The King of Kvetch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Laurie Lennard knows Larry David, the legendarily neurotic co-creator of "Seinfeld," as well as anyone. She's not only David's wife, she's producer of "Sour Grapes," his first feature film after serving seven years as the fabled comic wizard behind the beloved NBC comedy series. (David had a hand in writing nearly 60 "Seinfeld" episodes and penned its hour-plus series finale, which airs May 14.)

Watching David direct a scene from "Sour Grapes" one day, Lennard said assuredly, "I've never seen Larry so happy. And if he doesn't admit to that, he's lying, because he doesn't like anyone to think he's happy."

The 50-year-old filmmaker didn't appear happy dealing with the happiness issue. "I don't know if I'm happy," David responded with a frown. "No, this is not happy. I'm content. That's different. In fact, don't say I'm content. I'm not content. Say I'm just getting by."

Whatever you call it, David is having his moment in the spotlight. "Sour Grapes," which chronicles the comic fallout between two cousins after one wins a jackpot in Atlantic City with the other's money, opened about two weeks ago to mixed reviews. Next month his landmark sitcom heads off into the TV sunset. Although David left the show after its 1996-97 season, Jerry Seinfeld asked if he would return to write the last episode, which has piqued so much interest that advertisers are paying up to $2 million for a 30-second spot on the series finale.

Having kept the story under wraps this long, David isn't giving up any secrets now. He writes his scripts longhand in spiral notebooks, and when you playfully reach for one on his desk, David quickly slides it out of reach. All he'll say about the final episode is that he got the idea "pretty quickly" and started the script at the end and worked backward from there.

But when you're with David, the scent of "Seinfeld" is everywhere. The walls of his cluttered office at Castle Rock Entertainment (which produced both "Seinfeld" and "Sour Grapes") are plastered with hand-scrawled cards tracking scenes from his final script. Each card is coded in tantalizing shorthand: "Brenda delivers TV--gets turned on" or "Poolroom: Runs Into Gary who knows Dr. Karp."

By his desk, David has a New York Yankees trash can. Born in Brooklyn, he grew up surrounded by Brooklyn Dodgers die-hards, "so I knew immediately what it felt like to be an outsider." After graduating from college, he worked as a chauffeur and brassiere salesman before becoming a stand-up comedian; he was known for responding to hostile audiences by walking off the stage.

"I was extremely temperamental, not at all in control of my emotions," he recalls. "It was like John McEnroe on the tennis court. If I'd see someone talking, I'd just start screaming."

In the early 1980s, David worked on the short-lived comedy show "Fridays" and spent the 1984-85 season as a writer on "Saturday Night Live." In 1988, Seinfeld, a pal from his stand-up days, asked David to help him create a comedy show for NBC. The network initially passed on the pilot but eventually put four episodes on the air. The rest is history.

There's a lot of David in all four Seinfeld characters (especially George Costanza) as well as in the bickering cousins in "Sour Grapes." His comedy is half ironic, half cynical, making fun of our everyday obsessions and fondly satirizing our silliest, most cowardly behavior. Tall, slender and bald, he is uncomfortable doing all sorts of things, including touting his movie.

When Castle Rock Pictures President Martin Shafer stops by David's office to see if the director will introduce the film at an industry screening, David asks what filmmakers normally do. "You get up and say something about the movie," Shafer explains. "Welcome people, make a few remarks."

"Does everyone do that?" David asks with a pained look on his face. "Almost everyone," Shafer says. "I guess there's a few directors who don't."

David nods his head, suddenly happy again. "Good," he says. "Let me be one of them."

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Question: How nervous were you at the final taping of "Seinfeld"?

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Answer: I don't know. At first I felt like I was at a party, shaking hands with everyone as they arrived, with me in the uncomfortable position of playing host. Then as it got closer to show time, I got a little anxious. Maybe even a little more than that--but I wasn't hysterical! I did well up a little when Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] came out. That was the one that got me--you could see it in her face.

Q: Everyone has been talking about the impact of the show. From your vantage point, what kind of mark has it left on television?

A: I'm terrible at questions like that. I don't see the show the way fans see it. They get so much more out of it than me. Can't you ask me something easier, like what my favorite episode was?

This isn't going well, is it? You don't have to publish this. Why embarrass yourself and bring me down with you?

Q: So is it true that before you were a comic you were a bra salesman?

A: I needed a job. The first day I was there they filled up a shopping bag with bras and told me to take them home and study them, so I took them home on the subway. I had the job for two months, but I never made a sale. Those were the wasted years. I lived in a hovel on 8th Avenue and 43rd Street where the porno houses were. It was a very seedy, frightening neighborhood. When I walked home at night I pretended to be a heroin addict so people wouldn't bother me.

Q: And even when you got together with Jerry and created "Seinfeld," the show wasn't an instant hit, was it?

A: NBC did audience tests and didn't get a positive response. I have a report from the marketing people framed in my house, where they say, "Jerry's friend George is not a likable character."

Q: Is it true you almost quit the show before NBC had even picked it up for a whole season?

A: We had a big meeting where they were telling us they wanted the show to be bigger, to be about something. They didn't like our Chinese restaurant show. So I went out into the parking lot and quit, but Jerry backed me up and then everyone said, "No, do what you want." Actually, I was so scared that to quit would've been a relief. Whenever they wanted to change things, I was willing to quit. It wasn't character or backbone so much as the fact that I was scared and insecure and wanted to leave anyway.

Q: So were you nervous about directing a film?

A: I never felt that I was having an anxiety attack or needed a Valium. Believe me, going on at 1 a.m. at the Improv or asking a woman for her phone number gave me far more stress and anxiety than 44 days on a film set. I knew I could stage scenes and work with actors. I just can't say I knew my way around the camera. So I relied on my cinematographer. He'd say these very complicated things to me and I'd just nod my head and go, "OK, whatever you say."

Q: The main character in "Sour Grapes" is a lot like George in "Seinfeld."

A: I guess it's because they're both a lot like me. Not really me, of course. But like what you wish you could do to the schoolyard bully. You couldn't really do it, but you could write it.

Q: And the mother characters?

A: Yes, they're like my mother. Again, I'd say gross exaggeration, with the emphasis on the latter. My mother doesn't have any problem with any of the characters she's seen. She's not really like George's mother. She's much quieter.

Q: Does it worry you whether the movie does well or not commercially?

A: I hope Castle Rock makes their money back, but it's not something I can control. Like the guy in "Fargo" said, "I'm cooperating." To tell you the truth, I don't want to cooperate, but I'm cooperating.

Q: Now that you've had both, what's tougher--success or failure?

A: Failure. But I've never had failure of a big magnitude. I've had terrible nights doing stand-up, but it wasn't widely publicized. It was just 100 people walking out hating my act and wanting to kill me. So I haven't failed on a grand scale yet. We'll see how I do when that happens.

Q: Is failure worse than being allergic to caviar?

A: How'd you hear about that?

Q: I heard.

A: It's true. I had some caviar at dinner and I went home and got sick and I thought, maybe it was the caviar. I tried it one more time and got sick again and that was that--no more caviar. See, this is when I come alive. I like talking about caviar allergies. All that other stuff--you're not getting anything. Most of the things you want to know about I just can't talk about truthfully. Except the caviar, I'm 100% truthful about that.

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