The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" a permanent carnival of fetishized inwardness

I don't watch much series TV, but I make an exception for Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO. It finished its most recent season Sunday night, satirizing the profit-driven big business entertainment mania for remakes and reunions of old TV warhorses. Of course David is the epitome of the "Hollywood left", which he also satirizes in his show. The environmentalist preening of David and his cohort about their Prius cars, their green toilet paper, and their contributions to NRDC are little more than what Georg Lukacs called "a permanent carnival of fetishized inwardness."

The current season's Episode 66 has the rightwing culture heroes up in arms. A blogger who styles himself the "Left Coast Rebel" had this to say:

Comedian Larry David is under attack from critics who say he pushed the mocking of religion and Christian belief in miracles over the edge in the latest episode of his HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which the cable network defended as "playful."

On the show's most recent installment, which aired Sunday, David urinates on a painting of Jesus Christ, causing a woman to believe the painting depicts Jesus crying.

I am nearly speechless. Nearly because I know full-well that David, HBO, Hollywood et al. come from the anything goes school of thought when it comes to conservatives/christians. Any and every proclivity of disdain and excess aimed at the Christian ethic is fodder for even the most vile of attack.

Liberalism 101:
To desecrate a picture of Jesus - Now that is funny!
To desecrate Muhammad, the Koran - Racist! Bigot! Boycott!

The Left Coast Rebel and the Fox News story he quotes to froth his self-righteousness are incorrect. In the offending scene, Larry David does not "urinate on a painting of Jesus Christ." While visiting the home of his assistant, he visits their bathroom. A very kitschy Jesus print is on the wall above the toilet. David relieves himself, his "stream" inordinately powerful because of some medicine he is taking. A particle of liquid ends up on the good lord's face. The homeowners take it to be a sign from God and drop to their knees before committing themselves to a cross-country RV trip to exhibit the weeping Christ.

All this reminds me of an older artistic work the right wing used in their fundraising, the "Piss Christ". The fact that Larry David is so outspokenly liberal and revels in the personal and social complexities of being Jewish just adds to the enjoyment for those of us tired of a lifetime of holier-than-thou special-pleading by reactionaries who present Christianity as a persecuted minority religion beset by unbelievers and Christ killers on all sides.

A few years ago Marxist Louis Proyect wrote these perceptive lines about "Curb Your Enthusiasm":

When Seinfeld's Executive Producer Larry David launched a new TV show on HBO playing himself, it might have been anticipated that "Curb Your Enthusiasm" would retain some of the characteristics of the Seinfeld show. This it does. Not only is the character Larry David just as self-centered and obnoxious as the Seinfeld regulars, he has the same whining Queens inflection as Jerry Seinfeld himself.

Unlike most Americans, I could not stand the Seinfeld show. I thought the show relied too heavily on shtick, a Yiddish word meaning gimmick--especially in the comic sense. For example, Jack Benny's cheapness was shtick, as was Chevy Chase's pratfalls on SNL. It also had the mandatory laugh-track, which has the same effect on me as the sound of a garden rake being scraped across a blackboard.

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" does incorporate the same kinds of convoluted plots as Seinfeld, usually putting one of the main characters into an excruciatingly embarrassing situation. Since they are not constrained by network requirements to keep bible belt figures like Donald Wildmon happy, these plots tend to be a lot rawer and a lot funnier. For example, in one show, Larry David performs oral sex on his wife only to get a pubic hair stuck in his throat. For most of the episode, he is seen gagging and choking in polite company trying to dislodge the troublesome hair.

But "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has many other features that were not seen on Seinfeld or any other television show on or off cable. For one thing, much of the dialogue is improvised on the spot. Larry David himself got started as an improvisational stand-up comedian in NYC. This means that the performances have few of the kind of histrionics associated with situation comedies. For example, on all network comedies the actors are always speaking in a completely unnatural manner leading up to some gag that is punctuated by a raucous laugh-track explosion. On "Curb Your Enthusiasm", you will more likely find the characters sounding like real people chatting over an awkward situation that does not lead up to a conventional punch-line.

For example, in last night's episode Larry David is in an examination room waiting for the doctor to look at a head wound (Mel Brooks has accidentally smacked him on the forehead when opening up the bathroom door in his office.) Growing bored, he picks up the doctor's phone and starts chatting with his business partner who is in the waiting room. When the doctor comes in, he tells him that patients are not allowed to use the phone. This leads to a five minute argument between David and the doctor over this practice, with David demanding to know the reason for this rule and the doctor telling him that he does not need to know. They end up calling each other pricks.

Despite its American (and Jewish) roots, the show will remind you of British comedy. The improvised dialogue, as well as the tendency to demonstrate human frailty and self-deception at its worst, will remind you of Mike Leigh. In addition, the universal tendency of each show to end up in some kind of calamity will remind you of "Fawlty Towers". In recent episodes, Larry David and his Hollywood buddies' attempt to open up a restaurant keep meeting with Fawlty-esque disaster. When a pet German Shepherd that has been trained to sniff out corpses goes frantic in the kitchen trying to dig something up, the restaurant is closed down until a police investigation is finished. A murdered body assumed to be under the floor turns out to be a soiled brassiere. (Larry David himself was flattered to learn that British critics view his show as having a British sensibility.)

Larry David and all of his big-time Hollywood players come across as total creeps. They will stab each other in the back in one episode and reconcile in the next on the most insincere basis. Utterly protective of their class status, they treat their maids and gardeners as serfs. When Christmas rolls around, Larry David goes around dispensing tips with a self-satisfied smirk on his face. When he fears that he has tipped one of his waiters twice by accident, he goes up to the man and demands the tip back. The waiter asks him, "You mean the single tip that you gave me?"

The show also sends up the phony liberalism of Hollywood big-shots. For example, an environmentalism benefit is seen mostly as an opportunity to hear pop-star Alanis Morissette who has been hired for the occasion or to make an appearance. When Larry David learns that a terrorist attack is planned for the same weekend as the benefit, he decides to leave town even though his wife wants to stick around to hear Morissette.

Cheryl: Do you think that's a good idea, for us to be apart if something did happen?

Larry (chewing gum): Then at least one of us would survive.

Cheryl: It just seems if we're gonna go we should go together.

Larry: Not necessarily. It almost seems a little selfish that you would want both of us to perish.

Cheryl: So you'd be fine going on without me.

Larry: It would be very difficult at first, sure, but hopefully at some point I could get back some semblance of a life.

Cheryl: OK. If you feel good about one of us dying and the other one surviving and you can live with that for the rest of your life, then you should go golf this weekend.

Larry: I'll think about it.

Cheryl: Think about it.

Since Larry David is notoriously reclusive and refuses to give interviews, it might be difficult to understand why he has created such a deliciously misanthropic show. Fortunately, Robert B. Weide, the show's Executive Producer and frequent director, is much more forthcoming. There's an interview with him on the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" website that I invite you to check out: (You can also watch excerpts from the show there.) He also has a website at:

Weide has a very interesting resume. He is the director of "Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell The Truth" and cites Bruce's use of language as an inspiration for "Curb Your Enthusiasm". In the episode of the ill-fated restaurant's opening, the chef, who suffers from Tourette's Syndrome, yells out without provocation "Shit, motherfucker, cocksucker" at the top of his lungs. This inspires David and all his friends and partners to begin shouting out similar curses just to lessen the tension. Pure Lenny Bruce.

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