Early last year I started watching the HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Several long-time fans of the show finally convinced me to give the series a spin after years of praising it to the heavens. For those uninitiated: the show’s producer, Larry David (the co-creator of Seinfeld), also stars in the series and plays himself—a neurotic, obsessive-compulsive and socially awkward Jewish comedian and producer living in Los Angeles who gets into all sorts of trouble for the inappropriate things he says and does.
I wasn’t that attracted to Curb at first. It’s an unusual sort of sit-com with a strange, vacuous, molasses-slow feel. It’s not made in a studio. It doesn’t move at a clip. Nor does it use an audience or employ laugh tracks. It’s shot reality-show style with lots of camera shake and with the actors often semi-improvising their dialogue—a lot of which is plain silly, or slapstick in nature. By way of Larry’s numerous gaffes and blunders, the series pokes fun at nearly every social, ethnic and professional grouping in society, including some to which Larry belongs: from his co-religionists, to Hollywood actors, to entertainment producers, and the moneyed classes of L.A. No one is spared. The scenes are often awkward and cringeworthy.
Yet, over time I’ve discovered that Curb‘s irreverent and politically incorrect humour makes for some of the best comedy out there. The show is a deep breath of fresh air and I’m unapologetically hooked. Two decades of seasons now running in the double-digits is testament to its continued popularity. At one level Curb Your Enthusiasm is a satire about “political incorrectness,” which uses our own deeply conditioned and nervous reactions to it to fuel our laughter as an audience. Humour, an age-old form of political subversion, has always been the bane of dogmatists and demagogues everywhere.
And yet most people who appreciate the series are also aware that it lives, at least theoretically, on a knife’s edge. There is a recurring refrain I hear among nearly all Curb aficionados who at some point in the conversation always say: “Larry David gets away with murder.” That comment is seldom not followed by, “I have no idea know how he pulls it off.” Apparently, Larry David still doesn’t know either.
Indeed, given the extent of blinkered and ideological thinking run amok nowadays, why Larry David doesn’t find himself embroiled in controversy, or even cancelled over the humour in his shows, ranks as one of greatest unsolved mysteries out there. Only such questions as the fate of Jimmy Hoffa and the construction methods of the Giza pyramids place higher.
And yet, I think I’ve come up with something approximating an answer—or rather an answer in multiple parts—that could finally put this daunting riddle to rest. I’ll start with the simpler and more mundane quotient of the explanation first.
One answer may be that the show is simply not appealing or popular enough across the board to draw in a critical mass of detractors. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a niche, cult-comedy series hidden behind the CRAVE/HBO paywall that speaks to people who appreciate a certain brand of humour (think Mel Brooks jokes, but a slightly broader appeal). Those not prone to becoming outraged won’t go anywhere near it in the first place. Perhaps, because of this, the show isn’t discussed enough among the chattering classes for some of those conversations to go viral. The fact that Larry David isn’t online playing the Twitter game definitely helps in that sense. Thus he and Curb may just lack the requisite “stickiness” as a topic.
That explanation may illuminate part of it, but alone doesn’t entirely wash given the show has been running for so long and all you need is a few troublemakers online to start an avalanche of scandal. It seems too lucky. There has to be something else at play.
Instead, I believe the main answer lies in psychology. Two elucidations stand out, after much thought on the matter, both of which overlap. I’ll start with the first:
People don’t try to cancel Larry David because he’s likely not considered by most people to be a sufficiently worthwhile target. Let me explain.
In his book The Status Game, British author and journalist Will Storr writes that much social media behaviour, including attempts to cancel others online, is driven largely by status motivations. People who virtue signal by calling out other people online are not only trying to score points to elevate their own status, but they are also working to take down people they deem to hold too much status. Other social psychologists, like Jonathan Haidt, have argued similar things. This is evolved primate behaviour seen in more than one species, including humans, whereby group members often combine forces to knock down leaders who become too big for their britches.
It’s true that Larry David is a very big celebrity and a high-status guy in real life. But on the show, in which he plays himself, his alter ego is profoundly self-deprecating and he comes off as a kind of a loser who’s always getting into trouble with family, friends, colleagues and strangers. The show, I suspect, may inadvertently create the illusion that Larry David himself is a low status guy in real life who stands on no serious pedestal from which he can be knocked off. His goofiness may make him difficult for anyone to take seriously enough.
And this relates to what I suspect is the main reason we don’t see more people go after him: Larry, who again, plays himself, suffers serious consequences in each episode for the politically incorrect things he says and does.
Other people attack him, yell at him, get angry with him, or lash out at him for his faux pas. He loses money, opportunities, and jobs as a result. This again possibly creates the illusion in the mind of viewers that the real-life Larry David, by way of the alter ego, has received his just punishment—and doesn’t require further berating.
In other words: Larry getting in trouble on the show might also deactivate, or discharge, peoples’ bloodlust to try and cancel the real life guy.
The late Idries Shah, a writer and thinker whose work has influenced some of our understandings of human behaviour, and who wrote many books about the traditional psychologies of the East, illustrated a similar phenomenon in his book Knowing How to Know.
Shah described being at a press conference in London, where an unpopular businessman accused of improprieties was about to address a group of journalists who were intent on grilling him. Before the businessman arrived at the venue, a bystander loitering among the journalists began to viciously harangue the tycoon in his absence. The rabble rouser attacked him at such length, and with such conviction, that some of the reporters began to feel uncomfortable—even though they themselves had intended to do the same thing.
When the businessman finally arrived at the presser, the journalists, whose bloodlust and emotional excitement were discharged by the bystander’s raving attacks, treated him kindly and fairly. Their write-ups and media coverage later also demonstrated fair-handedness.
Similar dynamics might have protected Larry David from the sorts of criticism and cancellation that have plagued other less fortunate entertainers, who weren’t deserving of that fate.