‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Reveals the Absurdity of Our Own Culture

Curb Your Enthusiasm

In ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Larry David’s honesty gets him into a lot of scrapes. But maybe he’s on to something.

When season eight of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm wrapped in 2011, it was unclear if and when the peculiar comedy sitcom would return. During the indefinite hiatus, years passed with no word. Thankfully, Curb Your Enthusiasm has returned for a ninth season and is currently ramping up to its December 3 finale. While the show is as brilliant and funny as ever, something has changed. The hiatus has affected the root of our laughter, caused us to reinterpret its startling presentation of basic interactions and, most of all, demonstrated that it’s always been ahead of its time.

Now, 17 years after the pilot episode, it’s as if Curb Your Enthusiasm was warning us what could happen if we completely stopped being honest with each other. Most of the show’s laughs, conflicts, resolutions and insights are spurred by Larry David speaking his mind — a seemingly simple task that appears to be getting rarer.

The premise of Curb Your Enthusiasm brings it closer to reality than your typical television sitcom. Created by Seinfeld cocreator Larry David shortly after the seminal series ended in 1998, the show follows David as himself in fictional situations. The metafictional plot device works partly because it’s fun to watch a show populated by numerous actors turning themselves into characters, but also because it complicates our ability to fully detach the show from reality. Curb Your Enthusiasm settles in as exaggerated reality, a stranger-than-fiction experience that can sink its teeth into us from the outset because we already know David, one of the greatest comedic minds of his generation, and his character is merely an amplified, more honest version of himself.

In a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone David said, “The character really is me, but I just couldn’t possibly behave like that. If I had my druthers, that would be me all the time, but you can’t do that. We’re always doing things we don’t want to do, we never say what we really feel, and so this is an idealized version of how I want to be.” Of course, no one can or should behave how they want to in every situation in life. That would lead to a world of complete selfishness, no compromise and no community. But in some sense, it’s a bit sad that David admits the most accurate version of himself can be seen only in fiction.

Curb Your Enthusiasm’s brand of comedy, a compilation of scenarios heavily focused on everyday human interaction, is mostly benign. Larry’s honesty isn’t meant to hurt others. Often he merely wants to express his opinions and feelings at a particular moment. Yes, he has no filter, a trait that inevitably offends people and leads to problems, and his eccentric personality and compulsions often stir up trouble that many people would simply ignore. Much of the drama stems from the fact that people aren’t used to his level of honesty. Perhaps our instinct to be outraged by someone who doesn’t follow social conventions isn’t because of what the person says or does but because of the abnormality of the occurrence itself.

That’s exactly how the show strikes a new chord in 2017. In a few short years, our country has become extremely polarized. The internet and social media have only exacerbated the divide, with instant access to a large audience making each perceived social offense all the more egregious. The fear of saying the wrong thing, of expressing an opinion that goes against the grain, has caused us to tread more carefully and, ultimately, become less honest. “Think before you speak” is not bad advice, but when the fear of voicing our thoughts causes us to hide or misrepresent ourselves, how can we make progress? Honest dialogue is the only way to live productively alongside each other. Otherwise, we’ll continue to be divided, separated by an uneasy silence.

Of course, Curb Your Enthusiasm takes honesty too far to be wholly practical. By watching, though, we can see how opinions can be shared and challenged. We can learn from Larry’s radical honesty and hopefully become more truthful ourselves. Maybe even more importantly, we can develop the tools to process the contrasting opinions of others rather than jumping to the worst conclusions.

Season nine of Curb Your Enthusiasm, like previous seasons, is mostly improvised. The general arc of an episode is known before filming begins, but the dialogue comes together in real time. Beyond adding to the comedic elements of the exchanges, the improvisation makes for a more nuanced, organic conversation.

In “Thank You for Your Service,” Larry decides he no longer wants to make small talk with Sal, the gate attendant, at the country club. See, Larry made the “mistake” of rolling down his window the first time he went through the gate years ago. It turned out that Sal was quite the talker. Once it was established that Larry would talk with him each time he entered the club, he thought there was no going back. It makes sense. If you routinely engage with someone and then all of a sudden decide to stop, it looks bad. Most of us would just nod along in an effort to not hurt the other person’s feelings. Honest Larry, however, tells Sal he wants to “reset” their relationship. His logic is that he just wants to get to the club and play golf. That, of course, is perfectly rational. Sal then accuses Larry of never having enjoyed their conversations to begin with. If we assess the situation objectively, Larry hasn’t actually committed an offense, even though social conventions suggest his actions were rude.

Occasionally, Larry follows social norms, acting in a way that many would consider appropriate and generous. Frequently when he goes against his own instinctive guidelines, though, the results are less than favorable.

In “Never Wait for Seconds!” Caesar, the handyman in Larry’s office building, fixes a humming noise in the lights. Larry tries to give Caesar a tip, but the handyman declines, claiming that he was only doing his job. Later Caesar calls Larry and asks if he can watch a soccer game in his office, using his rejection of the tip to justify this request. Larry finds this rational and agrees, but the situation spirals out of control when Larry eventually calls in a favor to let Caesar and his family use a private school pool on the weekend. Unfortunately, the pool is left in disarray, eliminating the possibility of Larry’s girlfriend’s son attending the school.

Other times, Larry melds honesty and dishonesty to form partial truths, usually after he’s caused some sort of problem for himself or those around him.

In “The Accidental Text on Purpose,” Larry offends his friend Marty’s new girlfriend Marilyn at a dinner party by criticizing the tap water she serves. Everyone at the party privately comments that the tap water tastes bad, but only Larry is willing to bring it up to Marilyn. Angry at his forwardness, Marilyn tells Larry to leave.

Later Larry offers relationship advice to his friends, suggesting they send their significant others flattering texts that appear as if they were intended for Larry. Obviously a dishonest tactic intended to deceive, but the words in the messages are formed from true feelings they don’t know how to address directly. The scheme works at first but ultimately fails when the recipients realize the messages weren’t truly accidental.

When Larry follows his own code of radical honesty, things don’t always work out. And when he goes against that same code, everything doesn’t always goes wrong. Sometimes harboring our true feelings can wind up just as messy as it would if we spoke freely.

Larry’s escapades regularly intersect and snowball into situations that don’t present him in the most positive light to the characters around him. As viewers, we can see the nuance of Larry’s actions and acknowledge that he’s actually, largely, a good person. Given that we are so conditioned to not disrupt standard social cues and behaviors, Larry comes across as a bizarre individual, someone who couldn’t possibly be real.

I don’t recommend adopting Larry’s hyperbolic degree of honesty. But it seems weird to live in a world where a rigorously truthful character like Larry feels implausible, no? end

 

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