In an interview with Bob Costas, Larry David confessed that the character he plays on Curb Your Enthusiasm is the “real me”—if he didn’t care what others thought and said every flippant comment that came to his mind. Many see David’s HBO comedy, like Seinfeld, as a gentle skewering of its main character’s insensitivity, but the series is really a cathartic release of pent-up social frustrations. Instead of burying misunderstandings with gentle words or letting faux pas slide by unnoticed, David incessantly nags at these errors—shaking a snotty hand, backing out of a pre-arranged agreement, hiding baldness with a toupee—in the name of human decency, equally offending every culture and color in his wake.
The show’s premise is a delirious mixture of biographical observation, fictional touch-ups and winking celebrity cameos. Larry is married to Cheryl (Cheryl Hines), a likeable WASP with a high tolerance for her husband’s shenanigans. Together they are pitted against celebrity friends at dinner parties and events where Larry inevitably puts out everyone’s cheer, by not singing “Happy Birthday,” or something more sinister, like poking out a friend’s eye with a shish kabob skewer. These fairly non-sequitur gags, drunken on absurdity and blindsiding chance, are punctuated by Luciano Michelini’s bubbly Italian theme song “Frolic,” an anthem to the dizzying, circus-like nature of each episode’s passionate cast of characters and escalating miscommunications.
In the most recent episode, Larry curiously inquires how a Japanese friend’s dad could have been a kamikaze pilot and still be alive. After lengthy debate and a moment’s hesitation, the friend finally tries to explain, “He grazed the ship”—a transaction made all the more hilarious because it feels like it was born truly in the moment. A writer trained in the formal structure of network sitcoms, David forgoes the quick-witted dialogue of Seinfeld for a more improvisational style. Like a well-wound Robert Altman movie, the actors’ casual (but hilarious) ad-libs distract the viewer while the gears of David’s effortlessly tight plotting continue turning, climaxing in a final-act revelation of moral significance that plays into the hands of the creator’s comedy-as-social-criticism slant. Given the rigid design of each episode’s schemes, it’s hard to imagine the show working without its smooth, intoxicating impromptu conversations. (This is a point lost on Michael Patrick King, whose obvious Curb-imitator, The Comeback, was overly scripted and contrived.)
A clear sign that Larry is a man of principles first is in season four when he gives up the chance to bed a beautiful actress because a framed picture of George W. Bush stands on a table in her dressing room. (No, not because he’s a Democrat, but because displaying a photograph of someone you don’t know personally is, well, not right.) Larry can (and aggressively does) defend each of his “missteps” with a sensible reason, but these otherwise innocent justifications are also usually tinged with snarky social criticism (who serves pointy wood skewers at a dinner party and provides no trash cans?).
Larry refuses to satisfy his friends’ cravings for an apology, because he sternly believes he is not the one at fault. In the show’s best conflicts, David clashes with the unsuspecting powers-that-be, whether that’s a Chinese food-stealing HBO executive or his best friend Jeff’s (Jeff Garlin) vulgar wife. They all have leverage against Larry but he sacrifices these comforts for a higher calling. In this way, Curb Your Enthusiasm is not unlike an absurdist comedy riff on Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, with David as its righteous, stubbornly persistent minority. The stakes have been lowered but the message is the same: he will stay and fight, and he will be heard.