Uncurbed enthusiasm

Veteran "Curb Your Enthusiasm" director Bob Weide talks about bringing his prickly brand of humor to the big screen with "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People."

Topics: HBO, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Movies,

Uncurbed enthusiasm

The former “Curb Your Enthusiasm” director and executive producer Robert B. Weide was casually flipping through his Buster Keaton and Little Rascals laserdiscs, kept in the hallway closet of his English cottage-style home. “I just bought a new laserdisc player on eBay,” Weide announced, charmingly unfazed by the extinction of the medium. In his home office, beyond a living room lined with comedian biographies and signed lithographs made by author Kurt Vonnegut, a large video-editing workstation sits below a Japanese Woody Allen poster, a photo of Weide with Vonnegut and a one-sheet for Weide’s 1998 Oscar-nominated Lenny Bruce documentary, “Swear to Tell The Truth.”

Weide, 49, is a thin man with closely cropped dark hair, a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, and a focused set of brown eyes, protected behind black rectangular glasses. He grew up in Southern California, watching comedy from the Marx Brothers through “Annie Hall,” which may account for his somewhat New Yorkerish vibe. “People are shocked when I tell them I grew up out here,” he said. “There’s a Lenny Bruce bit — ‘If you’re from New York you’re Jewish, even if you’re not Jewish. And if you’re from the Midwest you’re not Jewish, even if you’re Jewish.’” Weide is the kind of genuine man, less common in Hollywood by the second, who lacks slickness, excessive amounts of aggression, the desire to show off, cut corners and name-drop — all issues broached in his feature directing debut, out this week, called “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.”

The comedy stars “Shaun of the Dead” sensation Simon Pegg in a loose interpretation of former Vanity Fair writer Toby Young, who published a now-infamous 2001 roman à clef with the same title about screwing up in the celebrity-filled world of glossy magazine journalism. It’s Weide’s first major project since leaving “Curb” after its fifth season, and as a cringe-inducing tale of a smart but abrasive misfit bumbling his way through the glamorous media high life, it’s perhaps not an unusual choice after Weide spent years framing a fictionalized Larry David’s misadventures in a post-”Seinfeld” Los Angeles. 

Ten years ago this month, Larry David asked Weide to direct the first “Curb” mockumentary, which spurred along the hit series. Weide met David in 1983, while working as the director of development for Charles Joffe, the comedy impresario, who first encouraged Woody Allen to write and direct his films and, with partner Jack Rollins, steered the careers of historic comedians from Lenny Bruce to David Letterman.

In the eary ’80s, within three months of leaving the University of Southern California, where Weide had been rejected by the film school three times (a fact he proudly announced in his first Emmy acceptance speech, in 1986), the 20-year-old director was working as a runner for Joffe and producing a Marx Brothers documentary. “The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell,” narrated by Gene Kelly and including footage wrangled with Joffe’s help, soon became one of PBS’s highest-rated programs. Throughout the following years, Weide made more comedian documentaries — including films about Mort Sahl, W.C. Fields and, of course, Lenny Bruce, whose mother Weide eulogized at her 1997 funeral. He was soon known in the industry for his comedy scholarship and his love for telling truthful stories of inconoclasts’ lives.

Still, it wasn’t his documentary work but Weide’s job with Rollins-Joffe — to say nothing of spending evenings in comedy clubs, getting to know performers — that initially brought Weide and David together, pre-”Seinfeld.” “Larry had written a script called ‘Prognosis Negative’ that I loved,” Weide said. “That’s how Larry and I met. This was when Larry was unhirable; no one knew how he was going to keep a roof over his head, and he was the first to think that he was going to be homeless. In those days, few people considered Larry funny, except me and half a dozen other people. I would always be in the clubs watching him, thinking that if this country ever caught up with this guy’s sense of humor, there would be riots in the streets.”

Weide gravitated to David’s organic contrarianism: “In those early script development meetings at Rollins-Joffe they’d say to him, ‘The script is so funny, it’s so fresh, so original. But this character is pretty unsympathetic. Do you think there’s anything we can do to make him a little bit more likable?’ And Larry would go, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ And I said, ‘I love this guy.’” 

When David left “Seinfeld,” in the late 1990s, the two men began socializing more frequently, which led to a call from David in October 1998 offering Weide the chance to direct a “little HBO special” about David returning to stand-up. “Larry asked me because I directed documentaries,” Weide said. “He didn’t really know yet how much was going to be real documentary and how much would be fabricated. It was his idea to improvise the dialogue, because he didn’t want to memorize lines. He also rightly thought that if it wasn’t scripted, the dialogue would sound more real — the rhythms, the overlaps, the pauses.” 

For comedy fans, “Curb” became an unexpected but logical progression to the multicamera sitcom about nothing: a documentary style meta-show about a writer/comic that questioned reality and shined a much brighter light on the dark, comfort-challenging humor with which “Seinfeld” had more subtly flirted. “It was always very divisive: People either loved or hated it,” Weide said. “There were married couples that probably had big fights over it. Hopefully it even led to a few divorces.”

But “Curb” was also a substrate for Weide’s synergistic interests. It allowed him to finally transition into crafting innovative comedy, informed by his masterly understanding of the canon.

”If you’re injected with the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy, it absolutely becomes part of your system,” Weide said. “I remember some ‘Curb’ things where Larry and Jeff would get in trouble with their wives and always try to get away with schemes. That’s completely Laurel and Hardy. Occasionally in “Curb,” Larry would do battle with some little kid — that’s W.C. Fields. Simon Pegg’s character in ‘How to Lose Friends’ also has some Groucho in him; he says outrageous things you’re not supposed to utter. There are also numerous moments in the show and ‘How to Lose Friends’ where I was thinking Mel Brooks.”

”Whenever you’re doing comedy, it’s good to have someone who understands the art of creating it,” Simon Pegg recently told me from his London home. “But Bob doesn’t just have a classical understanding. He’s responsible for some of the best modern comedy around, and he’s on top of emergent stuff.” 

Pegg noted the brief story of how, when the British star met the actress Gillian Anderson during the casting for “How to Lose Friends,” Weide made sure Anderson heard about Pegg’s reality-based masturbatory references to the “X Files” actress on Pegg’s British TV show “Spaced.” “He broke the code!” Pegg said, jokingly. “There is a line you shouldn’t cross but that Bob does. And that made me realize how much creative input he had on ‘Curb.’ He frequently shows that Larry David lack of restraint; he’s always the man who ends the joke.”

At the beginning of “How to Lose Friends,” a boy sits cross-legged, staring at a black and white movie, as the camera zooms into the screen and then back close on the kid’s eyes. It’s an indication of how the protagonist, Sidney Young, a caustic British journalist who moves to New York and works for a Vanity Fair-esque publication, became entranced with movies and the idea of who belongs on what side of the velvet rope. But the scene references Weide’s life, too. “I have some kind of knack for getting to know or becoming very close with people I’ve long admired,” Weide told me. “Kurt Vonnegut and I — it’s not an exaggeration to say we were best friends. And I grew up just idolizing him.”

Weide has been working on a Vonnegut documentary for 20-odd years: He’s the only filmmaker with Vonnegut’s childhood footage and spent many years with the author, even taking him back to his hometown in Indiana, for revelatory author-led video tours through the icon’s life. The as-yet-unscreened rough cut still lacks narration but is more illuminating than any other piece of media produced about the American novelist, showing the author speak about his family at the house his architect father designed, discussing the impact of WWII and including reminiscences of his honeymoon at a family lake house.

”Somehow I got a hold of an address for Vonnegut shortly after making the Marx Brothers film,” said Weide, who wrote a letter asking the author if he could make a documentary about him. “Vonnegut wrote back, saying that he had seen the Marx brothers film and loved it. That became the foundation of our friendship: old movies and comedies. ” Weide eventually penned the 1996 film adaptation of Vonnegut’s “Mother Night.” “I would tell him, ‘If you had never responded to that letter, I would be across the street from your townhouse in Manhattan, with binoculars, trying to get a glimpse of you coming out the door and stalking you for an autograph.’ It’s true. That’s why I tell my wife: one slight move and I’d be on the other side of that rope.”

Chief among Weide’s passions as a dedicated comedy, literature and film fan are also a documentarian’s obsession with accuracy and remembering. The comedian Richard Lewis recently recalled that at Charles Joffe’s memorial service Weide didn’t just give a moving speech but, after realizing a funny story had been forgotten — it concerned how Joffe negotiated a million-dollar holding deal for David Letterman before the comic started his late-night show — Weide returned to the microphone. 

“I never saw a guy go up at a memorial service with notes as if was a Friar’s Roast,” said Lewis, who admits to thinking of Weide “like a younger brother.” “I guess we want to remember the funny stuff,” Lewis continued. “Anyway, after Bob sat down, he called from the audience, because someone was stumbling around with some memory, and he was like: ‘I know that. I forgot to mention that.’ It was a really funny ‘Curb’ moment — he’s asking the audience at the memorial service if he can go up a second time, and everyone was like, ‘Yeah, go up. You can be the first guy to ever go up to the microphone twice at a memorial service.’ He so wanted to share and get these stories right.”

Likewise, Weide didn’t tolerate creative versions of the truth as he shot “How to Lose Friends” in London last year. When Toby Young, the writer portrayed by Simon Pegg in the film, wrote a piece last month for the U.K. publication The Spectator about how Kirsten Dunst, who plays the mag-staffer-love-interest in the movie, had him banned from the set, Weide came to the aid of his actress and the truth. “He wasn’t banned,” Weide said. “He made several visits. He did screw up one day by giving a note about Kirsten’s performance. After that, his visits to the set were closely monitored. But then he writes this piece that he thinks is a humorous piece — ‘Kirsten Dunst banned me from the set of my own movie. Ha, ha, ha.’” So Weide wrote a letter to the Spectator, later reprinted in The Evening Standard, which reads: “Toby has written a number of pieces about this production, and I often read about a fictional character, the director of the film, who happens to share my name. Toby is usually good about running these things past me, and I’ve told him that I understand that his job is to ‘print the legend’ for comic effect. But after reading unwarranted Internet criticism of Ms. Dunst for having Toby ‘banned,’ I thought someone needed to print the truth.”

Truth is similarly at issue in “How to Lose Friends.” In the film, publicists exact copy approval over magazine editors and writers, spinning articles in positive directions and forcing writers to profile lesser-known clients in exchange for access to big stars. Weide maintains that he and screenwriter Peter Straughan used Young’s book only for source material and that much of the film and its characters are fabrications. So don’t look for the real Graydon Carter in Jeff Bridge’s successful magazine editor, even if he sports the long hair and nice suits.

To be sure, Weide does not appreciate the brand of mythmaking from either side of the journalistic line that has infected the history of entertainment from the early days.
 “On my W.C. Fields film, we took on all these myths,” Weide said. “That he had hundreds of bank accounts all over the world in different banks that were left untouched when he died. Then there’s the alleged quote, ‘Anyone who hates children or dogs can’t be all bad,’ which he never said. The idea that on his tombstone it says, ‘All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.’ That’s not true. We had this whole chapter in the film — this four-minute section of the film — debunking all those myths. We even interviewed one of the publicists who worked for Paramount in the 1930s and handled the Fields account. He said, ‘Oh yeah, we’d make that stuff up. We’d run it by him and if he felt that if it was within character, he’d say to print it.’”

At 49 — the new 39, as contemporary culture would have it — Weide isn’t old. But even though most directors don’t win feature gigs at middle age, that’s a little less than correct, too. “Paul Haggis broke the 50-year barrier when he directed ‘Crash,’” said Weide, who has recently scripted and plans to direct a feature film loosely based on his relationship with Vonnegut. “Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ — I think Jon’s two years older than me, and Valerie’s a little older than me. At a time in their lives when most people were being put out to pasture, the film opened up a whole new world, and now they’re very in demand. I have no idea whether my film will have any kind of success like theirs, but there’s something to be said about finally being able to direct movies when you have a point of view about life. The documentaries are one thing — I was highlighting someone else’s work, someone else’s genius. Once I had to find my own voice, I’m glad I was a little bit older and had some confidence and had all these great inspirations to draw from.”

Adam Baer, a writer in Los Angeles, has contributed to the New York Times, NPR and many magazines.

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