Remembering Larry David’s Tortured Past With ‘Saturday Night Live’

While many wait and wonder if Curb Your Enthusiasm will ever return, show creator and star Larry David has found a semi-regular outlet for his comedic impulses by playing Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Saturday Night Live, the show where David’s career was almost smothered to death in its crib when he worked as a writer during the 1984-85 season.

Before David’s initial SNL experience, however, he stood out on Fridays, an SNL replica that ran from 1980 to 1982 on ABC. David worked as a writer and a performer on the show, and it was there that he first teamed up with future Seinfeld cast member Michael Richards and several future Seinfeld writers, including Larry Charles. Fridays isn’t as celebrated as SNL, having fallen into relative obscurity while SNL has charged through season after season. (This has been helped by David’s supposed objection to full a DVD release prior to the 2013 Shout! Factory Best Of compilation.) But Fridays had its time in the sun, as evidenced by the supposed actions of SNL executive producer Dick Ebersol who, according to writer and biographer Dennis Perrin, tried to peel away cast members and woo them to SNL in the time between Lorne Michaels’ stints running the show. It’s not known if David was one of those who Ebersol sought, but he eventually brought the cantankerous comic into the fold. The honeymoon, however, proved short-lived.

According to former SNL head writer Bob Tischler in the 2002 Saturday Night Live oral history Live from New York, David and Ebersol’s relationship was “horrible” and it was “almost a personal thing.” According to David’s own interview in Live from New York, much of the animosity seems to have come from a confrontation that he had with Ebersol over the show’s legendarily grueling marathon writing sessions, which David didn’t feel the need to participate in after completing his work early. According to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ remarks in the book, David and Ebersol’s feud almost turned physical. It wasn’t just Ebersol with whom David failed to get along, though, per his comments in this 1998 interview with The A.V. Club:

“I had an office that faced the elevator, and hordes of people would go out to lunch, and my door would be open, and I would be sitting there looking at them, and I’m waiting for the wave of, “Come on, Lar, we’re going to lunch! Come on with us! You want to have lunch with us?” No. It was the only place I ever worked where I really, truly did not make a friend. I couldn’t believe it.”

More than a sense of loneliness, though, it’s clear that David felt creatively stifled. Though it’s often been said by David and others that he only got one sketch on the air in his one year, the number is slightly higher thanks to a character that he and then-cast member Billy Crystal co-created called Lou Goldman, an “old crazy Jewish weatherman” who recurred on the show.

Still, going from being a key contributor on Fridays to an afterthought on SNL couldn’t have sat well with David, especially because his material had a habit of making it through the gantlet only to get cut after dress rehearsal. This led David to quit SNL early on.

From David’s 2015 interview with Howard Stern:

“One night before the show, another sketch of mine was cut. At 11:25, five minutes before the show was to start, I had enough. […]

Dick was sitting in the chair, the director’s chair, and he had headphones on and I marched over to him and I said, “This f*cking show stinks! It stinks! It’s sh*t! I’m done! I’m gone! F*ck this! I’m out!” […]

I’m walking home in the freezing cold — couldn’t get a cab — and I’m starting to compute how much money I cost myself.”

According to David, it was his neighbor, Kenny Kramer (a.k.a. the real Kramer), who suggested that he go back two days later on a Monday and pretend that the tantrum hadn’t occurred — a scam that worked and a story that should sound familiar to Seinfeld fans. In the season two episode, “The Revenge,” George (Larry David’s avatar) walks out on his boss before trying to sneak back into the office without addressing his tantrum in the hopes that he can keep his job.

In fact, though David’s sketches rarely made it onto the air, several concepts were later developed into Seinfeld episodes, including the idea of debating the merits of someone getting to sit on a stool while doing their job in the seventh season episode, “The Maestro,” a concept that which was lifted from one of the few sketches that David got on the air. George’s effort to get an answering machine tape from his girlfriend’s apartment to delete an ill-advised message in “The Phone Message” episode of Seinfeld was also born from a failed SNL sketch, according to writer Andy Breckman’s Live from New York interview.

It’s fun to contemplate what would have happened had David been given an environment more accepting of his observational humor and distaste for the cliché and a boss who didn’t make him walk away into a cloud of obscenities. But while that’s a fun exercise, it’s also worth remembering that David was one of many names thrown against the wall in that 1984-85 super season that tried to move on from the Eddie Murphy era with the likes of Crystal, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Rich Hall, and Martin Short with mixed results.

Following that season, Ebersol left and Lorne Michaels arrived on his white horse to clean house, provide structure, and save the show from cancellation. It’s almost impossible to think that David would have survived that purge. So, if you consider the hypothetical of a Larry David launched out into the world with a song in his heart and success in his rearview versus one filled with the kind of anger that seems to drive his best work and the kind of creative rebelliousness that can only come from being held down, it’s clear we all came out ahead. That includes David, who’s finally getting the last laugh at the right moment.