The big laughs emerge from the same place they always have: Larry David's excruciating absorption in life's smallest problems.
Larry David, the squillionaire Seinfeld scribe, is pictured on the cover of the Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Complete Fourth Season box set scowling amid a sea of clown puppets. Since 2000, Curb has been the ongoing chronicle of the self-induced misfortune in David's ostensibly charmed life, and the fourth season seems to be working harder than ever to make that proposition stick.
Certainly the lunacy on display has increased, with the result that the season can feel a little overcooked at times. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the arch-plot for the fourth season (released on extras-less DVDs), which sees Larry cast by Mel Brooks in the lead role of The Producers. Though it's a fun twist, it also feels grandiose in a series that is sharpest when tending to jagged subplots and petty personal disputes.
One such dispute arises early in the series when Larry offends Ben Stiller, a potential co-star in The Producers, whose freshly sneezed-on hand Larry refuses to shake. "It was a dry sneeze, Larry," assures Stiller. "I can't assume dry. I gotta' assume wet. I saw snot speckles." Close your eyes and it almost could be Seinfeld. Almost.
The skeptic's take on Curb is that it is Seinfeld without the one-liners, the energising network straitjacket and, crucially, its eponymous star's charm. This is a little uncharitable. David, the curmudgeonly inspiration for Seinfeld's George Costanza, can certainly be irritating, but he's more fascinating the more you watch him. Possessed of a childlike fixation on life's least interesting minutiae (what to do with a used kebab skewer at a party, whether the "yo" in yoga is a prefix) and bereft of all social graces, Larry's personality is potentially insufferable. He offends everyone -- gays, lesbians, black people, disabled people, and Norwegians -- either through ignorance of the rules or wildly misguided attempts to flatter.
Curb is in many ways a comedy-of-manners for the age of political correctness. For my money, some of the gags in Season Four push the show over the edge into knock-about silliness (as when a dog bites Larry's penis), but its many resonant moments come from watching David do exactly what he shouldn't, and remaining steadfast in the conviction that he did nothing wrong. In an early episode, Larry commits the mortal sin of using the phone in a doctor's examination room. When the doctor balls him out for the infraction, David's probing of the reasons for the rule draws a string of obfuscations from the doctor ("it's not the cost of the call we are concerned about,"), which do little to disguise the fact that there is good reason for it whatsoever. That stubborn refusal to bow to expectations of deference (how many of us would argue with our doctors about anything, let alone something so trivial?) make David an unlikely anti-hero.
Inevitably, Larry's most successful interactions are with those people with least sense of a pecking order: a jive-talkin' hooker he hires so he can legally use a carpool lane, an improbably gregarious Islamic fundamentalist whom he tries to set up with a blind man, and a group of mentally retarded car washers. When you see David sitting around a table laughing inanely in the company of a ridiculously unlikely quintet -- four mental patients and a Muslim in full religious garb -- you realize that, for all his obvious prickliness and bull-in-a-china-shop social skills, in the right company (those whom he just can't offend), he's more than easy to get along with.
David presides over the show, but he's not the only reason to watch it. Cheryl Hines, playing Larry's peach of wife, is beautiful and a good sport, Jeff Garlin is suitably venal as Larry's agent, and Richard Lewis, playing his neurotic-self, is a welcome counterpoint to David's utter lack of introspection. The rest of the cast is comprised of a blend of moonlighting celebrities, quicksilver comics (many drawn from Chicago's Second City troupe), and gratuitous cameos (Nathan Lane and Jerry Seinfeld both show up for three seconds apiece).
A scene halfway through the season has Jeff casually informing Larry that he has been sexually fantasizing about Cheryl. Larry reacts with anger and repulsion and Jeff is perplexed: "She just popped in. I thought you'd be flattered." This scene gets funnier the more I think about it. Not just for the goofy sweetness with which a compromising personal detail is offered up, but because, considering that these are two men who watch porn, discuss any bodily function, and happily detail any social or sexual transgression, no matter how egregious, the line crossed seems hilariously random.
It's the kind of scene Curb does best -- absurd, petty, fresh, and incisive. By contrast, the season's grand denouement -- a massive half-hour set piece where Larry single-handedly scuppers and then resurrects The Producers during a performance (shot on location in the St. James Theatre in New York) feels like show business as usual. Were it not for the fact that five minutes before the performance, Larry manages to blow (so to speak) a date with a professional fellatio teacher, it might even smack of indulgence. At least for now, Curb's occasional lapses into farce don't ruin the show, but they do count among its least characteristic and least funny moments. The big laughs emerge from the same place they always have: Larry David's excruciating absorption in life's smallest problems. As ever, his pain is our gain.