“Curb Your Enthusiasm” is never going to displace “Seinfeld” as the first thing mentioned in Larry David’s obituary many years from now, even though “Curb” gave the world one of the all-time great obituary-related jokes (in the first season episode “Beloved Aunt”). But has the HBO show already done enough to accompany “Seinfeld” in the first line of that obituary?
I think it has.
Look, “Seinfeld” was a masterpiece. It was the most successful, influential comedy of its era, it introduced countless phrases and concepts into the cultural lexicon and produced so many classic episodes that a group of fans could endlessly debate which are the top 5, or 10, and not have any overlap and yet all have a reasonable argument. I take nothing away from the impact and legacy of “Seinfeld” to say that “Curb” – which begins its eighth season on Sunday night at 10 – looms nearly as large on David’s resume, and that “Curb” has by now earned its own place in the all-time comedy pantheon.
If anything, the previous season of “Curb,” in which Larry brought Jerry and the rest of the “Seinfeld” gang back for a mock reunion, only added to the “Seinfeld” legend. Not only did it provide a much funnier, more satisfying ending to the original show than David had 11 years earlier, but that season – and particularly the interactions between Larry and Jerry – made it clear once and for all how much “Curb” is carrying on the various traditions of “Seinfeld,” proving that there’s still life in that structure and sensibility more than 20 years after the “Seinfeld” pilot first aired on NBC.
For all this idiotic talk of a “‘Seinfeld’ Curse” (which would imply that Jason Alexander and company had thrown a man and his pet goat out of Wrigley Field, as opposed to daring to find other work after their show ended), David has essentially been successfully doing his own version of “Seinfeld” for a long time now – one filtered even more through his personality and sensibilities than “Seinfeld” was. “Curb” has the same colliding-catastrophes structure, the same obsession with questioning the unwritten rules (some sensible, some ridiculous) of modern society, with restaurants and sexual etiquette and all the rest. It’s just set in LA, features richer people, raunchier dialogue and is largely improvised, and Larry is playing the Jerry and George roles at once. (I leave it to the rest of you to decide which of the large stable of “Curb” characters is Kramer. My first instinct is to go with Marty Funkhouser, but I can be convinced that it’s Leon or someone else entirely.)
In some ways, that comparison may be even more obvious in this new season than it was in the last, since midway through the year, Larry and many of the other regular characters have to move to New York for several months – in Larry’s case, for reasons that only make sense in the twisted, stubborn mind of Larry David, and to those of us who have spent seven-plus seasons learning to understand that mind.
I’ve only seen one of the New York-set episodes – because Larry David is powerful enough to do whatever he wants (including waiting nearly 2 years between seasons), he asked HBO to send out three non-sequential episodes for review, rather than the usual practice of sending out the season premiere and maybe the next few – but it’s a great episode of “Curb,” while also evoking various “Seinfeld” storylines. Larry befriends former Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner (just as Jerry palled around with Buckner’s Mets counterpart from the infamous ’86 World Series, Keith Hernandez), runs afoul of a doctor who’s a bit blabbier about his patients than he should be (a la Elaine confessing too many secrets to the rabbi), makes an enemy of his auto mechanic at the wrong time (see also David Puddy), etc.
And yet even though I’ve seen Larry riff on these scenarios before – and “Seinfeld” repeated itself well before “Curb” came along, just as “Curb” has repeated itself a time or 12 – the elegant structure, and the brilliant, unswerving depiction of the TV version of Larry David, still makes the material shockingly, gut-bustingly funny so many years later. And the earlier LA-based episodes were nearly as great in their own way.
Because HBO needs Larry David far more than he needs HBO, he has one of the sweetest deals in the business. He makes seasons when he wants, can wait as long as he wants in between, has the freedom to walk away anytime, and only comes back when he has an idea he feels is worth spending a few months on. In that way, he gets to run things the way many producers do in the British TV system, where the goal isn’t to keep a show on for as long as it’s profitable, creativity be damned. And yet despite having that freedom to walk away, he keeps coming back, still working in the style we’ve loved so much for so long, still finding new ways to act belligerent, for Susie to curse him out, for Leon to be irrationally confident, and all the rest.
Because of Larry’s arrangement with HBO, and because every season of “Curb” closes with an episode that could easily work as a series finale, I never know when I come to the end of a season whether this will be the last I ever see of these characters and Larry’s brilliant comic voice. “Curb” could have easily gone out on the high note of Larry’s triumphant opening night in “The Producers,” or Larry dying and then being cast out of Heaven, or Larry becoming part of the Black family, or Larry pulling off the “Seinfeld” reunion and getting Cheryl back. I would have found any or all of those endings satisfying, and felt grateful that we got as much of the series as we did. But Larry keeps coming back with new seasons, and if the wait is a while, it is always worth it.
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” is a gift – a vulgar, misanthropic, hilarious gift. And somehow, it keeps on giving.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org