Throughout its original eight-season run, Curb Your Enthusiasm questioned the limits of political correctness and offended nearly every group in the process. In doing so, the series produced some wonderfully uncomfortable (and impossibly funny) television. “Running with the Bulls,” though, is what happens when Curb’s inherently problematic humor fails.
At the center of the episode is one of the most difficult circumstances from which to mine comedy: a teenager’s funeral. And not just any teen: Kenny Funkhouser (Niall Cunningham), “jewel of the Funkhouser family tree,” who was trampled by a bull in Pamplona after following Paula the sex worker to Europe. For those keeping track, Larry’s now responsible (at least indirectly) for someone’s death. And we’re only four episodes into season nine.
In the past, Larry has often found himself in uncomfortable or tragic situations, and we don’t mind laughing at his reprehensible behavior because we know that, by episode’s end, he will face his comeuppance. But not in “Running with the Bulls.” First Larry noisily wanders the aisles of Kenny’s memorial service because his reserved seat has been swiped by Richard Lewis. He then barks at a woman to stop crying. Finally, Larry mistakes a funeral guest for an assassin, causing the memorial to end abruptly and in chaos. Always the one to say or do the wrong thing, here Larry’s social incompetence feels over the top and without personal consequence. The only thing close to a punishment that Larry faces is buying his therapist, Dr. Templeton (Bryan Cranston), a new chair, hardly adequate karmic retribution for someone who told a mourner “that’s enough already.”
The funereal centerpiece is hard to stomach, and the rest of the episode doesn’t do much to pick up the slack. At best we get some snappy exchanges at the therapist’s office, not to mention what might be the first reversal of “doctor-patient confidentiality,” and, as always, terrific banter between Larry and Leon (J.B. Smoove). At worst, we get offensive jokes about trans individuals. From the moment Marty (Bob Einstein) mentions that his child is transitioning, I braced myself for an off-color remark from Larry, and he delivered, immediately inquiring about Joey’s (formerly Jodi’s) genitalia.
In the best episodes of Curb, the various plots form beautiful Rube Goldbergian machines of cause, effect, and comedic missteps. Unfortunately, the B plots in “Running with the Bulls” never fully coalesce. Whole plotlines, it seems, are included for the sake of one or two jokes. Richard Lewis’s new career as a painter, for example, partly serves to point out the pretension of Los Angeles’s art world (one of his pieces is captioned “society is my ipecac”). Beyond that, Richard’s newfound artistry does little to advance the plot; his opening merely provides a site for Larry to learn about Kenny’s passing, a fact that could have been shared in any setting.
The episode also reintroduces Jeff’s (Jeff Garland) philandering and features some of his sleaziest dialogue to date. For as horrible as Larry is, it’s easy to forget that Jeff is also a piece of shit (or, as his wife might eloquently put it, a “fat fuck”). But Jeff underestimates Susie (Susie Essman), who’s hip to his cheating. In an episode in which people act terribly or endure terrible loss (Kenny Funkhouser, we hardly knew ye), Susie is a rare, satisfying winner. Rather than confronting her husband, she vengefully makes him buy the house he was cheating in. Much of “Running with the Bulls” is uncomfortable and lacking in laughs, but Susie’s knowing smirk and the spiteful victory that comes with it nearly makes up for the episode’s shortcomings.
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