World's funniest men: when Larry met Ricky
The richest comedian on earth hates being in the public eye. But Larry David admires Ricky Gervais so much that he agreed to an interview. Jonathan Margolis reports on what happened when they met
Wednesday 04 January 2006
Ricky loves Larry. And Larry loves Ricky. This much we will learn on Channel 4 tomorrow night when Ricky Gervais is granted a rare interview with Larry David, the creator and writer of the US comedy Seinfeld and latterly star of his own sitcom, Curb Your Enthusiasm.
For those yet to catch up with Curb, as fans call it (it is shown here only on More4, but is a big seller on DVD) it is a quirky, unscripted show set in the LA entertainment industry. In both the US and Britain, the show is cult in the sense that it's not yet watched by many, but is loved passionately by a few, especially comedy gods like Gervais.
Curb bears a marked similarity to The Office in that both David Brent and the fictional Larry David are based not-so-loosely on their creators' real-life peculiarities and foibles. But while the fictional Brent lives and works in Reading, the flesh-and-blood Gervais lives in north London. Conversely, the verité-style Curb stars a 58-year-old Larry David as a bald, bespectacled, gauche and obnoxious 58-year-old New Yorker called, er, Larry David, who works as a comedy writer in LA and is famous for creating Seinfeld.
David's extraordinary act of invading his own privacy belies the fact that, unlike Gervais he is phobic about interviews. "I'm very uncomfortable, and I have absolutely nothing to say," David recently e-mailed to one journalist. When I went to LA recently in pursuit of the real Larry David, I got shorter shrift still.
The publicist for the show said she had "no idea" why it is called Curb Your Enthusiasm, accused me of making a "judgement call" and being "inappropriate" when I said I loved David's idiotic character and hung up when I asked possibly the softest question ever put to a Hollywood PR - "Is Larry like the Larry in the show, or is he a nice guy like I've heard?"
Thus Gervais's very funny Channel 4 interview is no small achievement. "The only reason I'm doing this is because it's in England, so nobody I know will see it," David says at the start. He goes on to say how much he likes the version of Larry David in Curb, with his near-autistic (and often cringe-makingly politically incorrect) ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.
"We all have good thoughts and bad thoughts, but nobody ever expresses the bad thoughts," David tells Gervais. "We just think them and don't say them. But the bad thoughts are funny. I'm such a liar in my life - keeping things to myself, not really telling my true feelings - that I feel like I want to go completely the other way when I have the opportunity."
Gervais, for his part, expresses his admiration for Jewish humour, of which Curb is a brilliant expression, but regrets that he can't think of any such mainspring for his own comedy. "I'm a white, middle-class bloke from England. I get annoyed at people eating too loudly, or a waiter not looking at me immediately. That's all I've got," he says.
This core Jewish element is something that even Gervais doesn't quite get, understandably. I know many comically literate people who love Curb as they did Seinfeld, but, if the truth be told, don't quite know what it is they are laughing at. Seinfeld even went out of its way not to say explicitly that the characters were Jewish. Yet in Curb, the intimate realities of being a middle-aged Jewish man make up at least two-thirds of the fictional Larry David character. Larry Davidism is, indeed, something known only to Jewish men aged 40 and above, a majority of whom identify closely with David.
Every Jewish man I know is regularly accused by his wife, children, parents and dog of being an idiot. There is no culture I can think of with more words for it. All Jewish men are informed at some point that they are a putz, a klutz, a schmuck, a schmendrick, a nebbish and many more colourful, and oddly almost onomatopoeic, terms.
Larry David's klutzism is, naturally, on the extreme side. Mel Brooks, who stars in the final episode of the current series of Curb, describes him as "a storm that will destroy everything in its path". Other characters in Curb (who though unscripted, have their lines approved by David) call him at various times "a cunt", "a four-eyed fuck", "a self-hating Jew", "a bald turd" and "a pool of wrong".
This is a man who, in the series, crashes headlong into tricky situations he confronts daily, trying to ameliorate each with splendidly unnecessary humour. He disgusts everyone around with politically incorrect gags about the disabled, racial minorities, incest, fatal nut allergies and (again and again) the Holocaust. Almost the only subject he hasn't yet mined for material is 11 September - although I'd bet that he has considered it.
Thus does Larry cause a religious war between Christians and Jews at the baptism of his gentile wife's sister's Jewish fiancé. At Christmas, he gobbles down all the edible props in a nativity scene, Jesus- and Mary-shaped biscuits included. "You just ate our Lord and Saviour!" his furious mother-in-law snarls. He, typically, makes things worse remarking he thought the baby Jesus was a monkey.
He is hurled out of a dinner party of black doctors after a misjudged "ironic" racist joke; he spends an entire episode with a pubic hair stuck in his throat having been laughed at by a rapper at a party for not enjoying oral sex; argues with his wife about committing to her for eternity at a wedding vows renewal ceremony (he rather hoped he'd be single again after death); and, as a favour to an ex-girlfriend, attends with her an incest survivors' group, pretending that his uncle interfered with him.
While normal people see in all this a simple, WASP-style idiot, we Jewish klutzes actually sympathise with the screen Larry David. Like him, we are all actually trying to be nice and "affable" (as he calls it), but are hindered by four important factors. The first is that, while schmucks ourselves, we are intolerant of other schmucks. We will unwittingly offend anyone while trying to be affable. But we get frustrated when we see other people doing the same thing.
The second is that we have incredibly bad luck. The third is that we are all thin-skinned and obsessive about trivial detail; we take offence at the merest hint of an insult, even when one isn't meant. The fourth is that we are not blessed with manual dexterity, thus regularly tripping over things and injuring ourselves.
There are other factors, too. At risk of receiving a pile of green-ink letters both from Jews and anti-Semites, we Jewish men are, I would say, prone to be argumentative, controlling, unreasonable, fastidious to the point of having OCD, shabby and shambling (yet obsessed by appearance) paranoid about being ripped off, oversensitive, lacking in grace, vain (yet self-deprecating), rude and cynical. Charm is a completely foreign country to us.
Indeed, when Gervais asks David to define Jewish humour, he says: "There's a lot of complaining, I guess - being dealt a bad hand, the weight of the world upon your shoulders."
So, just like David, we blunder, we bluster, we try to do the right thing, but four times out of five we get it horribly wrong. We're terminally befuddled, confused and forgetful. We try to imagine that all this has to do with some gene that makes us cerebral and analytical rather than physical, but the truth is more like sheer, bumbling incompetence and clumsiness.
This unfortunate (though rarely unfunny) condition doesn't manifest just occasionally for the 40-something Jewish male. On one recent day, I had three authentically David-esque incidents. One of these was during a conversation with Deborah Ross of this newspaper, in which it became apparent that she thought I was Matthew Norman, also of this newspaper. However, just seconds into our exchange, I took a well-meaning - and affable - decision not to correct her.
On the same day, I left a Tesco bag full of loo rolls in Starbucks. When I went back, I thanked the staff profusely for putting it to one side, and on the way out, glanced inside to be sure it was mine. The staff saw me peeping into the bag, whereupon one said, sarcastically: "It's OK, we didn't steal your toilet rolls."
When I got home, a young Polish decorator was there to give us a quote for some painting (God forbid a Jewish male would paint his own bathroom; it would only end in catastrophe). He left a few minutes before I was due to go out again. On my way to the station, though, I saw him on the corner making a call on his mobile. Anxious not to have to fall into conversation with him, I had the ridiculous, spur-of-the-moment idea of dipping behind a wall to avoid him. However, the decorator spotted me dipping. I ended up having to pretend to have some urgent business behind the wall; I made a completely fake phone call of half a minute's duration before walking on with a fake-surprised nod.
My brother, a hotshot BBC newsman as a general rule, managed something even klutzier himself a few weeks earlier. Returning to his car after filling up with petrol, he opened the door and got into the driver's seat, only to find that he was with a wife and family unfamiliar to him. He had not only got into the wrong car, but one of a completely different make to his. He pointed out in his defence that he used to have a car like that. His wife added acidly that this was true, but theirs was a different colour.
None of which is as bad as the Jesus/monkey incident. But even if Ricky Gervais doesn't quite get that part of it, fictional Larry, be assured that we Jewish men of a certain age understand your agony completely.
You must be joking
Larry David: The only reason I'm doing this is because it's in England, so nobody I know will see it.
Ricky Gervais: Right. I was hoping it was because you admired me and my work.
LD: That, too, of course.
RG: The trouble I have with watching Curb Your Enthusiasm is that I agree with everything the Larry character says. Outside that mild, male autism - where it's probably better that he doesn't always say what he's thinking - I think he's right.
LD: That's why I like that Larry so much better than this Larry.
RG: It would be so great to be like him, wouldn't it? The freedom - not being burdened by conscience, not ringing up people and saying: "I'm so sorry..."
LD: He's happy, that guy. We all have the good thoughts and the bad thoughts, but nobody ever expresses the bad thoughts. We just think them and don't say them. But the bad thoughts are funny. I'm such a liar in my life - keeping things to myself, not really telling my true feelings - that I feel like I want to go completely the other way when I have the opportunity.
RG: I think comedy has to be recognition, but it's pointless to do comedy to a roomful of people that could think of it themselves. If you're saying what everyone's thinking, you're not doing anything.
LD: I want to do things nobody else can think of.
RG: After Seinfeld, you don't have to work again. What drives you?
LD: You gotta get out of the house. My mother always said: "You need a place to go."
'Ricky Gervais meets Larry David' is on Channel 4 at 10pm tomorrow
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