Curb This, Mofo


Readers generally don't turn to The New Republic for humor; nothing in its pages suggests there's a lot of silly string fights breaking out at editorial meetings. Lee Siegel's attack on Seinfeld's and Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David reminds us that starch isn't just found at laundries and in potatoes. Siegel says:

There has been a lot of handwringing during the past thirty years over the way mainstream culture has appropriated the adversarial energies of the avant-garde. But comedy was a last bastion of lucid insanity: long after Rothko sold paintings to the Four Seasons, Lenny Bruce was still manically holding forth on stage. With Curb Your Enthusiasm, however, comedy's citadel of genuine opposition has finally been overrun, and the hilarious barbarians have been driven out by the uptight hordes. The respectable deviance created by consumerism's ever-expanding arena of appetite has devoured the comedic impulse itself. Rather than taking as his targets the Stuffed Shirt, the Self-Absorbed Sucker, and the Bully–as Chaplin once did, and the Marx Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy, and W.C. Fields, and Sid Caesar, and Woody Allen, and Bob Newhart, and Mel Brooks–David sets his sights on the little guy, the perennial target of the Stuffed Shirt, the Self-Absorbed Sucker, and the Bully. David's wit is a huge exercise in defection, a way of making the death of sympathy seem like a price worth paying for a chuckle.

Comedy used to be about the iron, the ancient Greek word for the original little guy, who appeared in classical comedy puncturing the sometimes just maddening, sometimes harmful pretensions of the big guy. It set the spiritual order right by turning the social order upside down. But Larry David has returned the social order to its upright position by standing comedy on its head. For perhaps the first time in the history of the genre, he has put comedy on the side of the big guy.

For argument's sake, let's agree that a world filled with Sid Caesar's unspeakably rotten fake-foreign-language shtick and Bob Newhart's safe-as-milk janitor-in-the-Empire-State-Building-while-King-Kong-is-climbing-it somehow represent a comedic Garden of Eden. Let's even agree with Siegel's implicit assumption that comedy, presumably like all other forms of "repsonsible" creative expression, needs always to be properly didactic and good-fer-ya–the moral equivalent of a Cross Your Heart bra.

He seems to have spectacularly missed a central point of Curb Your Enthusiasm: That Larry David is supposed to be a total fucking asshole and that the viewer's pleasure comes from watching him get screwed (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) due to his own actions. Siegel may not find that funny though clearly the show's many fans do, and he clearly has no interest in thinking through why audiences might respond to such antics (rather, he implies that fans of the show, like David himself, are somehow contemptible). But then the point of his essay seems less to illuminate contemporary humor and more to assert olde-tyme tastemaker chops.