Larry David Invented the Perfect Comedy Formula, and It Will Never Get Old

TV Features Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry David Invented the Perfect Comedy Formula, and It Will Never Get Old

Earlier this week, in one of my increasingly common hour-long quarantine phone calls with a long-distance friend, HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm came up. I was extolling the virtues of the recently concluded Season 10, which was every bit as good as the nine masterful seasons before it, and at some point I called the show “formulaic.”

“But I mean that in the most positive way possible,” I clarified.

“No, I get it,” my friend said. “It is formulaic. And I wouldn’t want anything different.”

In very basic ways, all comedy is formulaic, and all drama, too. You can go to Amazon right now and buy a dozen books about writing TV screenplays which tell you exactly what should happen on page 10, and how on page 20 you should be nearing the end of your second act, and etc. etc., down to the last detail. Those kind of blueprints may have a track record of success, or at least prevent total creative chaos, but they can also be very simple, very commercial, and very limiting. What I should have said to my friend, regarding Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm, is that he has devised a complex, almost mathematical formula that contains plenty of space for his own creative genius and brilliant improvisational performance, and that it’s a recipe only he can execute. If most TV operates on formulas that resemble simple X+Y=Z algebra, then Larry David is writing the equivalent of long logic proofs, all of which resolve with a surprising, satisfying clarity at the final moment. And 31 years after Seinfeld debuted on NBC, he hasn’t lost a step.

It might be ill-advised to look behind the curtain, and to commit the cardinal sin of explaining a joke, but I can’t resist: let’s take a look at one of the best episodes from Season 10, called “The Ugly Section,” and try to parse it out like a math problem.

Premise One: Richard Lewis, Larry’s friend, has an incredible day on the golf course, particularly with his putter, which makes Larry and Jeff (his agent) incredibly suspicious. For winning their money, Richard and his partner Carl agree to take them out to lunch.

Premise Two: Richard has bought a new Bentley, and Larry tells him that he’s “concerned,” because it’s too nice and he’s going to get robbed. “They’ll follow you home and kill you.”

Premise Three: At the restaurant, the guys are talking about their sex lives, and the fourth golf buddy, Carl, regrets that he and his wife don’t have sex more often since she has a “magical vagina.” When pressed, he’ll only say that it’s “supernatural” and like a “hummingbird nest.”

Premise Four: Carl is seriously depressed when he gets a notice on his phone that a New York Jets star is out for the season with an injury. He embarrasses himself with an emotional outburst at the restaurant. “Honestly, it’s too much,” says Larry.

Premise Five: Larry is convinced that the restaurant they’re in has an “ugly section” and a “good-looking section.” Jeff scans the room and backs him up. Larry thinks he’s only in the ugly section because of the other guys, which pisses them all off. “You look like Einstein’s gardner, for Christ’s sake!” says Richard. “You’re never getting in there!” Larry confronts the maitre’d, played by the wonderful Nick Kroll, who denies it with an infuriating (and hilarious) degree of smarm.

We’ll stop there for a moment. That’s a lot of premises, and they happen within three minutes of a 36-minute episode. This kind of rich, almost crammed script is what distinguishes CYE from other comedies, which typically rely on three storylines at most, and you can understand why it’s an approach that nobody else will even attempt: How do you begin to resolve the disparate paths?? But we’re not even done with the premises!

Premise Six: Larry bribes a bathroom attendant to leave because he has some “business” to do, and he needs privacy. In the process, he insults him: “This is not a job for human beings … nobody wants you here!”

Premise Seven: Larry interviews a high school applicant for his “spite” coffee shop (the through-story of the entire season), and this applicant is the son of Larry’s dermatologist. In the course of the interview, the kid diagnoses a rash on Larry’s neck, and when Larry gets skeptical—after all, it’s his dad who’s the doctor, not him—the kid seems perplexed.

Premise Eight: The handles on the cabinets and pantries in Larry’s coffee shop are “snagging hazards,” and he needs new ones.

And now, just shy of seven minutes into the episode, we are finally done with premises. What we’ve just seen, even before the real action starts, is remarkable. The efficiency with which each plot line is introduced, in 30-second increments, would be impressive on its own—especially considering that the performances are mostly improvised—but this is comedy we’re talking about, so it has to be funny, too. And aside from the handles bit and Richard’s putting, which are bombs that will go off later, all of them are hysterical. The concept of an ugly section is obviously the feature here, but a “magical vagina,” bribing a bathroom attendant to leave to avoid humiliation, and a doctor’s kid who thinks he’s a real doctor are all terrific material.

But now comes the hard part: He’s cast eight separate lines out, and now he has to tie them all together. Here’s how it all happens, with the various premises in parentheses. Please take a deep breath:

  • The bathroom attendant was fired because he left the bathroom at Larry’s behest (six).
  • Carl the golfing buddy commits suicide because he’s depressed by the New York Jets (four). When writing a condolence text to his widow, Larry jokes about trying to get to know her better because of the “magical vagina” (three)
  • The dermatologist confronts Larry at the golf course about dismissing his son’s free consult, since even though the kid isn’t a doctor, it’s “in the blood” (seven)
  • Larry talks with a golf pro, who tells him that a putter has to have ten degrees of tilt in order to be legal or the penalty is disqualification, so he tries to find Richard’s clubs in the locker room but discovers that Richard takes them home (one)
  • Larry goes back to Tiato, having requested a window table, only to be put back in the ugly section, where has a breakdown, screaming “how did I wind up here?!” (five)
  • He asks the maitre’d why he fired the bathroom attendant but doesn’t get a satisfying answer (six)
  • He goes to Carl’s funeral where he confronts Richard about his putter (one), hits on the widow with the “magical vagina,” played by Jane Krakowski (three), tells her Carl was upset about the Jets (four), sees the handles on the coffin and ask her to call the person responsible because he wants them for his coffee shop, and then takes a quick picture (eight), sets up a date with her in the car ride home (three), takes her to Tiato, where before seeing Larry, the maitre’d directs her to the good-looking section, only to re-route them back to the ugly section (five).
  • During their dinner the widow has a neck rash, and Larry recommends that she go see the dermatologist’s son (seven)
  • Larry gets infuriated when he sees Suzy allowed into the good-looking section, but gets sent back to the ugly section by the maitre’d (five); in the bathroom the maitre-d has a digestive emergency and begs Larry to leave so he can have privacy, but Larry refuses until the maitre’d agrees to let him sit in the good-looking section (five) and re-hire the bathroom attendant in a better job (six).
  • He gets the coffin handles for his coffee shop (eight), gets in Richard’s Bentley where they’re promptly robbed at gunpoint (two), during which Larry gets out and discovers that the robber is wearing a Jets mask and is another depressed fan (four).
  • He gets Richard’s putter from the trunk and fins out it’s illegal (one), visits the widow at her home and is on the verge of closing the deal with her and the magical vagina (three) when he asks for his $500 in golf money back from her since Carl and Richard were partners and Richard’s putter was illegal (one), offends her and makes a comparison to the Jets at which point she kicks him out (four), goes back and gets seated at the good-looking section at Tiato (five), where he’s waited on by the former bathroom attendant (six), and are promptly joined by the dermatologist’s son who thanks Larry for referring the widow to him (seven), tells them that he had to conduct a full-body exam, and confirms for Larry the magical vagina (three), at which point a man has a seizure and the maitre-D cries out “someone’s having a seizure in the ugly section, is anyone a doctor?” (five), and the kid ends the episode by yelling “no, but my father is!” (seven).

AND SCENE. Hopefully that wasn’t too insanely dull, but at least for me, it’s edifying to plot it all out and see just how remarkably the separate threads are interwoven, merging at the end in perfect confluence. Insofar as it’s a formula, you can only see its shape at the conclusion, and even then it would be too intricate to graph out, or to explain in a book. All I’ve done above, at great and possibly stultifying length, is to reveal the synthesis over time, not the method. I can’t begin to describe the method, and if I could, somebody else could, and eventually somebody opportunistic and funny would be able to duplicate it. Yet here we are, decades after he came to prominence, and there’s still just one Larry David.

Of course, what makes it all so great is not the mathematical/logical feat, but how invisible that process is behind the comedy. Every time I watch a new CYE episode, I get completely lost in the narrative, and the performances, and the ending is always a complete and delightful surprise. It’s only later, considering the construction of each episode—how David had to make all these separate observations over time, imagine characters and situations to fit every role and scenario, then combine them all into a workable episode, and then repeat ten times while still pushing forward the season-long arc—that I drop my jaw and marvel at the precise artistry. In the moment, though, I’m laughing too hard to notice, and that’s critical to the show’s success.

There is nobody who can juggle these two priorities—the complex, intricately coalescing narratives, and the surface hilarity—quite like Larry David. At the start, Curb Your Enthusiasm was more than just good its own merits; it was a revelation about Seinfeld, and who was responsible for its singular brilliance. Comparing CYE to Seinfeld’s stand-up removes all doubt about the real architect of that show. Jerry Seinfeld was a great performer, but the situational comedy that made the show one of the best ever clearly came right out of the mind of Larry David and his writing proteges. His ability to pick at social hang-ups, to spot and exploit the hypocrisies and selfishness and superficiality of everyday life, can be seen as a through-line between both shows. If anything, CYE is just Seinfeld with more freedom, and with George as the primary star instead of Jerry.

The formula inherent to the success of Larry David’s work is clearly both timeless and inimitable. Nobody else has come close to matching the breadth and skill of this style of comedy and performance, and yet, somewhat miraculously, David’s own well has not run dry. The man is 72 years old and still churning out what is arguably America’s best comedy. In this case, his steadiness over time, utilizing the same process while contributing new creative fuel in each variation, should be seen as the highest of virtues. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that mediocre writers are versatile, while genius has only itself to imitate, and Larry David is the comedic epitome of that sentiment. He could continue imitating himself for decades to come, and it would never feel anything less than new, anything less than vital, every time. It’s an act that refuses to grow old.

Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter here.

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