By Reed Brewer
You likely already have a fixed opinion of Larry David if you are reading this. While I can hope that we share that judgment—one that establishes him as the preeminent sit-com protagonist, I know his comedy may do little to unify us. The idea that Curb Your Enthusiasm (or to a lesser extent, Seinfeld) could be divisive seems antithetical to how I understand comedy as a genre.
I subscribe to the reading that David’s surly usurpation of immaterial societal conventions to be the unifying endeavor that we have always longed for. To yell at an ice cream shop patron for exceeding her allotted number of flavor samples requires the collective rage of a thousand everyday do-gooders. To dig up his recently deceased mother and move her corpse from the cemetery’s “special section” reserved for “tainted” people (his mother had a secret tattoo on her buttocks) demands a level of spite that few of us could muster alone.
This isn’t to say that Larry (and specifically the character he plays in Curb) shouldn’t be considered an asshole, because he certainly should be. Nor am I saying that his comedy is never improperly weaponized, because it often is (see: Sour Grapes, Clear History, his latest Saturday Night Live monologue). Rather, I merely want to offer an example of why this comedy gives me joy, in a time getting bleaker by the tweet.
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Let’s start with a quick quotation from a scene from the finale of season three of Curb Your Enthusiasm:
Larry: (in flashback) Maybe one day I’ll get a chance to do something good for somebody like that.
(present day) Scum-sucking—motherfucking—whore!
Jeff: Cock. Cock. Jism. Grandma. Cock!
Assistant Manager: Bum. Fuck. Turd. Fart. Cunt—piss—shit—bugger, and balls!
Restaurant Manager: Dammit. Hell. Crap. Shit.
Cheryl: You goddam, motherfucking bitch!
Susie: Fuck you, you carwash cunt. I had a dental appointment!
Cheryl’s father: Fellatio. Cunnilingus. French-kissing. Rim job.
(If you hadn’t guessed already, Curb is on HBO, hints the R-rated-ness.) Societal conventions restrict the proper usage of derogatory or provocative words. The meanings associated with these words are often deemed by society as socially inappropriate, rude, or taboo; these strict guidelines for usage reinforce their meaning, and thereby fortify their distasteful nature.
As the lead character in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry assumes his role as a “social assassin,” forever battling and defying social conventions that he deems purposeless or inane. In this excerpt, Larry confronts the notion that derogatory or provocative words have a socially appropriate time and place for their usage.
After firing the head chef for fabricating his baldness, Larry must hire a new chef for his restaurant that opens in four days. However a day prior to the opening, Larry and his business associates discover that the newly hired chef suffers from Tourette’s syndrome.
Mistaking the chef’s lottery numbers printed on his arm as a numbered tattoo from the Holocaust, Larry refuses to fire the chef, claiming, “I can’t fire a Survivor.” This decision of inaction proves costly when, on the opening night of the restaurant, the chef swears loudly before all the guests, which include Larry’s father, mother-in-law, father-in-law, several close friends, and employees.
As silence falls over the restaurant, Larry recalls, through a flashback, seeing a collection of high school seniors who had shaved their heads as a form of solidarity for a classmate receiving chemotherapy; consequently, Larry believes that this outburst of swearing from his Tourette-stricken chef is the ideal opportunity to exemplify his solidarity by swearing loudly himself.
Larry’s use of the words “scum-sucking,” “motherfucking,” and “whore” not only defies the social convention of appropriate usage, but it also generates new meanings for these words, which develop from offensive or insolent definitions into reverential and courteous definitions. Because Larry produces these words out of a sense of solidarity for the chef’s illness and does not intend to refer to the patrons of the restaurant as “whores,” his usage establishes the influence of an outside agent that governs his language, and thus, its meaning.
This outside agent exists isolated from the inside of social conventions, the inside of the restaurant, and inside the language used within the restaurant (except for Larry’s usage). The flashback of the high school seniors communicates this outside to us, thus solidifying its existence; however, the patrons remain oblivious to the outside, forcing them to remain inside. Because they remain inside the realm of these social conventions of appropriate usage, the words retain their original, derogatory meaning. However when Jeff, Larry’s manager, uses the words “cock” and “jism,” a systematic abandoning of the literal meaning of these derogatory words occurs.
As more individuals follow Larry in uttering socially taboo words, a figurative meaning replaces the literal meaning of the words. Just as Larry does not intend to call anyone a “scum-sucking whore,” the Manager also does not intend to call the patrons’ attention to “hell” or “shit,” nor does Cheryl, Larry’s wife, wish to call anyone a “motherfucking bitch.”
Jeff’s, the Manager’s, or Cheryl’s words are relegated to the derogatory meanings if they are used by themselves. However, these words are connected to Larry’s words and each other’s words through their conformity to Larry’s usage, because they are aware of the chef’s illness and the situation that it generates. This connection between the words becomes a secondary outside agent (existing outside of the social conventions, the restaurant, or the language used with the restaurant) that forces the abandonment of the literal definitions.
Each word could be substituted for another word that is deemed socially inappropriate, because the word’s unique, literal meaning is replaced with a universal meaning that Larry establishes through the first outside agent (solidarity for the chef); each word acts as a metaphor for this universal meaning of solidarity.
When Cheryl’s father begins to use taboo words, he does so ignorant of either outside agents (solidarity for the chef or conformity to Larry’s original usage) because he is unaware of the chef’s illness. His usage relies on the similarity between the words used previously (their socially inappropriate natures) and the association between the words (their physiological significances and definitions, i.e. “cunt” and “balls,” said previously, and his usage of “fellatio and “cunnilingus”).
As more patrons in the restaurant follow suit, their usages rely on the similarity and association between the words used, thus generating metonymic usage from the prior metaphoric usage. However, as more patrons follow an additional association forms: the comedic absurdity of the usage of the taboo words.
So the question arises: Can an individual separate “fuck” (or any similar word) from its taboo meaning? To understand this question, an individual has to be aware of an inside realm that not only governs the usage of a word, but also its meaning. For Larry, the word “fuck” does not retain its derogatory meaning or even its socially inappropriateness when he uses it outside of this realm through his act of solidarity for the chef. “Fuck” is separated from its meaning and connected to other socially taboo words, generating a fantastically humorous situation, all because of the generous act of cursing by Larry.
Deconstructing Larry David’s actions and words often times seem to go against every hypocritical notion that he claims to stand for. Moreover, they seem to be against the entire premise of the show, as we are deliberately told in the title to not be enthused enough to care about them. Having said that, the further this exercise went, the more I bought into the claim of my deconstruction: the malleability of meaning.
The literary theorist Paul de Man’s suggestion of an inside and outside of text, as well as the amalgamation between the two, become more convincing as I discovered different layers of meaning within the excerpt. Each character had a unique reason for using the derogatory or provocative words; the inside or the outside governed not only the usage, but also the meanings of the words.
The crucial usage came when Cheryl’s father says “fellatio.” From that word on, the meanings change entirely; he (as well as the character’s that follow) is unaware of the chef’s illness. Their usage becomes metonymic because of the words’ association with one another through firstly their physiological nature and secondly their comedic absurdity; comedy becomes the words’ associations with one another, and the social inappropriateness becomes their similarity.
The more humor the scene evoked, which is to say, the further “fuck” distanced itself from its taboo meaning, the greater sense of solidarity was established. We are at the same moment laughing with the patrons for having used the coarse language, but we are also forming a secondary solidarity with Larry as he attempts to “do something” nice for someone else.
This sequence gives us a wonderful illustration of Curb’s allure. The absurdity of the episode’s climax, the mixed-use and mixed-meaning of coarse language, and Larry’s ill-begotten sense of goodness, provide a layered comedy seen rarely in other television comedy. Where King of Queens relied on Kevin James ability to convey a lack-of-husband-material, Curb Your Enthusiasm thrives (or fails) with Larry’s ability to convince us he is doing what he thinks is right, however wrong it might seem to us.
Let’s take the chef in this episode. Larry senses a solidarity with him because he believes that he a Holocaust survivor and Larry is Jewish. Thus, it is from this initial observation of the chef’s numeric tattoo that Larry later forms his desire to display his solidarity with the chef.
In the flashback, Larry sees how the other children saved their head to display their kinship with their cancer-stricken friend. Their connection however is not cancer, but rather the fact that they are children and of the same age. By the same logic, Larry decides to blurt out obscenities not because they both have Tourette’s syndrome, but because he believes they are both Jewish. The use of taboo language is just Larry wanting to perform a good action for someone he believes he has a connection with.
Here we find Larry’s internal contradiction, and the very reason I love the show.: Larry’s willful commitment to righting social wrongs leaves him outside of the very society he vows to fix. While he thinks himself a “social assassin” stalking around for his next kill, he is in actuality the brick-thrower threatening everyone else’s routine. While he says that he wants to cure society’s ailments, he really just wants everyone to be more like him: on the outside looking in.