Sunday, January 3, 2016

Laugh riot

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2002)

Among my intensive movie-watching schedule, there’s only one show I’ve designated as appointment television – Curb your Enthusiasm on TMN. The show is gradually getting more attention (it was up for a best comedy show Emmy this year) although no one I’ve mentioned it to has ever seen it. Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld, writes every episode, and stars in it as a stylized version of himself – a multi-millionaire living in plush circumstances in L.A. hanging out with celebrities, not doing anything in particular, but constantly battling aggravation and embarrassment. It’s partly the result of his dyspeptic, rough-edged personality, but also reflects an almost cosmic bad luck, as though to punish him for getting rich from such lightweight achievement.

Curb your Enthusiasm

The show has superb plotting – very much like Seinfeld in how it sets several off-the-wall plot strands in motion and steers them toward a generally wince-inducing collision. He hangs out a lot with people he may or may not actually like (Richard Lewis seems like an actual friend despite their fighting; it’s harder though to tell what he thinks of Ted Danson) – he needs the interaction, but it pains him. But it’s a much more bitter show, acknowledging no taboo subjects. One episode featured the making of a Martin Scorsese movie, the death of Larry’s mother (which struck him mainly as an excuse to get out of unwanted obligations), counterfeit money, and grave-robbing. Week after week, the show further defines its own universe – one that’s increasingly as complex and resonant as Seinfeld (which inspired at least one dictionary).

I love how, again like Seinfeld, David positions the show between reality and surrealism. The shows are broadly sequential, with running plot lines, and yet Larry can only escape pariahdom because people (or the Federal government for that matter), aren’t keeping score. In various episodes, he’s been despised by everyone in L.A. for putting Shaquille O’Neal out of action (Larry had a front row seat at a Lakers game and Shaq tripped over his outstretched feet), he’s emptied out the city after spreading rumours of a terrorist attack, he’s alienated the bosses of just about every TV network, been stopped by the cops on numerous occasions, etc. But life goes on.

David was apparently the inspiration for George Costanza on Seinfeld, and exhibits the same nebbish, self-centered view of the world here. But David doesn’t have Jason Alexander’s cuddliness or occasional plaintive quality. Anyway, it’s a TV show that’s as good as watching a movie – and that’s the highest praise I can give. I am, as you can see, a fan.


Julia-Louis Dreyfus made several appearances on Curb your Enthusiasm last season, for a recurring storyline about her and Larry trying to set up a new comedy show (one by one, every network reacts positively at first, then Larry blows the deal for some reason or other). Jason Alexander appeared too. In the real world, they and Michael Richards all flopped in their post-Seinfeld projects. As for the big guy himself – well, Jerry Seinfeld always marched to a slightly different drummer. He never took on a movie role. After the show ended, he didn’t do much of anything for a while. Then you started reading about him working the comedy clubs again. Famously, he retired all his old jokes. Sounded like he still thought he had something to prove, but what?

It now turns out that a camera was trailing Seinfeld throughout that period, and the new film Comedian gives us a flavour of what was going on. And the revelation is – there’s no revelation. Regardless that he drives to his New York gigs in a Porsche and flies in a private jet to his out of town jobs, he’s a true believer in the classic comedy ladder. That’s the one where you sweat it out developing material and a sense of yourself, slog around the country, work your way up the bill and then get your big break – it used to be Carson, now it’s Leno or Letterman. Seinfeld already shot way beyond that level and made his fortune, but it looks like he couldn’t imagine any greater challenge than to do it all over again.

Of course, he can’t really go back again – audiences now grant him a degree of indulgence denied to any novice. But that’s not really his fault. Jerry Seinfeld comes across as a decent, inherently modest guy. The movie contrasts him with Orny Adams, a 29-year-old still searching for his big break. By comparison, Adams seems arrogant and self-regarding – it’s clear that if he ever makes it big, no room will be big enough to contain his ego. But then at one point he shows us his room full of material – files of jokes, journals, unproduced screenplays – and you realize how much he’s poured into this, how his abrasiveness is insulation against rejection. At one point he talks with Seinfeld, telling him about friends who’ve made money on Wall Street and how he (Adams) needs to start getting somewhere. Seinfeld thinks he’s crazy – it’s not about the money, he says, it’s because if you’re drawn to this life, then you have no choice. But Jerry’s at a point where he can afford to ignore practicalities.

The King of Comedy

Comedian contains hundreds of jokes, but it isn’t actually all that funny. While watching it, you’re too caught up in the process of manufacturing comedy, with all its neuroses and pressures and traps. In this regard the movie reminded me of Scorsese’s classic The King of Comedy, in which Robert de Niro is Rupert Pupkin, a psychotic wannabe comedian who ultimately kidnaps his talk show idol, played by Jerry Lewis. Scorsese talked in interviews about how he deliberately didn’t include much of the Lewis character’s humour in the film, because it would have invited the audience to judge whether or not he’s as funny as Pupkin thinks he is. The point was purely that he’s an icon, that he’s made it. Comedian works in a similar way. You forget that it’s in some sense about laughter and fun, because no one’s having that much of either.

The famous deathbed line is that dying is easy – it’s comedy that’s hard. Comedian amply supports that premise, and yet you wonder why stand-up is quite so hard. Jerry Seinfeld labours for over a year on putting together a 50-minute act, but let’s face it – people write great novels, or direct entire movies, in less time. Larry David writes thirteen mini-masterpieces a year. But I guess there's no way you can feel the pain unless you share the affliction.

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