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'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Returns, And Larry David Is Back To Playing Himself

Larry David's <em>Curb Your Enthusiasm</em> character is an exaggerated version of himself.
John P. Johnson
Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm character is an exaggerated version of himself.

I loved watching Larry David last year in his recurring guest role on NBC's Saturday Night Live, where he provided a perfect impersonation of outspoken politician Bernie Sanders. But I'm even more excited to watch David, beginning this Sunday, on the return of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he'll play an exaggerated version of himself in a role he last portrayed on TV six years ago.

Since co-creating the NBC sitcom Seinfeld in 1989, David has made several impressively important contributions to TV comedy and TV history — and he's become rich and famous in the process.

With the Seinfeld series, he and Jerry Seinfeld scored big with what was summarized as "a show about nothing" — a program where the plots could be as simple as going shopping or waiting for a table at a restaurant. And yet within those parameters, individual scenes interlocked very intricately.

Curb Your Enthusiasm followed as a TV special in 1999 (the year after Seinfeld ended), with David on cameras as well as behind the scenes. The series began a year later.

In both, he played a comically exaggerated version of himself, finding faults and picking fights with almost everyone around him. Again, the individual elements were cleverly interwoven — and this time, between each plot point, David made room for a lot of improvisation.

Since the TV version of Larry David appeared 18 years ago, the idea of a comic playing an unflattering version of himself has become much more commonplace. Matt LeBlanc is doing it hilariously on a Showtime sitcom called Episodes, and even Andrew Dice Clay is doing it — a lot less hilariously — on another Showtime sitcom called Dice.

But like the concept of a show about nothing, the idea of a comedian starring in a TV comedy based on himself and his life is nothing new. In fact, it's older than TV itself. Jack Benny did both things in his radio show, and brought them to TV in 1950. In one of his most famous episodes, his show about nothing had him shopping for Christmas presents — and constantly pestering one clerk in particular.

David's actual comedy innovation is his insertion of loose improv into tightly structured scripts. That's a truly new form, and when you revisit the first episodes of Curb, you can see how quickly everyone establishes and perfects the formula.

And you also have to give David credit — lots of it — for crafting some season-long story lines that have been conceptual and comic masterpieces. The entire season 4, in which he agreed to star on stage for Mel Brooks in The Producers, was superb — and delivered a surprise ending that was even more brilliant because it was so cleverly disguised.

And then there was season 7, when he got the entire cast of Seinfeld back together to mount a reunion show — not for NBC, but for HBO. And when, on the show, Jason Alexander gets angry and walks off the set, David offers to play Alexander's part — a role David originally wrote, on Seinfeld, as his own alter ego.

This new season of Curb, starting Sunday on HBO, is another season-long story line — but David will neither describe it, nor send out advance copies for preview. I guess I could be annoyed by that, but I'm just happy to have TV Larry — and Curb Your Enthusiasm — back. Besides, when you have a track record like Larry David's, you've earned a lot of trust.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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