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How Curb Your Enthusiasm Went Beyond Cringe

Larry David crafted a show about mortifying social encounters that somehow left us feeling comforted. 

John Johnson/HBO
Larry David in the final season of Curb Your Enthusiasm

The saying goes that if you run into an asshole in the morning, then you ran into an asshole. But if you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole. What happens, though, if you keep running into assholes, keep dealing with them and becoming them, back and forth, over and over, never stopping, never retreating into yourself or into isolation, just flaying yourself and others alive every day for your entire life? What kind of narcissism is that? What kind of vulnerability?

Larry David has been the asshole people keep running into and the asshole who keeps running into them on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm for nearly 25 years. It seems impossible, doesn’t it, that a man so irritated and irritating in turn could anchor one of the longest-running live-action comedy series outside of Saturday Night Live. The series finally wraps up this week, after 12 seasons, and as we come to the end of this epic journey, it’s fitting to ask what’s sustained this show, what’s sustained him for all this time. Pettiness, self-regard, rage, insecurity, wealth, privilege, impatience, impetuousness, even just old age, these are all, in their own specific ways, true. But watching this final season of Curb over the past few months, and thinking about it in the context of its own ending, the answer I keep coming back to is this: wonder.

Larry has sustained this show through an unceasing, unslakable sense of wonder about the social world. Sure he’s bothered, sure he’s wrong, sure he’ll shout about it, but, in doing so, he’ll always manage to make it new to us. In an early episode of this season, Larry’s talking to Leon, and Leon keeps ending his phrases with, “you know what I’m saying?” It’s a phrase you hear so much as to be unworthy of comment, even unworthy of noticing. But Larry notices. As Leon speaks, Larry begins to get that look, of annoyance, yes, but also of inquisitiveness. He’s just hearing this. Like a baby, like an innocent, Larry is just now noticing the strangeness of this locution. Larry and Leon do not argue about this, they do not fight, but Larry gloms onto the phrase, its strange redundancy, its compulsive deployment.

After all this time, there are still new things to discover, new threads of the social fabric to look too closely at, to irritate, to break. Just because the show greets them with annoyance and rage, doesn’t mean it isn’t helping us to discover new things about the texture of social life, too. Larry still hasn’t seen it all. Isn’t that kind of wonderful? 

Curb Your Enthusiasm exists awkwardly among the canon of early 2000s series that critics like to call this century’s “Golden Age” of TV. It debuted on HBO the year after The Sopranos did, and two years before The Wire, but while Larry David is perhaps the most famously “difficult” man on TV in the past 25 years, Brett Martin’s authoritative history of the cable revolution—called Difficult Men—doesn’t even mention him. But this isn’t an oversight. For one thing, Curb wasn’t necessarily a part of the narrative and stylistic revolution that undergirds this mythology—it’s no prime-time soap, and its production values have always been defiantly functional. For another, Curb is only just now being consigned to posterity, outlasting all those other series by a decade or more. But I think the primary reason Curb gets to occupy a mythology of its own, adjacent to that of The Sopranos and The Wire, is that it’s a series considerably more connected to HBO’s past than they were.

While Curb aired on HBO in that golden hour, developed, like those other series, by HBO’s president of original programming at the time, Chris Albrecht, its lineage stretches back to before Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw. In the 1990s, HBO was a comedy powerhouse. While David was writing and producing Seinfeld on NBC, HBO was building is bona fides as a premier destination for stand-up specials and edgy comedy series. HBO produced the iconic Def Comedy Jam as well as HBO Comedy Half-Hour, both of which featured dozens of the most notable comics of their day. But then there were the original scripted series. The Larry Sanders Show, Tracey Takes On, Mr. Show With Bob and David, The Kids in the Hall, The Chris Rock Show, even Tenacious D—by the time Larry David set the hour-long special that turned into Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2000, HBO had already played host to a murderers’ row of end-of-millennium comedic talent.

Curb, in many ways, synthesized the comedy pedigree of HBO’s ’90s with the ambition and unbounded creative freedom of HBO’s aughts. What if you watched a stand-up special, and you followed the comic off the stage, and then it just never ever ended? This was what Curb promised, and it delivered. 

Even though Larry David combined HBO’s strengths, its closest relative was neither The Sopranos nor The Larry Sanders Show. Instead, Curb necessarily existed (and still exists) in the shadow of Seinfeld, the series David co-created and that transformed the network sitcom from 1989 to 1998. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine that Seinfeld went off the air a mere two years before Curb arrived. The two shows feel like they belong to different epochs. Seinfeld sharply carved the sitcom into a cursed object, turning a format that had historically been about friends or family or romance or the workplace into a format about nothing. But it was still, in its heart of hearts, a network sitcom. That’s partially why the central insight of the show’s finale—which David returned, after some time away, to help write—was such a tart, polarizing one. The discomfiting insistence of the Seinfeld finale—that these people whose observations about the world you found yourself nodding along with were ultimately very bad people—was where Curb began. If Seinfeld sliced and diced the ethos of the twentieth-century sitcom, Curb was uncut.

The big reveal of Curb in 2000, of course, was that the comedic sensibility that made Seinfeld iconic seems to have belonged, largely, to Larry rather than Jerry. Sure, that show was built around Seinfeld’s observational stand-up and signature delivery style, but the show’s formal precision, its escalating, intricately interwoven carps and capers, the show’s architecture itself, that was all Larry. Curb is the solo album that the lead guitarist of the popular rock band releases after the breakup. It’s not for everybody, less commercial, more distilled, and more difficult, but it shreds. 

And as much as Seinfeld transformed the sitcom in the 1990s, Curb changed everything in the new millennium. Without Curb in 2000—followed closely by Ricky Gervais’s The Office in 2001—the Cringe Wave does not come. Every awkward mockumentary we’ve seen, from the American Office through Parks and Recreation and Modern Family and Abbott Elementary, owes at least some debt to Curb. The idea that irascibility could be funnier, sharper, more insightful and entertaining, even more human and empathetic, than good-natured relatability—what chambers of the human heart can a cringe open for us?

The final season of Curb is, in almost every way that matters, just like all the other seasons of Curb. The main inciting incident of the new season is that Larry inadvertently becomes a civil rights hero after he gets arrested for handing a Black woman a bottle of water while she waits in line to vote in Georgia. Tied in with that is an open letter to the owner of the golf club from a “disgruntled” member; Larry’s struggle to break up with his girlfriend, Irma (Tracey Ullman); a psychologist and a urologist with thin walls; an old bit about a massage therapist; and a whole rigmarole about the dying wishes of a guy Larry barely knows. To say that this is all par for the course is not necessarily to criticize it. (Though this is by no means the show’s most inspired collection.) One of the virtues of Curb has always been its formal consistency, which morphed, over time, into familiarity. Each episode is built with such careful attention and predictably perfect rhythm, it’s possible to watch this show about mortifying social encounters and walk away from the couch feeling comforted. 

And it’s precisely that formulaic shape, that perfection of design, that’s allowed Curb to become great. Specifically, it’s allowed the show to become an institution. Larry’s counterintuitively sprawling in-universe friend group, paired with the intensely repetitive structure of each episode and season, has allowed dozens of actors to move in and out of the series, to stay for a moment or to never leave. Curb’s official meanness of spirit gave way to a tremendous generosity of design in TV comedy. This show about an abrasive prick also turns out to be a show about a sprawling, gregarious community of friends and rivals. As in all of HBO’s greatest hits from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones, every new face you meet might break your heart or piss you off.  

If SNL has been an institution that nurtures young talent, Curb has been an institution that provides a home—permanent or passing—for old talent. Comedians and actors who no longer have their own popular vehicles, are between projects, or perhaps never had one that was worthy of them, have thrived in Larry’s system. Susie Essman, J.B. Smoove, Ted Danson, Jason Alexander, Bob Einstein, Wanda Sykes, Jon Hamm, Michael J. Fox, Annie Mumulo—all of these talents got a spotlight on Curb when they were without spotlights elsewhere. A friend recently pointed out how incredibly well the show integrates famous people playing thinly fictionalized versions of themselves and famous actors playing entirely new characters. Think of how many of the loving memorial clips of Richard Lewis that circulated online after his passing this year were clips from Curb, Lewis playing himself brilliantly. And think, on the other hand, of Tracey Ullman, long one of the most ingenious and respected comics in the world, creating a bespoke human being for her friend Larry David. Her Irma Kostroski—introduced last season and carried over into this one—is a tour de force, not just a funny voice, but a layered symphony of awfulness. Ullman’s nearly unrecognizable, but her character feels as real as Richard Lewis. It’s maybe the best single performance this show has produced. Curb should win some sort of award for just letting Tracey Ullman thrive like this. 

Curb won’t end with the epic sweep or hard-won insights of its peers in HBO’s turn-of-the-century gallery of antiheroes. It likely won’t shock us or reveal any hidden truth. This show’s achievement is something it’s already handily achieved, episode after episode, year after year. What will you think of for the rest of your life when you hear that tuba hit? You’ll conjure, in your mind, that unnameable, unbearable, unpredictable, incredibly predictable feeling of being caught up in the lives of other people. It’s a bad feeling, but that’s sometimes what it’s like to live in a society. I’m not saying Curb Your Enthusiasm was ultimately an optimistic exercise, or even a positive one, on balance. But Larry saw the world with something more than cynicism, or simple annoyance. The show understood something terrible and maddening and wonderful and true about being alive. It was a wonder. You know what I’m saying?