NEW YORK — In 2005, to promote the fifth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” HBO went with an unusual advertising campaign. It presented a collection of bodies, male and female, in business suits and bathrobes, all bearing Larry David’s head. The tagline went: “Deep inside you know you’re him.”
I remember being a little creeped out by the image when I saw it in Times Square (yes, right at the base of One Times Square, where the ball drops on New Year’s Eve), but after the discomfort from the uncanny visual dissipated, something else didn’t feel quite right. Yes, Larry David’s “Larry David” character is a brilliant comic invention because you always know what he’s thinking — but to admit that this exasperating tornado of bad behavior is what we’re all like “deep inside” would be a capitulation to failure. A righteous life is one spent trying to overcome Larry’s selfish instincts; to keep ourselves in check for the betterment of all mankind.
Larry is funny, but he is about as unethical as one can be without actively breaking any laws. (To paraphrase Joel and Ethan Coen’s Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, he’s not wrong, he’s just an asshole.) The show (and Larry David, its creator) knows this, so this is why occasional accusations that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” takes its comedy “too far” never make any sense to me. If there has ever been a consistent message in this series it’s that shortcuts don’t work, and instant gratification will bite you back tenfold. It may feel great to yell at someone taking too much time at the drugstore checkout, but there’s a reason social norms say to keep those rants to yourself.
While the onscreen dialogue between David and his “Curb” co-stars is known to be the work of veteran comics engaging in improvisation, the arcs in each episode (and, more recently, full seasons) are actually intricately plotted stories that do not seem interconnected at first, but fit together perfectly at the end. And always with the same message: If Larry would have done the right thing at the beginning, he could have avoided all this tsuris. These are practically shtetl morality plays, except everyone is a multi-millionaire whose biggest worry is figuring out which exclusive sushi restaurant to go to for lunch.
The just-concluded season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the 11th since the show’s creation in 1999 (Larry likes to take breaks), was a particular delight for me, because it was even more Jewish than usual. One might ask how the series — in which Shelly Berman, playing Larry David’s dad, went from kvelling that his son has a deli sandwich named after him to then criticizing the way he speaks in the very same scene — could get more Jewish. But somehow it did.
In this season’s fourth episode, after losing a bet, the extremely secular Larry ends up attending synagogue. While there, the rabbi gives him a shofar which, Larry bluntly says, he’ll never use, as it means absolutely nothing to him. In the same episode, following a visit to the eye doctor in which he got his eyes dilated, Larry accidentally spills coffee on a guy’s white clothing. Before he realizes what he’s doing, he agrees to pay for the cleaning — but of course there’s a catch. It turns out that in doing the rare “right thing,” Larry finds himself committed to cleaning a Ku Klux Klan robe.
His typical laundromat (with a Jewish National Fund box on the counter) refuses to clean the robe. His frenemy Susie agrees to sew a new robe, but she (not exactly a figure of righteousness herself, but more politically active) covertly patches a Star of David on the back.
In the meantime, Larry walks in on his Black friend Leon eating watermelon. Leon is embarrassed because it is a cliché, but Larry says this is ridiculous — after all, watermelon is just plain delicious. Later, the two of them ride to the supermarket to liberate any self-conscious Black people who might feel stigmatized buying watermelon. While enlightening his fellow shoppers, Larry declares that he is a Jew and that he loves gefilte fish, and, slamming a jar on the counter, says that he plans to eat some. In fact, he may even have some herring, too, and he doesn’t care who knows it!
Meanwhile, unaware of the Star of David on the back of his robe, the Klansman happily wears it to his next rally — and is attacked by his own gang. The angry racist comes to Larry’s house for revenge and begins pounding on the front door, at which point Larry grabs the shofar and blows it, alerting his (largely Jewish) neighbors.
This is all very preposterous (and funnier to watch than to read in synopsis form) but is about as close as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has ever come to offering a sentiment of Jewish pride. Larry David, defiant in his disbelief, unironically blowing the shofar, even if only for screwball comedy purposes, is significant in a time of rising antisemitism.
Another important Jewish moment comes in the season’s final episode. Larry has been facing a potential hefty fine because he neglected to put the right kind of fence around his pool. Rather than accept this, he’s concocted a convoluted scheme in which he will romance a local politician (Tracey Ullman as councilwoman Irma Kostroski) into repealing the law.
But the night before the big vote, he is at an event at the Holocaust Museum. In trying to avoid an acquaintance who hugs too closely, he accidentally steps in dog poop near the entrance. He throws his shoes away and goes through the evening shoeless, which is all well and good — but when it is time to leave, it is pouring rain. Seeing an exhibit featuring shoes taken from Holocaust victims, Larry finds a pair his size and puts them on. We cut to him gallivanting outside like Gene Kelly as upbeat music plays.
A few scenes later, Irma discovers the shoes — naturally, they belonged to her grandfather who died in the Holocaust — and she runs out sobbing. The trauma causes her to break years of sobriety, and she gets drunk and ends up missing the council vote.
After an entire season of him building a ludicrous and manipulative plan to save his hide, Larry’s crude act brings it all crashing down — and it’s the perfect ending.
One editorial got all huffy, with obtuse moans that you would never see Larry go to an African American history museum and put on a slave collar. This is an immature strawman argument, because of course Larry David would not do that. But you damn sure will see Black comics finding humor in the pain of their heritage. (Hit Google for Dave Chappelle’s parody of “Roots,” and maybe listen to Eddie Murphy’s “first slave in America” bit next.)
Not only is it “okay” for Larry David to find humor in the pain of the Holocaust, it is righteous. Larry (the character) should have just walked to his car and gotten his feet wet. He knew it was the right thing to do. But who wants wet feet, right? He did the disrespectful thing, and yanked “Holocaust shoes” from a display. If this were to happen in real life (assuming an alarm wouldn’t go off) there would not be any actual repercussions. But in the jigsaw puzzle that is a season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” this violation, this act of odiousness against one’s own people, is Larry’s downfall.
To a boundary-pushing Jewish comedian like Larry David, the Holocaust is an ever-present specter looming over everything. One could make the case that his entire career of blowing out life’s tiny conflicts into arias of great tumult is a reaction to, or perhaps looking away from, the great horror that happened to people just like him a few years before he was born. As his comedic mentor Woody Allen put it in “Stardust Memories,” “if I had been born in Poland or Berlin I’d be a lampshade right now.”
Engaging with the Holocaust is essential for modern Jews, and Larry David having “Larry David” do it wrong is, in my opinion, right.
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