Curb Your Enthusiasm

Wednesday, February 26, 2003 by

I was never one for American sitcoms. They were always overly simplistic and aimed at the lowest common denominator, with characters reduced to a load of tics ands catchphrases so the audience could applaud wildly whenever they entered the set. That was until I saw my first episode of Seinfeld.

Here was a show that was totally unlike any sitcom I’d ever seen. It was all about slices of life, realising that normal day-to-day occurrences were just as funny, if not funnier, than big life-changing moments. Hence there were entire episodes dedicated to party etiquette, or fretting over buying a suit. And it was all helped out by realistic characters and some brilliant lines. Since it ended, I’ve yet to find a sitcom that seemed as relevant and as funny as Seinfeld. Until now.

It’s hard not to compare Curb Your Enthusiasm with Seinfeld. For a start, it’s ligging around the backwaters of the schedules. BBC2′s treatment of Seinfeld was a constant annoyance for it’s fans, though people forget that when it started on UK TV, it was first shown at 9pm, but the audience wasn’t big enough and it moved later and later in the evening until it ended up after midnight (to be fair, Sky One were hardly any better at scheduling it). Curb Your Enthusiasm is exclusive to BBC4, apparently because other channels didn’t want to pick it up due to its quirky nature. Here it’s spearheading BBC4′s attempt to “gain a sense of humour”, and it certainly looks a bright spot in an otherwise worthy-but-dull schedule. Yes, it means that it’s hardly like to grab a big audience – indeed the second episode was watched by less than 20,000 people – but on this of all channels it should mean that this doesn’t matter (and if they drop it for that reason, I’m going to throw away my television).

The most obvious difference between the two is that whereas Seinfeld looked like every other American sitcom, and the subversion came in the scripts, this looks odd from the start. It’s all shot on videotape, with mostly hand-held cameras, in real locations. The other big difference is that every scene is improvised from a basic structure. This could have been a bad move – witness Operation Good Guys, subject of OTT’s most complained about review, which was appalling because the improvisation meant the whole thing was sprawling and completely lacked focus. Here, though, the cast all have the talent to do it well, and it works in this context because it makes the dialogue seem much more realistic. And that’s essential because, as with Seinfeld, the show is all about seemingly trivial incidents, and the reactions that they spawn.

The set-up sees Larry David star as, basically, himself. This isn’t the same situation as Jerry Seinfeld playing the character Jerry Seinfeld, sharing a name and an occupation but with a different life situation. Larry is Larry, a well-off comedy writer and producer. Indeed, throughout the show there are constant references to Larry’s previous career as the brains behind Seinfeld – his wife even trying to get him to mention it to a waitress so they can get a table in a restaurant. The bonus here is that when guests appear, they do so in a completely uncontrived way. So Ted Danson appears as Larry’s mate, but this isn’t in the show as an attempt to show off a special guest star, it’s simply accepted – because Ted Danson may well be Larry’s mate. It also works for me because the life of a comedy writer does seem pretty glamorous and exciting.

Both of the opening two episodes span off from seemingly irrelevant incidents – in the first, Larry went out with a pair of trousers that made it look like he had an erection, while in the second, someone took his shoes in a bowling alley. In many ways the plots work like a standard sitcom – it’s all about misunderstandings, coincidences and embarrassments and how they conspire against Larry. But it marries this with hugely naturalistic dialogue. Take the moment where Larry found the man who took his shoes, and confronted him. In a normal sitcom, this situation might end with an argument, or piece of farce where Larry tries to take them back. Here, though, Larry asks him for the shoes, and after a discussion about the odd situation, he gets them back, and that’s the end of the matter. Of course, this then informs the next bit of the plot – Larry has a replacement pair on order, which he then cancels to the salesman’s irritation – but that particular scene is simply concluded in a straightforward manner.

Indeed, it’s the realistic way that the show works that makes it highly unusual as a sitcom. The second episode revolves around Ted Danson and his wife Mary Steenburgen inviting Larry and his wife Cheryl to watch a Paul Simon concert from their private box. Ted and Mary don’t call back, though, and Larry and Cheryl assume they’d changed their mind, with Larry presuming he’d upset Mary’s mother. In fact, Larry and Cheryl just got the wrong day. It’s not much of a plot twist, no, but in the end it’s not about the conclusion, it’s about how they get there. Basically the crux of each show is that Larry gets himself in an awkward situation, and suffers some embarrassment, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. Hence the simple conclusions.

What’s important on the show is the dialogue. What’s great is that most scenes tend to be followed by Larry, Cheryl and the rest of the cast discussing what’s just occurred. This isn’t to hammer the jokes home, but to show people’s reactions and opinions to the situations. That’s why Curb Your Enthusiasm looks to be one of the shows that rewards repeated viewing – you can imagine that, as you get to know the characters better, you’ll really warm to them and get into their way of thinking, and then the situations they get into will start to ring true. I certainly want to spend more time with Larry and Cheryl. It also helps that there are no stupid characters – everyone is likeable and intelligent.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is not the sort of show that’ll make you laugh out loud – there are few jokes, for a start. But I sat through it with a huge grin on my face, simply wallowing in the smart dialogue and great characterisation. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see it appealing to a wider audience, because it’s so unlike anything else, and so it’ll probably continue to play to a tiny band of viewers on a digital channel. But to be honest, I always quite liked the way there were only a few of us staying up for Seinfeld, it almost felt like you were in an exclusive club. So there’s some sort of frisson in being one of the 20,000 watching Larry do his stuff. But I bet that practically every one of us returns next week, and every week after that.

Most people are lucky if they can come up with one sublime series in their career. Larry David has now created two.


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