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Retesting the Stand-Up Waters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Friday night is comedy night at Lulu’s Beehive, a cozy coffeehouse in Studio City and one of the many stand-up outposts in L.A. for the promising and not-so-promising performers in search of a microphone. On a recent Friday, however, there was an unannounced addition to the lineup, which explained the camera crew and the fact that Lulu’s was especially packed.

Finally, at around 11:30 p.m., when the emcee introduced the next comedian as the guy who co-created and executive-produced “Seinfeld,” the monumental credit played like deadpan: What was the man who gave us George, Kramer and Elaine doing in a place like this?

“It must have been hard to form a posse if you had an answering machine,” Larry David began one bit. Tall, balding and wearing a New York Yankees jacket, David was off and running. He imagined a time when posse hopefuls left messages along the lines of: “Sorry I missed your call, guess I’m too late to join you guys. . . . “

Less than a year after “Seinfeld” took its final bow with an hourlong episode that he returned to write, David-the-brilliant-sitcom-writer has once again become David-the-conflicted-comic, chronicling his return to stand-up after a 10-year absence as part of an HBO mock documentary.

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Loosely scripted and produced by fellow comic Jeff Garlin, who also plays David’s manager in the film, the project is designed to trace David’s preparation for a faux HBO special.

Meanwhile, though, David--who along with Jerry Seinfeld will be at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., later this week to collect an award and discuss the seminal sitcom--has been going up for real at places like Lulu’s, where he can hope to get an honest response to his material. Because this is David, the documentary has no air date and he’s not giving interviews; there’s even a clause in his contract that allows him to buy back and trash the finished product if he doesn’t like it.

Reached at his office recently, David was his typically reticent, publicity-shy self, cutting off an interview before it could start: “I’m sorry, really, I just can’t do it,” he started in, shortly after hello. “I can’t hear myself say the words. I can’t stand reading about me. . . . It is possible that HBO will force me. . . . “

To hear his friends tell it, however, stand-up comedy is David’s great white whale--a profession to which he brought a singular voice and an equally singular frustration when the former bra salesman began going up in New York clubs like the Comic Strip and Catch a Rising Star in the mid-1970s. David, they remember, would storm off the stage if he didn’t feel the audience was paying attention, and he turned heckling into an obscenity-laced art form.

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“Larry David, to me, was easily one of the most authentic and original and brilliant stand-up comedians in history,” says comedian Richard Lewis, a David peer. But, Lewis hastens to add, “he really had a problem with strangers not paying attention to him. He didn’t have the temperament back then that came with the territory of being a nightclub comic. It wasn’t like [you’re] at a concert and people are hushed.”

“He was needlessly upsetting our customers, that’s how we looked at it,” says Lucien Hold, owner of the Comic Strip. “It upsets an audience when a comic walks off a stage. It changes the whole dynamic in the room.”

Comedian and writer Jon Hayman, a longtime David friend who later worked on “Seinfeld” as a writer, recalled how he once saw David stalk offstage, only to return several beats later to grab the microphone from the emcee and hurl more epithets at a particularly chagrined customer.

“Sometimes you wouldn’t know why he walked off,” Hayman says. But if David did a joke about, for instance, Catskills bungalows, and the audience didn’t laugh, David might fire back: “You people don’t even know what a bungalow is? What am I up here for?”

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Today, with stand-up comedy so homogenized, the performers determined to be accessible lest they blow a chance at a sitcom, it seems odd to think that a guy could actually take stand-up that seriously.

At Lulu’s, David didn’t have to turn on any nettlesome patrons; his audience was attentive and, yes, even hushed. You could easily argue, of course, that David doesn’t need to be doing this; whatever love he was deprived of as a stand-up he more than made up for after hooking up with Seinfeld in 1989. Ironically, in Seinfeld, David teamed up with his polar opposite--a polished comedian impervious to the elements beyond the foot of the stage.

In 1989, when David came to L.A. to do a pilot with Seinfeld, he figured his break from stand-up would be temporary. The rest, as they say, is history--and money. Not that David didn’t have it coming. More than Seinfeld, many say, David drove the creative voice of the show, infusing his neuroses into the characters and rewriting constantly, in the process demonstrating that you could bend the sitcom format to your will and come up with something original.

So why, then, after giving America its last great sitcom, is David schlepping back in front of audiences of 20, when he ought to be home, wondering which island to buy next?

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Seinfeld did not respond to an interview request, but comic Garlin says: “I don’t think [Larry] ever wanted to give up performing. . . . I find myself more surprised at people asking, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ It shows the total lack of respect that stand-up gets.”

Hayman, another stand-up-turned-sitcom-writer, says most comics drawing six-figure salaries as writers would probably trade it all in if they could make the same amount of money onstage.

“I’m just guessing,” Hayman adds, “but knowing him, he’s a driven guy, and he’s single-minded, and he achieved this great success at ‘Seinfeld,’ but he never achieved great success as a stand-up.”

After his set at Lulu’s, David went into the parking lot behind the club, where he filmed a scene with Garlin, a post-mortem to his first stand-up experience in a decade. The crew readied the shot and the cameras rolled, and Larry David admitted that he’d been a little nervous onstage.

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