Larry David Died for our Sins

December 25, 2005

Larry David, the producer-writer-star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has just finished airing the fifth season of his HBO program. Many people find him hilarious. Others find him annoying in the extreme. Both are right, of course, and David builds his humor out of this particular intersection of pain and pleasure. However, this season has been more than usually provocative, focusing on matters of identity — Jewish identity.

“Curb” has managed to offend all manner of Jews, from the observant to the assimilated. Arye Dworken, writing in the Jerusalem Post, had this to say:

“David not only makes fun of his own religion, he also makes up half of its customs, thereby misinforming viewers. His portrayal of Orthodox Jews … is reminiscent of the cartoons published by the Germans and French during World War II (the only thing missing were the grossly exaggerated noses).”

After pointing out inaccuracies and the extent to which David’s Jewish characters are the ones with the show’s worst behavior and character traits (angry, avaricious, foul-mouthed, neurotic, selfish), Dworken concludes, “I was saddened by David’s obvious self-hatred and disrespect for his own tradition, but even sadder for the viewers who watch the show (albeit with a grain of salt) and are left with a false impression of Orthodoxy.”

It is true “Curb” contains some inaccuracies and revels in many stereotypes, as David suggested when accused in an early episode of being a self-loathing Jew. “‘Self-loathing?’ Yes. ‘Jew?’ Yes.’ ‘But Self-loathing Jew?’ No.”

Let me recap: At the beginning of this season, David was given reason to suspect he may have been adopted. His good friend, Richard Lewis, was in need of a kidney transplant, and much of the season dealt with whether Larry would donate his kidney. In the course of his ambivalence, Larry discovered that that the head of the kidney bank was an Orthodox Jew and, in an attempt to have Lewis rise up the donor list, David attempted to befriend him and his observant daughter. In the final episode of the season, David traveled to Arizona to meet his putative biological parents, the Cones, whom he discovered were not Jewish. This sent him into a paroxysm of changed behavior culminating in agreeing to donate his kidney. However, moments before surgery he learned he was not adopted and was, in fact, Jewish. Finally, David has his second near-death experience, the first of which had caused him to wonder why he was put on this earth.

Why, indeed.

I first met Larry David in 1980. He was appearing on “Fridays,” an ABC sketch-comedy program that hoped to do for the Sabbath eve what “Saturday Night” had accomplished for NBC’s late night programming. I knew a woman who worked on the show. She was dating David. We hung out.

After the show’s demise, David returned to New York where he worked briefly for “Saturday Night Live” and was writing screenplays that, as I recall, never made it out of the brown briefcase he carried with him.

One night I saw him take the stage at Catch a Rising Star, a New York comedy club. If memory serves me correctly, he wasn’t on that long, and he ran off the stage. He was very funny. But the consensus was that he lacked an act — a stage persona — an identifiable, marketable shtick.

I remember standing one day in Times Square with David. Pointing to his briefcase, he said: “My problem is that I can only write what I write. I can’t do anything else.” Words that ring in my ear to this day (and every time I sit down at the computer).

Nonetheless, the reason that it was fun to hang out with David, and why, although at this point our conversations are limited to a once-a-year volley at the P.S. Arts benefit, it is still fun to talk to him — is that he has a special quality. Like the tennis pro who makes you feel you play better than you do, when you talk to Larry David you feel funnier, smarter, more confident, more convinced that you are entertaining to other people, David included.

So I wasn’t surprised that Jerry Seinfeld, when offered the chance to create a pilot, turned to Larry to be his partner.

Seinfeld had a shtick, an identifiable persona, and he was incredibly affable and likeable. But you need a Larry David to convince you that your very conversations are what the show should be about.

Several years later, I visited David on the set of “Seinfeld.” He was gracious and welcoming and couldn’t have been nicer. He confided that he was amazed by what was going on.

“I’ve never written a sitcom script in my life,” he told me. “I have no idea how to do this.”

Seinfeld’s success is now in the history books. The combination of Seinfeld’s charm and the neuroses of his castmates proved irresistible. “Seinfeld” was never a show about nothing, as has been much declaimed. The show began life as an exploration of how a comic comes up with his material, and morphed into how four profoundly selfish people mismanaged their personal lives in a way that bound them to each other.

Today, “Seinfeld” is in perpetual syndication, and there is many a night when I find myself revisiting Jerry’s apartment or Monk’s (easily recognizable as Tom’s restaurant to Columbia grads and Upper-West Side denizens).

At a remove, I still marvel at the artistry of the comic performances, and the technical brilliance of those scripts that manage to bring together four separate plots into a jumble of escalating mayhem for the characters, leading to eventual disappointment, more often than not dismissed with a philosophical shrug.

One thing is different. Today, I can’t help but feel the focus of my attention shifting from Jerry to George. Sure it’s Jerry’s show (after all it’s called “Seinfeld,” not “Costanza”). But George is … well, he’s Larry David — without the success.

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” takes George and Larry David to a post-Seinfeld syndication-money world — a whole new level of the game. David has often explained that success has its limitations: People no longer think you have a right to complain. In fact, David, in a recent television special, explained that the only time anyone had felt sorry for him since he’d become wealthy was when he had a benign melanoma and there was a chance he might have had cancer.

In this season’s final episode, David dies and goes to heaven where he suddenly has hair again. He is guided by two men with long white beards, dressed in robes, played by Dustin Hoffman and Sasha Baron Cohen. As if we didn’t realize it already, they find Larry David so annoying that they send him back to live longer.

Yes it is true this season had many very Jewish moments: There was David buying scalped tickets for High Holiday services. There was an episode called, “The Seder,” which had an adult guest cheating to find the afikomen and David refusing to pay the $1 prize. Yes, there was the Orthodox head of the kidney bank, and Izzy’s Deli transformed into a sea of yarmulkes with David faking Yiddish by clearing his throat (too lazy and dismissive to even come up with the traditional fake “Vos? Vos? Vos?”). There was David hiding the bacon, literally, from the Orthodox father and daughter. There was the daughter who, rather than be on a chair lift with David as the Sabbath came — jumps off (because there is no chance that David would). And there is that same daughter, with a surgically enhanced poitrine, done to improve her social appeal.

However, these all paled before the final episode. David travels to Arizona where he meets the couple he believes are his biological parents. The father looks somewhat like David, and they describe the adoptive parents they gave him up to as a couple who were nervous, made hand motions when they talked and that the woman dominated the man. To David, that sounds like the people who raised him.

He discovers that his biological parents are not Jewish and in an instant he changes: He goes to church, he rides horses, he fixes cars — he’s a Jackie Mason caricature of a gentile. He returns home a different person: He wears sweater vests and jackets and ties. He goes to visit Richard Lewis and announces he is willing to give him his kidney. Lewis, who has a prominent mezuzah on his door, by contrast is (still) neurotic and unwilling to loan David his golf clubs. But David embraces him nonetheless. After he leaves, Lewis mutters, “Jesus Christ.”

As he’s being wheeled into surgery, David discovers that he is, in fact, Jewish. Upon his recovery, he’s asked if he has any cause to reconsider anything in his life — a montage of his worst moments flashes before his (and our) eyes. It is a cavalcade of ungracious, insulting and selfish behavior. Having reviewed them, David decides he wouldn’t change a thing. He’s back to being Larry David.

What are we to conclude? That Jews are hysterical, mean, selfish, brutish, unattractive louts while non-Jews are reasonable, well-dressed empaths full of love and forgiveness?

If you do, then you’ve missed the point.

Larry David, the real one, not the TV Larry David, is married and has kids. He is charitable and engaged in causes. Publicly he blames this on his wife, Laurie, but the truth is that whether or not you agree with their politics or choices, they have put their considerable talents and financial resources in the service of causes they believe in — when they don’t have to, when they could choose to live like — well, like David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Remember how I said that David’s weakness as a stand-up performer was that he lacked a shtick? Well, the David of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has one: He’s Larry David, self-proclaimed “Radical Narcissist.”

The David of “Curb” is the world’s most selfish man. As such he sees every person as the embodiment of a stereotype — and rates them only by what they have to offer him, or to the extent he can avoid extending himself to them. This man can not appreciate why Orthodox practice would have meaning to a young woman, anymore than he can understand why someone would want to lead you on a tour of their house. It just doesn’t interest him.

This David is funny, much as George Costanza was funny, because we understand him. We, too, on occasion, are selfish. We, too, on occasion, stereotype and think less of others.

The David of “Curb” may not be the best person, but that makes him neither a bad Jew, nor bad for the Jews. To single him out as representative of all Jews is to indulge in the sort of stereotyping typical of Larry David himself.

Which brings me to my final point: The Larry David of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is not the anti-Christ or a Jewish anti-Semite. To the contrary, this season, David is supposed to have died and been reborn just like that wunderkind from Nazareth, Jesus.

Let me then put forward the argument that David has a higher purpose: He makes us laugh not only because his behavior is so outrageous, but also because it does him so little good. When he scalps High Holiday synagogue tickets, he is thrown out by a security guard. His attempt to suck up to the head of the kidney bank fails. Even when he goes to heaven, they find him too annoying.

David is here to ask us to “curb our enthusiasm,” to show us that there is no joy in a shallow life of radical narcissism. That if we want to find meaning in our lives, if we want better relationships with our friends and our spouses, we should laugh at him, but not live like him.

Or just think of it this way: Larry David died for our sins.

HBO will be airing a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” marathon on Jan. 1 from midnight to 6 a.m. — which includes the final episode.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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