“Curb Your Enthusiasm” Finale, Reviewed: Larry David Gets the Last Word

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On a late December night many years ago, I was riding around midtown cheerfully stuffed into the back seat of a taxi with two of my kids. One was around seven, the other around four. We passed the skaters and the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. We passed by the twinkling displays in the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue, and the clusters of people clutching shopping bags and peering in. There were Santas tolling bells for the Salvation Army, venders hawking blistered chestnuts, flocks of pedicab drivers, tree hustlers, carollers, the whole frenetic birth-of-Jesus, half-off-at-Macy’s phantasmagoria.

My kids gazed out the window. A long silence set in. Finally, the four-year-old turned to me and said, “Daddy, why is there so much Christmas, not so much Hanukkah?” As I went about drafting an explanation in my head, the seven-year-old answered with absolute assurance: “Hitler.”

I admit, I felt some alarm, because it’s hard to take on board that your very young children already have an awareness of their own difference, much less an awareness of tyrants and of what tyrants have done to peoples of difference. But I was also filled with pride: one’s seven-year-old had just landed a one-word joke with the aplomb of a dues-paying member of the Friars Club.

Later, these progeny would begin to encounter at least some of the comic classics in the syllabus: “Gimpel the Fool,” “The Trial,” “Herzog,” “Catch-22,” and “Portnoy’s Complaint”; “Duck Soup,” “The Producers,” “Sleeper,” and “A Serious Man”; the whole borscht-belt litany, from Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers lighting up “The Tonight Show” to the more avant-garde Jewish mother jokes of Nichols and May. And Mr. Morty Gunty, of course. (Alav ha-shalom.) Then came the TV moderns: “Seinfeld,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Broad City,” Sarah Silverman, Adam Sandler strumming “The Chanukah Song.”

The history of shtick is thick. In the “Encyclopedia Judaica” (Volume IX, page 595), we encounter a hard-to-confirm statistic from the late nineteen-seventies: “Research has shown that among the most famous nationally known humorists in America, 80% are Jewish, while Jews represent only 3% of the American population.” The author of this entry, one Avner Ziv, provides a survey from early Biblical irony (“Because there was no grave in Egypt have you taken us away to die in the wilderness”: Exodus 14:11) to a somewhat later specimen of Biblical irony, “The 2000 Year Old Man.”

Professor Ziv’s account, however, should one day be expanded to include Larry David’s HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which has now concluded its twelfth and final season and deserves a prominent place in the canon. As a comedy of manners, “Curb” is the “Tartuffe” of Leo’s Deli.

In “Curb,” David plays himself, but magnified and distorted. TV Larry is Larry David only in the sense that Portnoy or Zuckerman were Philip Roth. The author exploits his own intelligence, subversive curiosity, social indifference, and dirty secrets, and, in turn, makes a comic monster of himself. Larry is the fabulously wealthy co-creator of “Seinfeld,” whose fortune provides him with an immense house and limitless time to potchky around on various projects at the office, play golf, have long lunches with his friends, particularly Jeff (Jeff Garlin) and Richard (the late Richard Lewis), or, in later seasons, puzzle things out with his permanent house guest, Leon Black (J. B. Smoove).

If Larry loves anything, it is talk—unhindered, impolite, and (the highest value) funny. He is never so happy as when he is riffing with his friends about sex, religion, age, sandwiches, the body, ethnic differences, words—anything that irritates or interests him. There are no boundaries; the conversations over salads and chicken sandwiches in “Curb” are as free as Portnoy’s sessions with his analyst. And, though Larry’s talk wildly trespasses every precept of modern liberal manners, he is not exactly a tribalist. Where Leon screws around with Black stereotypes (he proudly declares himself a member of the “big-johnson community”), Larry does the same with Jewish ones. (Larry, for his part, is a member of the “long balls” community).

If the show has an animating impulse, it is Larry’s vexation with social conventions. He is deaf to what is “appropriate” and rebellious when called to order. At every turn, he prods (and burns to the ground) the countless social and linguistic niceties that supposedly hold civilization together. He insistently interrogates everyone’s most shameful secrets (a woman rumored to have a “big vagina,” an elderly Japanese man who is alive because he chickened out, at the last minute, as a kamikaze). He will ask any question, press on every tender wound, and conclude the interrogation with his high-pitched “Huh!” or “Interesting!” As Adam Gopnik writes, David, like one of Molière’s creations, “incarnates the man who will innocently say the uncomfortable truth—that a parent’s death, for instance, suddenly creates an all-purpose excuse for avoiding obligatory socializing.”

Ten years ago, I interviewed David at The New Yorker Festival and asked him about the impulse behind the show. “ ‘Curb’ is about what’s beneath the surface of social intercourse, the things we think about and can’t say,” he said. “I’m normal. If I said the things he does”—“he” being the Larry David who, for instance, eats his in-laws’ manger scene—“I’d be beaten up. He’s a sociopath! But I’m thinking them!”

In the show’s finale, Larry’s ex-wife, Cheryl (who finally left him in Season 6 after he all but ignored her terrified phone call from an imperilled plane so that he could attend to his problems at home with the TiVo guy), is distressed that he has told his friends that she doesn’t like Mexican food. Cheryl won’t quite admit it, but she is clearly worried that an indifference to enchiladas may signal, in their social set of anxious liberals, an indifference to Mexican people. Larry finds this ridiculous. He finds the world ridiculous.

The premise and sensibility of “Curb” has a network antecedent. In “Seinfeld,” all four of the characters—Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer—are, each in their own way, Upper West Side nihilists, given to interrogating social conventions when they are not oblivious to them. Privileged knuckleheads, they are content to while away their lives at the diner and the kitchen counter talking, plotting, undermining.

But in “Seinfeld,” which Larry David created with the titular Jerry Seinfeld, the ethnic particularity, the Jewishness, of the enterprise was at least partially obscured. Brandon Tartikoff, the head of NBC Entertainment at the time, initially pronounced it “too New York, too Jewish.” (Tartikoff was himself Jewish.) The network went ahead with the show but not before making George—and his echt Jewish father, played by Jerry Stiller—Italian. It was never clear to me what Kramer and Elaine were supposed to be. (Kramer was once made to explain that he wasn’t Jewish, and Elaine occasionally would cross herself.) Still, as a friend once remarked to me, “Hitler would have had thoughts.” Only Jerry himself is identified as Jewish. Among his transgressions against piety is to be spotted making out with his girlfriend at a screening of “Schindler’s List.”

With “Curb,” David ended the sham. In life, as on the show, he is insistently himself, and he calls on the details of his actual biography for the show. David was raised in Sheepshead Bay, in Brooklyn, where his performance in school did not suggest future greatness. His mother had hopes he might get a job delivering the mail. (David, for his part, thought he could endure the rain and the sleet, maybe, but not the hail.) He was thrown out of Hebrew school, but, before he could enjoy his newfound liberty, the rabbi changed his mind. As he put it to me, “My mother went to the school and blew him, I think, because they took me back two days later.”

After college, David worked as a bra salesman and as a driver for a woman whose vision was impaired. (“I can’t say enough about a blind boss.”) As an aspiring standup, he hung out with his early summer-camp pal and future castmate, Richard Lewis, and had some modest success in the clubs, but he was too hot-tempered to win anyone over. Sometimes he would get up to the stage, take one look at the audience, and walk off. For a brief period in the eighties, he wrote for “Saturday Night Live.” Then, in 1988, he and Jerry Seinfeld pitched “Seinfeld.” A show about talking, about nothing. The following year, it launched—and, though ratings were modest at first, it eventually became an enormous hit.

“Seinfeld” ran for nine seasons. The finale was so highly anticipated and conceived with such secrecy that, on the night of the taping, Seinfeld came out to greet the studio audience and said, “Well, aren’t you all hot shit? And don’t tell me you haven’t been working it. You’re at the Kennedy assassination, and you’ve got your seats on the grassy knoll.” More than seventy-six million people watched. (Compare that with the recent finale of “Succession,” which fewer than three million watched. So much for the American monoculture.) On the night of the “Seinfeld” finale, Frank Sinatra, who was eighty-two, had a heart attack. It took only four minutes for the ambulance to get to his house in L.A. The Beverly Hills fire chief, Mike Smollen, according to the New York Daily News, attributed the lack of traffic to the fact that nearly everyone in town was watching the finale. (Sinatra died, nonetheless.)

In the “Seinfeld” finale, the four nihilists get their comeuppance: they are arrested in Massachusetts for breaking an obscure Good Samaritan law, after they laughed at a victim of a carjacking rather than coming to his aid. Characters from earlier episodes who had suffered the quartet’s insults and infractions of social convention are brought in to testify. Judge and jury are appalled. In the end, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are convicted and sentenced to a one-year prison term. The judge tells them, “Your callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent has rocked the very foundation upon which our society is built.”

Most “Seinfeld” fans and critics thought of the finale as a strained, overstuffed attempt to exact judgment on the show’s amoral characters. On talk shows, in the press, and even on episodes of “Curb,” the “Seinfeld” finale was routinely mocked.

How would David end “Curb”? It now appears that he was setting us up all along. In the course of twelve seasons, he had upped the ante, adapting themes and incidents from “Seinfeld” and going much further. You thought Jerry was indifferent to social niceties? No more talk of marble rye bread (George’s dad brings a loaf to a dinner party and, noticing it went uneaten, steals it back) or black-and-white cookies (Jerry rhapsodizes over one, but throws up after he eats it). Oh, no. In “Curb,” Larry swipes shoes from an exhibit at a Holocaust museum after he throws his own shoes away. He invites a sex offender to a Passover Seder. He stages a conflict between Solly, an elderly Holocaust survivor, and Colby, a guy who had been a cast member on “Survivor.”

SOLLY: Let me tell you, I was in a concentration camp. You never even suffered one minute in your life compared to what I went through.

COLBY: We had very little rations, no snacks.

SOLLY: Snacks, what are you talking, snacks! We didn’t eat, sometimes for a week, for a month.

COLBY: Have you even seen the show?

SOLLY: Did you ever see our show? It was called the Holocaust.

When the last season began, the hints that David would also bring Larry to account were hard to miss. Arrested for violating a Georgia election law by giving a bottle of water to Leon’s aunt as she waits to vote, Larry first becomes a hero of pious MSNBC commentators and liberals everywhere. But then, as the history of his transgressions, petty and large, are hilariously recalled, he faces final judgment. Sure enough, in the finale, one old enemy after another testifies in court to Larry’s selfishness, his violations of human decency. Mocha Joe has his revenge for Larry’s “spite” store—the coffee shop Larry opens next to his in order to annoy him. Mr. Takahashi, the golf-club owner, furiously informs the jury, “He never says ‘Fore!’ ” Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who, in real life, called out Donald Trump for trying to bribe the Ukrainian leadership in exchange for dirt on the Biden family, testifies that he overheard Larry trying to bribe a city councilwoman. “It was a perfect call!” Larry protests.

David has said that he was, at best, ambivalent about the need to wrap up a long series. He is hardly a closure sort of guy. Of the “Seinfeld” finale, he told me, “I sometimes think we really shouldn’t have even done it. There was a lot of pressure on us at that time to do one big last show, but big is always bad in comedy.”

Nevertheless, David always insisted that the “Seinfeld” finale was fine. Pretty, pretty good, in fact. And so, despite all the criticism (or because of it), he has doubled down: the finale of “Curb” is antic, shambolic, sometimes funny, sometimes not so much, and, above all, an intensified version of its predecessor from twenty-six years ago. You didn’t like the “Seinfeld” finale? Well, here it is again times ten! Larry David is not about to cower.

And yet, as I was watching, something felt out of kilter. It wasn’t the occasional comic misfire that was bothering me. Nor was it the sense that the end of “Curb” signalled the end of something more than the show itself; the immigrant and children-of-immigrant Yiddishkeit version of Jewish humor has been on the wane for a long time. (Adam Sandler’s performance as a degenerate gambler in “Uncut Gems,” a 2019 film by the Safdie brothers, is a fresh take on the old rhythms.) No, what was off was the timing, the misery of the moment. It was hard to think about the finale of “Curb,” or rewatch the “Palestinian Chicken” episode, amid the cruelty and carnage of the past six months. The comedy of manners plays with the mores of civilization; it can lose its charm when civilization succumbs to barbarity. In life, as in comedy, timing is essential.

In the closing minutes of the finale, Jerry comes to visit Larry in his cell and tells him that he is free. One of the jurors (a Joe Pesci imitator) evidently broke the rules of sequestration. A mistrial has been declared. “You don’t want to end up like this,” Jerry tells Larry as he leads him out of the cell. “Nobody wants to see it. Trust me.” And so Larry and his friends board a flight from Atlanta to L.A.—first class, of course, bitching and arguing all the way home. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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