HBO // 2000 // 280 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // February 11th, 2004
"I'm beginning to sense a whole wave of antipathy. A big wave of antipathy. And now, there'll be millions of people joining in on that wave." -- Larry David
Welcome to Larry David's world. Welcome to Larry's whining, his social gaffes, and his incessant apologies. Welcome to his bizarre fights with friends like Richard Lewis and Ted Danson. Welcome to the excesses of his wife (Cheryl Hines) and manager (Jeff Garlin).
On second thought, run like hell.
Okay, I have a confession to make, one that will probably make Larry David twitch with anxiety. I never much cared for Seinfeld. That show's attempts to turn a group of passive-aggressive egotists into comic heroes never seemed, to me at least, as funny as it thought it was. The only moment when I thought that the series transgressed its own mean-spirited tropes was in its finale, when the narcissistic television Jerry Seinfeld and his gang finally got their comeuppance. I thought, now I understand what the show was all about, and the real Seinfeld has cleverly duped everyone all along. These clowns are not the heroes, but they do not know it.
That finale was written by Jerry Seinfeld's partner-in-crime Larry David, who co-created the series. The following year, Larry ventured out on his own, in front of the camera, for an innovative HBO special. Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm was a brilliant mockumentary that purported to follow Larry as he prepared for a stand-up comedy comeback. Friends like Richard Lewis and the Seinfeld cast offer soundbites through the hour-long show. We also see Larry's wife, Cheryl, and his manager, Jeff, get exasperated as Larry gripes through meetings with HBO executives, offends friends and co-workers, and works little comedy clubs to hone his material. You can hear how the Seinfeld characters (especially George Costanza) borrowed from Larry's comic rhythms, even though his humor is not observational like his pal Jerry's.
But here is the kicker: the special is a fake. Larry's wife is played by an actress, Cheryl Hines. His manager is played by Jeff Garlin. The various scenes are actually improvisational sketches, with the performers working from a brief plot outline and creating their dialogue on the fly. And so the stumbling, overlapping nature of the conversations, the wild reactions, the comedy itself, is all part of an inspired prank.
While you can see echoes of the HBO special's take on life for a stand-up comic in Jerry Seinfeld's underrated 2002 feature Comedian, Larry David had other plans. Dropping the documentary pretense (and the kids, who are only mentioned in passing in the special and never appear on camera), the television series of Curb Your Enthusiasm follows the misadventures of Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld, as played by Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld.
Now, do not pretend to be confused. After all, Ozzie and Harriet pretty much played themselves on television, and millions of television viewers assumed that Lucille Ball and Lucy Ricardo were the same person, in spite of the fact that the real Lucy was a seasoned perfectionist and no bubblehead at all. And of course, Jerry Seinfeld played comedian Jerry Seinfeld for nine years. So accepting some alternate universe where Larry is married to a woman named Cheryl instead of Laurie and has no kids instead of two -- well, just deal with it. After all, Larry does.
Although he does not always deal with it gracefully. This alternate Larry David is like a West Coast Woody Allen, milking his neurotic, self-loathing shtick to extremes. This Larry is an insensitive, stumbling, selfish curmudgeon. In Seinfeld's New York, such tendencies would have been survival traits, but in the Los Angeles of Curb Your Enthusiasm, politeness is a commodity. Everyone expects to get paid for their politeness, from the salesman who backorders your shoes to the lawyer who bills you for reading your script without being asked. "I am the master of supplication," Larry muses, having to constantly pay off his mistakes in cash and apologies. Lots and lots of apologies. And sometimes, because he is not very good at sincerity, he often has to apologize for his apologizing.
This may make Larry sound like a one-note character, but one of the reasons for the success of Curb is that the improvisational technique (overlapping dialogue, handheld cameras) keeps everyone on the set generating new ideas on a constant basis. Bad improvisation can result in the same stock answers and rhythms for every comic situation. Curb, however, is an exercise in chaos theory. Small incidents spiral into bizarre conversational tangents or wild plot complications. There are more misunderstandings in any given episode than in an entire season of Three's Company. Take the premier episode, for example: Larry complains about his pants bunching up, a little piece of "nothing" that Seinfeld viewers would find familiar. The pants make Larry very self-conscious, which becomes more complicated when he meets the ill-tempered date of best friend Richard Lewis, and she accuses him of insulting her and staring at her breasts. And this anxiety is further complicated by a friend of Cheryl who mistakes Larry's bunching pants for an erection and takes credit for it. And everything spins completely out of control.
Throughout the 10 episodes of the first season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry and company use these basic plot situations to improvise their way through some hysterical dialogue. Indeed, the show is at its best when it simply puts characters in a room and lets them inadvertently insult each other, try to soothe their bruised egos, and end up insulting each other even more. For instance, in the third episode, Larry and Cheryl get accidentally invited to a dinner party at the home of a former porn actor (Bob Odenkirk). Listening to Larry and Cheryl try to make conversation while lost on the road is funny enough, but the dialogue at the party itself is sublime in both its complete believability and its complete absurdity. Plus, you will learn a disturbing new use for Tabasco sauce.
When the show fills out its time with actual plot, like in the fourth episode, where Larry and Richard Lewis follow a tortuous path to buy a bracelet so Larry can apologize (what else?) to Cheryl for his latest mistake, things tend to fall into predictable sitcom form. That episode is really saved by a wonderful sequence in which Larry and Richard help a blind man decorate his apartment that proves what I said earlier about the trap of politeness in this series.
Curb Your Enthusiasm works so well because of its incredible cast. Cheryl Hines at first seems to be another patient sitcom spouse in the tradition of Alice Kramden or Marge Simpson (and including Ricky Ricardo), who balances the manic protagonist with practicality. But Cheryl has a bit of a temper and often only barely tolerates Larry's exasperating antics. Jeff Garlin would be the dimwitted sidekick on any other show, but manager Jeff Greene comes across as a man of many appetites, from the clueless mistress in the original 1999 special (whom Larry gets caught walking with, and whose identity he must explain to Cheryl without giving away Jeff's secret) to his pristine '57 Chevy (which of course Larry damages, then must placate a touchy mechanic to get fixed). A host of talented guest stars also manage to generate chaos for Larry. Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen hang out with Cheryl and Larry in the second episode. But when Larry gets a crush on Mary, the resulting mess is almost as uncomfortable as the time Danson wore blackface while dating Whoopi Goldberg. A good number of guest stars learned their improvisational skills apprenticing with The Second City: Bob Odenkirk, Nia Vardalos, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Sometimes they play characters; sometimes they play themselves. But they always seem to end up in some sort of argument with Larry by the end of any given episode. Is there anybody left in Los Angeles whom he has not pissed off yet?
In Larry's favor, sometimes the trouble is not entirely his fault. The highlight of the first season is the eighth episode, in which he gets blamed for an extremely rude typo in a newspaper death notice he wrote for Cheryl's aunt (while having to explain that he did not intend to fondle Jeff's mother). The situation is so funny mostly because it borders on the offensive. Indeed, the last few episodes of the first season show that Larry David trusts his improvisational ensemble enough to move into risky comic territory. The ninth episode asks whether Larry is a racist, and where other sitcoms might resoundingly clear his name at the end of the half hour, Curb is deliberately ambiguous. In the season finale, Larry gets caught at an incest survivor's group and must invent a trauma in order to fit in. Joking about incest? On any other show, this would clear the room. But on Curb, the comedy is driven by character and not punchlines, which are rare. Real conversations frequently do not have prescripted punchlines, and can still be surprising and fresh. Have you ever had a funny conversation with a friend that you could not explain to anyone else because it did not boil down to soundbites? Beyond the improvisational gimmick, Curb Your Enthusiasm is the funniest sitcom currently on the air because it feels the most like real life.
And just in case you forget that this is not real life, the two-disc DVD set of the first season of Curb comes with a commentary track for the first episode. Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, and executive producer Robert Weide have great chemistry as they tease one another about their improvisations (especially Larry's fake phone conversations). It would have been great to hear even more from these guys. HBO Video also includes a half-hour interview with Larry David conducted by Bob Costas. The real Larry is a bit more affable than his television counterpart, as he explains the process of developing the show, from plot outlines to overtaping and multiple takes in order to get the best performances from the cast. Hey, why not show us some outtakes, Larry?
From the original HBO special (also included on this disc) through the 10 episodes of this first season, Curb Your Enthusiasm proved right out of the gate to be one of the cleverest sitcoms ever caught on film. I find the sitcom format generally tedious, and I could easily name on one hand the number of sitcoms I could watch more than a single episode of. But I found myself wanting to see more of Curb Your Enthusiasm. For all the wealth and success Larry David has had in the past with Seinfeld, I wish for a longer and healthier life for Curb Your Enthusiasm, a more clever and complex series that earns every laugh it gets. And that, I am not sorry for.
HBO is ordered to apologize to this court for failing to offer more extras on this set. Larry David is forced to apologize -- well, just because he must have done something wrong here. He always does.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 280 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm HBO Special
* Commentary Track by Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, and Robert Weide
* Larry David Interview
* Curb Fansite