Why would a party host say not to bring gifts but then expect you to bring one anyway? Why can’t you point out when something served at the dinner table tastes bad? Why do people say “LOL” instead of actually laughing out loud? On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David can’t comprehend a lot of the social mores the rest of us just accept. He’s also very suspicious of people’s motivations, from the weathermen who predict rain on a sunny day—surely because they want to hog the golf course for themselves—to the friend upset by a customized Cobb salad order because he claims his grandfather invented that very salad. And the dinner companion who gets up to go to the bathroom every time the check happens to hit the table? Yeah, that’s no coincidence.
Most viewers probably know legendary comic Larry David as a co-creator of and writer on the most acclaimed American sitcom of all time, Seinfeld. Shortly after that show ended with its infamous David-written finale, he created Curb Your Enthusiasm for HBO as an hourlong special that then morphed into a delightful, long-running sitcom. On the series, he plays a fictionalized version of himself, navigating a world both alien to him and hostile to his understanding of How Things Should Work. Throughout its 10 seasons, the fictional David tries to handle his post-Seinfeld life through career moves like pitching new TV shows, acting in Broadway plays, and investing in restaurants, all while bumbling through his own personal life.
One of the keys to understanding Curb Your Enthusiasm is that the “Larry David” on the show diverges slightly from the real Larry David. On Seinfeld, David’s real-life experiences and personality quirks were wrapped up in the character George Costanza, but on Curb, the line between the man and the character blurs even further because David is using his own name, voice, and mannerisms. One important difference is David’s faith: On the show, Larry’s Jewish heritage plays a prominent role, but in real life, David is an atheist who’s been known to be rather dismissive of the concept of religion in general. And it’s crucial to note that TV Larry is often in the wrong. But he’s not some edgelord savior who wants to give you the right to do and say whatever you want, despite what some conservative fans of the show seem to think. Rather, he is extremely imperfect, and the show invites you to both criticize and sympathize.
An episode that depicts Larry in all his bumbling luster—and presents a typical situation for the beleaguered character—is Season 2, Episode 8, “Shaq,” which starts at a classic dinner setup for Larry. During a conversation with his wife and friends he finds boring, he’s asked to do two nice favors for people at the table, agreeing even though he’s clearly reluctant to do so. Meanwhile, Larry’s manager gets him courtside tickets to a Lakers game. When he goes, he stretches out his legs at one point, only for none other than Shaquille O’Neal—this is 2001, remember—to trip and injure himself. Shaq has to sit out for a few games, and Larry has to face the ire of all of Los Angeles, where people suspect he did this on purpose since he’s actually a Knicks fan.
Though he’s a pariah, Larry finds his newfound ostracism benefits his curmudgeonly spirit—including a possible avenue to get out of his obligations to his friends. “Shaq” is an all-time great Curb episode because it encapsulates so much of what makes the show fun, including the quandaries picked over carefully by Larry and co., like the appropriate time to say goodbye when leaving a place or whether it’s OK to ask doctors to check out your health quirks outside of the office. And the episode outfits Larry’s misanthropic personality perfectly, as the guy who can’t bring himself to do superficial favors for others finds possibly the most inconvenient way imaginable to avoid doing so. You even learn what Shaq’s favorite Seinfeld episode is, tying in Larry’s biggest claim to fame.
The whole thing shows why Curb Your Enthusiasm has been consistently popular over the years, garnering several Emmys and being listed among not only the best of HBO’s offerings but also the best and most influential TV shows ever. My colleague Jeremy Stahl labeled David America’s greatest living humorist almost a decade ago, and I think this shows why the designation still holds true. As Season 10 comes to what is sure to be a chaotic conclusion on Sunday, with the show’s 100th episode, it’s the right time to reflect on Curb as a whole—and it’s been pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.
Available to stream on Hulu.