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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
10 episodes of<i> Curb Your Enthusiasm</i> that show the dangers (and pleasures) of spite

10 episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm that show the dangers (and pleasures) of spite

Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Photo: John P. Johnson, Screenshot: HBO

Curb Your Enthusiasm was supposed to be a stand-up special. It was on New York City’s smallest stages, after all, that a young, frizzy-haired Larry David cut his teeth in the 1970s, alienating crowds unable to embrace his performative misanthropy as part of the joke. But they would in 1999. Seinfeld, the “show about nothing” he co-created in 1989, aired its final episode the year before, proving that sitcoms needed neither lessons nor hugs to succeed. Audiences would get him now. Presumably. There is the matter of 1998’s Sour Grapes, a bomb David wrote and directed that ends with Craig Bierko going down on himself. (“I can’t easily remember a film I’ve enjoyed less,” Roger Ebert groused in his zero-star review.) But David wanted to take a chance, to follow one of the most-celebrated series of the ’90s (and one of its most reviled movies) by stepping out from behind the camera and into the spotlight.

And that’s exactly what David did, though not in the way he originally thought. As documented on the first season of James Andrew Miller’s Origins podcast, it was future Curb co-star Jeff Garlin’s idea to film David’s return to the stage. And while David was fine with that, he was less hot on the documentary aspect of it all. “The idea of a camera going into the supermarket with me... What are they going to see? It’s going to be boring,” he told Miller in very Larry-like fashion.

That’s when he decided to round out the lead-up to his act with some “stories.” Ones he wrote. Ones that weren’t boring. The result was Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm, a 1999 stand-up special and mockumentary in which the mockumentary ended up outshining the stand-up.

The one-off proved plenty. Not only could David still mine humor from microaggressions and faux pas, but he could also command the screen all by himself, portraying a “Larry David” as pitiless as he was amiable. Most importantly, it could be made cheaply. He didn’t even need writers. Robert Weide, the documentarian who directed the special and several of Curb’s best episodes, told Origins that the special’s script, composed of lines that were then improvised into full scenes, totaled a page and a half. Chris Albrecht, head of HBO at the time, said giving the series a go was “not a tough decision.”

Keeping it on the air is presumably even less of one. HBO’s essentially given David an open door; when he wants to make a season, they make one. One could credit that lack of pressure with why so little’s changed between the premiere of Curb’s debut season in the fall of 2000 and the finale of its 10th earlier this year, despite the world having shifted as it has. Larry’s nearly died, he’s cratered relationships, he’s found God and lost God—but the Larry of season 10 is the Larry of season one, a curmudgeon who’s never more alive than when he thinks he’s been wronged. For some, that consistency is part of its appeal. For others, reveling in the petty grievances of a very rich man just doesn’t hit like it used to. But, 20 years on, there’s still no show that better depicts the dangers and, perhaps more importantly, the pleasures of spite. So much of Curb’s brilliance rests in Larry often being as right as he is awful. We can cringe, but we can relate. We can see our cloaked annoyances posited as normal. But we can also see someone who assumes the worst in people, and what that gets you in the grand scheme. Fundamentally, Curb Your Enthusiasm is a show about someone who keeps digging despite being six feet under.

Unsurprisingly, what evolution we do see in Curb mirrors that of Seinfeld’s. The early seasons, due in part to their minuscule budgets, are conversational in nature and immersed in minutiae. The later seasons are, too, but the stories become grander, the guest stars brighter, and the set pieces bigger. Season one begins with Larry marveling at how his pants make him look like he’s aroused; season nine introduces itself with a fatwa. The stakes are different, but the show remains defined by small grievances, not big ones. Through-lines eventually emerge—Larry invests in a restaurant, Larry rehearses for Broadway—but the stories matter less than the characters they bring in. Richard Lewis, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael J. Fox, and Mel Brooks have all toyed with their personas on the series, while guests like Gina Gershon, Richard Kind, and Vivica A. Fox have appeared in memorable recurring roles, each drawing out different shades of Larry’s misanthropy.

Like Seinfeld, Curb’s most significant evolution is the ongoing embrace of its supporting cast. What began with David, Garlin, and Cheryl Hines has gone on to fold in Susie Essman, J.B. Smoove, Ted Danson, and the late Bob Einstein, whose arrow-straight Marty Funkhouser just might be remembered as Curb’s greatest character. Like any good improviser, David saw what worked and kept bringing it back.

As the show celebrates the 20th anniversary of its premiere, we’ve sought to boil the series down to the episodes that best represent its combustible cast, cathartic meltdowns, and pounding vein of passive aggression.

“Porno Gil” (season one, episode three)

One of the life’s more mundane horrors is finding yourself at an event that asks more of you than expected. After Gil (Bob Odenkirk), a casual golf buddy, invites Larry and Cheryl to a party, the couple are horrified to discover it’s not the kind of large gathering they can pop in and out of, but an intimate dinner party peppered with graphic tales of Gil’s old porn career. Larry’s refusal to remove his shoes—“My feet have a tendency to get chilly”—cements the evening’s collapse into chaos, but “Porno Gil” deftly illustrates how one misunderstanding leads to the next, with every player contributing to the collective misery. The episode, a highlight in a B- season, also excels at spotlighting the quiet moments of agony Curb’s early episodes were so good at capturing—it’s a very specific anxiety, having to reenter a party from which you’ve already made a grand exit. “Porno Gil” also offers a great introductory glimpse at David and Hines’ surprising chemistry, from her bottomless patience to their shared ability to find humor in their own humiliation. It’s easy to ask why a woman like Cheryl would marry Larry, but his ability to tease a smile from her frustration speaks to the ease of their connection. It’s remarkable they were able to convey it so early in the series.

“Trick Or Treat” (season two, episode three)

As he did on Seinfeld, David constructs episodes of Curb like a funnel, introducing disparate elements with the goal of them colliding as they spiral toward their end. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it feels forced. And sometimes, as it does in “Trick Or Treat,” it astounds. In 30 minutes, Larry strings together fights over Cobb salads, perceived adultery, golf, and the rules of trick-or-treating into a perfect knot, one so satisfyingly tight that David and director Larry Charles actually grant the character a rare win in the end. There’s so much to love in this episode, but no scene better encapsulates Curb’s hair trigger than the one where a furious man confronts Larry for whistling a song by composer (and noted anti-Semite) Richard Wagner. “Are you Jewish?” the man asks. Larry, in one of the series’ greatest retorts, replies, “You wanna check my penis?”

“The Doll” (season two, episode seven)

Reductive as the phrase might be, it’s not inaccurate to call Curb a “cringe comedy.” It hurts to watch Curb sometimes, and there’s no episode more painful than “The Doll.” It begins with a triumph: Larry and Julia Louis-Dreyfus sell their new show to ABC. But Larry, at his most dunderheaded, threatens the deal after he cuts the hair of a doll belonging to the ABC head’s daughter, who didn’t realize it wouldn’t grow back. Larry’s efforts to replace the ultra-rare doll (or, rather, its head) find him traveling back and forth between the executive’s house and the Greens’, where he gets busted by Susie for stealing one of her daughter’s dolls. (Susie: “You two SICKOS took the head for GOD KNOWS what reason, some VOODOO shit you’re doing!”) It all builds to a final misunderstanding so gut-clenching that the episode has no choice but to end. What it leaves, however, is an image even more indelible: Larry having to explain—to sane people—how, exactly, he ended up here.

“Krazee-Eyez Killa” (season three, episode eight)

Krazee-Eyez Killa, Wanda Sykes’ rapper fiancé, is one of Curb’s most memorable one-offs, both for Chris Williams’ gonzo performance and what his live-wire energy brings out in Larry, a deeply out of touch 55-year-old with a history of saying awkward and/or offensive things around Black people. (Their introductory “What’s crackin’”/ “How are ya?” exchange is as funny as everything that follows.) What’s easy to forget about “Krazee-Eyez Killa,” though, is that it also contains two of the most unnecessarily volatile blowouts in the whole series. First, there’s Susie’s ferocious response to Larry saying he doesn’t want a tour of her new house. “Get the fuck out,” she says with no hesitation. “I am turned off.” And then there’s Larry’s trip to a clothing store, where he gets instantly offended when the employee asks him not to fold a sweater he was looking at. “You think I’d send anybody to this piece of shit store?” Larry spits while departing, having gone from pleasant to rancorous in a matter of seconds. From its A-story to its D-story, the episode exudes everything that makes Curb one of the most combustible series on TV.

“The Car Pool Lane” (season four, episode six)

“The Car Pool Lane” has a special place in Curb lore, given that it inadvertently saved an innocent man from death row (no, really). But the episode, one of the series’ loudest and most freewheeling, shines even outside of that little bit of trivia. Larry, desperate to get to a baseball game, picks up an escort, Monena (the exhilarating Kym Whitley), for the sole purpose of using the carpool lane. Their misadventures culminate at the home of Larry’s father, Nat (the late Shelley Berman, always a delight), who’s requested some weed to help with his glaucoma. And while Larry bought some “schwag” (from Lost’s Jorge Garcia!), it’s Monena’s “chronic” that gets her and Nat buzzing. A stoned Larry, meanwhile, devolves in a Gollum-esque trip that finds him shrieking at himself in the mirror to “Get a colonoscopy!” There’s a playful nature to every Curb episode, but rarely are they as downright giddy as this one.

“The Anonymous Donor” (season six, episode two)

One of the most cynical episodes in a series that always assumes the worst, “The Anonymous Donor” proves that there’s no selfless act that David can’t turn inside out. After a huge donation gets a wing named after him at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Larry finds himself alienated by attendees more impressed by Ted Danson’s “anonymous” contribution. His bitterness—“It’s fake philanthropy and faux anonymity!”—is matched by a hilarious Danson just oozing with smarmy self-satisfaction. But “The Anonymous Donor” is also notable for introducing J.B. Smoove’s fast-talking Leon, whose semen-themed one-on-one scene with Larry is one of the series’ best sparring sessions (watch it above). By the time the pair are playing war on the couch in matching jerseys, it’s hard to imagine Curb moving forward without him.

“The Freak Book” (season six, episode five)

Curb’s grown sillier with each passing season, sure, but it typically keeps at least one foot in reality. Not so with “The Freak Book,” a deliriously dumb episode in which Larry becomes a cartoon chauffeur and obsesses over a crude “freak book” called Mondo Freaks, which he can’t read without shouting things like “pig nose!” Contrast the loud, childlike Larry of this episode with the one who hired a symphony for his wife’s birthday in season two and the show’s increasing embrace of the absurd becomes evident. Like Seinfeld, though, Curb has proven it can deliver on those episodes as well as it does its more grounded ones. Besides, without an episode like “The Freak Book,” we’d never get the strangest John McEnroe cameo of all time. His delivery of “Look at the freaks!” is iconic.

“Seinfeld” (season seven, episode 10)

In an era where it seems no beloved property is safe from revival, let us again thank David for staging a Seinfeld reunion while acknowledging that most franchise reunions are some combination of pandering and unsatisfying. Curb’s seventh season evokes Seinfeld’s “Pilot” run in how it chronicles the creation of a show within the show, but David’s real genius is indulging the irresistible joy of seeing Seinfeld’s original cast reinhabit their characters while also reckoning with the difficulties of doing so in a way that isn’t perfunctory. It’s a brilliant concept that comes together beautifully in the season’s final episode, which trades between classic Curb bits—meet Larry David, Wood Detective—and scenes from the reunion-within-the-show. “Seinfeld” also serves as an origin story for the 10th season’s primary antagonist, Mocha Joe (Saverio Guerra), who must only be referred to as “Mocha Joe.”

“Palestinian Chicken” (season eight, episode three)

Larry’s identity as a secular Jew regularly factors into Curb, but David directly confronts it in “Palestinian Chicken,” an episode that deftly illustrates the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and its accompanying fervor by asking a disinterested Larry to take a side. But while Marty Funkhouser and Susie revolt at a Palestinian chicken restaurant opening next to the “sacred land” of a Jewish deli, Larry finds himself drawn to “the enemy.” “You’re always attracted to someone who doesn’t want you,” he says of Shara, the bombshell restaurant proprietor. “Well, here you have someone who not only doesn’t want you, but doesn’t even acknowledge your right to exist, who wants your destruction. That’s a turn-on.” (As we see later, he’s fine with enduring a little anti-Semitism if it means having the best sex of his life: “You Zionist pig!” Shara screams mid-coitus. “You circumcised fuck!”) Larry loves his friends, but he also loves sex and chicken—that he struggles to choose between the two is perhaps as fitting a portrait of Larry as we’re going to get.

“Elizabeth, Margaret and Larry” (season 10, episode eight)

Ten seasons in and Curb’s still got it. “Elizabeth, Margaret and Larry” isn’t a groundbreaking episode, but it is a prime example of a highly enjoyable late-season Curb episode that neatly draws upon the show’s long history. The supporting ensemble is deep and rich with lived-in history—Lewis, Cheryl, Jeff, Leon, and Susie all get ample screen time, as do Richard Kind’s Cousin Andy and Kaitlin Olson’s Becky—and the equally funny plot lines range from the mundane (Lewis’ lie about Larry having a “bleeding rectum” has unintended consequences) to the cartoonish (Leon launches a piss-relief app called Gotta Go). It’s also got a meta element, with a game Jon Hamm shadowing Larry to prep for a role as a “Larry David-type writer.” Perhaps as a nod to the fact that there’s a bit of Larry in all of us, Hamm begins transforming into Larry both in behavior and dress until his social life becomes as much of a disaster as Larry’s. It’s not a lifestyle most could commit to, but that’s why we love Larry: It costs him something to be so consistently obnoxious.