ON JANUARY 4, HBO will premiere the fourth season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," its Golden Globe award-winning, "unconventional" sitcom starring writer-comedian Larry David. The show is an acquired taste. David, who also serves as executive producer of "Curb," is best known for his work on another Golden Globe award-winning, "unconventional" sitcom, "Seinfeld," which he co-created. It's best to think about the relationship between the two television shows by way of an alcohol analogy: If "Seinfeld"'s nihilistic, self-obsessed humor were likened, say, to 80-proof vodka, then "Curb Your Enthusiasm"'s is 140-proof. It's so strong, it borders on toxic.
The show is deceptively simple and, like its creator, abrasive. Each episode follows Larry, who plays himself, as he annoys his wife (played by the comedienne Cheryl Hines); his friends (Richard Lewis, Ted Danson, Jeff Garlin); and his friends' wives or girlfriends (most spectacularly, the foul-mouthed Susie Essman, who plays Garlin's wife, Susie Greene). That's about all that happens. You see, David's problem is that he is incredibly rich. On the show, as in real life, "Seinfeld" was a monumental success, and the man who once screamed at his audiences in dingy New York comedy clubs is now worth around $200 million.
All this wealth means that David no longer has to work, and so instead he frustrates, and is frustrated by, those who actually do. Some critics say that David's contempt for the service-class stems from his desire for instant gratification. In other words, he screams at Person X because Person X is an obstacle to Desire Y. But it may be more complicated than that. As you watch Larry argue with waiters and housekeepers and shopkeepers, you sense contempt in his voice, sure, but you also sense a certain amount of envy--a yearning, however subtle, to go back to work.
And sometimes that's exactly what he does. The best episodes of the series follow David as he tries out a new trade: In one episode from the second season, he becomes a car salesman, and in several episodes from the third, he becomes a restaurateur. Such is the case with the show's fourth season, in which David is offered a role in the Broadway production of "The Producers." David, whose main acting credit prior to "Curb" was as the voice of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner on "Seinfeld," accepts.
The next few episodes show how unfit he is to play anyone other than himself. Along the way, he annoys or otherwise makes fun of Ben Stiller, his co-star in "The Producers"; the show's effeminate choreographer; the show's blind rehearsal pianist; Mel Brooks's lesbian assistant; and a group of mentally disabled people. When David stabs Stiller in the eye with a toothpick, the moment becomes a synecdoche for the entire series: rather than being about "nothing," like its more famous predecessor, "Curb" is about Larry David's assaults on other human beings.
WHY IS THIS FUNNY? It's hard to say. David's comedy is antisocial--on "Seinfeld," his outlook was embodied by the character of George Costanza, who lied, cheated, and whined his way through the show's nine seasons--and there is a pleasure, however slight, in watching someone break the rules of polite society. Especially when the polite society in question is as insufferable as Hollywood's.
In one episode of the new season, for example, David discovers that the television weatherman, knowing it will be sunny, predicts rain in order to secure a good tee time at the golf club. David is incensed--though not, it should be said, at the act of lying. He's angry because he has canceled his own tee time based on the weatherman's fabrication. And so he hobbles to the golf course (having fallen into a toilet earlier in the episode), whereupon he argues with the weatherman for several minutes on the putting green. The joke is that the weatherman insists David call him a "meteorologist." You laugh at the weirdness of it all, but also at the level of self-regard required for a television performer--isn't that what a weatherman is?--to think of himself as a serious scientist.
It's an uncomfortable moment, grist for David's comedic mill. But it's also superfluous and, on some level, unbelievable. How is it possible, you wonder, that someone can become so angry over something so absurd?
Well, when you think about it, it isn't. And therein lies the problem with the new season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Far from being "unconventional," the show in its first three seasons was more a "situational comedy" than most so-called sitcoms. That's because the episodes, which are improvised, revolved solely around personal encounters, not witty one-liners or family life or cultural diversity. You got Larry David at the acupuncturist, Larry David at the masseuse, Larry David at the office. That's it. Which can be funny, for a time, until you run out of the everyday uncomfortable social encounters we all experience, and have to start making them up. When you watch "Curb Your Enthusiasm," you can imagine super-rich Larry David opening a restaurant. You can't imagine him starring in "The Producers."
In these new, baldly ridiculous situations, David's shtick becomes tired. You start to long, oddly enough, for a return to banal discussions about buttons and massages and waiting in line at Chinese restaurants. You long for a finely crafted piece of comedic writing, rather than an improvised, rambling dialogue about using the phone in the doctor's office. And sometimes, you long for Larry David to stop complaining and get a job.
Matthew Continetti is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.