In his new HBO film Clear History, Larry David stars as Nathan, aka Rolly, who bears a striking resemblance to the Larry David character of Curb Your Enthusiasm—he makes shallow, fairly obvious observations that few people seem interested in, often sticks his foot in his mouth, and misreads social cues. On the Slate Culture Gabfest, Julia Turner suggested that Rolly is “a slightly mellowed and wiser Larry David.” That’s basically true. What took me aback, though, was Julia’s matter-of-fact assertion that “the Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm is an unrepentant jerk who usually gets what’s coming to him but remains sort of exasperated and angry about it.”
Larry David the character (whom I shall from here on out refer to as LDC, so as not to confuse him with Larry David the real person) seems to get a lot of flak from viewers. While LDC can come across as a shmuck by many people’s standards, he also often makes valid points. Truthfully, I find myself siding with LDC much of the time.
Exhibit A: The case of the bizarre waiting room policy.1 After injuring his finger, LDC makes a doctor’s appointment for 11:30 a.m. Yet, when he arrives at the office, the doctor first sees a woman with an appointment time of 11:45. Why? Because the office has a “first come, first served” policy. Of course, this renders appointments arbitrary, a point LDC vehemently argues. After all, if you’re going to see people in the order they arrive at your office, people shouldn’t schedule appointments at all. Half the reason appointments exist is so that we can make sure we have an opportunity to see a doctor or do whatever else it is we need to do in the middle of what is likely a busy, chaotic day. Without appointments, we’re liable to either forego much-needed errands, or be late for other engagements—as LDC is when the woman seen before spends 40 minutes with the doctor.
Exhibit B: The incident of the insincere “no gift” policy.2 Ben Stiller invites LDC to his birthday party and explicitly tells him not to bring a gift. Yet, when LDC and Cheryl arrive at the party, they discover a gargantuan pile of presents. When LDC tells Suzie and Jeff that Ben said no gifts, Suzie responds incredulously, “You took that seriously? Nobody means that.” Whether or not Suzie was right about everyone, she was right about Ben, who gives LDC shit for simply following his instructions. I don’t even know how to explain the unreasonableness of such behavior. People ought to simply say what they mean; to say one thing but mean another is frankly, of the order of surly-high-school girldom.
Exhibit C: The not-so-anonymous anonymous donor affair.2 LDC and his good buddy Ted Danson each donate a wing to a museum. On LDC’s wing, large silvery letters spell, “Wing Donated by Larry David.” Ted’s wing, however, states simply, “Wing Donated by Anonymous.” LDC is furious upon learning that Ted has told just about everyone he knows that he made an “anonymous” donation. And in so doing, Ted receives a lot of undue praise. Senator Barbara Boxer calls Ted a hero, saying, “Too many people don’t do things out of the goodness of their heart. They want the credit. You are number one in my book Ted Danson.” But clearly, Ted wanted the credit. He simply wanted to get the credit without appearing to want the credit. He claimed he didn’t want anyone to know because he didn’t need the fanfare, yet his hypocrisy actually affords him more fanfare than he would have gotten had he not cited himself as anonymous. As LDC said, “It’s fake philanthropy, and faux anonymity.” Because truly, “You’re either anonymous or you’re not.” You can’t be both.
In Clear History, one of Rolly’s grievances reminiscent of LDC has to do with the impractical placement of outlets. Placed on the floor, hidden behind furniture, outlets require some creative maneuvering from us, whether crawling into cramped spaces or rearranging furniture. Rolly proposes that outlets instead be placed in the middle of the wall, where they would be more easily accessible. An interesting and perhaps innovative idea, but one that Julia Turner again writes off:
“I think there’s just an awareness in the movie that that is a preposterous thing to want, about the sort of ridiculosity of that observation as opposed to presenting it as something actually marvelous and novel in the way that Seinfeld did or Curb sometimes did.”
Julia’s assertion suggests that the characters in Larry David’s shows mistakenly perceive their ideas as marvelous and novel, when in fact, their observations are preposterous. However, as outlined above, the scenarios portrayed in these shows are the opposite of preposterous—they’re reasonable. So, too, would be outlets in the middle of the wall. The only reason I can surmise Julia would ascribe “ridiculosity” to this idea is that most people find cords aesthetically abhorrent. But they’re not inherently ugly. And perhaps Rolly’s idea points to the “ridiculosity” of the bombardment of technology in our lives. We are everywhere surrounded by cords we deem unsightly, yet we refuse to part with them, so we do our best to hide them away like some dirty little secret.
Even though Rolly’s and LDC’s complaints might initially come across as outlandish, they’re completely sound on closer examination. Or, if they are outlandish, they are no more so than mainstream complaints and opinions. Their opinions only appear ridiculous because they contradict the popular opinions of those around them. But ultimately, all opinions, complaints, beliefs, etc. are absurd and rather arbitrary. I would argue that this is the point of Larry David’s observational humor—to call into question the things we take for granted and shed light on what our behaviors really suggest when we dissociate them from the meaning we’ve bestowed upon them. And this is the aim of comedy in general. Yet, I think this aim is often forgotten or misunderstood, particularly in the case of Larry David. As Steven Metcalf of the Slate Culture Gabfest stated, “I’ve always thought the question about Larry David is, ‘Is he a visionary comedian of manners, or just a lucky dickhead,’ which was definitely the question that attended him, after Seinfeld. . . . And then he made it clear with Curb Your Enthusiasm . . . that he was really the visionary genius.”
1. Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 1, Episode 5, “Interior Decorator”
2. Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 4, Episode 2, “Ben’s Birthday Party”
3. Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 6, Episode 2, “The Anonymous Donor”