“Sicko.” “Misanthropic moron.” “Freak of nature.” “Bona fide racist.”
Larry David has been called a lot of names — most of which can’t be printed here — over the course of “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” eight seasons.
But few have recognized Larry for what he really is: a great moral philosopher who is able to identify and illuminate the codes that dictate our daily interactions with other humans. Kant introduced the world to the theory of the categorical imperative; Larry, the chat-and-cut.
Yes, Larry — the fictionalized version of real-life writer and creator Larry David — has a preoccupation with trivial slights. And he’s done some selfish and unforgivable things in his time. He got his friend’s child drunk and stole her beloved dog. He hung up on his panicked wife, calling from a turbulent airplane, because he was more interested in fixing the TiVo.
Then there’s his rampant disregard for political correctness. Like a liberal Donald Trump, he is beloved by fans not in spite of his capacity for insulting women, religious minorities, people of color, the LGBTQ community and the disabled, but because of it. In the ninth season, premiering Sunday on HBO after a six-year hiatus, Larry is as incendiary as ever, stomping like a drunken elephant through a minefield of taboos.
But while Larry remains brilliant at making us cringe, his greatest unsung talent is forcing us to question our basic assumptions, from the unspoken rules of mundane social interactions to more existential questions of identity and belief. In his boundless ability to provoke and offend, Larry may also be pop culture’s foremost ethicist.
Like “Seinfeld,” co-created by David, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is, on its surface, a show that portrays the ridiculous predicaments and trivial grievances of an otherwise very fortunate character. But beneath all that “nothing” is some real substance. The semi-improvised sitcom grapples with real-world dilemmas like the morality of public shaming (“The Massage”), the conflict between medicine and belief (“The Benadryl Brownie”) and one’s obligation to community in an emergency (“The Terrorist Attack”). A season-long arc followed Larry as he wrestled with whether to donate a kidney to his friend Richard Lewis.
The show has even inspired a collection of essays, “Curb Your Enthusiasm and Philosophy: Awaken the Social Assassin Within.” Editor Mark Ralkowski, also an associate professor at George Washington University, calls Larry “a great observer of culture, a great describer,” arguing that his apparent disdain for etiquette is really about rejecting phoniness.
“He’s making all of these observations of our everyday-ness,” Ralkowski adds. “He’s showing us that they are contingent, they are unnecessary. He also exposes hypocrisy and a lot of the pretending that we do.”
And while Larry is not someone you’d describe as virtuous, he does adhere strongly to his own set of principles — and is appalled when others defy rules that might be obvious only to him. As his exasperated wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) puts it in Season 2’s “Trick or Treat” episode, “Not everybody knows your rules, Larry. You’ve got your own set of rules, and you think everybody’s going to adhere to them, but they’re not because nobody knows them.”
Larry’s harping serves a grander purpose, according to writer-director-producer Jeff Schaffer.
“Especially in these times where everyone is worried about the big things, and rightly so,” he says, “someone has to take care of the little things. Someone has to be the champion of the petty indignities and the minutiae, and Larry’s our guy.”
Yet many, perhaps most, of Larry’s rules are perfectly reasonable. Consider his refusal to give candy to teenagers trick-or-treating out of costume, or his anger at Christian Slater for pigging out on the caviar at Mary Steenburgen’s anniversary party. “We have unwritten laws in society,” Larry says. “You’re each entitled to take a certain amount so everybody else can have a little too.”
And who could argue with that? He may be a tactless, indelicate grump, but — to borrow a slogan from Barry Goldwater — in your heart, you know he’s right. Where Larry differs from most of us is his willingness to call out such behavior, no matter the context or potential fallout, a trait that inspires his pal Jeff (Jeff Garlin) to describe him as “a social assassin.”
“He has no bedside manner,” says Susie Essman, who plays the gleefully foul-mouthed Susie Greene, a character whose values often clash with Larry’s. “But he’s frequently right. You don't take up two parking spots. You don't stand in line at Baskin-Robbins and sample 15 different things when there's a line behind you. He's very concerned with justice.”
That’s not to say that Larry is an inflexible stickler. Quite the opposite. As Rebekkah Williams, an assistant professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, explains: “He has no time for rules that he thinks are lacking in justification.”
Larry happily defies what he sees as arbitrary, unnecessarily rigid codes of behavior, walking up to the drive-through window at a fast-food restaurant and picking up a prostitute so he can drive in the carpool lane. And, well, why not?
Larry, a secular Jew, is especially rankled by religious piety, viewing supposedly sacred laws as silly, irrational and needlessly stigmatizing. In the memorable episode “The Ski Lift,” he poses (rather unconvincingly) as an Orthodox Jew, complete with a feigned Yiddish accent. His thin cover is completely blown when he gets stuck on a broken ski lift with an (actual) Orthodox woman at dusk on the Sabbath. She jumps to the ground rather than violate her beliefs, a decision he calls “insane.”
Likewise, in “The Special Section,” Larry is aghast to learn that his late mother has been buried in a less desirable corner of the Jewish cemetery because of a tattoo on her rear end — a youthful indiscretion banned in the book of Leviticus, explains the cemetery manager. Larry’s response? “So what?”
At its best and most provocative, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” questions the categories we use to identify ourselves in the world. In the singular “Palestinian Chicken,” from Season 8, Larry is scorned by his circle of Jewish friends for patronizing Al Abbas, a Palestinian restaurant that serves mouth-watering chicken and has ignited controversy by opening a new location next to a Jewish deli.
To make matters worse, Larry ends up sleeping with Shara (Anne Bedian), a gorgeous but anti-Semitic Palestinian who works at the restaurant. While in bed, she makes a wildly profane comparison between their torrid lovemaking and Israel’s treatment of her people — all of which Larry’s newly devout friend, Marty Funkhouser (Bob Einstein), happens to overhear.
For Larry, delicious food and beautiful women are at least as compelling as the need for loyalty to his ethnic community. Defending his behavior to a disgusted Funkhouser, he makes a convincing case that carnal desire can be noble, even progressive — that sex can be a uniquely effective form of diplomacy. “The penis doesn’t care about race, creed or color,” he says.
It’s a classic line, to be sure. But as is often the case on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” once the shock wears off and the laughter dies down, we’re left with plenty to think about.
‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rated: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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