Larry David and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' kicking it up a notch for TV Guide run

Clean cuts: "There's something about the intensity that's so overpowering, you don't even notice" edits to Susie Essman's tirades, says Larry David. The TV Guide Channel is adding episode commentary  from Jerry Seinfeld and others.
Clean cuts: "There's something about the intensity that's so overpowering, you don't even notice" edits to Susie Essman's tirades, says Larry David. The TV Guide Channel is adding episode commentary from Jerry Seinfeld and others. (Jeff Gross - Getty Images)
Tom Shales
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

People who write television shows often spend time in analysis, but the shows do not. That's because, well, how could they? We are about to find out. Reruns of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," created by Larry David, arrive on the TV Guide Channel this week with addenda: newly taped panel discussions on the moral and ethical issues raised by the episodes.

It's an intriguing first, and though not entirely serious, it's not entirely facetious, either. The channel has reversed an old tradition, that of shows getting shorter when they go to syndicated rerun. Instead of cutting the "Curb" episodes to fit into 30 minutes and around commercial breaks, David got the channel to add discussions that fill out to an hour.

After an arguably classic "Curb" called "The Doll," in which Larry gives a little girl's Judy doll a haircut -- on request, mind you -- and the little monster proceeds to toss a tantrum roughly akin to the Hundred Years' War, series co-star Susie Essman, who plays potty-mouth princess Susie Greene, hosts a chat. With her are Jerry Seinfeld, David's old friend and collaborator (they created "Seinfeld" together); comic Larry Miller (a malevolent doorman in a "Seinfeld" episode); and actors Taraji P. Henson and Victoria Stilwell.

They discuss such matters of social concern as party hosts who subject their guests to bathroom doors without locks, pretty much agreeing that it's a grievous and egregious infraction. In the course of the discussion, Seinfeld observes, "Everyone in Santa Monica thinks they're saving the world," which is true; Santa Monicans tend to regard the precepts of political correctness as having higher status than the Ten Commandments.

But you never would have heard that Seinfeld observation if not for the fact that the TV Guide Channel is amplifying rather than diminishing "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which is, among other things, a look at life in west Los Angeles, where Santa Monica is very attractively situated.

This month, David begins shooting the eighth season of "Curb." "The only thing I can tell you is that we're going to be filming five episodes in New York," he says in an interview, also leaking the wee news that guest stars will include Michael J. Fox.

Meanwhile, David is participating in the editing of "Curb" episodes himself -- for language. On HBO, a premium-cable channel, pretty much anything goes, but on a basic-cable channel like TV Guide, standards are more similar to those of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

The pottiest mouth on "Curb" is Essman's. As Greene, she reads riot acts not just laced but engulfed with obscenities. Her rantings have become so popular, according to Hollywood gossip, that people call her up and ask her to record filthy greetings for their answering machines. "That's true," David confirms. "And people also, when they see her on the street, they request stuff like that."

Her spewings would seem to represent great difficulties for a censor trying to edit the show. "I haven't seen how any of her big tirades have come out," says David. "I think I saw one from the 'Doll' episode. Honestly, it's interesting, because there's something about the intensity that's so overpowering, you don't even notice it."

In the "Doll" episode, Susie at one point refers to her husband -- Jeff Garvin as Jeff Greene, Larry's agent and one of his best friends -- as "a fat piece of dung." Somehow you get the feeling this is not what she originally called him.

'More honest than I am'

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" is a breakthrough in the way comedy shows are shot. While David and fellow writers work out the plotlines and comedy situations, most scenes are improvised by the actors. David estimates that the percentage is "in the 90s."

" 'Seinfeld' was scripted, and this is improvised," he says with weary disdain. "Most of the time, the actors don't really know what's coming. In fact, a lot of times, I don't even know what we're shooting that day, and neither will Jeff if we're in a scene together. Sometimes we look at it two minutes before we shoot."

Doesn't this mean shooting a great deal more footage than can be used? David laughs ruefully. "We do shoot a lot, right, but it's not because I look at the scene two minutes before. It's because sometimes it's just hard to 'capture,' you know?"

Technically this is the second time David was portrayed in a sitcom. The first time he was named George Costanza, played by Jason Alexander on "Seinfeld." David has said he's disappointed that Alexander never won an Emmy for that performance, which really was masterful in that the audience could watch Alexander's George and not hate him. He was petty, cheap, self-obsessed, whiny, childish, cowardly and so on, but you kinda loved the big stupid loser.

"I would say the character of Larry on 'Curb' is closer to me than George was on 'Seinfeld,' " David says. "The way they differ is that 'TV Larry' is a lot more honest than I am. 'TV Larry' expresses every thought -- not always to his benefit. He's not as tactful as I am."

Has the real Larry, like the TV Larry, ever gotten into a heated argument with a person in a wheelchair? "No. But I did say to a woman when the check came and the husband paid, I said 'thank you' to the husband, and when she said, 'Aren't you going to thank me?' -- I did say, 'Well you didn't pay for it.' I did do that."

"Curb" would be almost impossible to shoot with an audience since the poor souls would have to sit there for hours while the cast made up the lines. They'd also have to wait for David to stop laughing. He says Essman's tantrums regularly convulse him.

"I can never keep a straight face. I sort of gauge the temperature of the people on the set to see if they resent it or not. Usually I'll just hold up my hand, signaling everybody to wait a second while I compose myself, and then they keep the cameras rolling and then I continue."

Like most artists who've worked with HBO, David praises the company for keeping its nose out of his business. "There've just been zero notes, no interference, nothing," he says. "They've let me pretty much do whatever I want. I've been pretty lucky. What about you -- are you ever fighting with your editors?" Oh, yes! All the time! "See, I don't have any of that."

David, with his peculiar passive-aggressive attitude, supplies enough fractious friction all by himself. He may even argue with himself about scenes and dialogue. He had a brief early career as a stand-up, and he became legendary for arguing with the crowds. If his act didn't seem to be going well on a given night, he would sometimes leave the stage, walk through the club and go home.

One night, says a colleague in comedy, David got so mad at one guy in the audience that he hauled him out into the parking lot and decked him. David refers to his stand-up career as "volatile."

Perhaps the secret to his success is that David remains ever combative no matter how well his life may be going. One must never let oneself be thought of as happy and content, this philosophy seems to say, because that's when the lightning bolt smites you.

Larry David's armor is his dissatisfaction with the world down to the smallest detail, and up to the whole ghastly arrangement. He won't win, but he'll enjoy losing.

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