Pretty, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good

Ian Jones salutes Curb Your Enthusiasm

First published October 2007

It doesn’t have a noteworthy cast. It doesn’t have a noteworthy premise. It boasts the same locations every week. Its two main characters spend most of the time sitting up in bed, recapping plot points, speculating on what will happen next and setting up jokes for later in the episode. There are silly voices, pratfalls and catchphrases. Guest stars drop by from time to time. And its storylines are mostly about nothing.

When you strip away Curb Your Enthusiam‘s unsubtle innovations – no script, everything on videotape, no laugh track – it’s a show that relies on some very familiar, not to say well-worn, structural rigging. Technical jiggery-pokery and improvisation is but ornamentation on an edifice tottering with clichéd, hackneyed sitcom devices that could hail from any point in TV history.

What, then, lifts the show out of the everyday and into the extraordinary? Why is it, perhaps audaciously, often hailed as one of the greatest comedies ever made? After all, making things up on the spot and ditching a studio audience might just as well be cloaks to mask an absence of narrative imagination rather than two aspects of inspired experimentation.

The answer lies with the programme’s concerns; with what its resoundingly ordinary characters in thunderously ordinary settings find preying upon their minds. Upon each reassuringly household sitcom hook are hung unexpected, unlikely obsessions. But they’re not ridiculously contrived or far-fetched ones; rather, they are obsessions with the minutiae of the commonplace, with the world around all of us.

The lustre of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and of its creator and star Larry David, flows from its marriage of preconceived ideas about TV comedy with preconceptions of the common man – of taking the signature elements of a sitcom and stirring in equally ubiquitous aspects of modern life that are, at the same time, unsitcom-like in the extreme. And somehow making it all hilariously funny.

“Somebody get a sponge”

Take one example. Conventionally, sitcoms are constructed around incidences of etiquette gone awry: failing to wear the right dress for an occasion, botching an attempt to cook a meal for your boss, misunderstanding a foreign custom. But in Curb Your Enthusiasm etiquette itself is of primary concern, and whatever follows after is purely incidental.

Hence it isn’t forgetting to tip someone that causes Larry numerous embarrassments in a New York hotel, it’s the business of having to tip someone in the first place. When our hero refuses to take off his shoes at a dinner party, it’s not his feet that trigger a comic mishap but the principle behind his not wanting to sit there in his socks. And when he and his wife Cheryl decide to have a night on the town, the humour builds from their squabbling over the rituals of eating out (Larry querying his other half’s desire to have a drink at one venue before moving on to have food at another) and not the meal at all.

Etiquette is, in fact, everything to Larry David. The right and wrong way to do something has both cursed and blessed his admittedly cushioned, idle Los Angeles life – cursed in that he can never be superficial with anybody, and blessed in that he refuses to live his life on anybody’s terms but his own. Unsurprisingly given this, the instances of etiquette-based chicanery in the series are legion.

Larry is repulsed by the prospect of taking a sip of water out of someone else’s glass; criticised over his use of a telephone inside a doctor’s consulting room; lampooned for urinating sitting down rather than standing up; incensed by the way he feels he is always having to go to see people rather than them come to him (“Every time I’m the one having to go to a meeting – I’m always going. Nobody ever comes to me”); mocked for chewing in a cinema; shunned for answering the telephone during intercourse; and physically threatened for buying a soft toy for a surrogate mother.

Often the greatest set-piece scenes in the series arise from Larry stubbornly querying some ritual of language or behaviour that has persisted, unchecked, throughout the whole of time. The phrase “somebody get a sponge”, for instance, being uttered at the moment of a dinner table spillage (the point being, why doesn’t the speaker get the sponge?), or the practice of thanking all your hosts for a meal when only one actually paid for the food.

In every case, however, the comedy arises not from seeing a put-upon, poker-faced character struggling to fight back (think Ronnie Corbett in Sorry, Richard Briers in Ever Decreasing Circles, Ricky Gervais in anything) but rather the way it’s such a genial, sympathetic soul bumping up against behaviour which, when looked at in the abstract, is completely illogical.

“There’s definitely one prick involved”

If social rituals are of constant bemusement to our man then social interaction is of perennial bafflement. “What is the compulsion to have people over to your house and serve them food and talk to them?” Larry complains. The series is peppered with dinner parties, the predictable circuit of wealthy showbusiness types (and of sitcom archetypes). Forcing Larry to attend them is not just a classical device for repeated comic awkwardness (see Terry and June), it’s also a way of highlighting a particularly unlikely – for a sitcom – two-sided trait: the central character’s unease mingling with the familiar, but his delight for mixing with the unusual.

It’s summed up by Larry’s declaration, “I don’t like talking to people I know, but strangers I have no problem with.” What to some appears as breathtaking rudeness, to Larry it’s simply an honest expression of character. Why make an effort for those who already have a perception of you? It’s far more rewarding, at least in a selfish sense, to lavish attention on those who don’t.

Part of this is undoubtedly a manifestation of the idle rich. Thanks to the millions he’s amassed from creating Seinfeld, Larry has the time and money to befriend, say, an irascible blind man or a group of car wash employees with learning difficulties. The consequences, whatever they are, won’t mean a thing for a man like he with no need of income or prospects. If you find the folly of indulgence a turn-off, it’s usually here that you’ll stop watching.

Yet the same motivation drives the other half of Larry’s personality, the one that does what most of us can but dream – telling people to their face what he thinks of them; choosing to ignore people when he can’t be bothered exchanging pointless pleasantries (the “stop-and-chat”); taking pride in not making an effort (“I’ve got ideas, but I choose not to carry them out”), verbally jousting with recalcitrant foes (“What you’re seeing as agitation is actually ebullience”), point-scoring far beyond the stage most of us would abandon the field (“Yes, there’s definitely one prick involved”), and riling against those who snub him in his hour of need (“30 dollars, anyone, to change a tyre … I’ll give you 10 dollars for a verbal response!”)

There’s a delicious there-but-for-the-grace-of-God feel to such incidents. Many unforgettable moments arise from seeing Larry in an embarrassing social situation and responding in a supremely anti-social manner. Constructive rudeness is one way of describing it; but because we’ve also seen Larry be charming, romantic and kind, we know it’s not a stance fuelled by one-dimensional bitterness (Andy Millman) or blind prejudice (Alf Garnett) or any other sitcom cliché.

Besides, he’s willing to back up his words with his fists, even if this does lead to extraordinarily undignified, and hence even more entertaining, full-blooded brawls. Nobody is exempt from a Larry David tussle, from friends (Richard Lewis, Ted Danson) to employees (his decorator) to, best of all, strangers (a fellow patient at the surgery).

Being anti-social versus being honest – to Larry they are two mutually exclusive things, and although he may be misguided in his means (“You said ‘blind man’ in front of a blind man!”) the ends are always honourable. At least to Larry’s code of living.

“Are you calling me a ‘man-child’?”

The fact Larry and Cheryl don’t have children feels like a further defiance of sitcom convention. A happily married couple who don’t have miniature offspring ready to burst into a scene with a comical injury or a question about sex? Even in this country it’s rare, though not exceptional. Ever Decreasing Circles managed it, to great effect, right up to the very last episode. There is, though, plenty that is juvenile about Curb Your Enthusiasm, thanks to the way Larry is often shown up as, and humiliated for, being the biggest kid of all.

Cheryl doesn’t just have a husband with childlike pretensions, she has a husband with a child’s pretensions for grown-up paranoia and wild accusation. It makes for a combustible mix, rendered even more potent by the way Larry the wannabe kid can’t help but be outplayed by the real thing.

He’s outraged by Cheryl’s cousin’s unwillingness to show him how to do magic tricks. He tries to join kids in a game of Chinese Whispers but, momentarily distracted by a well-endowed party guest, changes “I love pigs” to “I love tits”. And when he’s evicted from a synagogue after his underhand efforts to “get good seats” is uncovered, he naturally blames a child. He refuses to treat kids any differently than he would adults, yet he is outraged when Ben Stiller accuses him of being “a man-child”.

All of this is done in a way that never feels predictable. A grown man exhibiting the traits of a 10-year-old is a tired comic staple. A grown man exhibiting the traits of a 10-year-old who has the tenacity and guile of an adult, however, is another matter.

“‘BALD ASSHOLE’? That’s a hate crime!”

Children are often responsible for another motif of the series: public humiliation. Larry’s synagogue ejection happens in front of hundreds of society gossips – the ultimate mortification for one so precious as he. Larry’s refusal to believe two trick-or-treaters are as young as they say they are results in BALD ASSHOLE being spray-painted across his house (“That’s a hate crime!”) and the police getting called to mount a full-scale search (“What about the trick threat?” Larry protests. “No treat: trick! It’s a threat!”). And after an innocent (in his mind) remark concerning the size of a colleague’s child’s penis, the kid in question – a particularly obnoxious one – succeeds in goading Larry into a name-calling contest in the middle of a public cinema.

Comedically the device may always be the same, but somehow this recurring theme of public disgrace only gains in effect as the series goes on, benefiting rather than paling from such relentlessness. Because Larry never seems able to learn, each repetition gains in wistful inevitability.

And there are some spectacular repetitions. He outrages the entire audience of the Staples Centre (a basketball arena) by accidentally tripping up legendary player Shaquille O’Neil. He’s made to suffer a “scarlet letter” punishment for stealing a fork from a restaurant, donning a sandwich board detailing his crime and parading up and down outside an establishment frequented by top Hollywood executives. He infuriates the guests at a testimonial dinner by not standing up to applaud the subject, despite Larry’s protests that he’s hurt his back from falling into a toilet. And he shocks the audience at a funeral by swapping golf clubs inside the dead man’s coffin.

Most times each humiliation is exaggerated for comic purposes by the camera cutting unsympathetically between scores of nagging heads and wagging fingers, often shot close-up for an almost grotesque effect. But the fact Larry nearly always brings on this shame himself via an act conceived through well-meaning intentions, rather than being the result of pure circumstance or deviousness, is what lifts the show from the ranks of Fawlty Towers or Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em onto a plateau all of its own.

“I don’t want to fire a black man”

An extension of saying the unsayable is thinking the unthinkable. While Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s proclivity for tackling contentious sitcom topics can seem predictable (ie. it was black people last week, it must be lesbians this week), the way it unfolds on screen remains disarmingly entertaining.

It’s comparable to the formula of a long-running action adventure show. You know the star is going to get into some sort of scrape during the episode, but it’s the nature of the scrape, and what they then try to do about it, which supplies the variation and therefore the enjoyment. On top of this, because Larry is a really an anti-hero, his attempts at do-goodery say as much about misguided bravery as the limitations of tolerance.

There’s a quartet of these subjects that runs right through the series. Religion is one. Larry frequently uses his Jewishness both against himself (“I’ve more of a Jew face than you”) and others, while admonishing other faiths not for existing but for their respective eccentricities. Hence for him, the way Christians “worship a guy” seems “a little gay”, and if the power of prayer means so much to Christian Scientists, when their set breaks down “why not just pray for the TV?” Orthodox religion is a great obsession, Larry adopting its trappings when he needs a favour or thinks it’s part of his heritage, but at other times mocking the logic that implies because Hitler liked Wagner anybody who whistles music by the composer is a “self-loathing Jew”.

Larry seems to run into even more unintentional conflict when trying to handle matters of race. “I tend to say stupid things to black people sometimes” is his mea culpa. That and, “I was trying to be affable”. His clumsy attempts at self-depreciating liberalism are a world away from Gervais-style “comedy racism” where stupidity is key. Here, white man’s guilt runs amok, much to the exaggerated disgust of his regular “foil”, Wanda. Again, a fallible inconsistency plagues Larry. He can’t help but feel uncomfortable – “I don’t want to fire a black man!” – yet buys a racist dog, mistakes black men for burglars and valets, and regularly tries to adopt what he assumes to be topical palare (“Am I your nigger?”).

As for sex, Larry’s libido pales in comparison to best friend Jeff (who wails, “those big vagina ladies are getting away with murder – something should be done!”) and, rather than the stereotyped roving-eyed philanderer of sitcom lore, seems almost conservative. He’s deeply uncomfortable whenever Cheryl accuses him of sordid thoughts (“Are you thinking about sex?”) or, classically, when he gets erroneously branded “an ass man”. Yet he’s more than happy to advise, interfere and commentate on other people’s peccadilloes (“Did you ever catch your parents having sex?”) and revels in the patronage of people of all sexualities, unconsciously adopting gay slang one week and boasting of being “a friend o’lesbians” the next.

To complete the quartet, Larry’s life is never far from death. He’s forever attending funerals, believing his own demise is close at hand, and inadvertently contributing to the passing of others. A funeral is the cause of arguably the show’s most famous sequence (the mistaken obituary appellation “beloved cunt”). He appears to experience near-death after having a kidney removed and his own mother’s death is seen by Larry as the perfect excuse to get out of – what else – a string of social engagements.

Despite all of this, offending for the sake of it is a charge hard to level at Curb Your Enthusiasm. There’s nothing gratuitous about any of these scenarios, and that’s because a) the shock of the taboo is always cushioned with self-deprecating humour b) Larry is always the exploited, never the exploiter c) the notion of Larry posing as, for instance, an incest survivor, or being mistaken for a misogynist, or a paedophile, is – knowing what we know about him – one of the biggest punchlines imaginable.

The mind does boggle, though, at what occasional viewers, or someone dropping into an episode utterly unaware of anything about the show, would make of seeing its “star” befriending a sex offender or asking a doctor if he gets aroused when seeing a naked woman. Then again, if someone had never seen an episode of, say, Only Fools and Horses before being parachuted in halfway through a series, they’d probably feel equally at sea. Chances are the archetypes on display in LA would even prove more recognisable to a TV novice than those in Peckham.

“I’m married; I can wear whatever I want”

There are two further concerns, somewhat less near-the-knuckle, which leaven the conventional with the atypical.

It might not be in the same melodramatic tradition as sex or death, but another of Larry’s obsessions is equally universal: clothing. The man has, it must be said, an unnervingly love-hate relationship with garments. The very first episode finds him stressing over a bizarre bulge in his trousers which he dubs “a pants tent” and which understandably gets mistaken for an erection. His shoes are stolen at a bowling alley. He is rightly suspicious of the way sticky labels can leave a residue on certain fabrics. And he gets into an argument – twice – over the percentage of cashmere in a sweater.

Larry’s look is certainly unique. “I’m married,” he insists, “I can wear whatever I want”. His casual garb can seem to be merely thrown together, but when challenged over his appearance – “I didn’t get outfit approval tonight” – trouble ensues. He’s hurt when Cheryl throws out a tasteless maroon jacket, yet revels in purchasing not one, not two, but three gaudy black and white tunics. He even sports a bowtie to a dinner, having earlier observed how it’s “a good look on a Muslim”.

Clothing is a subject barely touched on by male comics. It’s not really a part of anyone’s act (the closest, arguably, is the role it plays in Jonathan Ross’ “persona”) and rarely mined for humorous potential. Yet Larry tackles it with such charm and, yes, elegance, it doesn’t feel forced or misplaced whatsoever. The Larry David wardrobe is one that is meticulously compiled and sartorially at ease with itself – albeit one where you interfere with elasticated cuffs at your peril.

“Not everybody knows your rules”

Finally, to the bare bones of the series: its dialogue. “You’re like an English language cop,” Richard complains to Larry, and rarely has there been a sitcom where words alone rank above character and circumstance to generate comic situations. It’s as if Larry has his own dictionary of allusions, codes and passwords, one that proves eternally frustrating to the rest of the whole world (“Not everybody knows your rules,” moans Cheryl).

Curb Your Enthusiasm has already bequeathed us, besides those already mentioned, the “bunch-up”, the “shoe whore”, the “double goodbye”, “pity points”, the “cut-off”, the “pop-in”, the “whisper lunch”, the “porn baby”, the “house sound”, “shy/asshole confusion”, a “breast intervention”, and “pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.”

They’re all fairly meaningless, and desperately unfunny, out of context. If anything has handed the programme a dangerously exclusive following, it is – as is so often the case with sitcoms – the catchphrases. They’re used sparingly though; each of the above appears twice at most, with only “cut-off” and “pretty, pretty … ” appearing pretty regularly. More ubiquitous is the swearing. As Larry concedes, “You throw in a fuck, you double your laughs.”

Analysing the art of humour is guaranteed to suck a degree of sparkle out of any sitcom, regardless of pedigree. Written words are no substitute for being overwhelmed by a gale of spontaneous laughter. Ultimately the reason Curb Your Enthusiasm seems funny to the viewer is down to the viewer themselves. There are as many reasons to be amused by the line, “I get ideas all the time about mixed nut packages” as there are people willing to be amused. Why something is special, precious and extraordinary to one can, and should, fail to resonate entirely with another.

Why it’s worth giving this series a try, though, or sticking with it if you’ve only just started watching, is the joy to be tapped from its effortless distillation of what you think you’ll have seen before (the structural conventions of sitcom) with what you’ll only have heard before (the nuances of real life). Larry David has taken an ultra-elite, uber-rarefied existence and somehow made it universal and all-inclusive. It’s a world open to anyone, so long as they know the rules. And don’t phone after the cut-off.

And if that seems like a somewhat prickly conclusion, don’t be mistaken. What you’re reading as agitation is actually ebullience.