Me, Myself, and I: ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and the Art of Being a Sociopath

Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, are not shows about nothing -- they're about everything. They’re shows about people who cannot have a thought without vocalizing it, regardless of the social or emotional consequences.

“One day, I heard Survivor, and then I thought ‘survivor,’ and I went, ‘holy shit!’ My head exploded over how funny that could be, and I thought, ‘I have got to write this and film it as fast as I possibly can because somebody’s going to come up with this idea. It’s just so obvious!'”

In an interview with David Remnick at the New Yorker Festival in 2014, Larry David described an epiphany which led to one of the central jokes in the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, “The Survivor”. The joke consists of a misunderstanding Larry has when planning a dinner party at his home. One of the attendees, a rabbi, tells Larry that he wants to bring a “survivor” to the party. The rabbi is referring to Colby, a former contestant on the reality show Survivor, but Larry believes the rabbi is referring to a Holocaust survivor. As a result, Larry tells his father to invite his friend, Solly, who spent time in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. This being Curb Your Enthusiasm, Colby and Solly argue over who survived the worse ordeal.

I’ve always found that anecdote amusing because I don’t think anyone else was in a rush to write or film that joke, and I suspect it wasn’t quite as obvious as David thought. But this joke, and the impulse behind it, says a lot about the peculiar appeal of Curb Your Enthusiasm, one of the most strange and compelling expressions of a comedic perspective ever put on television.

As one of the co-creators of Seinfeld, David helped start a revolution in the tone of American screen comedy. His idea was this: Everyone is just as selfish as you are and, absent financial desperation or the capacity for shame, the world would devolve into a series of petty arguments over minor inconveniences. It was the inverse of empathy; rather than attempting to understand other peoples’ perspectives and becoming more sensitive to them, the show insisted that we’re all pretty much the same, that we’re all insufferable. The cliché holds that Seinfeld and, by extension, Curb Your Enthusiasm, are shows about nothing, but I think the opposite is true: They’re shows about everything. They’re shows about people who cannot have a thought without vocalizing it, regardless of the social or emotional consequences.

Jerry Seinfeld, a brilliant observational comic of the hyper-specific and mundane, was a good fit as a writing partner for David, but he’s always seemed less cynical than David and more interested in the mechanics of observation as an end in itself. There’s something darker and more mischievous lurking in David’s ideas: What if I could tell everyone whatever I thought? What would that look like? Curb Your Enthusiasm, which premiered on HBO two years after Seinfeld‘s final episode, was David’s coming-out party, an opportunity for him to explore and develop his comedic sensibility without the tempering influence of a co-creator or a major broadcast network regulated by the FCC.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is built around Larry, a fictionalized version of David whom David has said is a representation of his id. Larry is a narcissist and a sociopath obsessed with the rules of social conduct but completely insensitive to anyone’s feelings but his own. He will confront someone who tries too many samples at an ice cream shop; he will also steal flowers from a memorial for a friend’s dead mother. You could argue that Larry is one of the most sadistic characters in television history because he has no excuses. He is aware of his moral failings, makes no effort to change them and, unlike a Don Draper or Walter White, has no emotional traumas or existential threats to explain his behavior. Larry’s life is one of exceptional comfort and privilege, and he uses it as an opportunity to become his worst self.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is a show about stasis and moral decay, but it uses each as an aesthetic and comedic device, rather than a thematic or philosophical one. Over its first eight seasons and 80 episodes, very little changes. Any attempts to deal earnestly with the big things in life — death, disease, relationships — are sidetracked by the little things. It usually goes something like this: Larry notices what he perceives to be a violation of proper social conduct and becomes obsessed by it, describing the violation in excruciating detail to each person he encounters. Then, he notices another transgression, and the cycle repeats until Larry’s pettiness comes back to bite him, often because he ends up violating the very rules he attempted to enforce.

In the first episode of the show’s seventh season, Larry’s girlfriend, Loretta, is awaiting a cancer diagnosis. Larry wants to break up with Loretta, in part because of the responsibilities he will assume if her test results come back positive, and he is worried that he will ruin his chance of removing himself from his role as a caretaker if he doesn’t end their relationship before the diagnosis is confirmed. He has other concerns throughout the episode, but none involves Loretta’s well-being. He chastises Loretta’s doctor for taking a lemonade from his refrigerator without asking, complains that the host of a dinner party he’s been invited to won’t reveal the other guests, and takes food from a friend’s refrigerator—without asking. Each sets off a chain of events that prevents Larry from breaking up with Loretta before her doctor reveals she has cancer, which causes Larry to faint, then ask the doctor if he’ll have time to play golf while caring for her.

Typically, characters respond to fictional events in the same way their audience would. If a character falls ill, she will become an object of empathy and compassion to those around her, and the show will focus more on the consequences of the disease than the minor annoyances which exist in its shadow. Even characters in science fiction and fantasy stories often possess a kind of psychological realism. Their circumstances may be exotic, but their feelings and actions are not.

On Curb Your Enthusiasm, the opposite is true. The show looks and feels like reality—handheld cameras, naturalistic lighting, improvised scenes which reflect the rhythms and inflections of natural speech—but is made surreal by the way its characters relate to the world around them. This is the show’s genius, and, perhaps, the reason why so many are made uncomfortable while watching it. The show’s surface is familiar, but its insides are skewed and distorted.

One episode features a longtime friend of Larry’s, the comedian Richard Lewis, who is experiencing kidney failure and needs a transplant. While having lunch one day, Richard reveals to Larry that he will likely need a friend to donate a kidney to survive. Larry hedges and complains to his friend and manager, Jeff, who is also Richard’s manager, and wife, Cheryl, about how unfair the situation is toward him. Why should he have to give up his kidney? Larry and Jeff decide who will donate through a game of eenie, meenie, miney, moe, moderated by their friend, Marty. Larry believes he has rigged the game in his favor, but he’s wrong, and he argues that Marty does not understand its rules. For Larry, donating a kidney to a dying friend is not an act of heroism, but a grave injustice. The episode is not about Richard’s illness or an act of selfless compassion, but rather, the furthest extent to which Larry will go to avoid making a sacrifice.

The dissonance between style and content extends to David’s performance, which conveys a uniquely modern cynicism through the methods of old-school, slapstick comedy, echoing mimes, clowns, and silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It’s as if Woody Allen modeled himself after the Three Stooges. David’s performance rejects naturalism for exaggerated, frozen expressions; manic hand gestures; the lanky gait of someone whose clothes are too big. He has a way of both escalating and defusing tension at the same time, like when he believes someone is lying to him. This happens often throughout the series, and it always ends the same way. Larry leans toward his subject, squints, tilts his head up, moves it from side-to-side, and after a moment, mutters, “Okay…,” barely hiding his skepticism. It’s meant as a threat, but no one could take such a threat seriously.

Physical comedy usually connotes innocence, characters who cause harm to themselves because they lack the coordination to avoid injury, because they don’t know any better. Their pain is self-inflicted. This is not the case with Larry. His cruelty is directed outward, only returning to him after the damage has been done. Even then, the pain never sticks, his conscience is never bothered. David’s performance has never quite aligned with the rest of the show, but that’s part of its brilliance. He often seems as if he is engaging with an alternate reality or a lucid dream, as if the world is an extension of his consciousness.

As with any beloved show that returns after a long hiatus, there are many questions that surround the ninth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm: How will the show acknowledge America’s political climate? How many more seasons will there be? How will the final episode end?

I don’t think the show will be interested in most of those questions, and the final scene of its initial run may be prophetic. It finds Larry in Paris, having spontaneously decided to move to a different country for two months as an alibi to prove his inability to attend a charity event, where he is presented with the opportunity for growth, change, or, at least, novelty. But he becomes annoyed when he observes a driver park poorly. Larry does not have a car or any intent to drive one, but his absurd and arbitrary sense of justice takes hold of him, and he confronts the driver. Larry has flown across the sea to one of the most beautiful cities in the world to lecture a man he does not know about parking etiquette.

The episode ends in the middle of a shouting match, a promise that Larry will never change, that his life will continue as a series of petty, indefinite arguments. When the show returns for its ninth season, I can’t imagine they’ll end.