The Best Laughs on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Have Always Been Larry’s Own


As the creator and star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David has been ambling in and out of view for almost 25 years, playing a version of himself whose odyssey is now winding to a close: This month, the show began its 12th and final season, concluding a run that started in the last days of the Clinton administration. David has also, in a more colloquial sense, played himself. “Curb” sends up his celebrity, rendering him a tetchy caricature whose showbiz success has granted him time enough at last to enjoy the pettier things in life. This “Larry” is a gadfly who goads others, and himself, into fits of rancor. Yet he’s also gregarious, the type for whom every car ride is an occasion to discuss, say, the serenity of gardeners or a possible link between the words “yoga” and “yogurt.” In “Curb,” discomfort has always been made tolerable by such frivolity, and by the knowing mischief of David’s performance. At its heart is the signature of David’s screen persona: his own irrepressible laughter.

“I am laughing constantly when we’re shooting,” David once said in an interview with the journalist Bill Carter. He extemporizes a lot too: The actors on “Curb” largely improvise their way through scenes, following basic outlines. This accounts for the show’s charming strangeness, its relaxed approach to dialogue and narrative incident. As one of the show’s executive producers, Jeff Schaffer, recently explained, David “wants to be surprised” while filming — and if his reactions “seem like real laughs, they’re real laughs, because Larry’s hearing it for the first time, too.”

In other shows, these moments might constitute “breaking,” disruptions to the reality of the scene that are usually edited out. On “Curb,” too, many of David’s reactions have become outtakes. But some remain in the show itself, roiling its mixture of absurdities and half-truths. There is an artful, unstudied naturalism to David’s acting, which makes the boundaries between real laughs and stylized ones elusive. The viewer looks for a telltale sign, some jolt of spontaneity — which is just what David’s most authentic laughs provide. At such moments he’s still Larry David, tactless noter of peccadilloes. But you can also detect an overlapping spectacle: Larry David himself, openly appreciating the comedic inventions of his scene partners. Or even, sometimes, his own. In Season 4, we watch him rehearse how he might request some baseball tickets from a friend whose father recently passed away. “I know you’re still in mourning,” he begins — but he’s quickly cut off by the familiar sound of his own chortling, a kind of protracted, gut-punch wheeze.

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