Who’s Master Now?

The story of comedian Larry David’s introduction to his friend and fellow comedian Richard Lewis’ psychotherapy group is the stuff of show-business legend, but it’s worth repeating, if only for the glimpse it affords into the mind of the guy who created HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm .

“I introduced him to psychotherapy,” said Mr. Lewis, who is a regular guest star on Curb and, by his own estimation, has been in therapy for some three decades. This particular episode took place many years ago in New York, from which both men hail.

“He only went once,” Mr. Lewis said, and then proceeded to explain why. After the traditional group session, many of the same patients would gather at an appointed destination “and sit around with coffee and donuts and have another two hours.

“I’ll never forget: We were on the East Side, at someone’s apartment after the therapy session. It was like 10 people moaning and groaning,” Mr. Lewis said. “And Larry stood up and said: ‘I can’t stand this. I don’t need this. I don’t want to hear this’. And he ran out of this person’s apartment.

“He had 10 neurotic people chasing him down First Avenue for almost like 30 blocks, thinking he was in denial-and he might have been-but he hated this form of therapy,” Mr. Lewis said. “And he went into this phone booth-like Superman.”

Mr. Lewis began to laugh hoarsely as he recounted the story. “I’ll never forget it,” he said. “We’re all knocking on the phone booth, saying, ‘Larry, we love you, come back, it’s O.K.’ And he said, ‘No! Get away from me, you wack jobs.’ And he never came back. He might have gone to therapy privately-I think he did,” Mr. Lewis said. “He just could not stand to hear people moan and groan.”

The Superman analogy is interesting because, however many decades later, Mr. David is comedy’s Man of Steel, and his highly improvisational comedy series, Curb Your Enthusiasm -which will complete its third season on Sunday, Nov. 17-is the most honest show on television.

Not that Mr. David would ever discuss such a thing. When The Observer wrote Mr. David requesting an interview, he wrote back to decline. “I am, in fact, a terrible interview,” read the letter. “I’m guarded, unspontaneous, inarticulate, and exhibit very little, if any, sense of humor. Everything I say I regret, and for days afterwards I’m filled with even more than my usual amount of self-loathing.

“I’m flattered at your interest,” Mr. David concluded, “but, believe me, I’m doing you and me a favor.”

Phenomenal mainstream success and the immense syndication riches they inevitably bring have acted like Kryptonite on many a comedian’s killer instincts. Mr. David’s former partner-in-laughs can currently be seen struggling against the Jovian gravity of past success in the documentary Comedian , which is currently playing in the city.

But Mr. David seems to be having no such problem. Having amassed plenty of fuck-you money, he seems intent on living that dream. This past season, Curb Your Enthusiasm , in which Mr. David essentially plays himself, has found razor-sharp humor in such seemingly unfunny subjects as the threat of terrorist attacks and the death of Larry-David-the-character’s mother. He even spent the last episode trying to dislodge a bothersome pubic hair that had gotten stuck in his throat near the end of the previous episode-a kind of cosmic comeuppance for having confided in a rapper called Krazee-Eyez Killa that he did not particularly enjoy performing oral sex on Mrs. David, who is played by Cheryl Hines. Of course, Mrs. David finds out about her husband’s admission-one of the pleasures of Curb is that many secrets are told, but none are kept-and won’t accept a simple denial in response.

Though Curb bears some definite similarities to Seinfeld -there are no virtuous characters, and Mr. David loves to end an episode where he began it-the latter is a much purer version of the former. Curb Your Enthusiasm has been dipped in a bath of acid humor and stripped of any politically correct network compromise. There is no slapstick relief à la Kramer, and the cute Long Island man-boy that Mr. Seinfeld played has been replaced by Mr. David, who looks like a more angular Larry Fine with big, round, yellow-tinted glasses that accentuate the jaundiced look in his hangdog eyes. Curb Your Enthusiasm is populated almost entirely with petty, selfish, rageful Costanza and Newman equivalents and their lethal, gutter-mouthed wives. “One of you two assholes is lying!” shrieks the fantastic Susie Essman, who plays Susie Greene, the wife of Mr. David’s agent, in this season’s penultimate episode, in which she suspects that Mr. David is covering for her husband.

She, of course, is right.

And though many lies are told on Curb Your Enthusiasm , the show is essentially about the truth: the truth about marriage-a subject that Seinfeld had only begun to explore with the engagement of George-the truth about the way we deal with our friends; the truth about the deluded, narcissistic lives we lead in 2002. In a recent episode, Mr. Lewis told Mr. David that he was interested in transcendental meditation and wanted a mantra. Mr. David kindly offered him his: “Jai-ya.” By the end of the episode, however, Mr. Lewis informed his buddy that “Jai-ya” translated to “fuck me.” “Fuck me?” Mr. Lewis told Mr. David. “Fuck you .”

The conversations that take place on Curb Your Enthusiasm tend to fall into two categories: the kind that we have behind closed doors with our friends, family and co-workers; the kind that we wish we could have with our friends, family and coworkers.

Watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, one also gets the sense that Mr. David never left that phone booth.

When The Observer asked Mr. Lewis if his friend saw the world as too narcissistic and self-indulgent, he replied, “That’s a good point. I think for Larry, it’s sort of like: ‘Let me alone. I’m not bothering you. Don’t bother me with your bullshit. If you’ve got issues, take them somewhere else.'”

Marriage complicates that philosophy, of course, especially on Curb Your Enthusiasm . Conventional sitcom wisdom dictates that the lead character’s wife must be a kind of wise saint, but such is not the case with the series’ Mrs. David. As Mr. Lewis noted, “Cheryl Hines is getting more aggressive on the show,” adding that it was cool that “she is calling him on his shit. We call each other on our shit all the time, particularly when we make faux pas with words,” he said. “That’s one of our pet things. God forbid we use a word improperly. It’s like we committed a murder.”

One of the most memorable episodes of this past season has to do with a scenario that became quite familiar in the weeks following Sept. 11. The Davids are told by their friend Wanda, whose brother works at the CIA, that there’s a 90 percent chance of a terrorist attack in Los Angeles over the weekend that Mrs. David is planning an NRDC benefit.

Mr. David is sworn to secrecy, but he decides to share it with Paul Reiser’s wife-who dislikes him-in an attempt to get back in her good graces. Instead, it causes him a chain-reaction of pain: word gets out, his social circle evacuates L.A., the benefit ends up being unattended, and his friends, whom he didn’t tell, ostracize him for telling Mrs. Reiser, not them.

The episode also includes a remarkable scene between Mr. and Mrs. David about whether they should leave town. Mr. David’s not only for it, he’s willing to leave the wife behind if she decides her benefit is worth more than his life.

“Do you think that’s a good idea, for us to be apart if something did happen?” she asks him.

“Then at least one of us would survive,” he replies, chewing gum.

“It just seems if we’re gonna go we should go together,” she says.

“Not necessarily. It almost seems a little selfish that you would want both of us to perish,” he says.

“So you’d be fine going on without me,” Mrs. David asks, her eyes narrowing.

“It would be very difficult at first sure, but hopefully at some point I could get back some semblance of a life,” Mr. David says.

“OK,” says his spouse. “If you feel good about one of us dying and the other one surviving and you can live with that for the rest of your life then you should go golf this weekend.”

“I’ll think about it,” he says.

“Think about it,” she says.

The ability for the series actors to keep each other honest and spontaneous is helped by the fact that the show is largely improvised. Mr. David gives his actors very little information about what is going to happen in a scene; he tells them about the scene and what needs to be accomplished within it, provides the cast with what Mr. Lewis called a “tight outline” of a story, and then lets them go for broke. “If you go off on a riff, he’ll never say that’s not funny,” Mr. Lewis said, adding that Mr. David would put the brakes on an actor “if you go on a riff that’s screwing up the storyline.”

“Sometimes you do it once, sometimes you do it 17 times,” Mr. Lewis said. “I call him Citizen David now. And when Citizen David is happy, we go home.”

Mr. Lewis said he met Mr. David when he was 12 years old and the two boys attended the same sports camp-“He was such a jerk. I hated him. He hated me”-but that the two men became friends and mutual admirers when they became regular stand-up comedians at The Improv nightclub in the 70’s.

“He was truly one of the greatest stand-ups I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Lewis said. “But tragically, there was one aspect of stand-up which he didn’t feel was right for him. That was an audience. God forbid someone would say can I have another drink. He’d storm off. You know, he needed absolute attention.”

Both men are now in their mid-50’s and Mr. Lewis called it “heightened reality” when they have a scene together in Curb . “When I know what the scene is, the homework is so done. I’m me, he’s him, Action,” he said. He even likened it to appearing in the comedy equivalent of John Cassavetes’ Husbands . “You know, there was that camaraderie between Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara in that movie in particular and Cassavetes that was just so astonishing,” he said. “And that’s because they were close and they did have those feelings.”

When Mr. Lewis is acting against Mr. David, he said, “I literally try to set him up on the show. An assist is more valuable to me than almost anything else-to really aggravate the shit out of him so he can get off on a rant that only he can do,” he said.

Mr. Lewis said that he knows that Mr. David has taken the bait when he sees “the twinkle in his eye.” In reality, it looks more like a lion who has spotted his prey. Mr. David’s eyes seem to gleam and his mandibles appear to move forward-like the jaws of H.R. Giger’s Alien-in feral anticipation of some bloody good humor. And in those moments, Mr. David does not look like a man who loathes himself. He looks like one very happy fella.

But just as Jerry Seinfeld’s wet, obsessive narcissism was the ideal resonance of the 1990s for network television, Mr. David’s frozen face makes sense for a very scary age. And comedy as pure and unsentimental as Curb Your Enthusiasm tends to polarize people. Those who do not find it exhilarating tend to find it horrifying.

Take a recent episode where Mr. David returns home from shooting a movie with Martin Scorsese in New York to find that his ailing mother has died and his father-played by the superbly neurotic comic veteran Shelly Berman-did not call him.

“Well, I’ll tell you all about your mother,” father tells son. “She’s not in the hospital now. That’s over with.”

“So she’s feeling better,” Mr. David asks.

“Well, in a way,” says dad, a mass of nervous tics.

“She died,” Mr. David says, turning apoplectic.

“Uh yeah. Dead. Dead,” says the father. “And she didn’t want me to bother you.”

His face a blank mask, Mr. David asks when.

“Well,” his dad replies, “the funeral was on Monday.”

Nevertheless, the echoes of Curb Your Enthusiasm , needless to say, run back to a Seinfeld , and it’s impossible not to find the voices of George, Elaine, Jerry and the Costanzas, and all those girls, running through Curb . But its use of real celebrities dredges up nothing more than the program that Jerry Seinfeld often cited as the real Seinfeld influence, one of the warmest shows in the history of television, The Jack Benny Program , in which Jack Benny-named for himself as Mr. David is- found himself subjected to endless insult, often brought on by his own manifold flaws, none of which he has understanding of. And just as on Curb , Jack Benny was tortured and abused by the Hollywood community, many of whom strolled through the show-Fred MacMurray and Jimmy Stewart and George Burns for Ted Danson and Michael York and Paul Reiser-using their own names. And he was insulted and mocked by his own not-so-perfect wife.

So that a scene like this could only happen on Mr. David’s program, but the double take could be Benny’s:

Mr. David goes to the cemetery director who has moved his mother’s grave to a “special section” after discovering that she had a tattoo on her buttock.

Mr. David says, “My mother was moved to a special section.”

“Yes,” says the cemetery director, “evidently you were out of town…We have a section reserved for people who.. just don’t qualify for interment in consecrated ground. It’s a place where we put the villains, the suicides, the gentiles who are from mixed marriages.”

The camera then rests on Mr. David’s frozen reaction, an uncomprehending face for an incomprehensible era. He could, as Mr. Benny often did, look slightly away and say ” Well! ” But somehow, that was a gesture for a more sentimental era, one with which Larry David shares timing, structure and discipline, but one that bears the same relationship to him that the yellow light of a radio dial does to a CAT scan.

Who’s Master Now?