A Rude Theory About Why ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Was So Groundbreaking

TheWrap magazine: EP Jeff Schaffer says “Curb” is a comedy of manners. Sure, but it’s also the first sitcom about an a–hole

Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews
Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews

The theory I am about to espouse about “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is wrong. I ran it by executive producer Jeff Schaffer, and he said that never entered his or Larry David’s mind.

But it’s also true.

There are two reasons “Curb” was groundbreaking. The first Schaffer agrees with, so I’ll start there. 

“Curb” launched just two years after the end of “Seinfeld,” in which David reinvigorated the sitcom by stripping it down to its comedic bones via his rule of “no hugging and no learning.” Post-“Seinfeld,” the sitcom powered on for a bit with shows like “Friends,” “Spin City” and “Suddenly Susan,” but it was again in need of reinvention. “Curb” did that by throwing out the script. Literally. Actors received a detailed outline and improvised all of their lines. He completely jettisoned the practice of staying in the writers’ room until 2 a.m. to beat a joke. This innovation forced the situations in situation comedy — not just the jokes — to be funny. It also made the show feel alive

“Even the audition was fun,” says my friend John Ross Bowie, who appeared in a 2009 episode with his wife, Jamie Denbo. “You don’t need to get off book. You just show up, get your little slip of paper that tells you what’s supposed to happen in the scene, and then you’re off to the races. Everybody who walked out of the audition room seemed to be in a good mood because they had just spent 10 minutes playing with Larry David.” Jamie said that the show legitimized her life of work in improv. “’Curb’ made improv cool. Like, it wasn’t just about rhyming songs on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” It became clear to viewers and industry that improv was actually smart.”

Great, we all agree on that. Now the real theory.

curb-your-enthusiasm-j-b-smoove-larry-david-jeff-garlin-susie-essman-jerry-seinfeld-john-johnson-hbo
J.B. Smoove, Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Ted Danson, Susie Essman, Cheryl Hines and Jerry Seinfeld in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” (John Johnson/HBO)

Curb debuted a year after “The Sopranos” started, two years before “The Wire,” seven years before “Mad Men,” a year before 9/11. This was back before everyone agreed we live in a dystopia. Antiheroes were shocking. If they were great at their job, loved their families and showed some Roman virtues of loyalty, we were willing to grit our teeth and root for them. But a comedy antihero? One who we enjoy not despite, but because of, his immorality? That was insane. 

“Curb” was the first sitcom about an asshole.  

I’ve only met David once, but he was as kind and generous as every person who has worked with him says he is. But his “Curb” character is an asshole in the precise way that Sam Harris defined the term in his podcast episode “A Golden Age for Assholes”:

The gospel of the asshole is that there is nothing in your selfishness that you need to overcome. No one is better than you, and those who pretend to be better are actually worse. Everyone is a selfish asshole. It’s just that some are courageous enough to be honest about it. 

Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry David (Photo by Jeff Vespa)

“Curb” Larry brazenly commits horrifying acts of complete self-interest. When his wife, played by Cheryl Hines, calls from a seemingly doomed flight to tell him she loves him, he responds by putting her on hold so the cable guy can fix his TV. After stepping in dog poop, he steals a pair of shoes from an exhibit at the Holocaust Museum. Instead of comforting his friend Marty Funkhouser over his mother’s death in a car accident, he steals flowers from her grave to give to a woman to try to get laid.

This was new, and the comedy of the asshole created a path for “Arrested Development,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Veep,” “You’re the Worst” and “Fleabag.” It was different from “Seinfeld,” where the main characters were selfish and immature, but not assholes. When we saw Jerry break up with a woman because she had man hands, we wished Jerry were a bigger person, but we also stared at close-ups of those man hands an awful lot and felt for his dilemma. When Elaine pretended to trip in order to touch Teri Hatcher’s breasts to find out if they were real, we too, wanted to find out if she had implants.

The last episode of “Seinfeld” was not really an episode of “Seinfeld.” For an hour, it reversed the perspective we had for 179 episodes. It turned on the audience by indicting characters we liked. “How did you not notice that these people are awful?” it asked, as an appalled jury convicts them of not just breaking the Good Samaritan law by failing to help a guy who was getting carjacked, but for all the times they failed to be decent. As the judge sentences them to prison, he says, “Your callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent has rocked the very foundation upon which our society is built.” 

Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry David (Photo by Jeff Vespa)

The last episode of “Curb” was fully an episode of “Curb.” Larry is on trial for finally doing something decent (giving a bottle of water to a person waiting to vote, in opposition to Georgia’s 2021 Election Integrity Act) and is unrepentant in the face of character witnesses he’d wronged. “I have bad energy,” he says at the beginning of the final season. “I’ve been expecting more from myself my whole life, and it’s just not there.” Before his trial, he is asked to help teach a little girl a lesson about being nice and he gleefully tells her that he has “never learned a lesson.”

The jury convicts him, but he gets off on a technicality. Because in the 24 years since it premiered, Larry has won. The assholes have won. They make asshole laws. They allow asshole technicalities. 

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” Season 12 (John Johnson/HBO)

Schaffer assured me that the writers were not judging “Curb” Larry. They love “Curb” Larry. Real Larry loves “Curb” Larry. “The show is wish fulfillment for him,” Schaffer says. Besides, he says, the show’s only goal is to be funny. “This template of morality that’s been laid on top of everything is a foreign artifact. We’re not thinking about it on a philosophical level. We’re making the thing. We’re not moralizing about the thing.”

It is, he insists, a comedy of manners. As Mark Ralkowski, an associate professor of philosophy at George Washington University who wrote a book about “Curb,” argues, “He has awakened us to the background practices in our culture and revealed to us that they have no necessity, which offers us a kind of freedom we may not have recognized.” What he is referring to is the freedom to be an asshole.

Because what is a comedy of manners other than a commentary on society? “Curb” may be a show about modern etiquette, but etiquette is not amoral. Our tiny rules reflect our larger ethics. “Curb” Larry is commenting on the temperature changes in the water we’re all swimming in. But the water has changed since “Seinfeld.” The water is contaminated. By the thing water is often contaminated by: assholes.

Joel Stein is a journalist and screenwriter whose work has appeared in Time, the Los Angeles Times and Entertainment Weekly. His book “Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity” was published in 2012. 

This story first ran in the Comedy Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews for TheWrap
Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews

Comments

4 responses to “A Rude Theory About Why ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Was So Groundbreaking”

  1. cadavra Avatar
    cadavra

    “’Curb’ was the first sitcom about an asshole.”

    Clearly, Mr. Stein has never seen any of Dabney Coleman’s sitcoms. Or “The Honeymooners,” for that matter.

    1. D.R. Darke Avatar
      D.R. Darke

      Yes! Comedies about assholes are not remotely new—Ralph Kramden was an asshole; Dabney Coleman’s characters on television were always assholes; Chester Riley from THE LIFE OF RILEY was an asshole; Archie Bunker was not only an asshole, he was an unashamed bigot to boot(!); Fred Sanford was an asshole and a dirty old man; Dennis the Menace was a Junior Asshole in Training; Bob Cummings’s television characters were all assholes….

      ::Insert Lord Dark Helmet yelling “I’m surrounded by assholes!”::

      Television has a long and proud tradition of asshole characters.

      1. James MacTavish Avatar
        James MacTavish

        Exactly. I thought of Dabney Coleman and Buffalo Bill immediately. I believe the “unlikeable protagonist” was why it was cancelled. Maybe these prior iterations were more tentative before Curb, but they did exist.

        Any decent editor should catch these kinds of mistakes. It is called research. It’s called history. Just because something happened before you were born doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

  2. Eric Moore Avatar
    Eric Moore

    Has the writer graduated yet? Oh… Larry David is so edgy. While I immensely appreciate Curb The comments above already detailed most of my sentiment minus so much of overseas television. There are a TON of assholes out there even an asshole dog. Find real edge. Credit real pioneers as well.

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