Louis and Larry
The two funniest people in the world right now are Larry David and Louis CK, and nobody else is even close. I’m not the first to make this observation. Bill Simmons, ESPN’s the sports and pop culture writer who now has his own site, Grantland, proclaimed as much in this mailbag column. True, he recanted a couple mailbags later, choosing Trey Parker and Matt Stone ahead of Louis and Larry, but I’m going to have to disagree with The Sportsguy there. I like Parker and Stone a lot, but for one thing, they’re two people; for another, I haven’t seen Book of Mormon, and even so, I don’t think what they’ve done is as gloriously hilarious as Curb Your Enthusiasm or Louie.
As anyone who knows me can attest, I love Larry David. He’s probably my favourite humourist of all time, and is certainly the most important comic figure of our generation. But more on that later. First, let’s break down exactly why Louie and Curb are so funny, what distinguishes them, and which is better.
Let’s start with Louie, or should I say Louis, the man who makes the show. I first saw Louis CK perform standup at Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy festival in the summer of 2007. He headlined The Nasty Show, doing the longest set of the night. He killed. He brought down the house with politically incorrect lines like “You’re not a real woman until a person comes out of your vagina and steps on your dreams” or “you know how you know how good of a person you are? How soon after the September 11 attacks you masturbated. For me, it was between the two towers falling. Otherwise the terrorists win.”
Jerking off is a big theme in Louis’ comedy, and in his show. But so is parenting. One thing Louis communicates, despite his raunchiness, is that he is good dad who loves his children. Like the real life Louis CK, the Louie on the show is a divorced father of two young daughters. And while they feature in the comedy, they also allow for truly poignant moments. And many episodes actually present serious emotional content, especially the one where Louie has to face a fellow comedian who is thinking of committing suicide.
Louis’ comedy frequently invokes some form of political or ethical commentary. Famously, he did a bit on Conan O’Brien’s show about the spoiled nature of modern society. He calls the bit “Everything is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” You can take a look here:
Or there’s this one, again a comment on materialism.
Thus Louis’ comedy, and his show, are hilarious, but also quite emotional, with some very serious commentary on modern life.
Curb Your Enthusiasm, on the other hand, like Seinfeld before it, offers no such commentary, except perhaps incidentally. There is no emotional content to the show. We love the characters, just as we did in Seinfeld, but we don’t feel for them or care about them in any meaningful way.
The real life Larry David, recently divorced from his Jewish wife, Laurie (Lennard) David, has two children. The fictional Larry David of Curb, on the other hand, was married to a shiksa, and childless. The reasoning is simple: comedy. It made for great hilarity to have Larry married to a non-Jewish woman, particularly in the episode where Larry inadvertently prevents a baptism (thinking the man was drowning), saving a Jewish friend from converting into his wife’s family. And Larry’s character is too self-centered, neurotic, and obnoxious to portray as a father. The humour just wouldn’t work.
These character traits are at the center of Curb‘s comedy. Yet they also turn some viewers off. I’ve encountered many people who have told me that they “can’t” watch Larry David. It’s too “painful” for them. Too “awkward.” These people are invariably gentiles. Some of them were big Seinfeld fans. But Larry David on screen is too much for them. Or perhaps, too Jewish. This is not antisemitism. But I think it is interesting and revealing about different understandings of humour.
(I recognize there are many exceptions here and I’m generalizing broadly. But that’s what I do)
For Jewish fans of the show, Larry’s personality is glorious. It is something we know and understand, and can identify with. He is our hero, or anti-hero. The scene where Larry David is incapable of changing a flat tire is something, I suspect, that many Jewish men have either experienced or dread experiencing (I know I do). It’s a classic schlemiel moment. But the difference, which again makes Curb work, is that Larry is a schlemiel with an out: unlike Teyve the lowly milkman living in the poor fictional shtetl Anatevka, Larry is fabulously wealthy living in luxury in Los Angeles. His flat tire is not a real problem. He’s the schlemiel George Constanza made good, which links him to George but provides a fundamental difference. Both the difference and similarity make for great comedy.
Of course, many non-Jews love Curb Your Enthusiasm, and many for these exact reasons. But in reading Bill Simmons’ mailbag, and hearing some of my non-Jewish friends comment on the show, I’ve come to an important realization: we frequently find different elements of the show funny. It’s almost as if we’re watching different shows. The African American character Leon Black, portrayed brilliantly by comedian J.B. Smoove, is hilarious. Larry’s banter with him is incredible. This makes sense: Jews and Blacks are without a doubt the funniest ethnic groups in American history (again, no other group is even close). But I suspect that for many Jews, it’s Larry’s interactions with Leon that take those scenes to the stratosphere of hilarity.
There are many great elements to Curb: the crude sexuality, the Seinfeldian social commentary, the pure hilarity of the plot lines, the guest stars. But, speaking for myself and I suspect for many Jewish fans, the heart of the show is the Jewish moments: not simply the wonderful Judaic content (like the Palestinian chicken episode, the Baptism, comparing a Holocaust survivor to a contestant on Survivor, the Jesus nail used to hang a mezuzah, the Orthodox Jewish woman on the ski lift, etc), but also the interactions with Jeff, Suzie, Cheryl and her family, Richard Lewis, Larry’s father, Marty Funkhauser, etc.
Seinfeld had these sorts of elements too, particularly with the Seinfelds and the Costanzas (who are Italian in name only). Thanks to a fantastic wedding present from my friend Margaret, I’ve been re-watching the whole run of Seinfeld with my wife. It’s incredible on the re-watch, and holds up completely. And almost better than the episodes are the “Inside Look” features that accompany many of them, with incredible interviews with the cast and writers. From both the episodes and these features, it becomes clear that Larry, not Jerry, was the true genius behind Seinfeld. He did far more of the writing, and you could tell which lines of dialogue are clearly musings from Larry’s mind. And while Jason Alexander has admitted that for the first three seasons he was basically doing Woody Allen impressions, as the series goes forward you can see George becoming Larry, the original Larry, a neurotic New York Jew who had not yet made it big.
I can’t really say which is better, Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. But I can say again that Larry David is the greatest comic genius of our time, our generation’s Woody Allen. Seinfeld changed television. There was very little good television comedy before Seinfeld, now there’s an abundance. The lack of moral weight in the main characters has influenced shows like Arrested Development, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Family Guy, the list goes on. So has Curb, taking politically incorrect comedy to new heights and bringing the same comedic amorality to new levels. Both shows influenced Louie, a show about a comedian, in many ways with similar attitudes to Larry, the same questioning of societal norms, the same schlemiel character traits of George and the Larry on Curb.
Louie is different. Louis CK brings a meaningful, moral element to the show. That makes it hard for me to say whether Louie is better or worse than Seinfeld or Curb. But I know this: without Larry, there would be no Louie. And perhaps it’s that knowledge that makes me enjoy Seinfeld and Curb just a little more.