Curb Your Enthusiasm: That joke isn’t (as) funny anymore

Although the title ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ was apparently randomly chosen, given that the show depicts the tribulations of a rich, white, straight man in a world where, to coin a phrase, Others’ Feelings Matter, perhaps an alternative title – one more in keeping with the world in 2017 – could be ‘Check Your Privilege’. While I’ve long been a huge fan of the programme, it’s sometimes felt like a guilty pleasure as I’ve noticed that it’s much more popular with male friends than with female ones. Similarly, ‘Larry David”s enjoyment of life is often constrained by the need to exhibit respect towards people different from himself. I was looking forward to the new series but judging from the response in The Guardian, from Limmy, and from a friend who’s somehow seen the first episodes (I’ve only seen assorted clips*), enthusiasm for the show is waning.

As a bluntly-spoken New Yorker living in California (not to mention something of a schlemiel), Larry constantly triggers fault lines among people who appear primed to take offence. In each episode he either gets stitched up or manages to stitch himself up as the bit of social fabric he has (often inadvertently) torn up tangles itself around his ankles. Adam Kotsko’s essay ‘Awkwardness’ addresses programmes such as ‘Curb’ and The Office’. He argues that although their protagonists are mostly affable and largely well-intentioned, such shows demonstrate that the process of adjusting to a post-1960s world ostensibly built on mutual respect is inherently problematic, and therefore, in an exaggerated form, excellent material for comedy. They show that the imposition of rules around language and etiquette leads to constant clashes, given that such rules are mostly unstated and thus can appear arbitrary and unfair. The fact that Larry David and Michael Scott seem to be emotionally stunted, often sociopathically reckless, selfish, egotistical, and grudgeful does not render them monsters. Rather, their fallibility represents our own vulnerabilities. This is a complex, messy world and we all behave or seem to behave like assholes from time to time. As Phil Harrison puts it, ‘there’s an exquisite agony about the finest episodes that stem from the suspicion that everything happening to Larry could probably happen to you on a particularly bad day’. Their plight is a universal one.

Thus, ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ was never a resentful diatribe against political correctness per se, but rather an intelligent satire. It is not demanding that the edifice of post-60s respect for other identities be blown up. There are limits on individual honesty and the satisfaction of our impulses, and sometimes our encounters with those limits are awkward and lead to more hurt feelings. That doesn’t imply we should all join the NRA and look up the quickest route to Charlottesville. Or, as the article puts it, ‘Maybe the world has changed without telling Larry David. Maybe Larry now simply feels too much like a rich, straight white man lumbering around shoving his demented, free-ranging privilege and entitlement in everyone’s face?’.

The extent to which curmudgeonly white men are no longer on the back foot is once again demonstrated, with unerring and dispiriting predictability, in the comments following Phil Harrison’s article. Their tone is largely resentful and humourless, anti-intellectual and personally spiteful, expressing fury against the media itself and the individual journalist as though the free press has no right to cover culture. Some of the commenters seem to regard the piece as an example of #fakenews.

The fact that the article calls the new series ‘catchphrase and slapstick’ put me in mind of a stage show I saw recently about the life of Benny Hill. Although I found it trite and distasteful, the rest of the audience, people mostly in their 60s and 70s, lapped it up. Tastes in comedy change very quickly, especially from generation to generation. The funny bone changes shape in tune with changing social mores. Butts of jokes turn out to have their own perspectives, to want to explain their own actions and maybe make their own jokes. Although Larry David is the same age as Donald Trump, he’s certainly no fan and his show is – or has been so far – much too sophisticated for your average deplorable. Nonetheless, there is something of Trump’s appeal in David’s comedy. (Plus his indiscrimate targetting of Muslims/Arabs/Iranians may explain why Steve Bannon apparently finds it so entertaining.) Thus in 2017 his particular shtick doesn’t make us laugh as it did five or ten years ago. As someone else who used to be amusing and is now little more than a source of embarrassment once sang, it’s too near the bone and it’s too close to home. Tl;dr: Crotchety old white men are not as charming as they used to be.

*Anyone unhappy that I’ve written this without watching the whole new series is welcome to track down somewhere I can stream it in Italy.