David and the comic goliath he created...
With Seinfeld, Larry David changed TV comedy forever... Then he only went and bettered it, writes Ed Power Larry David (left) with the cast of Seinfeld in the special episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm
Published 15/07/2011 | 05:00
As writer and producer of Seinfeld, Larry David helped patent a new brand of humour, one grounded in embarrassment and social unease.
Let's call it the 'comedy of cringe.' Several months after Seinfeld debuted in the summer of 1989, it dawned on David he had a hit on his hands when people began regaling him with humiliating real-world incidents which, they claimed, resembled stories from the show. Somehow he had tapped into the embarrassing ludicrousness of life.
He puts the formula on steroids with Curb Your Enthusiasm. Recently returned for a 10th year in the US -- and currently in repeat on Sky Atlantic -- Curb Your Enthusiasm mixes funny and cruel so adroitly it's difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.
The most recent season was surely the best yet. Playing a misanthropic version of himself, David, a New York Jew still out of water after years in Los Angeles, tries to hatch a Seinfeld reunion in order to woo his wife back. Cue self-parodying cameos from Seinfeld stars Jason Alexander, Julia Louise-Dreyfus and Michael Richards.
Of course, traditional story arcs usually ride in the back seat in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Instead, David squeezes maximum comedic value out of the sort of awkward moments we all have to negotiate daily.
Each 30-minute serving is a Faberge Egg of social humiliation. In one early episode, Larry attracts the ire of a chef with whom he is vaguely friendly after refusing to 'do a stop and chat' on the street.
On another occasion, he discovers the death of his mother is the perfect get-out clause from faintly unpleasant encounters. When he bumps into an acquaintance he's been avoiding, David informs him he can't talk because he's grieving for his mother. It's funny because it's cruel.
With the sort of public profile that makes Kate Bush look like Ke$ha, it is tempting to think David is essentially playing himself.
In those rare interviews he has given he does little to discourage this view. If anything, he rather envies the television Larry David, whom he considers to be far more comfortable in his own skin. "I don't find the character to be cranky or rude," he said in 2010. "I find the character to be honest. And honesty comes off as cranky or rude, I suppose. But that character is way happier than I am. I'm cranky. He's not cranky. I'd be much happier if I were more like him."
On paper, Curb Your Enthusiasm doesn't really do anything that hasn't been attempted already. Seinfeld aside, it clearly operates on the slipstream of The Larry Sanders Show and I'm Alan Partridge, in particular.
Why is Curb Your Enthusiasm better? For one thing it has been able to maintain dizzyingly high standards for nearly a decade (there are only three seasons of Alan Partridge, made several years apart).
Also, the convoluted storylines bring their own joy. If Larry has a run-in with someone in a golf shop at the start of an episode, you know his adversary will later turn out to be a judge / television executive / head waiter. Curb Your Enthusiasm appeals to the part of the viewer that secretly believes that everybody is out to get us.
David's own life story sounds like a treatment for a Woody Allen movie. Raised in Brooklyn he studied at the University of Maryland before taking a job as a travelling bra salesman (a source of many of his early gags). Living in New York he started to make his name as a comedian on the infamously competitive stand-up circuit.
Even as a starving unknown, though, his reputation for misanthropy preceded him. In one notorious incident he shuffled on stage, took one look at the audience and, muttering 'never mind', vanished into the wings.
By the time he and Jerry Seinfeld had struck up a friendship and were pitching their idea for a series, David had formed a highly individualistic idea of how humour should function.
At that juncture, mainstream comedy, the American variety in particular, was horrendously saccharine (try watching a re-run of any sit-com from before 1995 today).
With Seinfeld, the pair imposed on themselves several strict limitations: there would be no pat endings and no mindless moralising. "No hugging, no learning", was how one of the show's directors, Larry Charles, would describe it.
Some 20 years later, he is still abiding by the same ground rules. Considering the times we are living through is it any wonder so many are attracted to David's often despairing idea of what is funny?
Curb Your Enthusiasm may be dark -- but not nearly as dark as real life.