Monday, December 20, 2010

5. Curb Your Enthusiasm (You Can't Yell After Deaf People, And Other Tips & Suggestions About Societal Standards For You Schmohawks)

“That’s not your business, Larry, you misanthropic moron!”
-Susie, but it really could be what anyone unfortunate enough to cross paths with Larry David might want to exclaim;
“The Christ Nail” (Season 5, Episode 3)

Run time: October 15, 2000 – Present
Created by: Larry David
Broadcast via: HBO (that’s 3 in the Top 5!)

Perhaps more effective than “Woke Up This Morning” or the theme from Cheers (appropriately enough titled “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”), the opening notes to Curb Your Enthusiasm’s “Frolic” (by composer Luciano Michelini) inspire an instant recognition for impending insanity as comedic fervor is certain to fire off synapses of the brain, gearing one to get ready for some great now-old fashioned awkward comedy. The opening notes invoke a sublimity of whimsy, the type of bliss attained through knowing that you’ll be laughing until it hurts at how stupid we silly humans can be. In other words, a perfect counterbalance to the sardonic and sociopathic comedy about to be unleashed.

Curb Your Enthusiasm may not technically be the funniest sitcom on TV right now (that no doubt must be It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, since Party Down’s been cancelled), but it is classic and inspired and hilarious all the same. And its influence cannot be denied. Curb Your Enthusiasm predicted so precisely the style that would swallow sitcoms in the following decade since its debut. The Office may have been more directly inspired by the films of Christopher Guest, but one can’t deny that Curb came before any version of The Office, and before Arrested Development and the aforementioned Always Sunny and Modern Family and any other “pretending it's being caught live” formatted show of this new millennium.

Somehow, creator Larry David has had a heavy hand in two of the best comedic properties of all time, both of them ahead of their time and also indicative of it.  If you don’t already know by now, he created Seinfeld along with the titular Jerry Seinfeld, a show that played off the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of modern man and woman in a way that only two gloomy comedians could imagine and execute. Seinfeld was the last great laugh track comedy. After Seinfeld, there was no more need for laugh track comedies, because they would never reach the level of comedic brilliance that Seinfeld had. I don’t care what your thoughts on Two And A Half Men or The Big Bang Theory are (or Friends or That ‘70s Show, if you wanna reach back to the late 1990s), they are not Capital G Great Comedies. They are great sitcoms, no doubt, but Seinfeld transcended “situational comedy” in a way few sitcoms have been able to do since (and most of ones that have often get tagged as having a Seinfeldian influence).

As for Curb Your Enthusiasm, it shifted focus away from a fantastic foursome to one bright shining beacon of awkward comedy. I am not trying to deny the awesomeness of the supporting cast and guest actors that have come in to incur the wrath of a neurotic and curmudgeonly Jew unleashed on a superficial yet sensitive society. But Larry David is clearly running the show, and everyone else is along for the ride. Playing a fictional version of himself, the real Larry David writes an entire season’s outline (each season playing out in ten half-hour episodes) and then lets it rip, cameras following him as each scene unfolds in that seemingly all-too-real style. Creating socially awkward anarchy in his every interaction, the fake Larry David rivals his other creation of selfishness George Costanza in committing faux pas after faux pas either due to ignorance, negligence, or willful disapproval of social values and conventions. And always, always rooted in solipsistic narcissism, “LD” (as he is come to be called, starting with season six) applies the rules when he feels entitled and feels above them whenever convenient for himself. He’s the kind of guy who freely admits, “I can’t stand the sound of the human voice. It’s disturbing to me,” just to explain why he would cut short a less-than-talented child’s “gift from the heart” (a song performed for an anniversary present).

Technically, CYE (one of the few show acronyms I enjoy employing) is a spin-off of the one-hour comedy special baring the same name LD did back in ’99. The special’s premise (in which David was preparing to do a one-hour standup comedy special for HBO, practicing in clubs and brandishing his off-kilter counter-to-culture comedy on the general public in between, before finally chickening out and failing to produce said standup special) was presented as a mockumentary, was great and allowed for an easy transition to a television series. Though the characters of the show never directly acknowledge the camera (they do, however, recognize their presence in the special), the visual style still maintains that handheld, capturing-the-moment spirit. And since the story is never scripted, just outlined, the actors’ improvisation helps to give it that spontaneous luster.

Curb has retained Seinfeld’s regard for season-long story arcs, but each episode is pretty self-contained. More so than Seinfeld, however, each episode takes a while to get its momentum going, and each episode ends in a climactic explosion of comedic timing and sharpness wherein the threads of the episode’s storylines finally coalesce, often into something so painful or intense that the screen cuts to black for title cards before actually unfolding for us to witness. Curb also retained Seinfeld’s meta-sense of self, poking fun of its own peculiarities and asinine attitude; again with the “more so”s, Curb went beyond Seinfeld’s stable of celebrity guests, blending real actors to their fictional counterparts and bending reality to comedic effect. The best example of this would have to be season seven, in which David finally caves in to the demand for a Seinfeld reunion (but only to win back the affections of his ex-wife), bringing back the Seinfeld Four (and many notable others – including Newman!) to skewer the actors’ trials and tribulations in a post-Seinfeld landscape. That he marries his new show with his old one is a stroke of genius that could have been disastrous had it not been applied with such a skilled pressure.

If you think the idea of a man hiring a hooker to ride in a car with him just so he can drive in the carpool lane is funny, you have no business not knowing this show. I can’t really surmise this splendiferous series any more succinctly, so all I can do is sit and wait for the upcoming eighth season (Ricky Gervais!) and pray that it maintains this same level of hilarity. That Larry David takes his time between seasons (a la David Chase and Sopranos) does suggest that the quality won’t be dipping before the show decides to bow out. I’m sure everyone’s hoping that Curb’s ending won’t be strange and unbecoming as Seinfeld’s still-more-maligned-than-it-should-be finale (but that’s a whole other conversation).

One simple song perfectly bookends each episode, and the fact that there is no opening credit sequence is a breath of fresh air. It doesn’t try to be fancy or cool or quirky, offering simplicity itself to start off a show destined for anything but uncomplicated. It’s nice to have a show that’s not so much flashy as just plain anxious to get down to (funny) business.

BEST CHARACTER: Leon (played by J.B. Smoove)
LD is god, but Leon is the Jesus of this show, saving us all by not only putting up with David’s shenanigans but enjoying (if not instigating) it. Leon knows how to loosen up and just go along with the ride, while helping Larry to relax a little and embrace some of his brotherly tendencies.
BEST SEASON: 4 (of 7 so far)
Season seven’s Seinfeld reunion was epic, and season six did introduce us to The Blacks (namely Leon and his sister Loretta, playing by a game Vivica Fox). Season five even ended with Larry’s near death experience. But season four, wherein Larry is hired by Mel Brooks to play Max Bialystock in an extended run of The Producers musical, is consistently sharp and scathing, with many great celebrity turns (check out pre-Lost Jorge “Hurley” Garcia sell Larry pot) and my favorite meta-moment, the ending that reveals Brooks hired David so that the show would bomb and he’d no longer be stuck overseeing The Producers. A shining example of what a season with LD can be.
BEST EPISODE: “Krazee Eyez Killa” (Season 3, Episode 8)
Larry shows his acting chops as a pissed off mob boss in a new Martin Scorsese movies, then scours L.A. to find a replacement jacket for the re-shoots after taking (and losing) the original. He also makes friends with Wanda Sykes’s fiancé, a rapper named (you guessed it) Krazee Eyez Killa, at one point referring to him as “my Caucasian.” There’s also the waxing about neck injuries (and hairs stuck in the throat) due to cunnilingus, the stepping on the plastic packing bubbles, polishing the wording of a profanity-laced rap verse, the dual moments of absurdity over a tour of a house, and more. A fine episode, and one of the easiest for those uninitiated to take in and get right away.

BEST MOMENT: Larry & The Blacks (“The Bat Mitzvah,” Season 6, Episode 10)
After taking in the hurricane-displaced Black family, Larry and Cheryl’s marriage falls apart (due to his paying more attention to the TiVo guy than her during a life-or-death phone call) and she moves out. The Blacks stick around to enhance the craziness of Larry’s life, reacting like family to his various misdeeds. When Larry realizes he won’t be getting Cheryl back, he sees Loretta in a new light, leading to the funniest sixty seconds a sitcom could ever produce by setting itself up as a redefined new comedy called Larry And The Blacks. Many have claimed they hope for a true spin-off series, but everything that could be said about that show was said in the final montage, a hysterical ending to another hilarious season. 

BEST "PRETTY GOOD... PRETTY, PRETTY, PRETTY... PRETTY GOOD": Trying to get out of therapy ("The Thong," Season 2, Episode 5)
LD's trademark expression for legit (or phony) contentedness is often used during hallmark moments of hilarity within the show. I rather enjoy Larry lying his ass off to his therapist while trying to avoid the elephant in the room: Larry caught sight of his therapist in an unflattering thong while at the beach. Instead of discussing it, like one should do in therapy, Mr. David tells him that he is "all better" and no longer needs help because he's feeling "pretty good." Of course, the therapist (and the audience) can see right through him, but it's a great example of the front LD will raise due to discomfort.

-Juan Catalan owes Larry David a big hug and heartfelt thank you. 

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