.)

Still, David has mellowed since his bitter, lonely guy period. Now 54, he's a family man with two daughters, ages seven and five. Also, these days David lives in a moneyed beach enclave of Los Angeles, a far cry from his grueling stand-up days in New York.

"Just leaving your house and taking any mode of transportation will be irritating in New York," David notes. But even in L.A. there's the possibility of transportation disaster. In the Sept. 23 episode, David plays cowboys-and-Indians with some kids in another car only to be screamed at by their father, a seven-foot-tall blond wrestler named Thor. "Don't you ever point your finger at my kids again," yells Thor, a terrifying combination of violence-prone white trash and Aryan godhood. "I will body-slam you so hard that you will poop your bald pants!"

A shorthand way of describing "Curb Your Enthusiasm" might be as "Seinfeld" with an older, married George Costanza in the lead, and a running joke this season is David's hurt reaction at the notion of George as pathetic fool. Jason Alexander's agent confides to David that his client is having trouble getting work because he's so closely identified with his "Seinfeld" character. That's really a shame, the agent adds (here the camera zooms in on David's appalled face), "'cause Jason's brilliant and George was an idiot."

"I don't see him as a yutz, a schmuck and idiot!" David yells defensively at Alexander later, about some of George's memorable "Seinfeld" misadventures. "I wentto a girl's house and stole a tape out of an answering machine. I ateout of the garbage!"

"Seinfeld," which has garnered David an estimated $100 million, was one of the biggest hits in the history of television. But David doesn't miss the constant iterference from network executives intent on reaching as wide a broadcast audience as possible. He certainly doesn't need the money.

"Right now, and I don't say this often, I'm very pleased with what I'm doing," he says. So does he hope for another third 10-episode order from HBO or not? "I'm fine either way," he says. "It's one of the few times I'm in a win-win situation." Of course, he could always go back to stand-up, a notion that generated the orignal "Curb Your Enthusiasm" fake documentary, which pretended to follow David around as he prepared for an HBO stand-up special.

The last time David really did stand-up was in 1989, just before the "Seinfeld" pilot. In those days he was notorious for throwing the mike down and stalking off the stage when audiences were too dim to get his jokes. But his swan song, for some reason, went well. "So I left with a good taste in my mouth," David notes. "One of the few times in my life."

Catherine Seipp is a Los Angeles-based journalist. To comment, click here.


© 2001, Catherine Seipp. This article first appearted in the Forward.