Life & Culture

Larry David - the man I wish I was


I’m hoping that if I say Palestinian Chicken to you, it prompts thoughts not of sumac, za’atar and lemon but of the best 30 minutes of comedy ever. And if I say Ski Lift, it’s not Klosters or Verbier that spring to mind but Larry David pretending to be an Orthodox Jew.

They’re two of the greatest episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, loosely described as a comedy — by a factor of about 1,000 the greatest ever — but which I prefer to think of as a documentary. And not just a documentary about Larry David, but one about the man I want to be.

I hesitate to admit this in public, but other than not living in California, not being the greatest comedy writer of all time, not playing golf every day and not being a squillionaire, I think I am Larry David.

Or rather, a wannabe Larry David I am not merely addicted to Curb; to me, it’s more like a “How To…” guide than a sitcom. It is the life I want to live, saying what I want, when I want to, to whoever and genuinely not realising why they might take offence; behaving entirely as I think fit without giving a moment’s thought to how others might react.

I try, believe me, I try…

When, for example, a local amenity was acting unreasonably, I issued a writ. I got my money back, but am also now banned from its grounds. I could give you other examples, but perhaps it’s best if you ask my friends and family.

So when I heard that Larry David was writing and starring in a play — his first live performance for decades, and his first stage role since school — it wasn’t a question of whether I should go. The only issue was how long I had to wait. David is not merely my icon; he is the towering figure in comedy, co-creator and writer of Seinfeld, which made him hundreds of millions of dollars and moved him from his native New York City to California.

His return to NYC was a big deal — the entire 100-performance run sold out in days, and tickets are now changing hands for $700 dollars — and it required my presence. Fish In The Dark opened last Thursday; I went on Saturday.

But before we get into that, I have a question for those of you who haven’t seen Curb: why are you reading this? There are 81 episodes you need to make time to watch. Put this down now and get started. There’s no time to waste. You’ll regret it if you kick the bucket before you’ve see them all.

And by “you”, I mean you, specifically. Yes, you — the JC reader. Because David’s humour isn’t just based on a Jewish sensibility. It’s the very epitome of it. You don’t have to be Jewish to get it, of course.

David’s first great creation, Seinfeld, would not have had mass popularity across the US if it had appealed only to Jews. But it lifts it to a visceral level when it’s you he’s writing about, and it’s your upbringing and way of thinking that are also shared in that writing. Perhaps there’s a comparison with Howard Jacobson.

His background, his thought processes and his way of thinking are present in every paragraph he writes, which means his books are suffused with his Judaism. But they resonate far beyond.

It’s more than that, though. If Seinfeld is Jew-ish, Curb is full-blown. Many of the best episodes are dependent not just on David’s Judaism but on the viewer instinctively understanding it.

Take The Survivor. A rabbi tells David that he is bringing a ‘‘survivor’’ to David’s dinner party. So David invites his dad’s friend, Solly, also a survivor. When the rabbi arrives, it turns out that the ‘‘survivor’’ is a strapping young man from the TV show, Survivor, who gets into a row with Solly about who had it harder.
Yes, it’s funny to anyone.

But only someone for whom the Holocaust is part of the emotional building blocks gets it on the full gut-wrenching, hand over the eyes, level. (There’s also another tangential joke about the rabbi’s brother-in-law who, he says, died on 9/11. It later emerges that he was killed in a bicycle accident on the same day.)

More fundamentally, Curb is built on the essence of Jewish life — argument. Every episode has David’s arguments at its core — with his wife, with a stranger, with a friend. And that’s what we do.

Bring a non-Jew to a Shabbes dinner and they think we all hate each other, voices raised, fingers jabbing, curt put-downs. But what might look like the falling out of all falling outs is just making conversation. Argument and disputation is in our DNA.

I realised a while ago that it’s Judaism that explains why even the best British comedies aren’t a patch on just an average Seinfeld or Curb. Jewish humour is the only real humour — everything else is either satire or comic book. One Curb, for example, is entirely based on David’s lunch guest answering his polite “Do you mind if I start?” when his food arrives first, with the answer “Yes, I do”. That’s pure Jewish humour.

That’s one reason why so few of the greatest comedians — most of whom are Jewish — perform outside the US more than very occasionally. Look at the numbers of Jews. Compared with the US, the audience just isn’t there.
So even if logistics weren’t an issue, there would be little point in Larry David bringing Fish In The Dark to the West End. Again, you don’t have to be Jewish, but…

My friend and I whiled away a few minutes before curtain-up spotting the non-Jews in the audience. We managed Tom Hanks and Michael J Fox, but our Jew-dar registered a fat zero after that.

Fish In The Dark has had a so-so reception from the critics, which only goes to show how totally they have missed the point. It is, they complain, effectively two hours of Curb live on stage, with different character names.

Indeed. But that’s what we came for. I didn’t want to fly across the Atlantic to watch Larry David in Ibsen. It’s like those Woody Allen films when he tries to be Bergman. No one wants that. We wanted Larry from Curb, and we got him (renamed Norman).

Typically, David says he had the idea for the plot at the shiva of a friend’s father. How very Jewish to come up with a comedy at a shiva.

Fish In The Dark revolves around David’s character’s father’s death and the shiva, with an overbearing mother, the discovery of a love child, a row over who inherits the father’s Rolex and all sorts of other standard set-ups.

The big difference with Curb is that the plot is almost incidental to the lines. And there are some crackers. At the shiva, the Puerto Rican housekeeper offers some snacks to a guest. “Cuchifritos?” she asks. He puts out his hand. “Jay Leventhal,” he answers.

My favourite comes after David’s wife (played by Rita Wilson, aka Mrs Tom Hanks) has left him. “I don’t want to die alone”, he muses to a friend. “I just want to live alone”.

It might not be as rich as Curb but who cares? It’s Larry David on stage. And I was there.

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