Dear Larry David,
I feel bad about this. But think of it as a well-intentioned intervention. The new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm—a show that I’d begun to like—has gone wrong, and your “people” may be afraid to tell you. Gone so bad I’ve had to invent a new phrase for “jumped the shark” especially for you: not “jumped the curb,” but “jumped the whitefish.” (I’ll explain further in a moment.)
As longtime readers of this column know, Larry, I was one of the few writers in America to dissent (repeatedly) from the slavish approbation lavished on Seinfeld, your co-creation with the many-Porsche’d Jerry S.
O.K., I’ll admit it: I was a little mean about Seinfeld at times. I probably overused the phrases “smug and insipid” and “smarmy and self-congratulatory” a bit too often (in a good natured way, of course). And I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings—nothing personal—although I’d heard back from two writers who interviewed you, that you would bitterly quote verbatim from my anti-Seinfeld screeds (remember the membership-application coupon I published for the “Can’t Stand Seinfeld Society”? Many joined! I wasn’t alone!). And yes, I accepted an invitation to appear on the Today show to dissent from the media’s worshipful advance hype for the pitiful final Seinfeld episode.
Then things changed. I was one of the few people who saw—and liked!—your Jerry-less feature film Sour Grapes. I actually found myself liking, even admiring, Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The true test of the confessional genre—and I’d place the first four seasons of Curb high in the pantheon of pop-culture confessionalism—is the willingness to make yourself look like a real jerk, not just someone whose faults are endearing, whose “honesty” is appealing, whose rottenness is redeemed.
You gave us an unsparing dark-comic portrait of bitter, selfish misanthropy rather than charming, harmless “quirkiness” and “eccentricity” à la Jerry S. (He ate cereal for a snack! That was about the extreme of eccentricity America could handle at that point.) And you specialized in exploring the extreme limits of social discomfort in an almost novelistic way rarely seen on TV.
Of course I still had a few problems, Larry. Your “honesty,” your (sorry, “Larry’s”) self-absorption and self-satisfaction could often verge on that old Seinfeldian smugness and self-congratulation rather than the satire of smugness and self-congratulation.
There was that old Seinfeld preoccupation with pettiness: Everyone has petty, nasty feelings, but I, Larry David, am the only one with the courage to express them. Your implicit assumption that everyone has the borderline racial attitudes that your “Larry” character does, for instance: honesty or self-satisfaction? Implicitly you say it’s O.K. to have those feelings because everyone does, as long as you’re “honest” about them. I’m not so sure.
And, Larry, don’t you think there’s always something a bit suspect about people who feel the need to brag a little too loudly and too often that “I’m not politically correct.” O.K., dude, we get it—you’re really bold, no taboos for Larry!
And your decision to return to beating the dead horse of political correctness this season in the truly dismal second episode suggests that you’re a one-trick pony—and worse, that you don’t have anyone around you to, um, raise questions. You’re so blinded by worshipful press telling you that you’re an infallible showbiz genius, and a bold truth teller to boot, that you may not realize what’s happened.
The result—that second episode—was a woefully dated, grindingly unfunny 30 minutes which I would venture to call the most annoying TV episode of the century so far. More about that fiasco later.
See, Larry, what I liked about the first four seasons of Curb was the way they went beyond such obvious (anti-P.C.) territory to delve into previously untelevised depths of human pettiness. And the way it kept raising the stakes in the effort to portray under-explored dimensions of social discomfort that you took to the limit and sometimes beyond in genuinely ingenious and funny ways.
I’d almost credit you with the invention of what I’d call Cringe Comedy, or maybe (in tribute to the legendary Beyond the Fringe revue) “Beyond the Cringe” comedy.
The delicate balance involved in doing “Cringe Comedy” was demonstrated by the reaction to The Comeback, the Lisa Kudrow fake reality show on HBO. After going through the pain of the first couple episodes, I began to kinda enjoy cringing at the way the writers shamelessly ratcheted up the cringe-making humiliation, the death of a thousand cuts, that Ms. Kudrow’s character was subjected to in her supposed “comeback.” I actually thought it was quite brave of her to do it straight-faced, not giving us a warm, likable center to her character, just the cringe within the cringe.
But I understand the feelings of most people I know who just couldn’t handle The Comeback. “Too painful” is what I’d hear repeatedly.
The comparison demonstrated how difficult a feat it was, how fine a line you were walking, Larry, between being too painful and too palatable, between being a self-satisfied jerk and parodying a self-satisfied jerk. It’s why I respect the work of the first four seasons of Curb. It confirmed my suspicion that my problem with Seinfeld was Jerry. I’d always kinda liked the rest of the cast (just as I like the rest of the cast of Curb), despite the repetitiveness of their schtick. (Remember when people kvelled over the hilarity of Kramer opening the door in so many oh-so-funny ways? Who does not now cringe when Kramer opens the door on reruns?)
What I couldn’t stand about Seinfeld was Jerry’s smarminess, which I don’t think was a parody of smarminess, but the real 100-proof thing. His painfully insipid “observational humor.” That Jerry actually thought he was doing breakthrough humor!
Curb demonstrates that Larry David on his own was capable of something that did break through into new territory, or deeper into old territory. Really tested the boundary between individuality and creepiness. You did what satire is supposed to do in X-raying the ugly secret selves most people try to keep to themselves. It was self-loathing, but it proceeded on the assumption that his self wasn’t that different from the selves in his audience. And the audience seemed to feel it struck a chord.
It’s not clear, though, whether at a certain point this becomes self-justifying rather than self-deprecating; people use it as an excuse for their creepy, selfish, self-absorbed behavior. But it made for an interesting question, and those are rare.
But judging by the first three episodes of the new season of Curb, something’s gone terribly wrong, Larry. I’ve had the same conversation with a half-dozen people, none of whom shared my aversion to Seinfeld, all of whom had been fans of the first four seasons, and all of whom had reactions ranging from deep disappointment to virtual shock at the change. (Of course, you still have your staunch defenders, including the editor of this paper, who still loves the show this season.)
But I hope you won’t mind, Larry, if I now explain my “jumped the whitefish” remark to readers who missed your first episode of the new season. As you know, the term “jumped the shark,” as a reference to a TV show that’s gone off the rails, has itself “jumped the shark” from overuse. And its putative replacement, “jumped the couch” (referring to Tom Cruise on Oprah), has run its course.
And I was going to go with “jumped the curb.” But when I was rewatching that first episode, I had what I think is a better idea. Prominently featured on the first episode is a typically petty Larry subplot: He has a sandwich named for him at a Hollywood deli, but he doesn’t like the ingredients, which include whitefish and sable.
So why not replace the “shark” in “jump the shark” with another aquatic creature? As in: This season Larry David “jumped the whitefish.” I think it’s got legs (or fins, anyway). Another show that has jumped the whitefish this season? Hint: “Aquaman” subplot. Maybe we’ve got a whole watery, metaphoric thing going on here. And considering the fact that Larry’s opening episode this season begins with a dramatic oceanic incident … but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway, Larry, I’ve been sifting through the theories of what went wrong this season with some shocked and disappointed Curb fans.
One of the most intriguing theories brought up by one of the people I was speaking to (who prefers to remain nameless) is “Acquired Situational Narcissism.”
I know, Larry, I had to ask, too.
“It’s in the D.S.M.,” he said, “Out here [in Hollywood], we call it ‘Brad Pitt disease.’ It’s when suddenly, all at once, everyone around you tells you they love you and everything you do, and you begin to believe them.”
He points to the final show of last season, Larry. Not merely to the fact that you wrote an arc that ended up with your having a triumph on Broadway as leading man in The Producers, bestowing the mantle of Zero Mostel and Mel Brooks on yourself.
More specifically, he points to the turning point at the close of that episode: the opening night of your star turn in The Producers. Larry (as Max Bialystock) totally forgets his lines in the first scene, but even as the audience is walking out, he does a supposedly improvised comic monologue which—we’re asked to believe—turns everything around, has the audience rocking with laughter in their seats. Makes the rest of the show a big success.
The question my friend raised was: Did Larry David actually think this monologue—which depended heavily on stupid ethnic jokes at the expense of a man wearing a turban—was funny? Or was it meant to be the equivalent of “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers: so bad it was funny? The thing is, the way it was shot, you made it seem as if the audience was actually enjoying your jokes themselves. That you triumphed not because they were so insufferably lame, but because they were so honest in your bold “anti-P.C.” way. I would say that’s the key diagnostic question for the Acquired Situational Narcissism theory of this season’s shocking turn.
What was so annoying about Jerry on Seinfeld was that he began to act as if his quirks were not the idiosyncrasies of a self-absorbed crank but rather had some merit. This season, it looks as if you’ve become self-righteous and smarmy about your pettiness rather than (in the past) self-satirizing. You’ve become Jerry, Larry, if you know what I mean.
But still, on balance, I thought the first four seasons really were doing something cutting-edge: ridiculing the profound pettiness of human nature. Ridiculing it or celebrating it? It was hard to tell, but the crafty way you played on that old dichotomy between smugness and the satire of smugness (meta-smugness?) made it interesting. Until this season.
A Virgin Birth?
Let’s quickly go through the three episodes one at a time, Larry, and maybe you’ll understand what your “people” are not telling you. What people who really were on your wavelength are disturbed about this season.
In the first episode, there was your strained effort to get all mythical and mystical. What did you do, Larry, read the Cliffs Notes to Joseph Campbell or something over hiatus? O.K., that was mean, but really, you open the first episode with the most unconvincing near-death experience ever filmed.
I mean, I feel nearer to death having to write about it, since it brings back those scenes of what looked like, well, a piece of whitefish being dragged under by a wave while swimming, floundering around and being thrown up onto the shore and lying there like a lox.
Ah, Mythic Man cast upon the shore like Odysseus! Like the shipwrecked victims in Shakespeare.
But then it got even more mythical. After Larry’s miraculous waterborne death-and-rebirth, we learn that his first birth is a mystery, too. His father, in the hospital with a stroke, says something that Larry hears as “You’re adopted.” But he can’t be sure if it’s delusional, which sets us off on what seems likely to be a multi-episode “arc” involving a Muslim private eye, which will allow you, if the first two episodes are any guide, to make many tedious “anti-P.C.” jokes about your attitudes toward Muslims. (“There are a lot of meshugenah Muslims out there”—exquisitely witty, Larry!)
But to return to the mystery of Larry’s birth: so deep. What is identity? Can one truly be “reborn”? Who are we, after all? Will it involve a virgin mother? I may have been wrong to say Larry’s become Jerry: Larry’s become Jesus (and I swear I wrote this before seeing the third episode, in which he actually does play the Jesus card in pretty much the most heavy-handed way you can imagine).
Now we come to that truly disastrous second episode of this season, in which Larry attempts to squeeze more blood from the anti-P.C. stone. If Larry had writers (he reportedly sketches out scenes and fills them in with improvisation, which lately has been falling woefully flat, going nowhere), you’d imagine them sitting around the room saying, “Hey let’s do an episode where Larry offends everyone! Yeah, Muslims, black people, lesbians, women in general, handicapped people, stutterers. Wouldn’t that be a riot?”
Well, not exactly.
It was just a sad, repetitive parade in which Larry’s ostensibly “sensible” attitude was contrasted with everyone else’s oversensitivity. His self-righteousness repeatedly affirmed. Plus a lot of bathroom humor, which has become Larry’s fallback, his “base,” as he obliquely calls it.
Again, Larry, what makes the difference this season is that the character you’re playing isn’t being mocked for his self-absorbed sense of superiority. He’s being portrayed as the lone Truth Teller, who can see through politically correct sensitivities and tell it like it is, even if it costs him.
But Larry, nothing prepared me for the third episode. You know I was a little worried about the third episode, because I’d begun writing you this letter on the basis of the first two. What if the third episode represented a turn-around? I’d have to revise everything.
No worries! The third episode reaches a new low; it is mainly devoted to making fun of Hispanic household help! Now I know this is an important issue for your new super-rich crowd, and perhaps in an earlier season you’d do a satire on your rich friends’ concern about their Hispanic help. But here you just gratuitously abuse the help, Larry. Portray household help as thieves and fools. (There’s a particularly unfunny and cruel mockery of a handyman called Jesus. And needless to say, Larry, you can’t resist the cutting-edge ethnic humor that comes with asking Jesus whether he pronounces his name “Jeesus” or “Hey-soose.” So fresh and funny!)
I don’t know what to say, Larry. I’m speechless. A comedy intervention is required. Or should we just give up and watch the genuinely edgy work of, say, Sarah Silverman or Mary-Louise Parker (so devastatingly funny and sexy on Weeds)? Or even Lisa Kudrow—far braver, even self-destructively braver (her show was cancelled because it was so uncompromising), far more cutting-edge than this season’s pretense of being cutting-edge.
But I have a suggestion. You know how you have this recurrent moment on your show when you think someone is deceiving you, and you gaze like a bird of prey into their eyes, searching for the telltale signs of deception? I think what this season tells us, Larry, is that you ought to check yourself in the mirror as carefully as your character scrutinizes others for deception. Self-deception is just as insidious.
And, by the way, could you stop relying on that annoying tuba soundtrack to make us think that what we’re watching is “wacky fun”? We shouldn’t need to be reminded.