Honoring the ‘Seinfeld’ co-ccreator and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ star on his birthday, July 2, with a deep dive into what makes the humor of comedian Larry David so special.
When Susie Elman, comedian Larry David’s longtime costar on Curb Your Enthusiasm, told Rolling Stone about David’s early stand-up days, she recalled, “His material was just brilliant, as you can imagine. But there were also nights when he would just walk onstage, look at the audience and be like, ‘Nuh-uh, I don’t think so,’ and just walk off. Nobody did that!”
Few anecdotes capture the essence of Larry David’s genius better than that. The main point to highlight? “Nobody did that!” Larry David lives by that motto in his role as writer/creator of Curb and Seinfeld. He isn’t interested in writing the same old cookie-cutter comedy; Larry David, celebrating his 71st birthday on July 2, would rather revel in breaking convention with relatable gripes that have us both admiring and feeling sorry for his characters.
Take “The Contest,” the groundbreaking 1992 Seinfeld episode where Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer vied to see who could go the longest without masturbating. This type of story, written by David, just wasn’t done on network television, and he knew that. TV audiences were used to the palatable humor of Friends and the simplistic story lines of Cheers; rarely did a series even mention self-pleasure before 10:00 p.m., let alone focus 25 minutes around the many ways Seinfeld’s neurotic characters try to avoid losing to the others.
Neither did anybody write TV episodes about getting lost in parking garages, buying big salads, avoiding hello kisses, how “coming up for coffee” is a euphemism for sex, or what a PEZ dispenser can do to shatter a relationship. All those episodes, written by David, were threaded with a key strategy: Make the story strong, and the jokes will come later.
Where David has long excelled, which his fans also enjoyed in his post-Seinfeld series Curb, is knowing exactly where he wants the plot to go. Even if moments on Curb seem improvised, the show’s structure is solid, right from that initial script. It’s a skill David honed on Seinfeld.
When Alec Berg, a writer on Seinfeld, showed David one of his first scripts, he told reporters David flipped through all the one-liners and slapstick comedy to get right to the heart of it all: Was the story the best it could be?
Berg elaborated: “If you go back to your favorite Seinfeld episodes, they’re all the one where this happens, or the one where that happens. The ‘what happens’ is the comedy, as opposed to it’s a straight story with comedy put on top.”
Put another way: Seinfeld wasn’t really a show about nothing. It was anchored heavily on a sturdy story backbone in order to give the characters latitude to let their freak flags fly. While David flaunted his hand-wringing anxiety in his scripts, it served as a ploy to reveal weightier lessons on someone’s own motivations, be they petty or noble.
There must be something so confidently steady about being part of a Larry David production. I even saw this in a film sorely missing from online conversations on David’s writing skills: Clear History, written and starring David, told the story of an inventor whose million-dollar idea is stolen by a rival and the revenge tale spirals into absurd entertainment. While it has shades of a lengthier Curb episode, Clear History boasts the tight pacing and deep character builds that should’ve elevated this film to a cult classic.
Larry David is a winner of an Emmy Award and two Writers Guild of America Awards, but it can be misguided to look at a comic’s awards mantel to reflect on their legacy. Beyond those accolades, what David has contributed to the world of comedy can’t be quantified easily. He has given us an oddball guide to the minutiae that can frustrate or invigorate us. In early seasons of Curb, we related to David refusing to give out Halloween treats to un-costumed kids. We saw ourselves in David accusing a nursing home resident of a Bingo fix — OK, maybe that was a bit of a stretch.
But the stretch is part of what Elman said about David’s daring ideas. To go boldly where few writers and showrunners have gone cements his legacy as one of the smartest risqué writers of the 21st century.
A tight Curb or Seinfeld episode will have you not only LOL-ing nonstop but also appreciating how the plot wraps itself neatly by the credits. David isn’t a fan of loose ends; he prefers the last act to either embroil his characters even further into their self-made disasters or absolve them of their sins by unveiling their humanity.
While many of us saw Kramer as a weirdo slacker, a closer reading shows David’s deft control of where we placed our sympathies. Kramer charmed us, even if we disagreed with so many of his life choices (the Manzier? Really?). We ended up feeling close to the pains he suffered, such as his sandpaper relationship with his mother. We felt that same kinship with George, too, whenever he had to battle his overbearing parents.
Then there’s comedian Larry David’s pitch-perfect impersonation of Bernie Sanders, made popular on Saturday Night Live. A master of slipping into the skin of another while also holding a mirror up to ourselves with his writing? Few Hollywood types can claim such a title, but David does it with the ease of someone who doesn’t need public praise to do fulfilling work. It’s just another day at the office.
His funny-bone genes are even giving the next generation his trademark acerbic humor. His daughter Cazzie David launched her web series Eighty-Six’d two years ago, and it mirrors the eye for detail popping up in Curb time and again. It’s as if Cazzie saw her father’s genius for what it was: a focused method of making sense of this chaotic and often frustrating world.
Because David lives by the philosophy of doing what he wants when he wants, we might see another gap between seasons of Curb, much as we did in the 2010s. Or we might be bereft of any more impressions of Sanders, even if Bernie makes another run for president. But that’s the tradeoff when you invest in the roller coaster life of Larry David: You have to enjoy the peaks with the valleys, even if the dead zones between great work force you to sate your thirst with Seinfeld reruns and YouTube highlight reels.
David once said, “If you tell the truth about what you’re feeling, it becomes funny.” Thanks to his love of oversharing practically everything he feels about today’s world, we’ve been peeking into his buzzing brain for more than three decades, laughing with him, laughing at him and, most importantly, learning about the human condition along the way.
Follow Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm on social media: Facebook @curbyourenthusiasm.