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“Every relationship is just so tenuous,” David says. “One tiny miscommunication or mistake and it could be all over.”
David had a reputation as a comic’s comic—“which means I sucked,” he likes to say. His material was uncompromisingly to his own taste, filled with wild tirades about apparent trivialities. In one routine, he went on at length about the use of the familiar “you” in foreign languages (“Caesar used the tu form with Brutus even after Brutus stabbed him, which I think is going too far”). He imagined himself as a professional masturbator so talented that people stopped him on the street to ask for advice (“You must practice!”). He wondered how answering machines might have changed the Old West. (For one thing, you could get out of joining a dangerous posse by screening your calls.)
David’s onstage manner was almost willfully uningratiating. He was intense and bespectacled, and often wore an old Army jacket. He had started going bald at thirty, and by his early forties “the hair was a combination of Bozo and Einstein,” the comedian Richard Lewis says. David and Lewis, who were born three days apart, originally met at Camp All America, in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, when they were thirteen. They disliked each other immediately. A dozen years later, they met again, at the bar of the Improv, a comedy club in Manhattan, and became close friends. “Talk about walking to the beat of your own drum,” Lewis says of David. “I mean, this guy was born in a snare drum.”
Club audiences were puzzled by David, or, worse, indifferent to him. The managers who occasionally took him on invariably recommended that he make his material more accessible. He found new managers. “I was not for everyone,” Larry David said, laughing, when I met him last October. “I was for very few.” He was sitting at his big desk in the Santa Monica offices of Larry David Productions, the company behind “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the half-hour cinéma-vérité situation comedy on HBO.
Contrary to the cliché that comedians are stingy about giving out what they most ardently seek, Larry David is a surprisingly easy laugh. He has several laughs, ranging from a brief, wry exhalation that reveals what Shelley Berman (who plays David’s father on “Curb”) calls his “wondrously perfect teeth,” with their pronounced canines, to an uninhibited guffaw. Perhaps David’s most striking laugh, however, is a snort that is exactly like the one Jason Alexander made famous when he played “Seinfeld” ’s George Costanza—a character who, David claims, is largely based on himself.
The similarities between prototype and character are not instantly apparent. David has a lanky, wiry build and an athletic, slightly bowlegged walk. His cranium is long and sleek, surrounded by a fringe of curly whitish hair that is neatly trimmed, except for rampant sideburns. The afternoon we met, he wore what was evidently a customary outfit, in a style that I came to think of as comedy-tycoon casual: a navy-blue shirt jacket, a medium-blue zipper-neck shirt, khakis, white socks, and dingy beige Pumas.
On “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” David’s character is a semi-retired sitcom mogul who ambles through his inordinately comfortable life, routinely managing to annoy or infuriate everyone around him. This season, some of those people will include the blind, the physically handicapped, and the mentally challenged, making the show even edgier than before.
David, who, in 1988, co-created “Seinfeld,” is said to have earned more than two hundred million dollars from that show’s syndication revenues. His comedy style has remained argumentative, abrasive, and occasionally alienating, and some people claim that he has outgrown the circumstances that might have justified such a stance. Writing in The New Republic last year, Lee Siegel said, “David’s anger . . . is merely the anger of frustrated entitlement. [He] has perfected Seinfeld’s superior, uninviting stare into a cold, cruel sneer. The reason that so many people like it is that they want it to like them.” And amid the rapturous postings about “Curb” on HBO’s Web site (“the best show to hit tv in a long time”; “Larry David is the funniest, most brilliant, and most talented man on television, or possibly in entertainment”) lie voices of dissent: “Please retire this tedious program . . . a bunch of screaming jews apparently ad-libbing it is not funny.”
“It has to do with Brooklyn,” David said of his humor. “It has to do—I think—with growing up in an apartment, with my aunt and my cousins right next door to me, with the door open, with neighbors walking in and out, with people yelling at each other all the time.”
Born in 1947, the younger of two sons of a clothing salesman and a housewife, David had “a wonderful childhood,” he has said, adding, “Which is tough, because it’s hard to adjust to a miserable adulthood.” He hated the sixties. “Drugs scared me,” he said, in his hoarse tenor, with its mildly staccato rhythm. “And I couldn’t even fake my way into the sex. God knows I tried. The women were living in the sixties for everybody else, but for me they were not even in the fifties—I’d say the forties. The clothing just totally offended me. All I saw was a lot of conformity.”
After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1970, with a degree in history, he had no idea what his next step might be. “My standard response when people would ask me ‘What are you gonna do when you get out?’ was ‘Ah, somethin’ll turn up.’ ”
He moved back home to Brooklyn and got a job with a bra wholesaler in Manhattan. “The bras were seconds, actually—they were defective bras,” he said. “And that didn’t last very long. So it was this pattern of getting a job, then going on unemployment for a while. I had a job as a paralegal. I drove a cab. Until I started doing standup, there were some very bleak days. I was a private chauffeur, driving my limousine, wearing the uniform. I’m twenty-five years old. This is what I’m doing for a living. And”—he laughed, not quite happily—“wearing a uniform, outside, waiting for her while she’s shopping on Third Avenue. Seeing a guy from college walk down the street, stop in his tracks, stare at me agog in this uniform, not knowing what to do or say, you know.” His voice trailed off for a moment. “That was pretty embarrassing,” he said.
In a “Seinfeld” episode that Larry David wrote, the unemployed George Costanza is forced to move back in with his parents and endure his mother’s suggestion that he consider a career as a mailman. The scenario was apparently drawn from life. “That would’ve been my mother’s dream for me,” David said. “Take a civil-service test, work in the post office.”
Eventually, David found his way to an acting class in Manhattan. Acting made him ill at ease, but during one exercise—in which each student was supposed to pick a monologue from a play and reinterpret it—he got a surprise. “As I started putting it in my own words, everybody in the class laughed,” David said. “And I thought, Hey—that’s for me. That’s what I want. I want a laugh.”
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James Kaplan was born in New York City and grew up in rural Pennsylvania and suburban New Jersey. He matriculated at New York University and graduated from Wesleyan University in 1973 with a degree in studio art. After graduation, Kaplan studied painting at the New York Studio School in Greenwich Village.
In the mid-1970s, he worked as a typist at The New Yorker Magazine, where he came under the tutelage of the writer and editor Wiklliam Maxwell. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he published a number of short stories in The New Yorker. In the mid-1980s, Kaplan worked for several years as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers. Since the late 1980s, he has been a writer of magazine profiles for Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, and The New Yorker, among others.