Eurgh. Larry David. He’s cowardly, he’s self-centred, he believes his own hype. In short, he’s an asshole. So goes the script for Curb Your Enthusiasm; but unfortunately, so it seems to go for Larry David in real life, given the vainglorious programme that he currently flogs.
CYE takes significantly after late-stage Seinfeld, which suffered exactly the same problems as happen now. I loved early Seinfeld – it was witty, insightful, meticulously pieced together without making in-jokes for the sake of it, and acted out with a believable passing disinterest. As it went on, you could see the cast smirking to themselves as they bellowed out their lines at volume, confident that they would always be raising laughs no matter how farcically they played their roles. And the plot descended into tiresome jokes stretched to breaking point. Basically, everything after the point that Newman (Newman…) came in just brings back painful memories about how good the programme once was.
CYE suffers the same smirk of self-satisfaction. Everyone is just so damned happy that they are doing the programme, and so smug because they’re improvising all their lines. It’s like someone subsumed an episode of In The Actor’s Studio into each programme, you can so clearly see the cogs at work in people’s minds. They’re not impressed with what they are actually producing, but with the fact they did so with no script. It’s probably so overrated because the actors are so overjoyed that they get to show off the improv skills they learned at drama school (which is also why actors seem to go gaga for it), but it desperately needs someone in charge to rein the whole shebang in.
Because inevitably, everything ends up in screaming and shouting, because that is where most improve of this nature goes. If they could just mix in a few episodes where the tiresome and inevitably conclusion could be delivered in moderation, instead of having to always go to a screaming climax, the programme probably wouldn’t have been half as annoying.
As with all the worst best television, what really grates is that there is good stuff in here. Following a pompous, vain, despicable middle-aged man can be hilarious (I’m working my way through Reggie Perrin at the moment, and can’t rate it highly enough as a CYE substitute). Starting an entire programme off with a premise like, say, a child with an unusually large penis, is the minutiae of everyday life kind of starting point that vintage Seinfeld would start from. A few of the cast also manage to do improv without passing out from the sheer weight of their own talent. Cheryl Hines plays Larry David’s wife beautifully, partially by virtue of the fact that she gets to act quietly next to him. Jeff Garlin as Larry’s best friend also tends to hide that knowing glint in his eyes more than the rest of the cast.
But Larry is the unavoidable roadblock problem. Like Reggie Perrin, we can recognise some of ourselves in him and his litany of misfortune and selfish judgement. But Perrin worked because we laughed at him, we laughed with him at his surroundings, and we empathised with the trapped situation.
But with Larry we’re not really doing those things, because the heavy-handed subtext has to spoil everything. It all boils down to laughing at clever the set-up is, how fast-thinking the acting is, how daring the plotlines are. We’re ultimately supposed to be impressed – not even entertained – by the methodology, but even that is served up without the charm that improv can deliver.
In short, CYE is an in-joke that no-one else is invited to. Its television for those who want others to know how good a taste they have, an exercise in painfully self-aware good ‘taste’. And the last thing that Larry David needs is people telling him how clever he really is.