Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: As the HBO show returns for its eighth season, we compile its most hilarious, cringe-worthy moments
10. “The End” (Season 5, Episode 10)
(Season 5, Episode 10)
This 40-minute episode is the payoff to a season built around (1) Larry’s suspicion that he may have been adopted (2) Larry’s rather half-assed attempts to help his friend Richard (Richard Lewis) get a new kidney. The plot-stuffed season finale, which felt almost like a series finale, had Larry visiting his “birth parents,” the Cones (Hansford Rowe and June Squibb) and learning that he was a Gentile, then having a conversion experience in church and racing to the hospital to donate his own kidney to Richard. The show’s high point is a brief excursion to the afterlife, featuring cameos by Dustin Hoffman and Sascha Baron Cohen (a.k.a. Ali G) as his guardian angels; Larry has a full head of long, hippie-ish hair and debates the angels on the particulars of DVD storage.
9. “The Table Read”
(Season 7, Episode 9 )
I love how the seventh season of “Seinfeld” gave the sitcom’s fans a reunion of sorts, but not in quite the way they wanted. The season-long arc finds Larry contriving to reunite Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Michael Richards and Jerry Seinfeld for a reunion special that becomes a hellacious ego-wrangling challenge. It all culminates in this penultimate episode, which gathers the actors for a table read. But we’re never allowed to immerse ourselves in the fantasy. We’re always aware that we’re seeing “real” people playing characters other than themselves, in scripted situations — which of course adds a layer to complications that were already present in every episode of the partly scripted, partly improvised “Curb,” with its documentary-affected camerawork and big-name stars playing “themselves.”
Michael Richards becomes obsessed by the idea that he’s afflicted with Groat’s disease, but is calmed by tales of “Danny Duberstein,” a friend of Larry’s and his neighbor Marty Funkhouser (Bob Einstein) who survived it. Larry, eager to put Richards’ anxieties to rest, persuades Leon (J.B. Smoove), an African-American newsstand owner, to impersonate Duberstein, and… Oh, hell, the subplot is way too complicated to describe in detail here; suffice it to say that its pretzel plotting is a treat, as is the scene where Richards meets Leon/”Danny Duberstein” and hears his improvised backstory: He’s a black man adopted by Jews and bar mitzvahed three times in 39 years, because “you gotta recharge the mitzvah.” I haven’t even gotten into Larry’s nepotistically casting his ex-wife Cheryl in a supporting part in order to win her back. (Larry David: “She auditioned.” Jason Alexander: “I wish I could have seen that.”) Or Larry’s uneasy relationship with a 9-year-old girl who has, um, <a href="an unpleasant minor medical disorder, and whose star-struck texting of Larry ultimately gets him in deep trouble. It’s a layer cake of an episode.
Best of all is Richards’ explosion of rage when he learns that Leon and Larry duped him — a fit that very deliberately invokes the racist, 2006 comedy club meltdown that made Richards a pariah. “You made a chump out of me!” Richards shrieks at Leon as African-American bystanders look on, anticipating another bigoted outburst. “I wish I there were a… horrible name that I could call you that would make you as angry as I am!” Richards howls. His face is framed in close-up on an iPhone’s video screen.
8. “The Car Pool Lane”
(Season 5, Episode 6)
Larry’s expedient selfishness always gets him into trouble, but the complications are especially sharp in this episode, which finds Larry saving time en route to Dodgers game that he’s late for by using the carpool lane, even though he’s a lone driver. “I’m not gonna use the carpool lane by myself because I don’t want to!” he exclaims, from bestride his moral high-horse. But then a streetwalker leans in his window and propositions him. “Get in,” Larry tells her.
As they’re driving, he negotiates a five-hour flat rate with the prostitute in exchange for having her just sit in the car during the game, then accompany him home so that he can use the carpool lane. She wants a thousand dollars. Larry balks. “That’s $200 an hour.” She explains that she could do four blowjobs in an hour, so it’s a fair rate. “I drove a cab,” Larry protests. “I used to drive around for four hours without a fare, you’re telling me you’re getting four blowjobs in an hour?” They go to the game together and have a surprisingly good time; it almost feels like a date. “I got us some popcorn,” she tells him when he returns to his seat. “You’re a sport!” he exclaims. The episode’s punch line — a “Seinfeld”-worth freeze-frame/photograph from the point-of-view of a traffic enforcement camera — is one of the show’s best. I think of it every time I see a traffic cam.
7. “Opening Night”
(Season 4, Episode 10)
There was always a postmodern pretzel-logic aspect to “Curb”; even at its most immersive, it’s often hard to shake the realization that you’re watching Larry David, the main inspiration for George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” playing “Larry David,” a co-creator of “Seinfeld,” in a series of slapstick adventures that play like the raunchier HBO sequel to the NBC hit. This Season 4 finale pushes those associations to the breaking point. The whole season leads to Larry’s debut in the Broadway production of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” taking over the role of showman-shyster Max Bialystock. We’re keenly aware that Larry is not a musical comedy performer on the level of Nathan Lane, who originated the role on the stage, and as the season unfolds, a little voice in the back of our mind keeps asking if David has succumbed to star vanity and is contriving backdoor ways to show us that he’s brilliantly versatile and can play characters other than “Larry David.”
Nope! It’s all part of a “Producers”-style master plan by Brooks to force an end to a show that debuted in 2001 — a plan that’s thwarted by the audience’s unexpected embrace of David on opening night. He’s not great as Bialystock, just community theater-level competent, and in a pivotal scene opposite David Schwimmer as co-conspirator Leo Bloom, he forgets his lines, then launches into a bizarre, desperate, extended ad lib that ultimately sends him into the audience, where he interacts with the crowd as if it’s open mic night at the Comedy Barn. (The reaction shots of audience members in this agonizing sequence are superb; Jerry Seinfeld winces as if he just chomped hard on a grape that he mistakenly thought was seedless.)
But to the astonishment of Brooks and wife Anne Bancroft (in her final screen appearance, alas), the crowd adores Larry. “Who would have guessed that Larry David would be so hysterical?” says a theatergoer standing behind Brooks and Bancroft at a bar during intermission. “If he’s as funny in the second act as he is in the first,” a woman peals, “this show’s gonna run another five years.” You can actually see the blood draining from Brooks face. “No way out,” Bancroft moans. “Noooo wayyy out… Nooo wayyy ouuuut….” “Opening Night” is a hall of mirrors you can get lost in: a sitcom recycling of the plot of a hit Broadway musical that was based on a hit film about the production of a Broadway musical that was designed to be a flop but became a hit instead, featuring the show’s creator in a starring role modeled on one of his most famous creations, Max Bialystock. Which I guess makes Larry David this script’s equivalent of Franz Liebkind, the Nazi-sympathizing playwright-composer in “The Producers”? The mind reels.
6. “The N Word”
(Season 6, Episode 8)
Some fans think “Curb” should have called it quits after the Season 5 finale (see slide 10), which felt like a series ender. But Larry David and company made it worth our while by contriving new ways to torment the hero and enable him to torment others. This season charts the gradual disintegration of Larry and Cheryl’s marriage, which coincides with Larry’s impulsive decision to take in an African-American family left homeless by a hurricane. Their last name is Black, which leaves Larry — a passive-aggressively racist white liberal — with his foot permanently lodged in his mouth. This episode kicks the cheap but effective “the Blacks” gag up a notch when Larry overhears a bigot in a bathroom telling a story that repeatedly uses the N-word. He’s so aghast that feels compelled to recount it to others, but whenever he does, there always seems to be an African-American around to overhear the epithet and call him out as a horrible racist monster.
The plot is a white liberal persecution fantasy that reaches way beyond its initial setup and implicates every ostentatiously “sensitive” person as a preening hypocrite or a busybody scold. First it skewers the idea that it’s possible for white folks to repeat the N-word as part of an anecdote, with implied quote marks around it, and be excused from the social consequences of uttering it. (A black doctor who overhears Larry saying the word in a hospital cafeteria. “What did you just fix your mouth to say?”) But it also tweaks African-Americans who are so hypersensitive to the word that they don’t cut any white person who uses it any slack, no matter what the context. The African-American doctor is so enraged by the word that he storms out of the cafeteria, bellowing at the top of his lungs; the white doctors eating lunch stare after him, dumbstruck. Back home, the Blacks hear Larry retelling the story and assail him relentlessly while Larry wails, “Noooo! Oh,nooooo!” This episode leaves viewers no safe position from which to judge the characters; no matter who you are, the joke’s on you.
5. “Mary, Joseph and Larry”
Irreverent in every sense of the word, this one finds Larry feeling extra-Jewish when his Gentile wife, Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) invites her family home for the holidays and turns it into an unabashed celebration of Christmas, with extra helpings of Jesus. Larry is offended, they’re offended that he’s offended, he’s offended the they’re offended that he’s offended… in other words, it’s perfect “Curb” material. This episode has some of the show’s most expressive close-ups of Larry biting his tongue during uncomfortable moments and trying and failing to hide the true feelings that radiate off him in hostile waves. The final scene — with Cheryl and her parents confronting Larry over having thoughtlessly eaten the centerpiece of a gingerbread manger scene, Christmas cookies shaped like Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus — is one of the all-time great “Curb” scenes. “You ate the baby Jesus and his mother, Mary!” Cheryl’s sister, Becky (Caitlin Olsen), yells. “I thought they were animals!” Larry protests. “Jesus Christ is not an animal!” she shouts back. “I-I-I thought… he was a monkey!” Larry says. “You didn’t see the hay?” Cheryl says. “The toasted coconut was hay! The barn?” “I thought that was all part of the zoo!” Larry says. “I’ll make it up to you, OK?” “You’re not gonna make it up to us, Larry, OK?” Becky shouts. “You just swallowed our Lord and Savior!”
4. “Chet’s Shirt”
(Season 3, Episode 1)
This one is a structurally perfect “Curb,” featuring three sharply written, expertly alternated subplots — one about the uneasy power relationship between Larry and two fellow celebrities (Ted Danson and Michael York) investing in a restaurant; another in which Larry gets in trouble for improper garbage disposal; and another in which Larry and Cheryl comfort a friend, Barbara (Caroline Aaron), whose husband just died, and Larry becomes obsessed with owning a shirt that he saw Barbara’s husband wearing in a photo. (He eventually goes to great lengths to buy the same shirt for Danson.)
This last subplot pays off with one of the most exquisitely mortifying final scenes in the show’s run — the bereaved Barbara coming over to Larry and Cheryl’s house while Ted Danson is there watching “The Wizard of Oz” with them. Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” number is on-screen, lending the whole sequence a perverse air of sweetness and nostalgia. “This was our favorite movie,” Barbara says, with tears in her eyes. Then she sees Larry wearing the shirt, moans like a dying animal and collapses on him, her tears and makeup staining his shirt. Larry and Ted both look at the second, unspoiled shirt laid out on a chair in an adjoining room and bolt up from the couch to claim it; they grab onto each other and fall onto the floor, wrestling while the DVD’s soundtrack plays the Wicked Witch of the West’s theme.
3. “The Terrorist Attack”
(Season 3, Episode 5)
You might have assumed Larry and his wife, Cheryl, would stay together forever, just like every other neurotic, impulsive male and patient, unflappable female on TV; judging from episodes like this one, it’s a wonder they lasted as long as they did. Their differences are truly, deeply irreconcilable, and the plot of “The Terrorist Attack” foregrounds them; the episode is also a terrific time capsule of the post-9/11 period, when people’s lives were torn between a constant fear of the apocalypse and utterly mundane daily reality. It’s a terrific episode all around, but one scene near the beginning makes it truly great, because it distills what’s uniquely uncomfortable about “Curb” — its merciless opposition to TV’s insistence that lead characters must be sympathetic and have “heart.”
The Davids’ friend Wanda Sykes tells them there’s a rumor of a terrorist attack in Los Angeles that weekend. Cheryl wants to stay because she doesn’t want to miss an important fundraiser, and because her vanity as an event planner won’t permit her to cancel or postpone it. But Larry wants to get the hell out of Dodge. It’s a high-stakes version of those moments that all couples have had to endure, where you’re faced with a stark choice and no matter where you come down on the issue, the other person thinks you’re a horrible, selfish person. Larry’s self-preservation instinct is chilling to behold. But somehow Cheryl’s petty commitment to her social event is just as bad — and her invocation of the worst-case-scenario idea of “for better or for worse” is even more repellent.
“Let’s postpone the benefit and let’s get out of here,” Larry tells Cheryl.
“I never thought I’d say this, but Larry’s right,” Wanda says, then storms out in disgust, muttering about how she’s going to Vegas and did the best she could.
“Well, call me when you get back into town,” Cheryl tells her. “Hopefully you’ll be here,” Wanda says, and leaves.
Then comes one of the great no-win-situation reaction shots in “Curb” history, as Larry hems and haws, trying to figure out how to tell Cheryl that he’s leaving town without her.
“Maybe… maybe I could go,” he says.
“Maybe you could go where?” she demands.
“I could go… Golfing?” Dreadful pause. “Pebble Beach?”
“It just seems like if we’re gonna go, we should go together,” Cheryl says.
“Mmm, not necessarily,” Larry says. “It almost seems a little… selfish… that you would want both of us to… perish.”
“So you’d be fine going on without me.”
“Well, it would be very difficult at first, sure… But hopefully I could, at some point, get back some semblance of a life.”
(Season 2, Episode 8)
This episode is demented even by “Curb” standards. Larry David trips Shaquille O’Neal during a Lakers game, leaving Shaq incapacitated for two months, and is vilified by everyone in town. But once he hears that Shaq is a “Seinfeld” fan and resolves to bring the basketball great a stack of videotapes to make amends, his luck inexplicably changes. A car splashes a man on a curb near Larry but leaves Larry miraculously un-drenched. He arrives home to discover that his hated in-laws have abruptly decided to leave. He discovers that the team doctor who was rude to him earlier is cheating Shaq at Scattergories and tells Shaq, who fires the doctor.
For once, Larry’s tendency to arrogantly stick his nose into situations makes everyone’s life better. The doctor has misdiagnosed Shaq, and after Larry gets him fired, Shaq’s people learn that he will be out for only a couple of games, and Larry’s luck becomes bad again. But there’s no rhyme or reason to this change in fortunes; it’s just a turn of events, an example of the cosmos aligning itself in a certain shape, and in no way a reflection on Larry’s personality or the universe’s opinion of it. There’s a sprightly energy to this episode that few “Curb” installments have matched. And I still laugh thinking about the dejected Shaq confronting his “doctor” with, “You cheated at Scattergories?”
1. “The Special Section”
(Season 3, Episode 6)
Larry returns from New York after playing a Jewish gangster in a Martin Scorsese film — a notion that’s pretty funny in itself — only to be informed that his mom died. Weeks ago. And that his mother told Larry’s father not to bother him while he was busy if something should happen to her. David’s reactions during this sequence — utter incredulity and smacked-in-the-face-with-a-mallet shock — might constitute some of the best comic acting the writer-performer has ever done. In sheer discomfort and emotionally driven anti-logic, it ranks with the best of early Albert Brooks (“Lost in America”). It’s also a great example of how “Curb” takes the “wacky high jinks ensue” clich
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.