Is Larry David a member of the British royal family? When Harry and Meghan sat down for their now fabled chat with the individual who expressed such interest in their unborn baby’s skin colour, were they sitting opposite a bald, bespectacled Jew in sneakers? I pose the scenario because Larry—or at least his fictionalised self—has a certain amount of form in this department. In the season 10 finale of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, he asks a mixed race couple expecting a child whether they have “thought about the skin colour at all.” After the initial shock, it takes almost no prodding for the couple’s racial preferences to surface: the black father wants a slightly darker baby, the white mother wants a baby “on the lighter side.”
Since, sadly, few comic geniuses have ever stalked the halls of Buckingham Palace, it is highly unlikely that the unnamed royal was curious about young Archie’s melanin levels for purely satirical reasons. It is far more likely that antediluvian concerns about the maintenance of racial purity were uppermost in his or her mind. Humans are largely dull and predictable creatures and our motivations are often eminently guessable. Often, that is all to the good, as it enables us to spot and avoid the bigot and the boor. But our predictability also robs us of our ironic, anarchic edge and gives endless encouragement to moralistic Twitter pile-ons and other woke overreactions. It is no accident that that old saying—if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might be a duck—was popularised by prominent McCarthyites. Obviousness is the witchfinder’s friend.
But Larry David is no duck. If we had 5% more Larry Davids in this world, life would not only be more colourful and mercurial, it would severely dent the efficiency of woke outrage—because the motivations of Larry David are not reducible to simple guesswork. They arise not from some template of prejudicial behaviour, but from his own context. He creates his own, non-reproducible hurricane of context wherever he goes. As we all do, of course, but Larry’s context is chaotically, hilariously provocative.
It was probably not part of the original pitch to HBO, but Curb Your Enthusiasm has spent two decades doing its intellectual best to problematise microaggression theory. Larry is often portrayed as just another comedic misanthrope. When microaggressions became a thing, it was inevitable that he would be seen viewed as one of the chief culprits. Larry David “is always offending someone with his colossal insensitivity,” according to a 2007 article entitled “Acts of Microaggression.” Years later the same tired old charge is still being levelled. Here’s a review of Curb’s most recent season, which had the #MeToo movement as a running theme:
he’s crueler than ever, unwilling to relent and unlikely to change … we have a freewheelin’ jerkstore who’s willing to mansplain to pregnant mothers, call out opportunistic interracial couples, hideously make fun of his ailing ex-wife, and question someone’s personal tattoos … Larry is such a beacon of problematic tendencies. He’s a melting pot of unpredictable micro-aggressions.
But such critics misunderstand the term they are brandishing so cavalierly. “People who engage in microaggressions,” states Derald W. Sue, “are ordinary folks who experience themselves as good, moral, decent individuals. Microaggressions occur because they are outside the level of conscious awareness of the perpetrator.” This does not fit David’s profile, to put it mildly, so it is clear we have to venture beyond this concept to determine the precise nature of Larry’s deviations from normative behaviour. But first we have to dive a little deeper into why the microaggression profile is such a bad fit.
Larry David is not ordinary. Neither is he good, moral or decent. He is cowardly, mendacious, lazy, antisocial, devious, spiteful and scheming. His views on abandoning people who are terminally ill are funny in the context of a chummy poker game—and when the terminal illness in question is his own prospective cancer—but genuinely unsettling—although admittedly still funny—when he goes to outlandish lengths to avoid looking after Loretta Black. Yet Larry never professes to be good, moral or decent. For all his rampant selfishness, he has an admirable lack of amour propre. Accused of being a “self-loathing Jew” when he whistles a few bars of Wagner, he retorts “Hey, I may loathe myself, but it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m Jewish.” This is not a man who thinks of himself as virtuous or even passably acceptable.
As for conscious awareness, most of the time, when Larry says something offensive, he is acutely conscious of what he is doing. He may not always know for sure that he is being offensive, but he is generally fully aware that what he is saying could be offensive. “Ah, I took a risk,” replies Larry, in a soft and matter-of-fact tone, to those aghast that he would comment upon the hefty girth of a boy’s penis to the boy’s own father. He takes conscious risks all the time because he is a social transgressive.
He is only truly happy kicking against the pricks (girthy and otherwise). He is sullen and bitter on those many social occasions when, as a wealthy showbusiness name, he is expected to play his genial part; yet he is warmth and charm personified when sharing the company of those usually ignored or marginalised by the upper reaches of society (when a couple of business associates spot him having lunch with a group of mentally handicapped car washers and a woman in full burka, they simply cannot compute what they are seeing).
With the exception of that one episode in which he makes an ill-advised joke about affirmative action, Larry has an abidingly affectionate relationship with African Americans. It’s not liberal pandering, it’s a wholly uncynical fondness. It is not simply that he opens up his home, post-Katrina, to the black family (that, after all, was done at Cheryl’s instigation), it is that the closest he ever gets to goofy domestic bliss is life with Loretta, Auntie Rae and the kids. Then there’s Leon. Larry is fascinated by Leon’s fearless capacity to extract those small victories from society that always seem to elude him. And then there’s Wanda. He peppers the increasingly exasperated Ms Sykes with questions because he genuinely wants to better engage with people of colour. Larry is so far beyond the timid niceties of his immediate society—an affluent strata of society into which the goldmine of Seinfeld syndication thrust him—that the poisonous thorn in the side of the American dream is to him a nourishing root.
Admittedly, Larry David is hardly a self-sacrificing tribune of the poor and dispossessed. He plays golf at a posh country club and eats at expensive restaurants, but what with bringing food to waiting chauffeurs and giving comfort breaks to menial workers, he remains the champion of the little guy—not because of any Fanonist ideology, but because he believes society should run according to a number of eternally valid laws: laws that bring order, justice and harmony to the universe (and don’t necessarily favour gratuity-seeking waiters over bladder-strained shoeshines); laws that, above all else, supersede the moeurs of the day. Forget your poets, Mr Shelley, Larry David is the unacknowledged legislator of the world.
Our hero regularly cites the golden rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you), and philosopher Justin Kitchen is doubtless right that, as an ethicist, Larry is hopelessly inconsistent. But Larry’s laws extend into every area of human activity (or at least its leisured Brentwood and Santa Monica variants): tipping, queuing, dating, parking, driving, dressing, arriving at parties, departing from parties, trick or treating, respecting wood. No lord of misrule, he simply wants the world to run as it damn well should. Larry’s last words before he dies (for a while) is: “I have a system.” His unravelling mind is referring to DVD covers, but it could be any number of life’s tormenting minutiae. Because of his idiosyncratic love of order and rules, he is one of humanity’s great codifiers. He wants to stop ex-lovers talking about his sexual peculiarities behind his back, so he asks his girlfriend Bridget to sign a sexual non-disclosure agreement, quickly losing her in the process. Later in the episode, you see that he was right to be concerned, when Bridget refers to him as “Larry Longballs” while watching TV with a girl pal. And the show they are watching is Judge Judy, on which Larry is appearing as plaintiff in a case involving a disputed Ficus plant. Recourse to the law is indispensable for the great man. Edmund Burke may have thought that manners are more important than laws, but the life and struggles of Lawrence Gene David attest that laws are more important than manners, or at least more important than moeurs. “Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” runs the famous legal maxim. It is also something of a Larryism.
But the most striking legal setting occurs in the season 9 episode “Never Wait for Seconds!,” in which Larry is brought before a tribunal of muftis in a bid to have his fatwa for insulting the Ayatollah lifted. Arguing on behalf of the defendant is the mysterious Morsi, whom Larry rescued from a baying mob. Our hero intervened in order to enforce one of his beloved social ordinances: that no one should have to queue twice in the buffet line. It is interpreted as an act of personal kindness by Morsi, who then reasons that this man—whom he was prepared to slaughter only moments before his ill-fated trip to snaffle more potatoes—is deserving of deeper, more unprejudiced investigation. So, in a beautiful conceit of call-back cameos, Morsi interviews a selection of those whom Larry has offended in past seasons. He is astonished to find that Larry’s life is replete with kindnesses. Or at least those sins he has committed are, more often than not, fully justified. The sequence shows us that the ostensible crimes of a person can appear almost as virtues if looked at in their proper context. In this sense, Morsi is the opposite of those woke inquisitors who surgically remove context. One of the crucial contexts that Morsi discovers is that Larry has the misfortune to meet many “freewheelin’ jerkstores” as bad or worse than himself. Shrill, censorious, moralistic, unreasonable, venal. Larry is not so much “a beacon of problematic tendencies” as a magnet for pricks and shmohawks (whether they are behind a wheel or not).
Larry David is an unpredictable melting pot, sure, but the pot is a steaming broil of microkindness, not microaggression. Like you and me, Larry is a flawed human being, but unlike you and me, he never pretends to be anything but. And what is genuinely outside the level of his conscious awareness are those many acts of wanton kindness he commits. To him, he is merely enforcing the governing edicts of a godless universe. But those who take the time to explore the context of his trail of destruction know otherwise. He is a sweet old guy and only inadvertently an “Asshole and Swan Killer.” Only a proper understanding of context truly redeems him. That’s the only thing that will redeem any of us. Perhaps what we really need is not 5% more Larrys, but 95% more Morsis.
Curb Your Enthusiasm occupies a curious position in the culture wars. It is perceived as anti-woke and yet it never seems to incur much gnashing of teeth on social media. In an increasingly prim cultural environment, the show continues to get away with being deliriously irreverent on many of the hot button issues of the day. It has seemingly built up enough immunity to protect it from even the most virulent strains of today’s call-out culture. As Ben Allen writes in GQ: “Former icons such as Dave Chappelle, Jerry Seinfeld and Ricky Gervais have all come under intense scrutiny. But there’s one man who seems impervious to harm: Larry David … What is his secret?”
The secret is that the creators of Curb Your Enthusiasm don’t take a deliberately antagonistic stance towards woke. They show it respect by recognising that they share an intellectual lineage: postmodernity. Where the woke critic is the earnest older brother or sister in whom a lifetime spent deconstructing and reconstructing language has led, rather lamentably, to the cul de sac of the Twitter hashtag, Larry David (the real Larry David) is the playful, puckish younger sibling who has spent his lifetime mucking about with much of the same postmodern toolkit. And it has led him, and us, to two glorious decades of television. Before it became waylaid into cultural politics, postmodernity was an aesthetic phenomenon and the artists still seem to be having the most fun with it. Curb is a quodlibet, a ludibrium, a meta-humorous house of games in which anxieties about microaggression can be twisted on their heads to pay ironic homage to a litigant clown of microkindness; in which context is hidden from view by sleight of hand only to be miraculously flaunted like a rabbit in a magic trick; in which the act of simply saying sorry is obsessively picked apart and the act of shouting the C-word can ruin a poker night but rescue a restaurant; in which group identity (in Larry’s case, of the Jewish diaspora) can be indeterminately compromised by great chicken (and great sex) with Palestinians; and in which agonised concerns about separating art from the artist are triumphantly resolved in a blast of front lawn Wagner.
So don’t be baffled as to why Larry has got away with it thus far. Unlike Chappelle and Gervais, he is not a fallen icon but a prodigal son. A pain in the ass but still family. And you can’t cancel family. All stern-faced responsible types out there have little choice but to suck it up and remain quietly envious of the carefree way their younger brothers have made merry with their shared legacy. Probably that is how William viewed Harry. At least until recently.
The sketch of David used as a header image is by Elizabeth Hudy.