Ben Thomson

How 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Is a Survival Guide for 2017

"No piece of anti-consumer dissent is as eloquent and comical as Larry ordering at Starbucks: 'I'll have a vanilla… one of the vanilla bullshit things.'"

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Jul 12 2017, 1:42am

Ben Thomson

Larry David, the misanthropic lüftmensch who brought us Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm has turned 70. This seemed reason enough to talk about him, but then on Tuesday the new season of Curb was given a October 1 release date. So obviously it's now crucial we take a long, praise-heavy look at David Larry, and how his seminal masterpiece Curb Your Enthusiasm can guide us through life's various altitudes of bullshit. Because he's the self-help guru that those beyond help truly need: eat, kvetch, loathe.

Furthermore, by understanding the relationship between Larry David and "Larry," we can eek out a multi-step programme for success and survival in these complicated and deeply annoying times.

Critics of David's "philosophy" often state that his detachment and cynicism is only afforded by his sublime wealth; that the character he plays in Curb is one that can afford to gripe and argue because of his ungodly privilege. There is certainly truth in that, and David is not unaware of the brattiness this creates. But in reality he's more of an interloper. David's antagonistic relationship with… well everything… stems from his working class childhood and his long struggle to bust out of the blue-collar job cycle, and "make it" in showbiz. As he says in one Curb episode "I'm not a first class person, I'm coachy!" If NBC hadn't picked up Seinfeld, David claimed he would have gone back to driving cabs and limousines. This and his bucolic Jewishness make his character a drifting folk-hero, who negotiates LA's landscape of WASPs the only way he knows how—by kicking the nest.

David's anarchic attack tactics can be traced back to two bits he performed as a struggling standup in New York's early-80s comedy scene. David's go to joke was: "the one thing I admire about Hitler was that he didn't take any shit from magicians." There are so many interlocking elements in the opening line of that bit—admiring Hitler, self-loathing Jew, magicians sucking—coupled with David's nebbish cadence, that the joke transcends goofy to the profound by way of absurdity in two simple steps. The other stunt David was known for pulling was to walk out on stage, take a look at the audience, say "I don't think so," and then walk off.

David's ego hamstrung him until Seinfeld made him a comic wunderkind, though even then he quit the show over what he now recognises as a minor creative difference—the killing of George's wife, Susan Ross. Prior to that, he was fired after a brief stint at SNL for his insistence that the audience's tastes should rise to his level, rather than him pandering to theirs.

Images by Ben Thomson

But after Seinfeld David was basically free to do whatever he wanted. From the pilot, Curb Your Enthusiasm was an exploration of David's creative anxiety and like Jerry Seinfeld, comedy was his only way of navigating a world that he was otherwise incapable of surviving. David is the Cézanne of the sitcom: distilling it to its threadbare elements, creating an impressionistic haze of recognizable shapes on which he hangs gut punch gags and observations that push the form beyond its limits. Curb scripts were notoriously threadbare, six or so pages sometimes, a smashing out of plot points and punctuations that David and his inimitable cast could riff on like cokeheads.

Curb offers a hyper-reality that David tempts the would be "social assassin" with. Like all great art, it is a deconstruction of the banal and the universal. David offers a language of protest that anyone can apply in their day to day lives. I don't know if there's a moment of anti-consumer dissent as eloquent and comical as Larry David ordering at Starbucks: "I'll have a vanilla… one of the vanilla bullshit things… whatever you want: some vanilla bullshit latte cappa thing, whatever ya got, I don't care."

He can reduce the grandest historical motifs to mid morning quibbles. The Israel/Palestine conflict becomes an ethical dilemma over quality chicken. Osama Bin Laden becomes "Ben Laden" in banter between David and the electric Richard Lewis: "he does sound like a shirtmaker in Manhattan."

Ultimately, Curb Your Enthusiasm is a show which constantly asks "what is a life best lived and how do you live it?" For all his unfiltered awfulness, David's character has his own appealing moral logic. Questions of essential decency boil down to "do you respect wood?" and a lie is appreciated as "a gesture, it's a courtesy, it's a little respect!" Larry turns down sex with a woman he's been lusting after for a season when he discovers she's a Republican. For the first five seasons of the show, Larry's grounding moral center is his wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines). After she leaves him, she's effectively replaced by agent of chaos Leon Black (JB Smoove)—and the the show abandons its well kept system of Larry counterbalances for Larry enablers: "you got to get in that ass Larry…you pull that asshole open, step into that asshole, close the door behind you, take a spray paint can, spray paint 'Larry Was Here'."

Taken in its totality, Curb plays out like a series of rabbinical parables, not always offering answers to life's questions, but lending you the tools to navigate them. David's rules are transplantable, they can pass as mantras: the stop and chat "he wanted a stop and chat with me, and I don't know him well enough for a stop and chat." The uniform ideas of acceptability are either repugnant, tiresome, or ridiculous: when a man at a restaurant is having a loud conversation on a bluetooth headset, David starts up an equally verbose (if imaginary) one, to highlight the essential crumminess of a deeply atomised society. It's a quest for humanity in an increasingly dehumanised world. "I'm trying to elevate small talk, to medium talk," he tells Chris Parnell. Becoming one of the elites was ultimately disillusioning, but now that he's there he might as well kick up a fuss—at least until they (literally) seat him at the kid's table.

These quibbles are trans-generational. This brand of comedy is rooted in universal humanism: it runs from Aristophanes to Twain to Groucho to David who has passed it onto his daughter Cazzie, who's webseries Eighty-Sixed is a millennial continuation of her father's hang-ups. There's a strand of culture jamming protest in David's ethos that our generation could wield to great effect.

Larry David is one of those rare comic minds who can reshape language and form as a way of handing power to the interloper. It may be an illusion, it may be a schtick, but Larry David ­—through his TV persona or George Costanza or his heckling of Trump last year—has offered a mode of dialectical for those that struggle to communicate their frustrations. He offers macro manifestos for micro interactions. It's a means by which we can, to quote Leon, "topsy turvy that motherfucker."

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