Before there was Curb Your Enthusiasm, there was the HBO comedy special Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm. Well, if we’re being pedantic, before there was either of those, there was Seinfeld, without which neither version of Curb would have a reason to exist. But back in that 1999 special, Seinfeld‘s co-creator played a lightly fictionalized version of himself, preparing to perform stand-up comedy for the first time since the NBC sitcom had made him incredibly rich and vaguely famous.
Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm is fascinating for the ways in which it does and doesn’t resemble its follow-up series, which HBO has run off and on for the entire 21st century. (An 11th season debuts on Oct. 24.) Larry is there. So are Jeff Garlin as Larry’s long-suffering manager Jeff and Cheryl Hines as Larry’s even longer-suffering wife Cheryl. The OG faux-Larry also has a very familiar knack for offending people, even when he’s trying to do a good deed. But there’s a mockumentary format — including talking-head interviews with Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, and others — that David, director Robert Weide, and their collaborators would immediately ditch once Curb became an ongoing show. Larry and Cheryl are parents in this version (their daughter is referred to, but not shown). And, like on Seinfeld, the action is periodically interrupted for bits of stand-up — though Larry’s sense of humor is a bit more askew than Jerry’s, with routines centered on things like Hitler’s contempt for magicians, or how annoying it would be to live next door to Jonas Salk’s mother.
The TV series would build out a supporting cast of friends (Richard Lewis as himself, J.B. Smoove as the pathologically confident Leon) and enemies (Ted Danson, or Susie Essman as Jeff’s foul-mouthed wife Susie), though some of the most memorable characters didn’t turn up for a while. The late, great Bob Einstein(*) didn’t even appear as Larry’s hilariously disapproving frenemy Marty Funkhouser until the fifth season, for instance, and Leon didn’t arrive until the sixth. Still, the show borrowed what it could from the special, particularly the idea of Larry complaining about and/or exploiting social niceties, like the practice of swearing an oath on your children.
(*) Einstein’s brother, Albert Brooks, is set to appear in this new season. Will he play himself, or another member of the troublesome Funkhouser clan? The latter sounds more fun, and if Vince Vaughn isn’t too famous to play a Funkhouser, then Brooks shouldn’t be, either.
The plot of the special culminates with Larry deciding that he does not, in fact, want to return to stand-up full-time. So he conjures up a transparently fake excuse about his stepfather being in a coma for a pair of apoplectic HBO executives who were planning to televise his big concert. That arc very much fits in with way Curb works as a series: The fictionalized Larry keeps an office and frequently talks about big projects. More often than not, though, he sabotages his own efforts, and you get a sense after a while that the guy doesn’t really like working. Or, at least, he doesn’t like continuing to work in his chosen field; the arc last season where he opened a coffee shop as a “spite store” to punish an irritating, rival mocha-slinger was the most professionally engaged we’ve ever seen Larry on the show.
Since the character has so much in common with the man playing him, it would be easy to assume that the real Larry David shares a similar aversion to work. After all, David is so wealthy that he could have lit a thousand dollars on fire every day since the Seinfeld finale first aired and not put a significant dent in his net worth. Instead, over the last 20-plus years, he has written(*), produced, and starred in 100 Curb episodes and counting. But he’s done it by leveraging his wealth and power into the sweetest deal in the TV business, which allows him to make the show when he wants to and not make it when he doesn’t. If David has an idea for a new season, HBO will give him the green light. If the mood doesn’t strike him, he can go years between episodes without any executive pressure. Six years passed between the eighth and ninth seasons, and another three between the ninth and tenth. Given the pandemic of it all, it feels almost miraculous that we’re getting the 11th season only a year and a half after the previous one ended — with the spite store burning down.
(*) As always, each episode is tightly plotted, but the dialogue is largely improvised.
HBO hasn’t given critics any screeners of this new batch, though Curb in its advanced years has become a consistently inconsistent show. Lots of episodes (including almost all of Season Nine, which saw Larry courting trouble with religious extremists by mounting a musical called Fatwa!) feel too leisurely paced for the series’ trademark intersecting-farce structure, or don’t achieve the proper karmic balance relative to Larry’s various sins. But every now and then, we’ll get one like Season Eight’s “The Palestinian Chicken,” which gave birth to a thousand memes about indecisiveness, or last year’s “Elizabeth, Margaret and Larry,” with Jon Hamm slowly transforming into Larry while shadowing him for a role, that can be just as funny as anything Curb has ever done, and at times funnier than anything Seinfeld ever did. The NBC show had a higher batting average, but its HBO successor hits for more power when it connects.
That Curb after all this time can still compare favorably to David’s previous series feels like a justification for him making it in the first place, rather than just retiring to a private island two decades ago. It simultaneously feels like a spinoff and remake of Seinfeld. The plots frequently overlap (both Larry and Jerry have befriended first basemen from the 1986 World Series), and one of the better Curb seasons was built around Larry reassembling the Seinfeld cast for a reunion special that would appease people disappointed by the series finale he wrote. It was a clever way to apologize; David never had to actually make a new Seinfeld episode, but he offered us enough snippets here to feel like he had. (Plus, for a few gloriously bonkers minutes, he even got to play George Costanza, who was based on him.)
It’s a low-key recurring theme on Curb that Larry is past his prime and will never surpass his most celebrated work. But the show seems to have been created to disprove that very idea, and to celebrate David’s singular genius not only as a writer, but a performer. It’s not exactly a spite show, since David and Seinfeld seem to get along with one another as well as they can with any fellow human, but it is perhaps an I’m-right show — one he can take in an even more misanthropic direction than NBC would have ever allowed.
Late in the 1999 special, Larry realizes the laughter is dying down near the end of one of his stand-up sets. “This is what happens when you run out of nothing,” he quips, alluding to the famous “show about nothing” Seinfeld catchphrase. Two-plus decades later, he is still finding lots of nothing to do, and the laughter is still loud as ever.