The 'Curb' Effect: How Larry David Changed Comedy Forever - Rolling Stone
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The ‘Curb’ Effect: How Larry David Changed Comedy Forever

Everyone from Louis CK to Sacha Baron-Cohen has been influenced by him

Larry David Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld

Munawar Hosain/Fotos International/Getty

Some comedians say the things that everyone else is thinking; Larry David says the things that nobody realizes they’re allowed to think. Deep down, most people would probably prefer to quietly bow out of the grand tour of a friend’s new home, or not sing the Happy Birthday song. It takes actually seeing someone else blow off such social niceties before a person begins to question the logic of simply going along to get along. Throughout his career, Larry David has had a similar effect on his peers and his heirs – after seeing what boundaries he pushes, others begin to figure out what they too can get away with.

Here are some of the comedians, writers and TV series that have been influenced by Larry David over the years.

By Joe Berkowitz

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Louis CK

Although he’s a standup lifer, Louis CK’s meteoric rise only began six years ago, after he started experimenting with brutal honesty. When he describes the decision to eat every last cookie available at a party, just to avoid interacting with other guests, you can practically see Larry David’s fingerprints on those cookies. Even more than his standup, CK’s hit show, Louie – in which he plays a fictionalized version of himself – feels of a piece with Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Just as in Seinfeld, each episode features scenes of the comic performing in brick-wall nightclubs, and as on both shows, the occasional bits of absurdity nicely undercut the blunt social truths explored. Louis CK may be paving the way forward for a generation of comics, but the road he came in on was laid out by David.

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‘Arrested Development’

Although ignored by the mainstream when it was on the air, no sitcom of the last decade is more deeply mourned than Arrested Development (and no possible film adaption more hotly anticipated). The main reason connoisseurs connected with the show is because there was nothing else quite like it before. According to show creator Mitchell Hurwitz, the peppy pace of Seinfeld helped inspire Arrested Development’s frenetic energy. “When I was on The Golden Girls,” Hurwitz told the AV Club, “we'd have eight scenes per show. And when Seinfeld came along, they went to, like, 30 scenes a show, which was revolutionary. Arrested Development has probably got 60 scenes per show.”

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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in ‘The Trip’

The one thing that just about every Curb fan knows about the show is that it isn’t written in the traditional sense – it’s semi-scripted and partially improvised. The actors work off a rough outline of how scenes will go, and fill in the blanks with dialogue. Director Michael Winterbottom uses a similar approach in the largely improvised miniseries and film, The Trip (the miniseries came out in 2010 and the film, which was mostly footage cobbled together from the TV show, was released this year). His stars are the British comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who play fictionalized versions of themselves. The show consists solely of the duo eating meals together, making each other laugh and pissing each other off, all while bouncing off of improv actors who play their friends and family.

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Ricky Gervais

Perhaps nobody is more indebted to Larry David than Ricky Gervais. The seeds of social awkwardness on TV were planted by Seinfeld, harvested by Curb Your Enthusiasm and fully bloomed on The Office. Ricky Gervais’ series – largely influential in its own right – specialized in a certain kind of comedy that was difficult to behold at times (think: David Brent’s motivational seminar). Larry David’s train wreck encounters with social incompatibles made viewers cringe, but Ricky Gervais’s made them avoid eye contact with the screen. Later, with Extras, Gervais would take his formula further down the David rabbit hole, by setting his series in the entertainment industry and playing a semi-autobiographical role.

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‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’

One of the most innovative aspects of both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm was how these sitcoms dared to challenge viewers with characters who weren’t totally likable. Smug Jerry, abrasive George, wacky Kramer and flippant Elaine were the kind of people of whom it might be said that “a little of them goes a long way.” The creators of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia took this idea to its logical extreme, though, with irredeemable characters who seem designed to make viewers want to actively root against them. If the Larry David character is somewhat antisocial, the cast of It’s Always Sunny are unrepentant sociopaths.

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‘The Comeback’

Although Lisa Kudrow’s biting satire, The Comeback, was mostly a savage attack on reality television, the show’s lineage can be traced back to Larry David. While she didn’t exactly play herself on the show, Kudrow did play a former sitcom star desperate to get back on the air. In the wrong hands, this premise could’ve devolved into a full-blown exercise in postmodernism, or gone overly broad. Luckily, instead, the show aimed for and hit Curb-like levels of icky-funny realism as Kudrow’s character kept flailing at misguided efforts to get her career back on track.

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Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost

Before Shaun of the Dead turned the zombie genre on its head (to eat its brains), and before Hot Fuzz repositioned the police procedural, director Edgar Wright and actor/writer Simon Pegg created a series called Spaced that was ostensibly about nothing. “Seinfeld had a big influence, particularly on the second series of Spaced,” Edgar Wright said at ComicCon in 2008. “Actually the plotting of Seinfeld was very influential for us.” What Edgar probably meant by this remark was that the low-stakes storylines, pop cultural references and stylized homages from the landmark American show gave he and his collaborators a template to work off of, and boundaries they could push.

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Paul Reiser

Paul Reiser made an epic miscalculation when he attempted to make his primetime network show a direct descendent of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The premise centered around a restless comedian in his autumn years trying to figure out the next phase of his life after scaling the high heights of “being Paul Reiser in 1993” and coming down the other side. The series lasted two episodes – one of which featured Larry David in a guest role, in case the connection wasn’t clear. If anything, the failure of this show proved that the success of Curb Your Enthusiasm is based on substance rather than formula.

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It may not seem like it on the surface, but Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm – both HBO series – have more in common than one might think. Both shows are about the ongoing relationships among their creators, the people who depend on them and Hollywood. Both have a rotating parade of guest stars, usually playing themselves. And although Vinnie Chase is probably more distant a stand-in for Mark Wahlberg than “Larry David” is for Larry David, both characters spend a whole lot of time hanging out with their managers. One of the big differences between the two shows, though, is that Curb made it on the air four years before Entourage.

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Mark and Jay Duplass

Another one of Seinfeld’s breakthroughs was its deep focus on minutia. Rather than spending time on life’s larger mysteries, the show was content to let Kramer puzzle over just who would want a license plate that reads ASS MAN. Questions of this magnitude are a stock in trade for filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass, although they’ve gradually gotten more curious over time. The brothers’ body of work used to be confined to the mumblecore subgenre, in which not a lot happens. With 2010’s Cyrus, though, they hit the cringe-comedy sweet spot, broadening the appeal for (slightly) wider audiences. Hopefully as their budgets and mainstream appeal increase, the brothers will maintain the balance between uncomfortable and funny, and continue to split hairs and ask the small questions.

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‘Lead Balloon’

Although The Trip certainly owes some of its flavor to Larry David’s show, Lead Balloon actually is the British Curb Your Enthusiasm. On the hit Brit-com, curmudgeonly comedian Jack Dee plays a curmudgeonly comedian who’s barely able to navigate his way from one terrific embarrassment to the next. Along the way he experiences excruciating social situations inside and outside of the entertainment industry. All that’s missing is Richard Lewis or Marty Funkhauser, and you’ve got Curb Euro Enthusiasm.

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Sacha Baron-Cohen’s uber-foreigner, Borat, and Larry David share more than just a director in Larry Charles. Both have a tendency toward off-putting miscommunication through improvised exchanges. One major difference between Borat and Larry David’s character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, though, is that Borat’s interactions are meant to expose other people’s prejudices, while David’s tend to bring out his own. In addition to prejudices, both shows work to deconstruct our dependence on modern manners. While Larry actively bucks against absurd social norms on his show, Borat has no awareness of them in the first place. Ultimately both characters strive to be decent and generous people, although typically their efforts backfire in some unfortunate way.

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