Larry David’s Most Controversial Moments: Seinfeld & Curb your Enthusiasm
Posted on September 30, 2014
At a rare Q&A with David Steinberg on Sunday night Larry David admitted there’s still hope for Curb Your Enthusiasm fans. But the comedy genius remains racked with self doubt saying “I’m just not sure my ideas are gonna be good enough for a whole season,” reports Vulture. It sounds like a great time to remind Mr David just why his material is so good in a controversial countdown.
Jeff: You know what you are? You’re a social assassin.
Larry: I guess I am in a way.
Larry David has made a career out of finding humour in controversy. His provocative approach as producer and writer of Curb Your Enthusiasm – an improvised comedy where David plays a politically incorrect version of himself – has led fans to label him a ‘hero’. Here’s a man who calls time on society’s most ridiculous behaviour. Fictional Larry is a guy who says what he thinks.
David’s unique style broke into the mainstream through the definitive 90s network sitcom, Seinfeld, that David co-created with fellow stand up comedian Jerry Seinfeld. In case you somehow missed it, Seinfeld centres on the minute details of everyday life through a group of New York thirty-somethings as they struggle to decode society’s rules. The limitations of network television made approaching controversial subject matter problematic but much of Seinfeld’s appeal was grounded in its ability to break taboos.
David’s later work on HBO where “prett-ay, prett-ay, pretty” much anything goes, allowed him to really let loose on everything from terrorism to Scientology, even incest. Yet David has been able to take on these subjects with limited damage largely due to the fictional Larry’s honesty, desire to treat everyone equally and quest to unscramble everyday morality: characteristics that make him as admirable as he is cringeworthy.
As Curb fans are given renewed hope for a ninth season, I take a look back at Larry David’s most controversial story lines so far.
10. Mental Illness
Larry: You had sex with a mental patient?!
Way back in Curb’s season three, Larry’s encounter with an unstable nanny (The Nanny From Hell), cleverly found comedy in work based stress. After a lifetime of working at Magic Mountain in an – aptly chosen – Looney Tunes Lodge, the Looney Toons anthem finally tips the nanny over the edge and Susie (Susie Essman) over a balcony. It’s a shrewd gag but David wasn’t done with the issue yet.
In the season seven episode Funkhouser’s Crazy Sister, Larry’s friend Marty (Bob Einstein) asks Larry and Jeff (Jeff Garlin) to visit his sister, Bam Bam (Catherine O’Hara). It turns out she’s fresh from a mental institution. While Larry raids Funkhouser’s fridge, Jeff ends up in bed with the sister. Of course in the world of Curb, a tryst like this can’t slip by under the radar and we’re treated to a very funny, tense and uncomfortable dinner party scene where Funkhouser’s sister flirts outrageously with Jeff right under wife Susie’s nose.
Of course everyone believes Jeff’s protestations and, to the viewer at least, he comes over as a pretty despicable character. As far as we know, fictional Larry does nothing to set the story straight. Has David gone too far here? Or has he shrewdly highlighted problems with society’s attitude to mental illness?
9. Female Orgasms
Jerry: What about the breathing, the panting, the moaning, the screaming?
Elaine: Fake, fake, fake, fake.
In Seinfeld’s season 5 opener, The Mango, Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) admits that she never had an orgasm with ex-boyfriend Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld). The female orgasm assumes a position of power, making Jerry desperate for another chance with Elaine, and making George (James Alexander) paranoid about his performance with latest girlfriend, Karen.
It might not sound controversial today, but this was 1993 and it marked the first mention of female orgasm on network television. Smashing taboos like they were going out of style, the episode went on to win Larry David his second Writer’s Guild Award.
In Curb, Larry’s pre-occupation with the female orgasm provides great material for his post-divorce dating experiences. Taking the idea much further than was possible in Seinfeld, we see him get “juiced” (S8 The Bi-Sexual) and turn all neurotic over a vibrating car seat (S8 Mister Softie).
Larry: We don’t like to be referred to as ‘normal’ ok, we’re able bodied – able bodied not ‘normal’ – that’s like from the 80s, who doesn’t know that?”
Remember early in Curb when we see Larry yell at a man in wheelchair for failing to control his vehicle properly? It’s pretty cringeworthy right? At first we squirm and then we laugh at Larry’s insensitivity, but the comedy stems from Larry’s naive attempts to treat everyone equally – a characteristic that marks Larry at out as a kind of modern day hero.
This theme emerges again in season five when Larry borrows a key to the mens-room while he’s at the private detective’s office. Larry inadvertently uses the disabled toilet because the other stall is in use. Naturally, he finds himself in a heated debate with a disabled person who’s left queuing. Is the correct term ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled’ goes the quarrel. Larry’s point that neither term is “that hot” is both funny and sharp. Later, when the same disabled guy uses his stall, Larry feels he has the moral high ground. Larry’s rejoinder about the term ‘normal’, points the finger at political correctness and the deficiencies of the English language.
It’s an issue David frequently toys with, but escalates to its limits in the season seven episode Denise Handicapped, when Larry inadvertently finds himself on a date with a wheelchair user, Denise (Anita Barone). Reaping the benefits of the respect this seems to bring him, Larry calls on another wheelchair user for a date when he loses Denise’s number. Both dates eventually come face to face – an event most sitcoms would deliver as the punchline. Not David. Here the gag spirals when Larry is forced to reveal that he used their disabilities as descriptors in his phone.
Oh… and then there was that ‘Freak Book’.
7. Ethnicity: Larry Meets the Blacks
Wanda: Sheriff? That’s the perfect name for a racist dog. Where d’you get this dog, a Klan meeting or something?… You got a Klan dog looking at me like I’m a damn t-bone
Racist dogs, ladies in burkas, Korean chefs, Japanese kamikaze pilots: no-one’s safe from fictional Larry’s inquisitiveness about ethnic diversity. America’s self consciousness about treatment of race is one of David’s favourite themes and one he returns to again and again.
Larry’s relationship with African-Americans provides Curb with the most material, usually stemming from Larry’s actions being misunderstood. In early seasons, Cheryl’s (Cheryl Hines) friend Wanda (Wanda Sykes) is the perfect device for highlighting fictional Larry’s mistakes. As Larry’s curiosity takes hold, he asks questions most people would be afraid to:
“Is it wrong to assume that a Black man wearing a bow-tie is a Muslim?” and “Have you noticed if she [adopted Chinese daughter] has a proclivity for chopsticks?”.
Yet the outspoken Larry is afraid to sack an African-American employee, fearing that this action says more about him than it does about his employee’s workmanship.
In later seasons Wanda is replaced by Leon Black (J.B. Smoove) as the main trigger for Larry’s racial misunderstandings and blunders. “That’s like if my last name was Jew… like Larry Jew”, he says on meeting Leon’s family.
6. Masturbation: Seinfeld’s X-Rated Contest
Kramer: Wait a second, count me in on this.
Jerry: You? You’ll be out before we get the check.
Widely regarded as one of Seinfeld’s best episodes, Larry David was initially nervous about NBC’s reaction to the season four instalment The Contest. After George is caught by his mother “you know”, the gang make a bet to see who can hold out the longest. Much of this episode’s appeal flows from the way the dialogue carefully avoids the word ‘masturbation’, with the cast using a range of insinuations and meticulous suggestions instead. Of course, as Jerry and George become increasingly paranoid, hilarious consequences ensue. The episode saw the show win a Primetime Emmy and Larry David a Writer’s Guild Award.
In the 2000s, David was able to revisit the idea more overtly in Curb episode The Anonymous Donor (S6). It’s the source of perhaps the most hysterical interaction between Larry and Leon Black when Cheryl finds “a stain” on Leon’s sheets. When the culprit is finally discovered, Curb hits on something Seinfeldian as the couples debate where and when it’s acceptable to ‘jerk off’.
And don’t forget to check back later in the week for the top five. In the meantime, check out more coverage of Larry David’s Q&A in this article from The Hollywood Reporter.