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Curb Your Enthusiasm at 20: The show that made a schmuck the hero

Louis Chilton celebrates 10 series of Larry David's taboo-breaking comedy masterpiece, which has influenced everything from Extras to Girls, and talks to key contributors, such as JB Smoove, Richard Kind and Richard Lewis, who remembers when David was 'just a lanky a**hole'

Thursday 15 October 2020 19:52 BST
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The ‘Seinfeld’ co-creator plays himself on the improv-heavy show
The ‘Seinfeld’ co-creator plays himself on the improv-heavy show (HBO)

Rarely has the Atlantic Ocean seemed so vast and uncrossable as during the original run of Seinfeld. The hit sitcom created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld was an inescapable cultural force for those in the States; it washed up on our shores as flotsam. The series – a sharp, snarky and infectiously observational sitcom about a stand-up comedian in New York (Seinfeld) and his three maladjusted friends – tapped the artery of the Nineties zeitgeist, spawned a hundred imitators and made a household name of its wisecracking star in the US. Its finale aired in 1998 to more than 75 million viewers – significantly more than the entire population of the UK. But in Britain, you’d have been forgiven for never having heard of it. By the end of its run, episodes had been shunted into a midnight slot on BBC Two, with the final one dribbling out at 11.20pm in October 2002.  

By then, of course, Seinfeld’s stars and creators had already long moved on. Jerry Seinfeld himself would undergo a de facto retirement from the sitcom-making business, pivoting instead to a children’s animated film (Bee Movie) and, later, a talk show (Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee). Seinfeld had brought David immense wealth – the show’s overall earnings are estimated to top $3bn – but not the domestic stardom afforded to Seinfeld, or the sitcom’s other stars, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards. So when it was revealed that David would be fronting his own show, there was no great hullabaloo – here or in the US. But the project, titled Curb Your Enthusiasm, would quickly make itself known.  

Now, as Curb celebrates its 20th anniversary (on Thursday), it sits amid a vastly different TV landscape to that into which it was born. It spawned a number of imitators, good (The Comeback) and not (Lead Balloon; The Paul Reiser Show). Celebrities had parodied themselves before on TV – including in HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, itself an influence on Curb – but David’s sitcom helped popularise the practice, flinging open the floodgates for series like Entourage, Extras and Episodes. Curb’s auteurist bent and verite style was a precursor to shows like Louie; and there’s more than a little Larry David in Hannah Horvath’s self-righteous social dysfunction in Girls. But Curb remains largely the same as it ever was.  

Show about nothing: Jerry Seinfeld, left, and Jason Alexander as George Costanza in sitcom mega-hit ‘Seinfeld’ (NBC)

Back in 1999, a year after Seinfeld ended, HBO aired Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm, a loosely metafictional hour-long comedy in which David, playing himself, approaches HBO about making an hour-long stand-up special. It co-starred US comedian Jeff Garlin, who plays Larry’s manager Jeff, and Cheryl Hines, who portrays Larry’s wife, Cheryl, as well as some of David’s real-life friends. While the plot was pre-written, the special was notable for its dialogue, which was almost entirely improvised. One year and a few tweaks later, this special was adapted into Curb Your Enthusiasm.  

Now a fully-fledged sitcom, Curb saw David, Garlin and Hines return; the series added comedian Susie Essman as Jeff’s monstrously foul-mouthed wife, Susie. In a feature in The Independent around the time of Curb’s first UK airing, Andrew Gumbel wrote that Hines and Essman’s characters “bring the show to another level entirely”. This is certainly true, with both actors taking tired sitcom archetypes – that of the long-suffering and hen-pecking wives, respectively – and imbuing them with nuance and superlative comic chemistry.

Like Seinfeld, Curb flew under the radar in the UK: its first series was aired quietly on the BBC in 2003, in much the same manner as Seinfeld. However, the timing was better. Curb arrived around the time of the Noughties box-set boom – UK viewers were increasingly able to watch US series without capitulating to the rigours of unsociable broadcast schedules. And coming from HBO, the network that also produced The Sopranos, The Wire and Six Feet Under (among others), Curb was increasingly seen as part of a wave of high-quality US imports.

Seinfeld was frequently billed as the “show about nothing” – what did that make Curb? The first episode (“The Pants Tent”) revolved around the slightest of premises: an argument in which a fold in Larry’s trousers is mistaken for an erection. Subsequent episodes would fixate, like Seinfeld, on the minutiae of everyday life, on the myriad unspoken rules and petty injustices that colour our daily lives. But where Seinfeld became known for its relatability, Curb filtered its observations about modern life through the warped, truculent psyche of Larry himself.  

“With Curb Your Enthusiasm, you’re taking a schmuck and making him a hero,” says Richard Kind, who plays Larry’s obnoxious cousin in several of the show’s finest episodes. “And Larry has been a hero. He speaks to those who are tall, or gangly, or bald, or not your typical TV star.”

“I remember a lot of people not liking Curb Your Enthusiasm back when it first started,” says Kind. “They said that Larry gave them angst, and they didn't enjoy him.” It’s a claim I’ve heard repeated by a few of the series’ cast, from Kind to JB Smoove, who plays Larry’s freeloading houseguest Leon. “People love Curb, and people love to hate it,” says Smoove.

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From the get-go, Curb was uninterested in people-pleasing. Unlike Seinfeld, which aired during primetime on censorious network TV, Curb was vulgar, confrontational, and oblivious to taboo. Among the plotlines contained in the first several seasons of Curb: an obituary organised by Larry erroneously eulogises a “beloved aunt” as a “beloved c***”; Larry introduces tennis legend John McEnroe to a coffee table book about circus freaks (“Check out the freaks, Mr McEnroe!”); Larry poses as an incest survivor; Larry hires a prostitute so he can qualify to drive in the car pool lane; Larry steals a bouquet of flowers from a roadside memorial; Larry compliments a business associate on the size of his young son’s penis. Even for the notoriously raunchy HBO, it pushed the limits of what TV could get away with.  

Cheryl Hines won acclaim with her portrayal of Larry’s wife (now ex-) Cheryl on the series (HBO)

Curb owed much of its success to its supporting players, from the late Bob Einstein to Ted Danson, to Shelley Berman, who received an Emmy nomination (one of 47 the show has amassed over its run) for his portrayal of Larry’s father. Many of the recurring characters were friends of David’s in real life, including Richard Lewis, with whom David cut his teeth on the New York comedy circuit. Scenes together often felt like you were watching old acquaintances simply hanging out, chatting about nonsense.

“I was born in the same hospital as Larry, three days apart,” Lewis tells me, explaining the strange kismet of their lifelong relationship. “We went to the same sports camp when we were 12, and I hated him and he hated me. I never wanted to see him again. He was just a lanky a**hole, and he considered me a chubby a**hole. So we never saw each other again until 12 years later when we were comedians in New York starting out.

“He was a big fan of mine, and there was something about his face that scared me. It was like something out of a Polanski movie. I've been sober about 26 years, but back then I wasn't, and I must have put a few back after my set, and I looked at him and said: ‘There's something about you that's horrifying.’ And he gets real nervous about that s***. And we went through our childhoods, and realised we went to the same camp. ‘You're that kid?’ he said. ‘You're Richard Lewis? You son of a bitch!’ He's in denial about it, but I wanted to have a fight.”

In the series, Richard Lewis often plays foil to Larry, bickering and slinging genial (and not-so-genial) insults at his old friend. There is very little difference, says Lewis, between what you see on-screen, and the real deal. “We both aggravate each other to death,” he says. “I mean, I love the guy – I would do anything for him in life, and he would for me, but we just bug each other.

“When I come back home at night after filming, my wife would say, 'how's it going?' And it would really get me upset, I'd say: 'What do you mean how did it go? We went to a Chinese restaurant. Larry was a f***ing idiot. He told me not to eat that food ’cause he wanted it, and maybe it would run out. I go, “What you mean, run out? It's not gonna run out!” After that, we did the scene.’ And my wife asks, 'what was the scene?' It was the same f***ing scene!”

The friend from hell: Richard Lewis has appeared as himself in 39 episodes of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ (HBO)

Beneath their Odd Couple quarrels, though, there is a disarmingly sincere affection. “Larry’s sort of like the [venerable US sitcom writer] Norman Lear of his generation,” says Lewis. “And he's one of the most charitable guys I've ever known.”

Lewis is one of many celebrities to play a version of himself on Curb – this was, at least at first, a necessity. If any celebrities appeared on the show, they would have to play themselves, lest the immersion be broken, insisted David. This issue proved a sticking point, however, when it came to casting the role of Andy, Larry’s gauche cousin.

“Larry David thought I was too famous to be on the show,” says Richard Kind, who, when Curb was still in its infancy, was known in the US for his roles in Mad About You and Spin City. “Everybody who was guesting on the show who was famous went by their own name,” he explains, “except for Ed Asner, because his character dies. Larry didn't want to confuse people and think Ed Asner had died, so he changed Ed Asner's name.” Eventually, Kind won the role, through the strength of his audition. Though he describes himself as “a very overrated improvisor”, Lewis hails him as “one of the most brilliant improvisational guys ever”.

The effortless naturalism that pervades much of Curb – as if the camera had been simply plonked down in front of David while he goes about his daily routine – belies the great amount of craft that goes into its making. This applies to the cast, several of whom earned their improvisational stripes in Chicago’s revered Second City improv troupe, but also to David himself (whom Kind describes as “meticulous”) and the series’ writers and directors, a list which includes Robert B Weide, Larry Charles (Borat), and David Mandel (Veep).

Richard Kind (far left) was initially told he was ‘too famous’ to play the part of Larry’s cousin Andy (HBO)

“So much of the writing and improv is baked into the directing on Curb,” says Mandel. “As the scene is getting crafted, the actors are ad-libbing and the writers are throwing in suggestions, the directing has to take all of that into account.  It’s almost like each take is a live broadcast in a wonderful way – it’s very exhilarating and different from other kinds of directing.”

Mandel recalls a scene from the seventh season episode “Vehicular Fellatio”. “We were doing the scene where Larry is complaining to Susie about the hard plastic shell packaging a gift she bought him came in,” he says. “She says to use a box cutter, and Larry says, ‘Who am I, Mohammed Atta?’ [A reference to one of the Egyptian plane hijackers behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, who hid Stanley knives in their luggage.] I remember as Larry did the line thinking that only Curb and Larry would do this joke… I was very proud and happy.”

In a recent interview, David said: “I can act, write, and edit at the same time. I always know during a scene whether or not what an actor is saying is usable.”

“Larry’s got four heads,” confirms Lewis. “He's got so many heads going at once. He doesn't consider himself a good actor, he always puts himself down, about a lot of things. But he's got many nominations, he's very natural. You believe him when he's talking. And that's the best thing. If you can be believable, you don't have to be Brando or Pacino, you can just be a really good actor.”

As the years went by, Curb Your Enthusiasm grew and changed slightly, with later seasons giving Larry increasingly ambitious story arcs (including one in which Larry and Jerry Seinfeld organise  an in-universe Seinfeld reunion special). One major development was the addition of JB Smoove to the regular cast, playing the crass, unpredictable Leon Black. Leon arrives in the series when Larry takes in Leon’s New Orleans relatives whose home was destroyed by a hurricane (though he is in fact an LA resident enticed by the thought of a free stay in Larry’s house).

“Larry needed another ear, another voice,” says Smoove. “The yin and the yang of it all. On the show, I think what happens is, he gets a chance to peek into a world and a life that he wasn't privy to. I give Larry another lane to play in.

“Whenever we're on camera, I'll always try and tell Larry something that he didn't know about Leon. When we do these scenes, I make a conscious decision of whether I want to have his back, or whether I want to go against him. Whichever one I feel I'll get the most mileage out of. I kind of choose it in the moment, and most of the time, [directors] roll with it.”

By the time of Leon’s arrival in Curb’s sixth season (which aired in 2007), Curb was already a bona fide hit Stateside. Smoove came to the show as a fan; while working on Saturday Night Live, he would rave about David’s show with the other writers. A friend’s memorial service brought Smoove to LA for a day, which somewhat miraculously proved time enough to book and nail his audition for the show.

JB Smoove introduced a brilliant new element to the series when he joined as Leon in season six (HBO)

“Me and Larry just hit it off in the audition,” he says. “The first episode that we shot was the stain-in-the-blanket episode [in which Larry confronts Leon over an ejaculate stain left on his blanket]. After we shot that scene, we were sitting on the side, and Larry said to me: ‘it feels like we've been working together forever’. And it felt the same way for me.”

“Nothing has changed over the years,” says Richard Kind, reflecting on the show’s anniversary, “except for the perception that everybody knows they're on a hit show. That they're on a very successful and very good TV show. Right at the beginning – no, nobody knew. They had no idea it was as good as it was gonna be.”

There were certainly times when Curb’s status as a certified HBO hit – and David’s own burgeoning celebrity – became impossible to ignore. While Curb rarely strayed from its suburban LA locale, the second half of its eighth season took Larry back to New York. For David, it was a hero’s welcome. “We shot all over the city,” says Mandel, “from up in the Bronx to down on the High Line, and wherever we went crowds would gather to see Larry. They yelled to him, they applauded, they gave us food from restaurants. It was like being with the pope.”

Curb may be now showing signs of age, having now been on the air for two decades (albeit with an intermittent production schedule that included a six-year gap between seasons eight and nine). Long gone is the wait for a series to be released on a box set in the UK. Sky now broadcasts new episodes just shortly after their debut; previous seasons are sometimes carried in Sky’s On Demand catalogue. Gone too is the rule about celebrities only playing themselves: Timothy Olyphant, Fred Armisen, Vince Vaughn, Bryan Cranston and Nick Offerman are just some of the well-known faces to have guested recently as characters in the Curb universe. But the show remains true to its original irreverent sensibilities.

Season 10 saw David make light of the #MeToo movement, featuring a plotline in which Larry is accused of sexual harassment by his assistant; one of the season’s funniest gags plays off an exaggerated physical likeness between Garlin and Harvey Weinstein. This is the sort of material that most creators – especially those that look like David – would mishandle. The episode doesn’t come across as particularly reactionary, however, or even necessarily political; as is almost always the case in Curb, the joke is ultimately on Larry.

It has already been confirmed that Larry, TV’s great schmuck-hero, will be returning to screens at least one more time. “Believe me, I’m as upset about this as you are," quipped David in a statement, announcing Curb’s 11th season, set to film in a few months. "One day I can only hope that HBO will come to their senses and grant me the cancellation I so richly deserve.” 

But a person of David’s wealth does not dedicate 20 years of their life to anything they don’t want to do. Make no mistake about it: Curb Your Enthusiasm is a labour of love. By whatever unholy magic, the fruits of that labour remain as sweet and ripe today as they were two decades ago.

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