REVIEW: Larry David and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ master the most resilient formula in comedy TV

REVIEW: Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm master the most resilient formula in comedy TV

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re on the Red Line heading home after a long day at work. It’s just after 10 p.m. Your car is sparsely populated; no more than eight others, all with their faces buried in their phones or half asleep hugging their bags. All is peaceful and quiet. 

Moments later, a man sitting across the aisles and a few seats down from you receives a phone call — he answers. Then you watch, terrified, as he holds his phone four inches from his chin and, without an ounce of shame, begins shouting into his palm, broadcasting the conversation to everyone on the train car.  

What are we people of relative decency to do in this situation? Ignore it? That is, stand idly by as this stranger wages a full scale assault on public space? Bystanders are guilty too, you know. 

This world is increasingly in need of a social martyr of sorts. A person so distraught by brazen contempt for social customs that they dive head-long into the business of others just to make a point. A person willing to commit social suicide in service of the common man by standing up and saying: “No! You, sir, are the problem, and everybody hates you.” 

In “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” HBO and Larry David give us that man.

“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” more commonly referenced simply as “Curb,” is the now 20-year-old comedy show featuring the “Seinfeld” co-creator starring as what he describes as “an idealized version” of himself. Loping about Los Angeles with a long list of pet peeves, a short temper and a self-issued license to enforce society’s unwritten laws on anyone who crosses his path, David is the man we always wanted him to be.  

With “Curb,” David takes the formula that revolutionized the TV industry with on“Seinfeld,” brought it to the open fields of HBO and installed himself — the show-business twin of Bernie Sanders — as its star. The show is simple in its concept: bring the funny out of the mundane in our everyday lives. But without the shackles of network executives and community guidelines or scripted dialogue, David and his cast of talented co-stars tapped into a comedy goldmine.

The key ingredient in making “Curb” such a gem in this junkyard comedy TV show market is its employment of improv. By merely removing the written dialogue and allowing the actors — headlined by comedy heavyweights like Susie Essman, Jeff Garlin and JB Smoove — to riff between plot points, the show offers a platform for comedic acting to take its purest form. It’s all about funny.

Garlin plays Jeff Green, David’s manager and best friend in the show, whose  wife Susie, played brilliantly by Essman, serves as David’s main sparring partner. The two usually square off in the wake of one of David’s quintessential faux pas or as she sniffs out collusion between David and Garlin. And in those moments, you can feel the director step back from the camera, fold their arms, and watch the masters work.

David himself isn’t a particularly impressive actor, but he is a generous one on top of being a generational comedic mind. He offers to the show and his fellow actors a unique  character to dance with, always providing the perfect set up line for a hysterical one-liner from one of the many world-class comics he shares the set with.

Garlin, Essman and David round out the core of this cast, but JB Smoove has emerged as a never-ending well of one-liner gold. Smoove’s character, Leon, arrived in the sixth season when Larry and his ex-wife Cheryl (played by Cheryl Hines) take in a family affected by Hurricane Katrina. Over the next couple seasons, the family leaves, David gets divorced, but Leon sticks around as Larry’s co-pilot in life — advising and encouraging the behavior that makes David the mother of all social wrecking balls.                   

With 10 season over 20 years, the show has experienced the fortune of playing with a variety of cultural moments, both mundane and political. And in each of these moments, the show consistently proves the resiliency of its model — point out the obvious, and let legends of the craft tear it apart. Pure, simple, genius.  

In the series’ tenth season, David and his fellow cast members cannonball into the center of America’s most contentious conversations. David, a vocal liberal both in character in real life, finds utility in Make America Great Again hats that reliably repels unwanted company in L.A.; and, of course, finds himself embroiled in a mother of all #MeToo misunderstandings. No show is better equipped to turn our modern traumas into laughter. 

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m. CST on HBO.