Being an outspoken public figure can seem very dangerous these days, especially if you’re the President of the United States tweeting comments that might trigger World War III. Or if you’re a comedian making fun of the Ayatollah on a late-night talk show. Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm have returned at just the right time, inadvertently being so relevant in the era of Donald Trump’s White House that both the fictionalized character and the Commander in Chief are ticking off Iran (the former fictionally, the latter actually) in the same month.
The HBO comedy series began its unexpected ninth season earlier this month, after having gone off the air seemingly forever back in 2011. David’s TV alter ego immediately gets into big trouble in the first episode when a promotional appearance for his planned musical satire “Fatwa!” leads to Larry himself being issued a fatwa by the Iranian leader. Through the first three episodes, that death order provides the central narrative, as Larry starts to fear for his life, stays at a hotel, hires a security guard, dons a disguise when he goes out, and even meets with Salman Rushdie, all of which generates even more messes.
Typical for the character. Yet in the context of 2017, none of it is as cringeworthy as Curb was in the past. Now we have a president sticking his foot in his mouth every day and causing alarm for nuclear armageddon. Larry telling Richard Lewis that the death of his beloved parakeet isn’t a big deal is insensitive, but it’s nothing like Trump allegedly telling the wife of a fallen soldier that “he knew what he signed up for.” Larry meddling in the lives of two lesbians and ruining their wedding plans is funny, but it’s nothing next to the reversals of LGBT rights occurring in the real world.
Rather than making us wince, though, Curb provides a relief from the true, heightened tactlessness of not just POTUS but much of Washington right now. Remember when Larry had a racist dog? If only pets were the worst of racism in America today. But at a time when free speech activism is the cause of Nazis, Curb can take back the idea that someone saying whatever he wants is both liberating and funny when up against political correctness and absurd stupidity and abuses of authority. Even if it’s just over an issue with how to handle cookies, the extreme non-extremeness of the show is a perfect antidote.
Not that Larry is always likable. He’s still a selfish jerk most of the time, and he constantly hurts people’s feelings — and sometimes their pitching arms. He’s more in tune with the boorishness of Trump’s America and the Bernie Bros, embodying the link between the two followings (fittingly, David garnered new relevance last year portraying Bernie Sanders on Saturday Night Live), than he represents a challenging force against them. But even without the need to explain that Larry on Curb is a character and not actually David, the real one of the two has defended the fake version against comparisons to POTUS. So has co-star and executive producer Jeff Garlin, who told the Television Critics Association this summer:
“Our president is not funny; Larry is funny…One is sad and one helps you escape from the horribleness of the sad one.”
What makes Curb such a funny escape? On the one hand, where Larry does line up with Trump and other politicians, he’s akin to the comedy of Alec Baldwin spoofing POTUS on SNL or Anthony Atamanuik impersonating the Donald on Comedy Central’s The President Show only without the direct reminder of or the added attention on the guy. On the other hand, he’s a relatively innocent schmuck, mostly damaging to himself, and just as always, he provides us an outlet through which to dream of being so brash to such deserving marks as snobby hotel managers, the police, and even friends and family.
The fantasy element, however, is also often a warning. There are consequences to many of Larry’s impolite comments and narcissistic actions, unlike those of the president. That could make it seem ineffective — sure, the Ayatollah and certainly many other people want Larry dead but in real life, a guy with that much ego and vulgarity and lack of self-control can become one of the most powerful people on the planet. What most separates Larry from Trump is his indifference, his absence of the desire for such power. That and his inconsiderateness comes off more honest and foolish as opposed to impulsive and mean-spirited.
Anyone who regretfully found Trump amusing before things got out of hand, anyone who kept tuning in to see what unbelievable thing came out of his mouth next, might feel guilty now watching Curb for the same thing with Larry. Or they may feel at ease to know it’s just a scripted TV show and not something that will have any detrimental effect on the world. Our figures of identification in Curb continue to be Jeff (Garlin) and his wife Susie (Susie Essman), the former an ally in the amusement of it all and the former a nemesis to all that is wrong and misguided about the main character. Opposing yet unified sides in the appreciation and condemnation of Larry.
Even if you were never a huge fan of Curb before, now is a good time to get into the show. Personally, I never followed it with any kind of regularity in the past, but now it’s my most essential weekly program. There’s not much else of general dependable comedic value on TV right now anyway, but the return of Curb has been a cathartic experience so far. It’s not too heavy politically and even with its international threat against Larry it feels small-scale and contained to Larry’s world, just as he’d prefer it be, yet it still might just be the most politically significant fictional comedy series of the year.