After a two-year hiatus, HBO announced yesterday that Larry David, former Seinfeld cocreator and current Bernie Sanders impersonator, will be producing a new season of his meta masterpiece, Curb Your Enthusiasm [insert tuba sound]. This will be the ninth season of the series, which follows David through work and life in Hollywood as he negotiates daily social disasters — most of which he has no one to blame for but himself. Though details on the new season are sparse, looking back at what David has created might be the best way to look forward. When asked yesterday about what he’s done on his hiatus from the series, David commented, “In the immortal words of Julius Caesar, ‘I left, I did nothing, I returned’” — and this would not be the first time he’s played at the classics. Each episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm unfolds with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy — maybe more than any television showrunner, Larry David’s comedy is dependent on the cruel mistress of fate.
“Peak TV” has become increasingly associated with serial TV, but the pocket farces offered in each episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm stand out as evidence of the creative possibilities offered in short-form storytelling. While there are extended narratives, like Larry’s multi-season marital collapse or the spectacular Seinfeld reunion, the serial elements of the story usually function as a thread on which to hang the individual and self-contained story of the week. There are two basic setups for most episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm: Larry wants something, Larry fucks someone over to get the thing he wants, Larry gets fucked. And if that’s not it, it’s usually its mirror opposite: Larry doesn’t want something, he fucks someone over trying to get out of it, and then Larry gets fucked. Either way, the object of Larry’s momentary fixation is ultimately trivial — he wants a doll, he wants to get to a baseball game on time, he wants his assistant to cover up her belly button — but his maneuvering is as elaborate as the supposed problem is simple. He lies, he cheats, he squirms, he stereotypes, he debases himself, he has no pride and then too much pride. When he tries to relax at a basketball game, he sends Shaq to the hospital. When he tries to express his dismay at a stranger’s intolerance, he’s mistaken for a racist. When he tries to be generous, he winds up confessing a fake history of sexual abuse that inevitably comes back to haunt his wife’s career. As a chance to witness the worst possible outcome of every possible choice — regardless of whether that choice was made in good faith or bad — Curb Your Enthusiasm is a pessimist’s paradise.
Casting yourself as the star of your own comedy world is a tradition as old as Chaplin and Keaton — or maybe more relevantly, David’s ancestor in comic dickishness, W.C. Fields. The current trend of comic self-starters tends toward self-awareness and self-criticism, but unlike Larry David, most comedians who play variations on themselves are just as likely to play their faults for pathos or ambiguity as they are for laughs. Louis CK keeps some of the meta self-reflexiveness of David’s comedy, but Louie maintains a bittersweet tone, inviting your identification in moments when Louie comes up short and your confusion in moments when he oversteps his boundaries. Lena Dunham buries her characters in fiction, removing herself from her character’s actions enough to introduce a kind of critical distance between Dunham as a person and Hannah Horvath as a fictional creation. Amy Schumer uses the sketch nature of her show to introduce variety into her mostly vitriolic persona. Sometimes she’s a bitch who has let fame go to her head, sometimes she’s passive and pathetic, sometimes she’s a basically normal person. And if things get too intense, the non-narrative nature of Inside Amy Schumer makes it possible for her to break the fourth wall — it’s OK, America, she only acts this way when she knows we’re watching.
Comedians who don’t follow David’s up-front-and-personal style are only human to try to avoid direct association with any potentially reprehensible actions they take on-screen. But deflection creates a different relationship with the audience — we’re guided to care about the perspectives of these performers even as they manipulate us, even as they film themselves doing things we might not do. The modern comic tendency to use humor to make morally and emotionally complex material palatable has made television comedy as intellectually exhausting as it is artistically rich.
By contrast, watching Larry David is blissfully uncomplicated. Because David presents his failings of circumstance as the direct results of his failings of character, you laugh at Larry, not with him. David doesn’t get fancy trying to disavow you of all bad feelings about his life offscreen — instead, his saving grace is that he has created the character Larry David to be a dick whose dickishness inevitably foils the very plans he had hoped that dickishness would enable him to achieve. David’s disregard for flattery is flattering, and his seemingly infinite ability to find the mercenary pettiness he sees in himself in other people makes the show a democracy of bad behavior. After all, how can you be mad at a bad hustler when the rest of the world is filled with good hustlers? The return of Curb Your Enthusiasm comes at a relief in the current comedy climate, because you can count on Larry David to look up from his navel long enough to shoot straight. Everyone is awful — isn’t it funny?