June 17, 2009

With Larry David back in the news this week for starring in (perhaps unsurprisingly) the latest Woody Allen movie, Whatever Works, it’s worth reviewing David’s misunderstood accomplishments.

David, of course, was the co-creator of Seinfeld. Jason Alexander initially modeled his performance as George Costanza on Woody Allen, but then switched to playing David.

And he’s the star of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which David plays a semi-retired TV writer named Larry David whose numerous abortive projects include devising a sit-com to get Alexander out of his post-Seinfeld career slump by having him play an actor in a post-hit show slump who now can”€™t get work because nobody can picture him as any other character.

Most of what you hear about Seinfeld“€”for example, that it’s “€œa show about nothing”€ in which the characters just sit around waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant”€”stems less from what you”€™ve seen for years on the screen than from David and Seinfeld’s self-mythologizing (especially their Season Four, in which George dreams up a sit-com in which nothing happens). Alexander, for instance, has marveled at how the most intensely plotted half-hour show in TV history is routinely described as being about “€œnothing.”€

In truth, by borrowing from British high comedy”€”creating impolite characters whose obsession with rules of polite conduct (curiously similar to what Camille Paglia calls the “€œlunatic certitude”€ seen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) to generate complex farce plots worthy of Fawlty Towers“€”Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld kept alive the American sit-com for an extra decade after its traditional form as a launching pad for Jewish-American one-liners had exhausted itself.

The first hugely successful sit-com, I Love Lucy, highlighted anarchic physical comedy against a backdrop of Fifties social decorum, but the basic template for the sit-com emerged out of the writers”€™ room of Sid Caesar’s sketch comedy, Your Show of Shows. Caesar employed Carl Reiner (creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show), Neil Simon (The Odd Couple), Mel Brooks (Get Smart), and Larry Gelbart (MASH). (It’s widely believed that the young Woody Allen was also in the room, but he didn”€™t actually work for Caesar until later.) This confluence of talent has been fictionalized repeatedly, including The Dick Van Dyke Show, the 1982 film My Favorite Year with Peter O”€™Toole portraying guest star Errol Flynn, and Simon’s play Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

Although the best sit-coms devised by these gag-men had their own brilliant idiosyncrasies, the generic American sit-com of the 1960s-1980s that emerged from this crucible can be seen in perhaps its purest form in Simon’s 1960s plays: mildly sentimental plots serve as a platform for characters to insult each other before reconciling.

In contrast, the British are generally much better than Americans at plot-driven farces.

Perhaps the difference stems from the value placed on decorum. For the sons and grandsons of Russian Jewish immigrants, the natural reaction to difficult social situations was humorously expressed hostility. In British and Anglo-American cultures that traditionally valued maintaining a stiff upper lip, however, it was natural to extract humor out of formal social situations that are collapsing into chaos while the mortified participants try to retain their genteel dignity.

Thus, in laidback contemporary America, movie comedies are most often set during weddings, the one day when strict manners are supposed to prevail.

The oddest feature of Seinfeld was the characters”€™ absolute mania about manners in a modern America where agreed-upon feudal-derived codes of conduct had long before faded away. On Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, both the main characters and the miscellaneous people they encounter hold fierce but random views about proper behavior, seldom motivated by predictable factors.

Etiquette has traditionally been rooted in ethics and in class, but neither played much role in Seinfeld. In the show’s curiously classless world, without children or serious careers, a George Costanza could not only afford an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side but also a car. Similarly, while the Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm is, theoretically, enormously rich from Seinfeld royalties, he lives only moderately better than Costanza, making do without a personal assistant or servants to handle for him the errands that so vex him.

And as David pounded home in his notoriously uncomfortable script for Seinfeld‘s final episode (in which Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are sent to prison for treating a crime victim as a source of observational humor rather than as a fellow human in need), morality meant little to the characters.

David’s characters assert sharp but arbitrary opinions on appropriate behavior. In the unpredictability of their views on decorum, in their bizarre do-it-yourself theories of deportment, they can only be compared to Lewis Carroll’s menagerie. In Sexual Personae, Paglia wrote:

There is no tenderness in Carroll’s characters … The Alice books, like [Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, are glutted with rules of behavior, which pop up at improbable moments, as when Alice tries to cut a slice of the protesting plum pudding: “€œ”€™Make a remark,”€™ said the Red Queen: “€˜it’s ridiculous to leave all the conversation to the pudding!”€™”€

Paglia describes Carroll’s Alice as if she were a character out of David’s imagination: “€œIn her firm sense of appropriate behavior, she is twin to that snappish menagerie of potentates, human and animal, who chide her for transgressions of mysterious local codes of conduct. …”€

George Costanza/Larry David are similarly both aggrieved proponents and victimized critics of unwritten rules that turn out to be known only to some of the characters. On Curb Your Enthusiasm, David’s irked wife points out, after their house is toilet-papered on Halloween by teenage girls whom Larry didn”€™t give candy to because they were over the age cutoff for proper trick-or-treaters:

“€œYou know what? Not everybody knows your rules, Larry. You”€™ve got your own set of rules and you think everyone’s going to adhere to them, but they”€™re not because nobody knows them.”€

It’s important to note that the very conservative Carroll was not a satirist of social conventions. According to Paglia, “€œHis comedy arises from a natively English love of formality and ceremony.”€

Conversely, after generations of increasingly successful critiques of starchy Anglo-American manners (more than a few of which were launched by Jewish comedians), David misses the old days when everybody knew the rules. So, he has to make up an imaginary America where everybody cares once again about propriety.

According to Larry David’s way of thinking, we”€™ve ended up with a culture so lacking in concern for good manners that, well, it’s just not funny anymore.


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