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Unrepentant

Larry David, the antihero of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, is particular, a prig, and constantly aggrieved. But he’s fine with that—which is why, contrary to type, he’s not at all neurotic.

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Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Jessica Miglio/HBO)

There are three adjectives that are often used to describe Larry David, the star and creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which recently premiered its eighth season after two excruciating, Curb-less years. One is “bespectacled,” which is fair enough. Another is “bald,” a signifier David’s television alter-ego regards as a traditionally oppressed tribal identity (spitting in biblical fury when the assimilationists among this imagined fraternity of the hairless attempt to “pass” under the camouflage of a baseball cap or, God forbid, a toupee). Finally, and most ubiquitously, he is “neurotic.”

“Larry David plays himself as bald, bespectacled neurotic,” the New York Times wrote in a review of the new season. “Larry David plays a neurotic fussbudget named Larry David,” the Washington Post said in 2010. “He’s officially an LA neurotic,” the New York Post recently bemoaned. Far be it for me to argue with writers for such august publications. But having said that: I don’t think any of these people actually know what “neurotic” means, other than a word you swap in when you think it’s impolite to say “Jew.”

I can’t speak to the inner tumult of the real Larry David, the writer and actor behind the bald, bespectacled mask. I’ve never met the man. (If I ever did, we either would circle each other silently in a moonlit forest clearing before gently pressing our foreheads together like unicorns performing a mating rite, or within five minutes each lie dead by the other’s hand.) Yet by any measure—and certainly compared to his Jewish comedic contemporaries—Larry David is a character remarkably free from internal conflict. Psychoanalytic theory holds that neurosis occurs when the different parts of the personality are at war with each other. Now think of Larry David: He has no internal conflicts; he’s difficult, but he’s content.

Not for him the unrelenting angst of Albert Brooks or the comically tattered sense of self-esteem of Richard Lewis (a frequent Curb Your Enthusiasm guest star). As for the Grand Emperor of Neurotics, Woody Allen (and David’s director in the 2009 film Whatever Works), the two men’s public personas could hardly be more different. Apart from the glasses, the Brooklyn accent, and their Jewishness, David is, in effect, the anti-Allen.

Skeptical? Consider, for a start, their attitudes toward women. A defining theme in Allen’s oeuvre, women are no more than an afterthought in David’s, and the latter gives his female stars far more interesting things to do. (Just think of Susie Essman‘s volcanically foulmouthed Susie Green.) David is no romantic; he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes with a whimsical naïve like Annie Hall. In the first episode of Curb’s latest season, David’s divorce from Cheryl is finalized; first, though, there is a possibility of reconciliation, which David characteristically bungles. Cheryl leaves and then David just cuts to his divorce lawyer, one year later. One can imagine Allen commemorating this event with a sentimental montage of happier times; Larry is more concerned with Dodgers tickets and whether his divorce lawyer is lying to him about being Jewish.

Nor does sex hold him in any particular thrall; in last Sunday’s episode, as Jeff, Leon, and Marty Funkhauser are rendered all but catatonic by the bodacious ta-tas on Richard Lewis’ burlesque-dancer girlfriend—Lewis, in true Allen fashion, can only bring himself to admit he admires her for her mind—Larry calmly slurps his drink and later matter-of-factly informs her that she has a mole on the underside of her right breast that she really ought to get checked out. In all realms sexual David is refreshingly un-creepy. In the world of Curb, Jeff and Susie’s teenage daughter, Sammy, is Larry’s antagonist; in the world of Allen’s films, she’d be a love interest.

Their relationships with technology are at odds as well; compare Allen’s famous war with machines to Larry’s primal rage at vacuum packaging. Allen blames himself for his difficulties. With Larry, it’s the package’s fault. For David, the conflict is always external, and this lack of introspection characterizes virtually all of his interpersonal actions.

When David refuses to add an additional tip for the servers at the country club, the problem isn’t his parsimony, it’s the server’s greed. He feels similarly in the right when he tries to rescind his order for Girl Scout cookies, or screams at the neighborhood kids for serving him subpar lemonade. Why should he allow himself to be taken advantage of? As far as Larry is concerned, his only problem is the unreasonableness of others. He might come off like kind of an asshole, but that’s your problem, not his. He’s a self-actualized asshole.

It’s tempting to ascribe David’s blind unconcern for the feelings and good opinion of others on his immense fortune, which is alluded to, if rarely explicitly stated—if I had half a billion dollars, I probably wouldn’t care what anyone thought of me either. But Larry seems utterly unimpressed by the trappings of wealth—he still buys his pants at Banana Republic, for God’s sake—and as such, I propose his bizarre self-confidence comes from another, deeper source: Virtually alone among his peers, Larry David has absolutely no ambivalence about being a Jew.

From his disgust at Cheryl’s enormous Christmas tree, to the glee with which he hangs a mezuzah with his father-in-law’s special Christ Nail, to his inadvertent rescue of a Jewish man from a mildly coerced baptism, David’s outlook is essentially tribal. To him, a Jew trying to pass as a gentile is as ridiculous as a bald man in a toupee. David’s comic pose is less that of the anxious assimilationist eager to fit in than that of the clueless greenhorn making his way in a world to which he’s not sure he cares to belong.

Or perhaps he’s even more atavistic than that. Neurosis is often defined as a focus on behavioral minutiae that can border on the obsessive-compulsive, but Larry’s many preoccupations, from the unwritten laws of dry-cleaning, to the proper way to treat chauffeurs, gardeners, and other menial laborers, to the irrevocable uncleanness of certain objects (pens that have seen the inside of Jason Alexander’s ears, $50 bills laced with Funkhauser’s foot sweat) recall another endless litany of unbending edicts: the Book of Leviticus. Larry David isn’t a neurotic; he’s just demanding. Like the God of the Hebrews. He can be kind of an asshole, too.

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Corey says:

Brilliant!

David says:

I second Corey. Brilliant indeed.

Rachelle Pachtman says:

We all love to hate him and hate to love him because Larry reflects the ugly dark pimples in all of us. We are drawn to him while having to fight our repulsion. The perfect everyman for our times.

Fredrick says:

I agree that the character’s definitely an asshole. Still, as Mel Brooks said a few seasons ago, you can’t take your eyes off of him. And that’s sad, because he’s definitely an asshole.

Someone with “unwritten laws of dry-cleaning” and the rest is pathologically inflexible, or put another way, compulsive. David’s character (or is it David? For simplicity I’ll just say ‘David’) doesn’t have a “focus on behavioral minutiae”? What have you been describing? His quirks add up to a driven perversity, to put it mildly. If this man is not “neurotic” who is?

Not caring what others think doesn’t automatically equate to mental health. These behaviors seem very driven from some inner fire. You can’t get so constantly worked up about everything and be all that ‘happy.’

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s BAD to be ‘neurotic’. It seems to me that in my grandparents’ immigrant generation one of the good things was their acceptance of every family having an eccentric or three. It was practically expected. If a soul was such, and wasn’t an asshole, they’d be countenanced pretty warmly — or with a shrug.

David is no youngster, and many who grew up within the gravity field of the elders might have benefitted from that kind of acceptance.

“American” culture isn’t so comfortable with any of this, and that’s a loss. But that doesn’t mean David isn’t neurotic. As to comparisons with Allen or Albert Brooks, Lewis ,et al, well, there’s more than one kind of nut. But they’re all still nuts.

And to express some 2nd generational angst, I don’t think it does ‘us’ any favors to equate parsimonious cranks with Jews unbound.

Steve says:

“Not for him the unrelenting angst of Albert Brooks”. As if to underscore that point, David’s pal/foil Marty Funkhouser is played by Albert Brooks’ real-life brother Bob Einstein. (Albert made the wise decision to lose the family name when he entered show-biz)

Earl Ganz says:

The trouble is I keep getting mistaken for Larry David.
I guess I look like him. One time someone came up to me
in Walmart in Lake Charles, LA and asked me if I was him.
I said if I was him would I be shopping in Walmart? They
looked at me like I was crazy. I had the same problem in
Iowa City when I was young and had hair and it was black.
I kept being taken for Philip Roth who had been there the
year before. One guy even wanted to buy me a drink so I
would read his manuscript.I didn’t take the drink but I
read the manuscript. It was terrible. My point is that
all Jews look alike to gentiles, even to other Jews.

M. Brukhes says:

First off, Earl Ganz’s comment is nearly as funny as anything either Larry David or Philip Roth have ever written!!

Second, this is a very satisfying and astute essay: I think Rachel Shukert is really on to something here!

Oh yeah, one more difference between Larry David and Woody Allen….he didn’t have sex with and then marry his underage stepdaughter…and then rationalize it in a press conference with “the heart wants what it wants”…uh, wrong organ Woody…

dina adler says:

Larry David wants to have it both ways. He wants to have a Christian wife and in laws and still present himself as a very Jewish Jew.

Since they don’t have children, that major issue is averted but, Larry, it isn’t the size of the Xmas tree, it’s that you have one at all.

Sarah says:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HqnkVGw2Y8&feature=player_embedded

The event will be held at the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, NYC, on Sept 21st at 11 am.

your presence can make a difference.

Rachel says:

@dina adler Larry David’s real life (now ex) wife is Jewish. Cheryl Hines was just the actress he thought was funniest for the role on the show–according to an interview, her character started out as Jewish but then they thought it would be better to hew it closer to herself, since the show is mostly improvised.

Raff says:

After two curb-less years? False.

Tony M says:

I ‘third’ Corey. Brilliant indeed.

Fourth. There’s nothing like a brilliant analysis of a brilliant analyst.

This is a fun read and great character analysis.

david should do a parody show on the life of mikey weiner aka michael savage

Robert says:

Who is RACHEL SHUKERT and where can I read more of her stuff? The sentence “David’s comic pose is less that of the anxious assimilationist eager to fit in than that of the clueless greenhorn making his way in a world to which he’s not sure he cares to belong.” is inspired writing.

Proof you can fall in love with a writer with just one sentence. Great piece.

Kat P says:

Robert–Rachel Shukert is awesome!! One of my absolute favorite young writers. Her two books are two of my top picks from the last couple of years…”Everything Is Going To Be Great” and “Have You No Shame.” You should check them out. And she writes a lot here for Tablet as well, and other places I think.

Mark says:

Larry wasn’t upset over leaving extra for a tip because of the servers greediness…he refused to leave it because he didn’t feel like doing the math of adding another 2% after the waiter added 18% for gratutity to the bil. As he said, “Make it 20%, make it 25%, I don’t care.”

paul says:

no, larry did have a montage of good times with cheryl when she first left

John says:

Rachel, you’re spot on with LD. However, your attempt to put in as many bombastic phrases as possible would have LD saying “who does she think she is? Oh yeah she’s such an intellectual…”. CYE is what it is, entertainment—period. Let’s not turn it into a pseudo-intellectual smorgasbord lol.

What a great piece; nice job Rachael. You totally “get” Larry David.

david says:

Agreed that Larry David’s character Larry David knows who he is. But the premise of the show, from the start, is his un-comfortabilty with Los Angeles and the artificiality he sees everywhere. It’s the old story of you can take the Jew out of Brooklyn but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the Jew. Fast talking, wise cracking, and calling it how he sees it, like an umpire at a Dodgers game – Brooklyn Dodgers, please. So, yes Larry isn’t the classic nebbish like Woody Allen but a schlemiel, yes, in the sense of the Yiddish character Hershele Ostropoiler, who would get into trouble and had to squirm and make us squeamish as he tried to get out of it.

James philadelphia says:

He can be all of those things and more. He is a billionaire and going strong. I never liked that kind of person. A whinner. And that voice that comes out of his nose. Funny he has more money than Woody Allen who has more class. But life is not fair. There is an audience to every taste. I do not have HBO, I only follow the missteps of BHO and his food conscious other half. And it is so free, and more comical at that.

Larry,
Larry was the same 42 years ago. My brother and a freind who introduced Larry to Jerry Seinfeld in New York was in his University of Maryland TEP fraternity when Larry was pledge master. Back then his arrgogance was already well established along with his insufferability as a human.
Mike Fox

Larry,
Larry was the same 42 years ago. My brother and a freind who introduced Larry to Jerry Seinfeld in New York was in his University of Maryland TEP fraternity when Larry was pledge master. Back then his arrgogance was already well established along with his insufferability as a human.
Mike Fox

RACHEL B says:

This is the most obnoxious, pretentious, absolute worst writing I’ve read in a long time.

Here’s why:

“I’ve never met the man. (If I ever did, we either would circle each other silently in a moonlit forest clearing before gently pressing our foreheads together like unicorns performing a mating rite, or within five minutes each lie dead by the other’s hand.)”

What. The. Crap.

Great article. I just found this site yesterday! very interesting, high quality content ! Love “curb..”. the second episode of this new season was hilarious.

Steven says:

Really good article, up till the last sentence, which was a strange, gratuitous insult of my ( Jewish) religion. It really had nothing to do with the rest of the piece. No one could write something like that about any other religion (even if were one’s own) on a website like this one without an editor stepping in with the red pen, but it’s resulted in no objection in any of the comments. And also, it’s, um, not true. (If no one else will stand up for G-d, I guess I will.)

brynababy says:

Rachel B.- yes! yes! yes!

Dave2 says:

Thanks, Steven. My thoughts exactly…it was an insult to my Christian faith also. But then, nobody ever said a secular writer had to have a high opinion about G-d…even if they were jewish. Not surprising at all…

David says:

If you liked this, which I did a lot, please read this week’s Rolling Stone, with Larry David on the cover. It’s hilarious.

Lee Klein says:

You had me until the very last sentence….G_d is LOVE.

She knows him! The totally nonpretentious, transparent, boldly a man of his own right…Larry! Larry I miss you from MySpace of years back. And I bet you miss my challah too! I hope your read this article…for grins,laughs and enjoyment.

Ronen says:

What a brilliant essay! Glad I found it.

Le Newyorkais says:

You r right. Larry David, the character at least, is not merely neurotic—he is a full-blown PSYCHOTIC. The man has thought and judgment disorders, not just emotional ones. In a recent episode he instructs a friend’s daughter (granted, thru a closed door) how to insert a tampon when she gets her first period. In an earlier episode, Larry tells another friend how much he admires the friend’s 7 year old son’s large penis. In another, he tells a doctor about a young girl’s rash on her vulva, but he uses the more common word for vulva.
This is NOT mere neurosis.

frank says:

Larry David, Is from a long line of people who bite the hand that feeds them. When they get in trouble for their horrible actions they cry to the world that they are being picked on. How is it that these types never look in the mirror and look into their own hearts and find that the problems they face are the result of their own doings.

Great Essay, I think this was the best season “Curb” had to date and Larry David seems to becoming a better actor with each season… he is still a nudnik but at least he is a funny nudnik

I’m typically to running a blog and i actually recognize your content. The article has actually peaks my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and maintain checking for brand spanking new information.

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Unrepentant

Larry David, the antihero of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, is particular, a prig, and constantly aggrieved. But he’s fine with that—which is why, contrary to type, he’s not at all neurotic.

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