Books & the Arts / April 8, 2024

The Last Man

Larry David and the final season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The End of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” Marks the End of an Era

Larry David is the last of his kind—and in several ways.

Daniel Bessner
Illustration by Liam Eisenberg.

Larry David is the last of his kind, in a variety of ways. First and foremost, David is the last Jew. Not literally, of course—there are about 15.7 million of us scattered around the world. But he is the last of a certain type of entertainment-industry Jew: the Brooklyn-raised, acid-tongued, and side-splittingly funny Jew who used to occupy center stage in mainstream comedy. Think Mel Brooks (né Melvin Kaminsky, raised in Williamsburg); Woody Allen (né Allan Konigsberg, raised in Midwood); Joan Rivers (née Molinsky, raised in Crown Heights), and, of course, David himself (raised in Sheepshead Bay).

These Brooklyn Jews are united in both background and comedic approach. For them, nothing is off-limits. All subjects, no matter how dark, from self-hatred to the Holocaust, could be grist for their comedic mill. The only thing to do when faced with the utter awfulness and pettiness of human existence is to laugh. As Rivers told The Telegraph: “As comedians, we are all laughing because life is so horrible. Life is so difficult, and I cope with it by making jokes about absolutely everything.”

On this, Rivers was speaking for all her fellow Brooklyn comedians. The offspring of Jews who had fled European antisemitism and found their homes in the United States, they had come to the conclusion that pain, and oftentimes Jewish pain, was a central feature of life and thus should be a central feature of their comedy. Brooks regularly referenced moments of Jewish oppression in his movies. So did Allen: Who could forget the scene from Annie Hall in which the titular character’s “Grammy” looks at nebbishy Alvy Singer and can see only a bearded, payot-bedecked Hasid?

For his part, David has throughout his career also highlighted antisemitism. In Seinfeld’s 1992 episode “The Limo,” Jerry and George must pretend to be neo-Nazis to survive a misbegotten limo ride they’ve scammed themselves into. In Curb Your Enthusiasm’s “The Mormon Advantage,” Larry steals shoes taken from Holocaust victims to ensure his feet don’t get wet in the rain.

While later generations of Jews, from Ben Stiller to Judd Apatow to Seth Rogen, continue to make successful, and very funny, comedies that often touch on Jewishness, it’s notable that, as they get farther from the proverbial “old country,” Jewish oppression becomes less of a central feature in their work. If the Brooklyn comedians told stories about Jewish alienation and the struggle to assimilate, their heirs have a very different set of stories to tell: about harebrained models and clueless actors (Stiller’s Zoolander and Tropic Thunder), professional ennui (Judd Apatow’s Funny People and This Is 40), and the apocalypse and North Korea (Rogen’s This Is the End and The Interview).

But David is not only the last of the “Jewish comedians”; he is also one of the last comedians whose work defies Hollywood’s increasingly awkward embrace of “wokeness.” Awkward not because endorsing racial and gender diversity is an unworthy goal, but because the entertainment industry seems to believe wokeness is primarily about avoiding offense.

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Of course, David is not alone in his ability to offend. But his propensity to do so emerges from a profound humanism—an egalitarian humanism inherent in the best Jewish comedy. For David, every person, from the pauper to the king, is fallen and thus open to mockery. This includes Holocaust survivors, hurricane and natural-catastrophe victims, the working class, and, of course, Jews. David’s work is premised on the notion that all people can be—just as he is—weak-willed, striving, awkward, prone to vanity, and frightened. Life is awful, and so, David insists, why not have a good laugh about it?

David’s fundamental humanism is perhaps why, despite slaughtering sacred cow after sacred cow, he’s never been a target of “cancellation.” It is also why, over a five-decade-long career, he’s been able to make quotidian selfishness and cruelty so funny. What connects all of David’s characters is their essential, and essentially human, corruption.

This remains true in the latest, and final, season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which centers on David’s character —“Larry David”—becoming a liberal hero after inadvertently breaking a draconian election law. Though Larry does genuinely find the law cruel, he decides to fight for his innocence mostly because he likes being lauded; any convictions he might have are less important than his desire for praise. Put another way, Larry’s seemingly selfless act emerges from his character’s self-regarding narcissism. In the final analysis, this is the message of David’s very Brooklyn humor: We are all nothing if not human, with all the pettiness, cruelty, and comedy that entails.

Larry David was born in 1947. His parents were Mortimer, who worked in the garment industry, and Rose, a housewife. He was raised in south Brooklyn, graduated from Sheepshead Bay High School, and then attended the University of Maryland at College Park, where in 1970 he received a BA in history. After graduation, he joined the US Army Reserve, as he told Conan O’Brien, to avoid getting drafted and sent to fight in the Vietnam War. (David eventually got his time in the Army Reserve cut short after persuading a psychiatrist to label him mentally incompetent.)

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In the mid-1970s, David, who had remained in New York City during his stint in the military, started performing as a stand-up comedian. By all accounts, he wasn’t especially successful. A Daily News article that addressed this period in David’s life was titled “In Larry David’s Stand-Up Days, Few Predicted Success for the Combative Comic.” Indeed, he embraced an explicitly antagonistic relationship with his audience. In a recent episode of the podcast The History of Curb Your Enthusiasm, for instance, David’s costars and fellow comedians Jeff Garlin and Susie Essman recounted times in the 1980s when they saw him go onstage, look at the audience and say, “Not tonight” or “Eh, I don’t think so,” and simply walk off.

But David was always more than just a stand-up; he was also a writer, and in 1980 he joined ABC’s Fridays as a writer and performer. His comedy from this period was very much in the Woody Allen vein, especially in its Jewishness and self-deprecation. In one sketch, he serves as the host of a talk show called Famous People Who Have Jewish Names but Aren’t Jewish, in which he interviews Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, and the Philadelphia 76ers’ legendary small forward, Julius “Dr. J.” Erving, about their very Jewish-sounding names. In another, he offers a “review” of Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin, which serves primarily as an excuse for David to launch into a stand-up routine that contains all the elements of the persona that he would exploit later in his career, from the Allen-style self-flagellation (“Can you still call it ‘making love’ if the whole thing’s over in a minute and a half? I make ‘lo’”) to his obsession with the minutiae of social interaction (after sex, he tells the audience, “I hate to sit around naked. When it’s over, I want to put those pants on. I want to put those pants on and pretend like the whole thing never happened.”)

Fridays was canceled in 1982, and after a brief and unhappy stint on Saturday Night Live—he had only one sketch air in his entire season working there—David focused primarily on stand-up. He intermittently worked in television—he wrote an episode here and there and cowrote the Gilbert Gottfried TV movie Norman’s Corner—but his television work didn’t yet amount to much.

Given his position on Hollywood’s C- or maybe even D-list, contemporary readers might be curious as to why David wasn’t forced to devote himself to another vocation, as so many struggling comedians do. The reason, in part, had to do with another “last”: In the 1980s, he lived in Manhattan Plaza, a federally subsidized affordable-housing complex designed for artists. And this cheap housing gave David far more than shelter; his time at Manhattan Plaza also provided him with some A-level material—it was there that David lived next to Kenny Kramer, who became the basis for Seinfeld’s Kramer.

David’s life changed in November 1988. For years, he had been struggling to climb the entertainment industry’s rungs. But it was only when Jerry Seinfeld, a comic whom David had known since the 1970s and who by the 1980s had achieved success, asked him to help on a project for NBC that he finally gained a foothold in show business.

While today, comedians regularly move between the worlds of stand-up and television writing, at the time David’s prior experience writing for TV was unique. As Jennifer Armstrong reports in her book Seinfeldia, this was the primary reason that Seinfeld approached him: Unlike most comics, Seinfeld remarked, David had “actually typed something out on a piece of paper.”

Though different in temperament, David and Seinfeld shared an obsession with exploring the minutiae of social rules and interactions, and together they arrived at the idea that would make Seinfeld a celebrity, Seinfeld one of the most creatively successful series of all time, and both of them rich: Their show would be about nothing. Or, more specifically, it would be about the quotidian experiences of four friends in New York City. NBC greenlighted the idea, and the show, initially titled The Seinfeld Chronicles, aired its first episode in 1989.

At first, neither NBC executives nor the public greeted Seinfeld rapturously. Brandon Tartikoff, the network’s president, dismissed it as “too New York, too Jewish,” while a research memo derived from an audience test of the show’s pilot reported that “no segment of the audience was eager to watch the show again.” In fact, those who attended the test screening specifically considered George Costanza —the character based on David—to be a “loser.” But while Seinfeld got off to an inauspicious start, by the show’s fifth season it was a hit: Roughly 20 percent of all American households watched it.

Seinfeld became a hit for a lot of reasons. On the one hand, it gave David and Seinfeld a vehicle for their shared focus: pointing out the often tragic foibles of ordinary people. On the other, it flourished precisely because of what separated them: Both men were humanists, but of distinctly different varieties. If David’s humanism derived from his belief that we are all fallible and afraid, Seinfeld’s was far less dark—mostly, he liked to laugh at the absurdities of contemporary social norms.

Part of the difference was temperamental: Where David was gloomy and philosophical, Seinfeld was sanguine and curious. But part of the difference emerged from their respective ages and the worlds in which they grew up. David was an early boomer, raised in Brooklyn and more organically connected to the pessimism of the old country, and thus more organically connected to the aforementioned Jewish comedians who were not yet comfortably assimilated or economically secure. Born in 1954, Seinfeld was a middle boomer, raised on Long Island and more suburban—more hopeful—in his understanding of the world. While Seinfeld shared David’s interest in the absurdity of postmodernity, his humor was far less withering and stark. David’s humor can be envisioned as a small, noisy south Brooklyn apartment; Seinfeld’s as a single-story 1950s ranch house—still small, but pointing the way toward a brighter future.

Seinfeld’s two main characters—Jerry (played well by Seinfeld) and George (played by the incomparable Jason Alexander)—brought these differences to the small screen and in the process established one of the funniest duos in comedy history. George is a principled con man, a loser who has a powerful sense of what is right—and how he’s been wronged. He schemes to get unemployment benefits (“The Boyfriend”) even as he refuses to take a civil service exam because he considers it beneath him (“The Puffy Shirt”). He has little interest in propriety; one time, when selling his father’s clothes, he lies to a thrift store owner, claiming his father is dead, to get an extra $25 (“The Raincoats”). He even poisons his boss after the latter fires him (“The Revenge”). George, simply put, is a misanthrope.

Jerry, by contrast, is an optimist. He believes that things will always work out for him (“The Opposite”). And while he can be a jerk, he undertakes genuinely selfless acts—for example, trying to ensure that a Trinidadian Olympic runner wakes up early for a race (“The Hot Tub”) or helping a struggling business owner rebrand his failing restaurant (“The Café”). George, even in his most generous moments, would never do either.

The combination of Jerry and George, coupled with the brilliant performances of Michael Richards as Kramer and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine, helped make Seinfeld one of the top-grossing TV shows of all time, transforming both David and Seinfeld into millionaires hundreds of times over. And it is in this way that David represents a final “last”: He is among the last generation of TV creators to become incredibly rich from syndication. When the show was syndicated in 1998, he earned an enormous amount of money—one estimate from Forbes at the time put David’s earnings at $242 million that year. In the next decades, he continued to reap windfalls. He earned a substantial cut in 2015, when Hulu obtained the rights to Seinfeld for a reported $160 million, and again in 2019, when Netflix purchased the rights for $500 million. These numbers are simply unimaginable for most of today’s TV creators, who labor in a period in which streaming television has all but eliminated the previously lucrative syndication market.

David left Seinfeld before it concluded because, as he told Charlie Rose, he “wanted to try something else.” The first thing he did was write and direct a movie. The result, 1998’s Sour Grapes, tells a very Davidian story about two cousins whose relationship curdles when one wins a slot-machine jackpot with a quarter the other lent him. Unlike Seinfeld, which was always permeated with anarchic joy, Sour Grapes had a meanness to it that is usually absent from David’s best work. The film was a critical and commercial failure; its “tomatometer” rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 27 percent, and it earned only $219,932 at the domestic box office.

But David quickly recovered. In 1999, in partnership with HBO, he released a special titled Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm. The special, which offered a fictionalized account of David’s return to stand-up, with David playing himself, was ahead of its time, adopting the mockumentary style that would become popular in the next decade. But it did more than just offer a set of filmic innovations: It was also very funny. After its release, David and HBO decided to transform the special into a series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, which debuted in 2000.

Curb follows the goings-on of a fictionalized “Larry David,” the incredibly wealthy cocreator of Seinfeld who is regularly caught up in various schemes and petty social conflicts. The fictional Larry, who never seems to have much to do, spends most of his time hanging around with a coterie of wealthy showbiz types, most notably his manager and best friend, Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin), Jeff’s wife Susie (Susie Essman), fellow comedian Richard Lewis (playing himself), and his own WASPy wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines).

Curb’s Larry acts a lot like George Costanza would, one imagines, if he had struck it rich. In “The Grand Opening,” an episode from Curb’s third season, Larry fires a chef, whom he had hired because he was bald, after he discovers the chef wearing a toupee. In another episode from the same season, “The Special Section,” Larry uses the death of his mother to free himself from a set of undesirable social obligations. As always in David’s comedy, the darkness and pettiness run deep.

Curb’s focus on everyday absurdity shares quite a bit with Seinfeld’s. But unlike Seinfeld, it embraces a more improvisational style, with David and his collaborators writing the broad outlines for each episode and then having the cast improvise around the major story beats. Furthermore, and as the above synopses indicate, it is also very much David’s show, with far more Sturm und Drang than the lighter Seinfeld. If, in Seinfeld, David was an important member of the orchestra, in Curb he is the maestro, directing the entire symphony.

Curb Your Enthusiasm has now entered its 12th and final season; when it ends, it will be the first time in my adult life that Larry David is not running a show. The stories of this season are very much in keeping with David’s comedic approach. Larry begins the season in a relationship with Irma Kostroki (played by a brilliant Tracey Ullman). Though Irma is repulsive, Larry can’t dump her because he promised her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor that he’d wait until she was fully immersed in the program. Meanwhile, Young Larry, a show that Larry created for Hulu in Curb’s 11th season, is a hit. Its breakout star? The vain, threatening, and working-class Maria Sofia Estrada (virtuosically portrayed by Keyla Monterroso Mejia), who never appreciates anything Larry has done for her.

The show’s primary story is set in motion when Larry and Maria Sofia are paid to attend a wealthy businessman’s party in Atlanta. The trip coincides with a local election, and when Larry gives some water to a former houseguest who is waiting on the line to vote, he is arrested for violating Georgia’s right-wing Election Integrity Act. His arrest and forthcoming trial transform Larry—much to his delighted surprise—into a liberal darling.

If this last season of Curb differs from the earlier ones, it’s in the explicitness of its politics. There has always been a political undercurrent to David’s work. Seinfeld, after all, had an entire episode in which Elaine dates Ned Isakoff, a communist who is the spitting image of Trotsky. Curb, though, was always more political than Seinfeld, and at times even pointedly partisan: In the finale to season four, for instance, Larry can’t have sex with the actress Cady Huffman because she keeps a framed photo of George W. Bush in her dressing room. And who could forget the famous “Palestinian Chicken” episode from season eight, which ends with Larry uncertain as to whether he should continue to sleep with a beautiful Palestinian woman who owns a great chicken restaurant, or align himself with fellow Jews who are protesting the place.

But these plot points were mostly slight, and they were all forgotten by the next episode. In this final season of Curb, however, partisan politics, for the first time, sits at the show’s center. It seems the real Larry David, like most of his fellow boomers, has in the past several years begun to see life through such a prism. And while the show is still hilarious—it remains, in my opinion, the funniest show on television—there’s something discomfiting about this season’s major plot. Maybe it’s because implicitly accepting our current partisan divide betrays the humanistic elements fundamental to David’s work.

Yet this is a minor criticism; I’ll still tune in to every episode. And when this final season of Curb ends, I’ll be awaiting whatever David does next. He’s the last of his kind, and American culture will be worse off when he stops working, especially given that today, we are more than ever in need of the humanism inherent in Larry David’s comedy.

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Daniel Bessner

Daniel Bessner is an historian of US foreign relations, and cohost of American Prestige, a podcast on international affairs.

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