April 23, 2024

And it’s precisely that formulaic shape, that
perfection of design, that’s allowed Curb to
become great. Specifically, it’s allowed the show to become an institution.
Larry’s counterintuitively sprawling in-universe friend group, paired with the
intensely repetitive structure of each episode and season, has allowed dozens of
actors to move in and out of the series, to stay for a moment or to never
leave. Curb’s
official meanness of spirit gave way to a tremendous generosity of design in TV
comedy. This show about an abrasive prick also turns out to be a show about a
sprawling, gregarious community of friends and rivals. As in all of HBO’s greatest
hits from The Sopranos to Game of
Thrones
, every new face you meet
might break your heart or piss you off.  

If SNL has
been an institution that nurtures young talent, Curb has
been an institution that provides a home—permanent or passing—for old talent.
Comedians and actors who no longer have their own popular vehicles, are between
projects, or perhaps never had one that was worthy of them, have thrived in
Larry’s system. Susie Essman, J.B. Smoove, Ted Danson, Jason Alexander, Bob
Einstein, Wanda Sykes, Jon Hamm, Michael J. Fox, Annie Mumulo—all of these
talents got a spotlight on Curb when
they were without spotlights elsewhere. A friend recently pointed out how
incredibly well the show integrates famous people playing thinly-fictionalized
versions of themselves and famous actors playing entirely new characters. Think
of how many of the loving memorial clips of Richard Lewis that circulated
online after his passing
this year were clips from Curb, Lewis playing
himself brilliantly. And think, on the other hand, of Tracey Ullman, long one
of the most ingenious and respected comics in the world, creating a bespoke
human being for her friend Larry David. Her Irma Kostroski—introduced last
season and carried over into this one—is a tour de force, not just a funny
voice, but a layered symphony of awfulness. Ullman’s nearly unrecognizable, but
her character feels as real as Richard Lewis. It’s maybe the best single
performance this show has produced. Curb should
win some sort of award for just letting Tracey Ullman thrive like this. 

Curb won’t
end with the epic sweep or hard-won insights of its peers in HBO’s
turn-of-the-century gallery of antiheroes. It likely won’t shock us or reveal
any hidden truth. This show’s achievement is something it’s already handily
achieved, episode-after-episode, year-after-year. What will you think of for
the rest of your life when you hear that tuba hit?
You’ll conjure, in your mind, that unnameable, unbearable, unpredictable,
incredibly predictable feeling of being caught up in the lives of other people.
It’s a bad feeling, but that’s sometimes what it’s like to live in a society.
I’m not saying Curb Your Enthusiasm was ultimately an optimistic exercise, or even a
positive one, on balance. But Larry saw the world with something more than
cynicism, or simple annoyance. The show understood something terrible and
maddening and wonderful and true about being alive. It was a wonder. You know
what I’m saying?