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!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • 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.