Waiting forever for the cable repairman, smarting because that guy at work noticed you wore the same outfit two days in a row, raging against a waitress who gives you poor service just because you’re bald – these are but some of the social norm nightmares encountered by Larry David throughout the 10 highly neurotic seasons of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the age of social distancing, however, the trivialities of life routinely foregrounded in every Curb episode might seem like cruel reminders of everything we’ve temporarily lost. After two days of binging the show on HBO Now, I feel quite the opposite. Larry’s social nightmares now strike me as hilarious time capsules of everything we took for granted about day-to-day life.
It all started with a stand-up special.
Well, kind of.
Larry David was a year removed from the divisive end of Seinfeld when he approached HBO about getting his own comeback stand-up special. For 9 mostly beloved seasons, viewers tuned in to the fictional adventures of Jerry Seinfeld completely unaware that his on-screen pal George Costanza was based on Jerry’s real friend/show co-creator Larry David. By 1999, it was high time for Larry to step out from behind the scenes. Small problem: he hadn’t done stand-up in years.
So, to prepare for his comeback Larry performed in various clubs and sought advice from his famous friends, all of which was filmed by a documentary crew. They were the fly on the wall for his gradual realization that this might have been a terrible idea. When the time came to film his special, Larry took one look at the intimidating stage and endless rows of seats and promptly made up an excuse about a sick relative to get out of the whole damn thing. HBO had a comeback special with no star. So, they put out the making-of documentary instead, calling it Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Except, of course, it was all fake, Larry’s “show about nothing” Seinfeld mantra applied to his fictional come back. If you didn’t know that beforehand, though, the ending was a hilarious gut-punch and, as it turns out, a roadmap for Larry’s true second act. He’d partnered with HBO on what was genuinely meant to be a one-time-only mockumentary but both parties emerged with a long-running sitcom and a whole slew of awards. Before they got there, though, they had to drop the whole mockumentary angle. Curb Your Enthusiasm, instead, became a sitcom – as intricately plotted as Seinfeld, but looser and way more profane. As Karmer might say, “They let the expletives fly!”
Larry plays himself as a semi-retired rich white guy in LA with a passive-aggressive wife (Cheryl Hines) and, starting in season 6, a black houseguest (JB Smoove’s scene-stealing Leon) who’s even more uncensored than him. He routinely interacts with his business manager Jeff (Jeff Garlin) and his business manger’s spectacularly hostile wife Susie (Susie Essman). They collectively rub elbows with famous people (Ted Danson, Richard Lewis, to name just two of the many recurring guest stars) and LA eccentrics on a weekly basis, with all of the actors adlibbing their dialogue around a basic story outline given to them by David. (It wasn’t until season 8 that David took on any co-writers.)
When the show premiered, this “they’re making it up as they go along” twist was the big hook everyone talked about, but when you binge the series now, you can see how much better everyone got at it over time, to the point that you don’t even notice the adlibbing in later seasons.
The average episode – as described by critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoler Seitz in TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time – goes something like this:
“The first half of an episode might style Larry as half id-beast, half anti-political correctness crusader. His ire is often so hilarious – never more than when he’s teeing off on some petty annoyance – that viewers’ rational objections disappear before they emerge again when Larry’s horrendous behavior makes them feel vaguely ashamed for identifying with him. You root for him to tear through Los Angeles like a balding, stooped-over tornado, but then he goes too far, then way too far, and then right when Larry threatens to become entirely monstrous he receives his comeuppance.”
When Larry notices his friends avoiding anyone who wears a MAGA hat in public, he buys one and uses it to get out of tough conversations and awkward dinners, but this devious – and ingenious – avoidance technique ends up biting him in the ass.
If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because pictures of Larry in the MAGA hat went viral and taken out of context by people who clearly hadn’t watched the episode. If it doesn’t sound familiar, though, that might be because it’s from the current season, the one that ends this Sunday. Larry has this remarkable deal with HBO granting him a completely open door to do a new season whenever he gets a new idea. As a result, there have only been three new seasons in the last 10 years, each of them separated by at least three years. That’s a big enough gap that a lot of former fans have probably fallen way behind.
Now’s a great time to start from the beginning or catch up. Count me in the latter. I’m still making my way through some of those middle seasons. We can’t go to restaurants anymore, but watching Larry and his famous friends squabble over the tip is vicarious fun you don’t have to think about too much.
Recommended If You like
Cringe comedy and, most obviously, Seinfeld, especially if you always wondered what it would look like on cable without network restrictions.
- Number of Seasons: 10
- Number of Episodes: 99. As of this writing, the 100th episode is due to air this Sunday.
- Availability: All seasons are on HBO NOW. Seasons 1-8 are also on Amazon Prime.
- I Didn’t Know She Was In This: A pre-Big Bang Theory Mayim Bialik appears in three episodes as the lesbian daughter of one of Larry’s friends.
- Don’t Be Confused When…: Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen – playing fictionalized versions of themselves – divorce on the show, opening the window for Ted to eventually date Larry’s ex. It’s just a storyline. IRL, Ted and Mary are still (presumably) happily married. She even cameoed alongside him in the Good Place series finale.
- If I Can Only Watch One Season: Go with season 7. It’s the one where Larry agrees to launch a Seinfeld reunion special just to win his wife back and as a result, features the Seinfeld cast back as themselves, the closest TV we’ll surely ever come to a real reunion.