Larry David’s return as a cantankerous version of himself in a new series of Curb Your Enthusiasm is a chance to reflect on the roots of comedy and the discontent that produces it.By Helen Razer.
‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’
If Seinfeld was, as promised, a show about nothing, then Curb Your Enthusiasm, its immediate descendant, was raised with nothing to guide its moral and social development. Curb, written by and starring Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, certainly has this feel. The largely improvised single-camera comedy, which returns worldwide to subscription television on Monday following a six-year break, has at its centre a fictionalised David. He is a late-midlife malcontent with all the social caution of a toddler and the credit limit of at least 10 quite affluent grown-ups.
When asked, as he frequently is, how closely the Curb David resembles the true one – not an entirely gratuitous question, given that he is well remembered during his time as a New York City stand-up for charging his audiences with stupidity or simply glaring at them before exiting the stage having said only “Forget it” – he insists that his own superego is functional. He says he doesn’t actually order coffee as Curb Larry does, “I’ll have a vanilla... one of those vanilla bullshit things. You know, whatever you want, some vanilla bullshit latte cappa thing.” He simply spends most of his life wishing that he could.
He will concede, though, that the true David is also immodestly rich. This is not due to Curb, a show with an appeal to a niche market of misanthropes so uncompromised it makes its predecessor seem like Growing Pains. It is down to the unlikely success of Seinfeld, whose pilot was initially dismissed by one NBC executive memo as “Too New York, too Jewish”.
This assessment, it is reported, was made by the late Brandon Tartikoff, himself a New York Jew. It is likely that the NBC president, whose first attempt at a TV gig was as a Saturday Night Live writer, did not offer this critique without humour. Just as Jerry and Larry have always publicly offered their Jewishness in service to a particular comic sensibility – one that can be shared by any goy who has ever recognised their own distance from the crowd – Tartikoff almost certainly sent his memo with the same understanding. To be “Jewish” within the context of popular culture was, by the time Seinfeld was conceived, not to be religious, or even especially marked by cultural difference. By then, most especially within comedy, Jewishness signified the faculty for critique, or the ability to kvetch about everything and nothing, including cinema etiquette, people who speak inaudibly, luxury product catalogues and yadda yadda yadda.
Perhaps Tartikoff thought that Seinfeld, pitched when Ronald Reagan was still president, had no place in an aspirational era. The 1980s were for productivity, traditional values and hard work. No one had time to brook observational, see also “Jewish”, comedy. The purpose of the popular comedy, per Family Ties or Full House, was to reinforce and celebrate the powerful present.
It was in 1961 at a Chicago club that the great stand-up Lenny Bruce noted that to “observe” had long been a Jewish holiday tradition but to “celebrate” was not. This was delivered in a bit that would become the artist’s most enduring. The series of gags, soon reprinted in Playboy at a time that magazine truly was purchased for the quality of its articles, is now generally known as “Jewish and Goyish”. The routine helps us understand the appeal of Larry David. It is also an apt introduction to Bruce, whose unflinching descriptions of his era would substantially reshape both live comedy and American perceptions of Jews.
“Now I neologise Jewish and Goyish,” he says, and goes on to enumerate things, including himself, that could be understood, respectively, as nonconforming or as power’s most compliant products. Pumpernickel, Bruce says, is Jewish. Evaporated milk is Goyish, even if it was invented by Jews. Bread and long-life dairy: these are precisely the sorts of things that could end up informing the next season of Curb. We can well imagine its returning cast members arguing fiercely about evaporated milk. And new ones, too, who include Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston – you may remember him in Seinfeld as the dentist and aspiring comic who converts to Judaism, Jerry suspects, purely for the jokes. For this, Jerry is reprimanded by Kramer as an “anti-dentite”.
Lenny Bruce goes on with his “neologising”. He is himself Jewish, and so is Count Basie and Ray Charles. There are those Jews, he says, who may be a bit Goyish, within his newly minted categories. “Now, a Jew in the dictionary is one who is descended from the ancient tribes of Judea.” Bruce does not challenge the truth of this, but adds to it a fear held by anti-Semites as truth, “You and I know what a Jew is: One Who Killed Our Lord.” He examines the fear, suggests that a 2000-year-old crime is no longer worth investigating and, as he goes down the list, begins to slowly affirm the figurative act of killing idols.
Such rebellion, for Bruce, is “Jewish”. As are all Italians, any Irishman who has renounced his faith, and breasts. All breasts. Undergarments are always Goyish. Lime Jello dessert is Goyish, and so was pop singer Eddie Cantor, who may have been born to Russian-Jewish immigrants, but recorded far too many bland songs to be ever one of Bruce’s neologised Jews. Other Goyish people include anyone of any faith who lives in the Midwest of the United States. Or Sweden.
This, to be gracelessly clear, was no act of exclusion or ethnic self-loathing. Nor was it a particular or a general critique of religion. It remains, however, an account of the first moments of an exceptional era in which Jews, most notably stars such as Barbra Streisand and Bob Dylan, had taken cultural sensibilities long held within the ghetto and offered them to America as a secular gift.
Of course, both crude and canny forms of anti-Semitism survived the postwar period, and we can see their recrudescence in the America of a troubling present. But “observational” humour has proved to be every bit as stubborn as racism. Jewishness, as explained by Bruce and performed by David, is the foundation for all great American comedy. Oy gevalt, and again with the graceless clarity: No, Jews are not God’s Chosen Comics, but they were, particularly those in the Ashkenazic population, chosen by history to make jokes.
A popular explanation for Jewish humour is that a viciously persecuted people must make itself laugh across the centuries or perish. There is likely some truth in such study, but it falls short in its understanding of Jews, or any cultural group, as a people capable of producing more than responding to external forces. This humour, which, like David, speaks of internal human foibles, is a cultural product, internally produced.
Ashkenazim have long produced Yiddish jokes and funny neologisms. To “kvetch”, or to complain incessantly about everything, is itself a 20th-century word. According to Yiddishist Michael Wex, whose best-selling 2005 book Born to Kvetch must be among the funniest works of scholarship on language, it was adopted from its previous usage meaning “to strain at stool”.
To kvetch is internal. It bears no trace of historic oppression, but speaks only of the individual always necessarily in conflict with the society that imposes its demands. To kvetch is the human urge to chuckle and scoff at stuff, such as people who wear sunglasses indoors, who are, according to David, either “blind people or assholes”.
Long before Larry, many Yiddish and Jewish funnies were recorded and analysed by Sigmund Freud, who worked for some time to trace the connection between gags and primal drives. There’s at least a tight five in Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. The best jokes, which generally involve everyday practice such as childbirth or sitting next to a rich man, are all Jewish.
For Freud, everyday comedy is not, like the slip in speech, unintentional. It is, or can be, a technique for saying the otherwise unsayable. For David, professional comedy, by his own admission, is an opportunity to more elaborately speak to taboo matters. If you’re funny enough, you can say it.
When writing the Seinfeld episode “The Contest”, in which all four primary cast-members compete to find who can last the longest without masturbating, David concealed the script from NBC, feeling sure that such content would not be permitted to air in 1990s primetime. Executives laughed so hard at this onanistic schtick – even at Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a woman – that they promoted it heavily and felt certain the show would now hit. It did. It made David a fortune and presented him with both the premise and the possibility of Curb, in which he stars as the guy who has done nothing but kvetch since his long-ago success.
If you are the sort of person inclined to great and equal revulsion for yourself and others, you will likely find delight in the new Curb – previews of which were forbidden to this critic. Even if you are not that sort of person, you may still look at David, and then back with amazement to the time that made him. Pessimistic analysis of the self and the culture – that is, kvetching – was a gift given by Jews. Goyim accepted their own Jewishness, per Bruce, and still do. In the current and deeply divided era, it is almost impossible to think of an ethnic or cultural identity being observed, or “celebrated” to use the Goyish, anywhere outside a government-printed pamphlet.
Remember that history, especially when David offends, as he is bound to, with the foul contents of his unconscious.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2017 as "Goyish figure". Subscribe here.