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Flattening the Curb: Television Culture, Larry David and COVID-19Eric Deguire
31 May 2020
"You're nothing without your health. Some people are nothing even with their health. I fall in that category, sometimes."
Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 7, Vehicular Fellatio)
Many people claim to be the biggest fan of their favourite TV show. This type of fandom is especially prevalent in the case of sitcoms. Whether we are talking about Friends or The Office, it’s not hard to find a fan who knows all the lines after having seen every episode countless times. In the age of the Internet and DVD commentary, they know fun facts about how the actors were cast, about how a given scene was filmed, and even how writers came to make certain choices.
I meet huge Seinfeld fans all the time. Now 29, I was in the second grade when the finale aired on May 14, 1998. After Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine were sentenced to a year in prison under the “Good Samaritan Law,” Seinfeld remained a cultural monument in my family’s household. In a testament to the power of syndication, the show was pretty much part of every single day of my life for the next decade, with Fox reliably airing episodes at 7:00 and 7:30 every evening and several more on weekends.
It says something about a TV show’s popularity when even casual fans are fanatics. However, in most cases, this enthusiasm pales in comparison to those who have devoted their lives to a television show and other cultural phenomena. Such as the Jimi Hendrix super fan who flew to Seattle just to see the hot dog stand that the legendary guitarist used to go to, or the baseball fanatic who managed to visit all 30 Major League stadiums in 30 days.
In the case of Seinfeld, there are trivia events in which you are asked what was the letter and number of the space Jerry hit when he sunk Elaine’s submarine while playing Battleship in the ninth season of the series. The answer is B6. I like to believe that my fandom is sanely situated somewhere between that of these super fans and the person who watches a rerun from time to time.
Lately though, I haven’t been coming across so many Seinfeld enthusiasts, for the global crisis that is COVID-19 has kept me at home watching TV. However, Seinfeld managed to leave a mark on our current moment when co-creator Larry David put out a PSA urging people to stay put. “I basically want to address the idiots out there. You know who you are. You're going out. I don't know what you're doing. You're socializing too close. It's not good.”
I most enjoy watching TV shows years after they air. At that point, I generally have a good idea that I am committing to something worth my while. It is largely for this reason that I finally binged all 100 episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm this spring, twenty years after it first aired on HBO. For a Seinfeld fan, the show in which Larry David stars as a fictionalized version of himself was a natural choice. Even if it doesn’t match expectations, maintaining some sort of connection with the Seinfeld universe can only be exciting. In fact, I tried getting into the show nearly ten years ago, but got turned off somewhere along the way in the third season.
The main story arc of that season is one in which Larry and other wealthy Hollywood friends are planning the opening of a restaurant in which they are all investing. Many successful shows chronicle the lives of the people who actually work on them. If lawyers tend to write about legal issues, and mothers tend to write about motherhood, people who work in entertainment tend to create shows about their own experience. This leads to programs such as Entourage and 30 Rock.
This is no different in the case of Curb, which allows us to see Larry go about his life as the successful co-creator of Seinfeld as he encounters other hilarious or eccentric celebrities. However, seeing Larry David, Ted Danson and their wealthy friends quarrel over the opening of a restaurant might be a tad too disconnected from the lives of everyday viewers.
Despite my decade-old aborted attempt to get into this show, my fiancée and I committed to a binge of Curb Your Enthusiasm early on during the pandemic. If one narrative slightly turned me off, it was no reason to give up on an otherwise brilliant product. What I came to notice, however, is that watching this show now could not have been more relevant.
Larry David’s view of the world is that bad things will happen. He will regret his successes and see the worst in any given situation. Despite his professional success and his financial comfort, he struggles with day-to-day life and the personal interactions that it requires.
In a time of global crisis, Curb Your Enthusiasm has served to remind us that all moments of our daily lives come with a risk of awkward encounters or personal conflict. Every time we leave the house, we risk getting into an argument or an uncomfortable situation with a waiter, a store clerk or a pedestrian. As social beings, we still want to engage in this risk, we even thrive on it, and lately we have not been able to do so.
As a hypochondriac, Larry David consults doctors in many episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and typically antagonizes them, their staff or other patients. Getting into an argument while attending to a physical ailment probably represents one of the ultimate forms of human struggle, albeit without much risk in the Curb world. If COVID-19 has put everyone’s physical health at risk, we sadly know that the many people’s mental health has been tested as well. The humour of Curb Your Enthusiasm has represented a glimmer of hope.
Our current times are as spectacular as they are mundane. When governments ask people to stay home, they are creating a moment that is exceptional, but really it is exceptionally boring. Not to mention that it can also be deeply scary. These contrasts can be seen on the smallest scale in Larry David’s life on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Curb Your Enthusiasm manages to show us the banal and the ludicrous that exist in this unpredictable universe. As insane as Larry can be, he actually plays the straight man in many scenes. This allows for a character like Susie Greene to throw him out of her house on countless occasions in a fit of rage.
In other cases, characters such as Leon Black and Richard Lewis manage to make Larry look like the normal one. Leon might find himself making an overly explicit sexual reference about the women he entertains in Larry’s guest house, while Lewis will engage in a screaming match over who pays for lunch. In one episode, the two comedic geniuses casually pull their cars over to the side of the road simply to get out and have an argument.
As much as Curb’s fictional version of Larry David struggles with many of the functions of daily life, no one can say that he is a total failure. He has a beautiful wife, a wonderful home, and enough money for several lifetimes. These contrasts allow the show to focus on the mundane struggles of Larry’s unnecessarily sad life, as in an argument over a parking spot or pants that bunch up in the crotch so it looks as though he has an erection.
Ultimately, Curb Your Enthusiasm – as so often with great social commentary – is about contradictions. How can such a rich, successful and funny man be so deeply unhappy? A reminder that such contradictions exist in the universe is always helpful while humanity faces the colossal challenge that is COVID-19; a time during which most people are being told that if they want to step up and do their part, they have to stay home... and watch TV.
Eric Deguire's first book, Communication et violences: Des récits personnels de l’hégémonie américaine, was published this spring by Linda Leith Éditions.