Film & TV

The Lennon and McCartney of Comedy

Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm (John P. Johnson/HBO)
Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David mixed together sweet and sour the way the Beatles did.

In a telling scene set on an airplane in Seinfeld, Jerry lucks into a seat next to a gorgeous model in first class and revels in the pampering. “More anything? More everything!” he exclaims to a flight attendant in “The Airport” (season four, episode twelve). An equally revealing moment about Larry David comes in the opening minutes of season ten of Curb Your Enthusiasm, when David, walking down the street, casually grabs a selfie stick from a tourist, breaks it over his knee, and continues his stroll.

As Curb Your Enthusiasm wraps up its typically fraught and hilarious tenth season with its 100th episode Sunday night, while Seinfeld’s more relaxed Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is in limbo after eleven seasons, we may not see much in the way of new television from these two comedy geniuses for a while, though Seinfeld has a book of comic musings coming out in October, his first since 1993. While we await whatever David and Seinfeld do next, let’s savor their creations like a smooth cup of brew from Latte Larry’s.

Seinfeld and David appear to be the most successful comedians in the history of laughter: If guesstimates are accurate, Seinfeld may be on the verge of becoming the world’s first comedy billionaire, with a net worth estimated at $950 million and more coming in thanks to a new deal with Netflix, which, starting next year, will take over the streaming rights to Seinfeld from Hulu. David would be right behind Seinfeld in wealth were it not for his 2007 divorce, but as it is, he’ll have to make do with the $400 million or so he has left.

The two men’s differing styles became more apparent in the years their careers diverged. Seinfeld was Paul McCartney, David was John Lennon. Like Beatle Paul, Seinfeld was forever that nice young man, respectable and charming, respectful of boundaries. Unlike many of his peers, Seinfeld in his standup years didn’t “work blue,” meaning he avoided profanity. His face at rest is usually on the cusp of amusement. His mind has forever been fixated on boyish delights — breakfast cereals, candy bars, Halloween costumes, Superman. He turned lightness and wonder and appreciation — more everything! — into art.

Larry David’s comedy is, by contrast, endlessly acerbic, edgy, contentious. David is rude, full of grudges, impatient for the world to live up to his specifications. The simplest matters become sources of torment. No one quite understands him, and he’s never quite at home anywhere. The Lennonism “Instant karma’s gonna get you” is the subtext of Curb.

Like McCartney, Seinfeld never really invited us in, always kept the public at arm’s length. What’s he like under that sunny façade? Who knows? Either Jerry is as sweetly endearing as he is in his act, or he has successfully stayed in character for his entire public life. David, on the other hand, has a Lennonish habit of opening the doors and inviting us in to explore the dank, weird corners of his mind, his neuroses and grievances. He lets us hear his teeth grind and his belly rumble. The Larry David of Curb can’t stop getting into trouble because he refuses to avoid touchy subjects. As Lennon antagonized Christians, David mocked Hollywood dogma this season by making light of Trump hatred (he found that he liked the instant social distancing that occurred when he put on a MAGA hat, which effectively made him a proud Deplorable) and building a storyline around the premise that the #MeToo movement has gotten absurdly hypersensitive.

A Seinfeldian predicament is being embarrassed by a puffy shirt; a Davidian one is deciding not to touch a choking woman who needs a Heimlich maneuver for fear that she might accuse him of molesting her. David exists in a swampy fug of enmity, one-upmanship, and toxic misunderstandings; Seinfeld is defined by his playfulness, even delight, with minutiae. He is unabashedly attached to the comedy equivalent of silly love songs. Rarely do you see him scowl. There is no anguish in him. Rarely does his temper run short.

Vexation is, however, central to David, the man exasperated by existence.

The lyrics for Lennon’s “God” anticipated David’s blanket dismissal of everything (“don’t believe in Hitler, I don’t believe in Jesus, I don’t believe in Kennedy . . . I don’t believe in yoga, I don’t believe in kings, I don’t believe in Elvis.”) So allergic is David to orthodoxy that he doesn’t even buy the boutique global-warming fetishism that is his ex-wife Laurie’s defining characteristic: When the pair got divorced, his reaction was to run home and turn on all the lights to spite her.

Consider the way the two comics see cars: Seinfeld built Comedians in Cars around the delight of tooling around in the kinds of fine automobiles he collects; for David, even the world’s fanciest BMWs are sources of frustration, dismay, or anguish. In season ten, episode nine of Curb, Larry’s inability to cop to a fixation on the licorice offered at the customer counter of a BMW dealership led him first to buy a top-of-the line car he didn’t need, then give his less expensive other BMW to a waitress in need of a helping hand. This led to the two cars crashing into each other at an intersection and to the waitress selling the older car to pay for a vacation in what Larry regarded as a betrayal of his kindness.

That episode was called “Beep Panic.” As with cars, so with life. David channels Lennon’s gloom: “He blew his mind out in a car. He didn’t notice that the lights had changed.” Seinfeld’s car show is pure McCartney: “Beep-beep, beep-beep, yeah!”

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