Navigate to News section

What Larry David Can Teach Us About Donald Sterling

How to talk provocatively about race without being a racist

Rachel Shukert
May 02, 2014

Have you gotten around to listening to that tape of the disgraced Donald Sterling, the (by-now, former) owner of the Los Angeles Clippers yet? I finally did, and while like the rest of the world, I was appalled by the open bigotry—not to mention inherent sexism—of his repellent statements about African-Americans to his (by-now, former) girlfriend V. Stiviano, I was also shocked by how, well, senile he sounded. His voice was frail. His sentences didn’t quite string together. I’m relieved no one had a recording device on their cell-phone back when my Alzheimer’s-ridden bubbe used to watch the Cosby Show with the sound turned off.

Sterling’s tirade has, predictably, prompted a host of commentary, some of it inspired (see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s piece in Time), some of it just tired. I’ve sifted through much of it for you, and I’ve found the best response here, in Adult Swim’s genius insertion of the now-infamous audio into a classic exchange between George Costanza and his faceless and irascible boss George Steinbrenner on Seinfeld.

It’s obviously hilarious (not to mention the only way to listen to the whole tape all the way through without wanting to kill yourself) but it also makes me think about George Costanza’s alter-ego Larry David, and how he, virtually alone among comics of his generation, has been willing to dive headfirst into questions of race. Say what you like about the relative lily-whiteness of Seinfeld, on Curb Your Enthusiasm, David has fearlessly mined the politics of race, and specifically, the lack of comfort Americans have with addressing it, to near-constant and triumphant effect. The doctor who mistakenly thinks Larry calls him the N-word, the housekeeper who doesn’t wear a bra, Wandering Bear and his homeopathic remedies for Cheryl’s spasming vagina, the Palestianian chicken restaurant, the glorious creation that is Leon Black (and Leon’s subsequent double-triple-quadruple layered masquerade as the “Groat’s-disease”-afflicted “Danny Duberstein,” disguised as a Jew by way of the Nation of Islam): the list goes on and on. David’s total lack of inhibition at being perceived as unlikeable, his willingness to wade into offensive waters, have produced one of the most diverse, un-patronizing, and racially fearless shows on television, without ever actually causing a storm of outrage or offense.

It’s like I always say: the best way to not have people call you a racist is to actually not be a racist.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.