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Enthusiasms not curbed enough: The return of Larry David

BY David Waywell   /  6 December 2017

After a five year wait, Series Nine of Curb Your Enthusiasm arrived on the back of a clever media campaign that portrayed Larry David as a modern-day comedy Caesar. It leaves us with the suspicion that the Emperor’s enthusiasms weren’t quite curbed enough.

It’s not that the latest fictionalised version of Larry David’s life didn’t give us what we’d come to expect. There were all the usual deliberate provocations and probing of cultural taboos. Larry was still “Larry”. What was missing, however, was that quality that always made Curb such a difficult show to sell to friends and family. Curb used to define a negative space of comedy: it was about doing things and exploring ideas that would not usually find a home in mainstream American comedy. It was about as far from Seinfeld (the show that made David’s fortune) as comedy could get. There were neither laughter tracks nor witty one-liners. It was TV that didn’t play that celebrity game that always presents us with the best face of Hollywood. Beginning with Larry but involving an ever-expanding cast of well-known faces, Curb gave us the ugly, profane, selfish, and self-dealing side of the television industry. This was the Dark Universe of TV Comedy, in which the mild and inoffensive stars played caustic and troubled versions of themselves.

Larry, himself, was misanthropic to a degree that hadn’t really been seen on US TV before. There had, of course, been comedy grouches – such as Alf Garnett who America turned into Archie Bunker – but never, perhaps, was there such a naturalistic form of comic misanthropy; unpleasantness as a valid way of living rather than a means to a comedic end. Even Garry Shandling’s seminal The Larry Sanders Show never went as dark as Curb quite as often. Yet the real key to Larry David’s success was that his difficult fictional personality was always rooted in something that was essentially good. He possessed an ultra logic that ensured he could never function in polite society. He would question life’s strange rituals and our objectively ridiculous behaviour. His great “flaw” was his honesty which made for uncomfortable viewing because it exploited that deep rationality we all keep buried in the face of custom.

Series Nine began in the same vein but after the wonderfully uncomfortable first episode, in which David explored the sexual politics of holding a door open, the second episode, “The Pickle Gambit”, suggested that this might be a series played for the easy laughs. Perhaps David simply had too many good ideas waiting to be turned into the traditional spasms of TV comedy but the series developed a more overtly comic edge. Larry’s attempt to help Marty Funkhouser’s nephew find sexual release ended with a moment of high farce with a cast of characters (some unclothed) were seen running around his house whilst Larry attempted to hold a Skype conversation with an Iranian religious conservative. It was a set-up and pay-off that wouldn’t have been out of place in a play by Alan Rix.

It became the series’ familiar trick by which David routinely abandoned his trademark low key comedy for high jinks. Episode 5, “Thank You for Your Service”, should have been ripe territory as David explored the convention in the US of civilians thanking soldiers for their service. It’s the kind of informal formality that David is so good at exploiting. When Larry takes Suzie and Jeff’s future son-in-law (a former solider) to a Civil War re-enactment, the episode fell apart in a nonsensical cannonade as a slighted golf-club gatekeeper started to fire real ordinance at Larry. This might have been excusable if David had then developed it to darker ends. It is, after all, the typical Curb universe in which a soldier can remain unscathed by war but develops PTSD in Larry’s company. Yet it missed the bitter edge that in earlier series would have injected more pain into Jeff and Suzie’s relationships with Larry. Here it was treated in a throwaway manner, for a cheap laugh.

The greatest failing might well have been the storyline running through the series. When boasting about his new musical, “Fatwa”, based around the life of Salmon Rushdie, David was always going for a cheap laugh rather than making a political point. It allowed Larry to adopt a comic disguise but it lacked any political underpinning until we see it brought to life in the final two episodes, which were the series highlights thanks to the arrival of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Like all of Larry’s best foils (Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer, Michael J. Fox), Miranda plays a deeply flawed version of himself. This, of course, revisits the set-up of Series Four, when Larry starred in The Producers. Here, though, it was Larry producing with Miranda and woefully underused F. Murray Abraham providing the on-stage talent.

Yet, even here, as throughout the series, the old world was barely glimpsed. Suzie was loud but her apocalyptic mouth didn’t achieve the heights of profanity we’d previously enjoyed. The excellent J.B. Smoove as Leon Black was present but too comfortable in his roles as Larry’s house guest. The antagonisms that made the earlier series were also largely missing. It was only Marty Funkhouser’s new girlfriend, Marilyn (Elizabeth Perkins), that provided that deep-seated hostility for a couple of episodes, plus a strange bit of business involving a house plant and a previous occupant that only seemed to exist to give Larry a reason to appear on Judge Judy. Ted Danson, meanwhile, played the fictional Ted Danson, now dating Cheryl (herself underused since her divorce from Larry in Series 6). In many respects, Danson has been one of the real unacknowledged stars of Curb, bringing a lightness to the role of Larry’s nemesis. Instead, he was as peripheral as the wonderfully morose Richard Lewis who was also underused as Larry’s oldest and most frustrated friend.

The final shot of the series was in many ways the most telling, with Larry running away, pursued by a religious fanatic, whilst an iris shot, so beloved by slapstick comedians, closes around him. Larry David has become Benny Hill, complete with jokes about busty women and sexually inadequate men dropping their trousers. That’s not to say that the series was a failure. It was still better than nearly any comedy series out there. It just felt like David had made the series for the mainstream that took so long to find him rather than those of us who were with him from the beginning and prefer it when he is less overtly “comic”.

He leaves me wanting more in the hope he can find his inner darkness again but, in truth, the feeling is so very different to how I felt at the end of Series Eight, when Larry and Leon fled to Paris after offending the whole of New York after being perceived to have mocked Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease. This felt like Curb Your Enthusiasm made by a man who enjoying the success and acclaim he’s received, guest hosting SNL and routinely feted as one of the world’s best. The result was a different kind of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which, lacking the awareness of life’s cruel meaningless, was simply not as funny.