The Arty Semite

How Larry David Creates a Jewish Universe All His Own

By Eitan Kensky

  • Print
  • Share Share

Jessica Miglio/HBO

Larry David is a clown. Or the last schlemiel who found a way to make Jews the uncomfortable outsiders again. Or a man whose “imbricated” sense of humor “challenges essentialist categories of comic performance,” as well as the tenets of Judaism and Christianity. (By the way, I agree with that take.) And the series’ new season again finds the character Larry David (played by Larry David) as the unlikely vehicle for pursuing moral questions, such as, “Is it ever appropriate for a man to help a young girl getting her period for the first time?” Or, “Is it ever acceptable to hire a gentile attorney?”

But the eighth season premiere, “The Divorce,” which aired July 10 on HBO, highlights what many fans have known all along: The show works because of the richness of its secondary characters. While these characters, from Larry’s manager Jeff (Jeff Garlin) to the environmentalist do-gooder Ted Danson (Ted Danson), have individually received praise for their performances over the years, the series itself is remarkable for the sheer number of memorable figures and standout cameos its creative staff has devised. No character given the power of speech on “Curb” ever wastes that speech. An Asian-American cleaning woman doesn’t just get to shoo Larry away from her boss’s front door — she’s given the opportunity to dismantle both his logical reasoning and his class-blind understanding of contemporary society.

What started as a show about one man’s struggle to find post-success success has evolved into something much larger. “Curb” is not an ensemble piece; it’s still Larry’s show, and the action still centers on Larry’s quixotic adventures. We never leave his perspective for more than a moment and it would be disorienting to watch an episode that focuses on Jeff or even Cheryl (Cheryl Hines), Larry’s ex-wife. Instead, the creative staff of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” have turned Larry into a guide to one of the strongest fictional universes in television — or even literary — history. Larry’s Los Angeles is the comedic version of Baltimore in “The Wire” or even a televisual equivalent of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County: a discrete geographic universe filled with a rich human tapestry and a well-developed sense of history.

Unlike these other universes, Larry’s Los Angeles (and, in the new season, New York) is defiantly Jewish. The sex offender who moves into the neighborhood is likely to be a Jew in need of a Seder; the flirtatious dry cleaner will turn out to be Hasidic; and, as we saw in the latest episode, even non-Jewish lawyers call you a “macher,” wish you “mazel tov” on your birthday, and have mezuzot on their doors. In a classic moment, Larry briefly has to pretend to be a gentile in order to become a member of a country club. He wears a navy blazer with gold buttons, blue shirt and red tie, and claims to drive a hummer because he’s not concerned about global warming. “People like it a little warmer, don’t they?” Larry ironically muses. The absurdity of his costume and the performance of passing shows that in “Curb,” it is WASP, and not Jewish identity that is marked as impossibly foreign and strange.

The appearance of Jerry Seinfeld during the series’ seventh season briefly threatened to re-make “Curb” as an ensemble piece. Jerry Seinfeld’s “Jerry Seinfeld” — a more caustic version of “Jerry Seinfeld” from “Seinfeld” — proved to be too-good of a foil for Larry. We could imagine the show leaving Larry’s perspective to focus on Seinfeld’s exploits. But “Curb” kept us centered on Larry by highlighting the Larry-ness of “Seinfeld.” Larry tried to step in for Jason Alexander and play George Costanza, with predictably disastrous results. Instead of Jerry usurping Larry’s show, Larry visually re-asserted his creative presence on Jerry’s show. In the end, while the TV audience in Larry’s Los Angeles got to see a “Seinfeld” reunion show, we got to see something arguably better: a master comedian riffing on the process of creating art, whose greatest skill is finding the humor in everyone surrounding him.

Watch a behind-the-scenes featurette for ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 8’:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Divorce, Television, Ted Danson, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Garlin, HBO, Eitan Kensky, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Cheryl Hines

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.