Long time readers of this blog know that its author possesses no shame and will brag on the smallest pretext. Our present pride stems from the near certainty that I have appreciated the talents of comic genius Larry David (b. 1947) a probable two decades longer than most everyone else.
This is because I first became a fan of his in 1980, when David was a cast member of ABC’s late night answer to Saturday Night Live, called Fridays, which we wrote about here. Prior to Fridays, David had done stand-up at the Comedy Store and elsewhere, He was legendarily cranky and terrible at stand-up, which is why, amusingly, unlike almost all the other veterans of that scene, you’ll find no early stand-up appearances by David on The Tonight Show and other such programs. But he was known to be funny and was well-liked by his peers, so he made it to Fridays, both as a performer and as a writer. Believe it or not, at the time, I associated him with Gilbert Gottfried from the Season Six cast of SNL — they both seemed, to be blunt, the “token Jews” in their respective casts, something that had not been a factor in the Not Ready for Primetime Players (Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman were both Jewish, but they didn’t really use their identity as schtick. David and Gottfried emphatically did). The Fridays cast was where David first met Michael Richards, whom he would later cast as Kramer on Seinfeld, and writer Larry Charles who would also help create that show. Gloriously, Vulture has several clips of David’s sketches on Fridays. I highly enourage you check it out. “The Three Stooges Get Stoned” bit is the one I remember best. (David’s clearly a Stooges fan; he also had a role in the 2012 Farrelly Brothers’ reboot) At any rate, when I first knew David’s work, he looked like the picture above.
The ’80s weren’t exactly lost years for David. Other stuff followed. In 1983, he had small roles in the movies Second Thoughts with Lucy Arnaz and Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? with Karen Black. (Okay, maybe a little lost.) In 1984, he spent a season as a writer in SNL, when the show was slowly beginning to crawl out of the pit into which it had fallen, although he only got one sketch on the air. As a native of Sheepshead Bay, he was a natural for a small role in Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987), as well as his segment in New York Stories (1989), and much later he starred in Whatever Works (2009), a natural stand-in for the writer-director.
In 1989 came his historic collaboration with his pal from the comedy clubs Jerry Seinfeld. Their monster hit sitcom played for nearly a decade and made David a very rich man, although he was still very much behind the scenes and unknown to the wider public (although he did provide the voice of the fictionalized Yankees manager George Steinbrenner, and of course Jason Alexander was the Larry David surrogate George Costanza).
The year Seinfeld folded (1998), David wrote and directed the critically panned film Sour Grapes, about a pair of cousins feuding over the split of a large slot machine payout. The movie is a horrible time. But to my mind, the elephant in the room is that he didn’t star in it himself. He is the rare comic performer whom people love for seeming horrible. (I don’t know if he would agree, but there are certain similarities between his character and the irascible W.C. Fields). At any rate, that omission would soon be addressed.
In 1999, David debuted the Curb Your Enthusiasm as a TV movie on HBO, which then became a series that ran through 2011, then again in 2017, and then again in 2020. As Seinfeld had in Seinfeld, David played a fictionalized version of himself, now even less fictionalized. The technique he brought to the show’s production: improvising the dialogue off of pre-prepared plot outlines, shot cinema style, on location, with a single camera, became HIGHLY influential. Nowadays it’s ubiquitous. The old-fashioned three-camera “theatrical” manner of shooting a sit com now seems just that: “old fashioned”. On the rare occasion now when I see a show with that method, it seems embarrasing and quaint, a throwback to the tastes of old people. I believe David pioneered the current style. Interestingly, one doesn’t know what to call it anymore. “Sit-com” seems wrong for a show shot in this naturalistic style. And with the stopper off the bottle in terms of behavior and subject manner. Everything is fodder for David’s comedy on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and he is unafraid to make his character as awful, self-centered, and nasty as the moment requires.
Along the way, there have been some notable side projects. In 2013, he led an all-star cast in the uneven but funny HBO film Clear History. In 2015, he made his Broadway debut in his play Fish in the Dark, making him, like Woody Allen, one of the few who have done that in modern times. And since 2015 he has portrayed Bernie Sanders on SNL; during the 2016 and 2020 election cycles he was a virtual regular on the show. It’s particularly amusing that he’s such a dead ringer for this famous enemy of the 1% — at this writing David is reported to be sitting on a fortune of over a half billion dollars.
For more on show biz history, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,