Comedy writers Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer and David Mandel began working with Larry David on Seinfeld, and rejoined him on Curb Your Enthusiasm beginning with season five. The trio (who also co-wrote the underrated teen comedy Eurotrip) feared David at first, but have come to love both the man and his fearless approach to comedy. “There aren’t a lot of comedians that would commit to having a pubic hair stuck in their throat for 30 minutes,” says Berg. “It’s a pretty audacious thing to play.” Brian Hiatt spoke with the writers about their long history with David, whether he’s changed since the Seinfeld days and how he’s handled the divorce.
Was there already kind of a legend of Larry David from when you started working at Seinfeld? Did you have a big sense of him?
Jeff Schaffer: Oh my God. You have to understand for us, we watched the show in college.
Alec Berg: So we’re fans first.
Sure…It’s like joining the Beatles.
JS: Yeah. The first time you’re going to go in and pitch ideas to Larry and Jerry, you walk into their office and it’s just like we shot in Curb. There are two desks – foot to foot so they’ve got their legs up and stuff – and you’ve got Jerry sort of just giving you this stare, this concentrated focus stare, and Larry is looking at you rolling a penny in that little space pen, just with this look of disgust and you haven’t said anything yet. Then it’s like, “All right! Funny.” So you start pitching your winners.
David Mandel: His default position is no.
JS: God help him if you tried to pitch him something like on the stage, because there were a lot of times when you were in the middle of pitching something and he would lose interest and turn and walk away.
AB: It wasn’t a yes. It wasn’t a no, it was just a walk. Just, I’m walking. We were the beneficiaries of this bubble that Larry created by bluster and his comedic principles. We got there and there was never any issue with the network. It was just trying to make Larry and Jerry happy and all Larry and Jerry cared about was the funniest show. Everyone was only focused on making the best show.
DM: This carried through to Curb.
And that’s how you end up with this season’s “Palestinian Chicken,” which is one of the most outrageous episodes ever.
DM: But the beauty of Palestinian Chicken is there’s literally no other show and no other person that would ever do. No one else is gonna tackle those kind of concepts. No one’s gonna turn building a mosque down by Freedom Tower into a comedy idea and yet you know it’s a situation where we can kind of talk about that idea and that’s why Larry’s thrilled to hear it and embrace it.
So this sort of fearsome persona from the Seinfeld days, that was a put-on?
AB: No, I don’t think so. I mean, just like his character on the show, he does not suffer fools, particularly ones that are fucking with his creative process. Well, I think he definitely screamed at a lot of people.
Did you have to prove yourself to be non-fools? Was that the process?
DM: At the end of the day, it’s not some maze you have to figure out. It’s do the work, make me laugh. And it’s shocking to that that is somehow a guiding principle to make comedy. “Oh, just be funny?” Because some of the other shows are about so many things other than comedy. I think where Larry was really smart was he just never wanted anyone sending him spec scripts so he just said, “There are no scripts, we’re going to improv it.”
AB: He improvs like he writes. He’s not just standing there saying funny lines. Everything that happens in those scenes that’s funny is generally funny because the things happening are going from one place to the next, to the next. It’s not just seven variants of this joke. He’s hovering over it as the writer and moving it along.
JS: He has a very good sense of knowing how to play two things. He’s the guy that’s done this thing to you. But he’s also the guy, we call him, the “one who speaks for those who have no voice.” The one who’s going to actually say, “These are injustices, these are social injustices. These will not stand.” And he knows how to swing from one to the other, amazingly, sometimes in the same scene. And that’s what makes the show. He’s dealing with actual issues and he can flop from side to side, depending on what’s funny.
AB: He’s also willing to be that when you’re watching at home and you go, “Oh my god, I can’t believe he’s doing that. I can’t believe he stole that from the grave. I can’t believe he reached into a coffin.” And there are people that either love the show, or hate the show. And if you go “why do you hate the show?” It’s like, “I’m so uncomfortable, I can’t watch it.”
JS: It’s a comedy horror movie. “Don’t go in there! Don’t say that! Don’t do that!”
AB: There aren’t a lot of comedians I think that would commit to having a pubic hair stuck in their throat for 30 minutes. It’s a pretty audacious thing to play.
It occurred to me that he may have saw part of the shape of comedy of the last decade, which is – because all the Apatow stuff incorporated so much improvisation – like a way to move forward from what had been, making it more natural.
DM: Obviously I can’t put words in Judd’s mouth, but I think if you called him he’d be the first to say Curb is an influence. I honestly do believe that. I think Curb is one of those shows that certainly is admired, across the board, by anyone you would consider to be a big name comedians and what not.
AB: The morality in the world of Seinfeld and in Curb is sort of the polar opposite of [traditional sitcoms]. People behave the way they actually behave. They do something bad, and when they get caught they lie about it, and they try to cover it up by doing something else that’s worse. And eventually they get discovered, and instead of apologizing, they get fucked for it, and the episode always ends with him getting screwed. There’s never a big, happy, “Yay, I’m a better person now!” It’s always, “Ehh, Fuck.”
I talked to all these people who knew Larry in the Eighties, stand-up days, talking about how he’s changed since then. Do you think he’s changed since the mid Nineties?
AB: I don’t feel like he’s changed one bit.
DM: I don’t feel like he’s changed, I don’t feel like he’s aged, I don’t feel like he’s gotten satisfied with where he is, I don’t feel like he’s ever stopped striving and reaching and suffering through every show.
AB: I don’t think like he’s gotten complacent and I don’t think he’s gotten philosophical, at all. He’s exactly the same guy.
JS: He seems a little happier, though, since the divorce.
DM: When we shot [in NYC] last summer, people would come up to us, just seeing us being involved, and literally old ladies would go, “Thank you for bringing him back to New York.” It was like the pope was visiting!
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