After a six-year long hiatus, Curb Your Enthusiasm returns to our screens. I reflect on the show’s history, and how it has evolved and changed throughout the years.
There are only a handful of shows and films in this world that become exclusively themselves. That is to say, they are so undeniably composed of what they are, and only what they are, that it instantly establishes itself as a permanent cultural reference point. They become iconic, or quintessential. For example, Apocalypse Now – in the world of film – practically owns the notion of “Vietnam war movie”. Any film that wishes to make a film about the war in Vietnam, or war in general for that matter, has no choice but to nod to it (whether that be narratively or stylistically), and the audience has no choice but to immediately think “This reminds me of Apocalypse Now“. Despite having not seen Apocalypse Now until recently, I felt – during my viewing – that I had seen it. I realised that every war film I had ever seen had taken moments, frames, lines of dialogue, and imagery from Apocalypse Now, and did so in order to evoke the pure essence, visceral emotion, and vibe that film not only conveyed, but invented. As a result, I experienced a weird sense of Déjà vu; one where I simultaneously knew that I had and had not seen “this bit before”. It also makes one wonder as to what stylistic choices or references to war films other war film directors did prior to Apocalypse Now. What did they do before? Like a teenager pondering, in a moment of clarity, when their Instagram/Snapchat addiction is brought to their attention (you can literally hear my cane that I’m shaking in the air, and the rustling bag of Werther’s Originals).
I think of Curb Your Enthusiasm in much the same way. Its concept, look, feel, style, and structure is so fleshed out, put together, and original that, when you encounter an unfair or unusual social custom or interaction (which you then proceed to discuss with your friend about over lunch) and you think “This is like Curb”, you’ll also be struck with the scarcity of other films/TV shows that are as emblematic of that situation as Curb Your Enthusiasm undoubtedly is.
I stumbled across the greatness that is Curb Your Enthusiasm during the last year of secondary school in 2007/08. I was (and still am) a huge fan of the original UK version of The Office, and so was eager to watch a Ricky Gervais documentary series called Rick Gervais Meets… wherein Gervais meets his comedy influences. The first episode I encountered was the episode where he met Larry David. Until this point, at the age of 15, I hadn’t heard of Larry David, and, because of a weird cultural void and blindspot in the UK (that was then filled with Friends), this meant I hadn’t heard of Seinfeld either. Within the documentary episode, their conversations were interspersed with clips from Curb; the first clip that I ever saw from the show involved Larry asking a barista for “one of the vanilla-bullshit things…you know…whatever you want – some vanilla-bullshit-latte-cappa-thing – I don’t care”. I vividly recall sitting up and thinking “This show was made for me”. The vague, nebulous, fey itch The Office scratched within my psyche with regard to its style – comedically or cinematically, Curb Your Enthusiasm and that one 12 second clip shown in that documentary had utterly revealed that itch’s epicentre.
Luckily for me, in my first year of college, my tutor – also a fan of Curb – knew about my interest in getting into the series, and very kindly lent seasons two and three of Curb to me on DVD; recommending the episode ‘Chet’s Shirt’ as an introductory episode.
From then on, I was hooked.
The show’s genesis spawned from a one off special Larry David filmed when returning to stand-up in 1999. David didn’t want the “in-between” segments to involve him going to shows, getting ready, sitting in the greenroom, etc, for fear of it being “boring”, and so decided to write scenarios for those sections. He also didn’t want the scripted parts to feel too polished (which would make people question whether or not the audience for Larry’s stand up were real or not), which is where the decision to make the dialogue improvised was made. A legendary series was born.
For the uninitiated, Curb Your Enthusiasm centres around the life of Larry David (who plays a twisted version of himself) after the success of Seinfeld (of which David was a co-creator/showrunner). Like a fly-on-the-wall, we watch David navigate the world with his own peculiar social demeanour and views on life, wherein he questions certain social norms and rules, in a way which no normal person would have the nerve to do, which often causes frequent disagreements and strife. Via realistic, improvised dialogue, we see these – at first – unrelated disagreements and arguments devolve, in a Murphy’s Law fashion, culminating in David being, usually, the butt of the joke. At it’s best, an episode will introduce various narrative/comedic variables that seem unrelated and actually serve as enjoyable jokes in their own right. These comedy variables, in the style of the show, normally revolve around an observation David (the writer not character) has had about some social situation we all experience in our day-to-day lives. But then – towards the end of an episode – these variables all link together, revealing in the best set-up and punchline a sitcom episode could feasibly muster within half an hour. For example, in the episode ‘The Ida Funkhouser Roadside Memorial’, David’s frustration with shop-sample abusers, unsavoury returned money, gifts in return for sex with the wife, the fairness of single file queues versus multiple queues moving at different speeds, the predatory nature of people rushing for food at funerals, and the ethics of taking flowers from a grave versus a roadside memorial all culminate into one seamless comedic narrative, ending in one genius scene that ties up all loose ends – for better or usually for worse.
Upon revisiting old episodes of the show, it’s quite amazing as to how much the show has changed – both narratively and visually. As one can gather, I’m a huge fan of the show, however – as Bertrand Russell once said – “it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted”. In other words, try to question your own biases.
The initial thing that made me dig Curb in the first place was its realistic qualities. It was single-camera and not multi-studio camera, the dialogue was improvised and not scripted, the dialogue wasn’t predictable exposition with a metronomic set-up/punchline, set-up/punchline, but instead was realistic, verbal meanderings – filled with um’s and err’s – about things like whether the phrase “get better” with regards to health means “improve” or “recover entirely”, or what the accepted cut-off time for late night phone calls is, or when is it acceptable to approach a mourner for owed money . It felt like watching the real-life awkward footage of Seinfeld’s co-creator where he’s arguing with his wife, and having lunch with fellow comedians, and arguments with various members of the public – often saying what we’re all thinking, and frequently doing what none of us would even dare do. There was something about the behind-the-scenes, amateurish, digi-beta cinematography that brought ample amount of verisimilitude to the earlier seasons. However, since Season 7 onwards, the entire look of the show changed quite noticeably. Not only did the Digital-Beta cameras get replaced with HD ones, but where there was once only two cameras at most per scene in older seasons, in the last few it has often felt closer to four or even five cameras. The rather simplistic (which I enjoyed) editing of the show also changed, turning into a very slick/polished iteration. In other words, the feel of the show being quite raw, immersive, and real has changed into somewhat of a polished Hollywood product which – although still funny – has deviated somewhat from the original essence of the series with which I fell so in love. Mimicking this stylistic change, I feel the comedy has gone in a similar direction. Where in earlier seasons the episodes will revolve around rather trivial, humble, or realistic “inciting incidents” such as a misunderstanding involving a genuine misidentified erection beneath baggy, bunched up trousers, or an accidental expletive typed in a deceased family member’s newspaper obituary, in later seasons the episodes will revolve around more zany, out-there plot points, like Larry killing a deadly swan at his golf club, or story about a periscope for a car (which sounds like a long-lost Kramer story from Seinfeld to me).
The other issue with the show is in regard to its self-awareness, and its meme-potential. In my experience, the fall of a comedy film or show normally stems from the writer/s becoming too aware of how their audience perceives the show, and what comedy they become “known” for. This becomes a problem, as what came naturally suddenly feels more clumsy, “put-on”, and forced. As another college teacher said to me about Al Pacino; the type of character he plays becomes iconic, imitated, and then somewhat of a meme. Then, becoming aware of the meme, Pacino then proceeds to not play the types of characters he plays, but instead performs as everyone’s idea of what characters he plays. He becomes a parody of himself. It’s somewhat of an issue Ricky & Morty is experiencing at the moment (another show I love), whereby – after the spread of the catchphrases “Wubba lubba dub dub!” and “Get Schwifty!” – there are moments where the writers sometimes go out of their way to make a new catchphrase or trend for the fan-base to go crazy over (much to the chagrin of those of us who find the catchphrases the least enjoyable aspect of the many amusing aspects of the show – and those who dislike the show altogether). Because Curb is so iconic in its comedy and style, and the fan-base regurgitates these aspects back to Larry David himself, I sometimes find that – in later seasons – the subtlety of the show has been replaced with a slightly exaggerated, more in-your-face version; like Larry David is doing an impression of Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm, rather than just acting like he did in earlier seasons. Time will tell as to whether this trend will continue.
Whilst I lament the less immersive and visceral era of the show, the comedy genius of Larry David still permeates the series, and I still find myself coming back for more, eager as ever. It’s easily in my top three favourite shows of all time, and one of my primary comedy influences. Evidently the personal gripes I have with the trends of later series barely make a dent with regards to my enjoyment of the show – and may that continue with season 9 and beyond.