June 17, 2009

Larry David: Alice in Blunderland

Here's my new culture column in Taki's Magazine. I offer a novel perspective on on the seemingly well-worn topic of: What are Larry David's Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm actually about?

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

43 comments:

Anonymous said...

You could definitely argue that this is what at least what Annie Hall and Manhattan were about too. The Woody Allen character walking around advocating idiosyncratic standards of propriety that the world blithely ignores to his constant humorous irritation.

Anonymous said...

well, somebody has been reading cuddihy...

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I'm not sure I agree with your idea that Larry David has invented a fictional America in which decorum is still important. I think what he often does is present interactions in light of his rules and sense of propriety. E.g. Teenage girls should not be trick-or-treating, people should not take too many free samples, etc. I find the thinking involved to be somewhat Talmudic and obsessed with ethical fine points, rather than harking back to any traditional American mores.

TH said...

Nice piece. It got me thinking if there's something particularly American about Jewish humor. Were/are European Jews known for their sense of humor?

Asia Times Online's Spengler (David Goldman), that singularly unfunny American Jew, once said that the funniest book he's ever read is "Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski" by the German Jew Heinrich Heine. Having read that book, I can say that it is a completely German book: thoroughly unfunny. Of all the great literary canons of Europe, the German one must be the only one with no humorous works in it.

How about Jews elsewhere in Europe? Where is the fun? I've also heard it said that Israeli Jews aren't fun at all.

Then again, in my book the funniest sitcom ever is the British Blackadder, written by British Jews Richard Curtis and Ben Elton. Blackadder is set in various historical periods, and much of the humor is about making fun of class distinctions and etiquette.

outlaw josey wales said...

Maybe you can explain Taki as well. He's a rich guy by virtue of inheritance (I think) who traipses around all sorts of glamorous ports and places, cavorts with other famous rich people, and is some sort of conservative? Or what?

Not that I wouldn't mind his lifestyle to be sure. I just find his constant name dropping to be utterly insufferable.

When that site had comments, his posts drew all kinds of worshipful responses.

A Nonce Lily said...

You're obviously a great student of Paglia, Steve.

I think Sexual Personae is probably the most important, and certainly the most insightful book written on Western Cultural productions in the last half of the last century. Even after twenty years, it never ceases to amaze.

Her other work is quite disappointing, with the exception of two or three essays in her ramshackle collections, Sex, Art and American Culture and Vamps & Tramps. I'd direct interested readers to "No Law in the Arena", "Hour of the Wolf", and the cancelled preface to Sexual Personae.

A shame we'll never see Sexual Personae II. Oh well.

And, while I pretty much dislike her Salon work, it is always heartening to see the comments. She is still driving the usual suspects to gnash their teeth and rend their garments.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry I have severely limited my Taki Mag intake as a reaction to their abrupt deletion of their comment section.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Larry David ever studied anthropology, Seinfeld is essentially a study in the 'excruciating daily minutiae' of daily life, which just so happens to be the basis for any good ethnography.

kudzu bob said...

>What are Larry David's Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm actually about?<

That's a dumb question, Steve. You should avoid sitcoms—they’re clearly outside your area of expertise.

Get real. No one is laughing at our social satire and they haven’t been for decades. Now, with humor proliferation a grim reality Al Qaeda will soon have weapons of mass parody. Already Pakistan has 100 gags. And North Korea has tried out a one-liner of its own. Sure, satellite data indicate that it really wasn’t all that funny, but those little bastards are nothing if not persistent. Give them a few years and they’ll be selling monologues and schticks to terrorist headliners around the world, not to mention comedy catch-phrases that’ll have the potential to make millions of people roll in the aisles. Hell, I might be in danger of cracking a smile myself, that’s how bad things could get.

Jokes. Change. Everything.

Anonymous said...

thomas whiffenpoof

Luke Lea said...

You could have been a literary critic, Steve! Nice piece.

Shawn said...

I would say that Larry David's success is tied to the neuroticism of his characters. It is the main source of his comedy.

teacher.paris said...

Dear Steve,
I am sad to see that you are hanging out in bad comapny.

Anonymous said...

Very good article. Has Paglia spoken out regarding HBD? She seems the type to be unmotivated by sentimental political correctness.

JudgeStone said...

Not your strongest effort Steve. You're kind of waiting for it to go somewhere...

A Nonce Lily said...

Very good article. Has Paglia spoken out regarding HBD? She seems the type to be unmotivated by sentimental political correctness.

She once praised Star Trek for being honest about the 'physical revulsion' we feel for other races.

Not the usual take home lesson from Trek, but that's why Paglia is paid the big bucks.

Anonymous said...

"Were/are European Jews known for their sense of humor?"

No. Shahak talks about it.

Anonymous said...

"Of all the great literary canons of Europe, the German one must be the only one with no humorous works in it."

That's a sentence that's both reactionary and uninformed.

Geoffrey Falk said...

Does this mean that the characterization of George Costanza as "Humpty Dumpty with a melon head" has some hidden, social-commentary meaning I'm not aware of?

Peter A said...

Were/are European Jews known for their sense of humor?

Depends how you define "Europe." In Russia and Poland Jews were and are most definitely known for their sense of humor. Most well-known Soviet era comedians and comic actors were Jewish, as well as many of the best humor writers. The American Jewish comedy tradition is a direct descendant of the Russian tradition (Mel Brooks even once remade the Russian classic "12 Chairs" in a direct shout out). Most of the funny British Jews are also descended from Eastern European immigrants I think. It is interesting that German and Italian Jews, both groups with very long traditions in their home countries and historical antipathy towards Eastern European Jews, don't seem to have ever had much of a tradition of humor. This may reflect the fact that historically Germany and Italy were actually the most friendly countries for Jews, and places where Jews could actually advance to middle class status through hard work. My guess is that in Eastern Europe Jews had to think faster verbally to survive the constant threat of pogroms and random beatings, and of course comedy is always a good strategy for a weaker man to deal with a stronger man. French Jews do seem to produce comedians and comic actors, but again I think most French Jews are descended from 19th century immigrants from Eastern Europe. I have no idea whether Sephardic Jews are considered funny.

Dave said...

Interesting column, Steve, but one correction: David's alter ego on Seinfeld, George Costanza, did not live anywhere close to as well as David's eponymous character on Curb Your Enthusiasm does. Costanza was living with his parents during many Seinfeld episodes, while David lives in a humongous ocean-front house in Curb Your Enthusiasm. You do bring up an interesting point about the lack of servants in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The one area where the characters (not just David, but celebrities/frequent guest stars such as Ted Danson) show their wealth in Curb Your Enthusiasm is their large houses (and, less often charitable donations, which were written into a show or two). But none of them have household servants or drivers. E.g., David runs into the actress Lucy Lawless at his dry cleaner, as if Hollywood actors usually do their own errands. Maybe this is related to a comment David made once, that the downside of being obscenely rich is that you aren't allowed to complain anymore, and only by having his character exposed to some of the friction of daily life can he find anything to complain about.

Anyhow, glad to see you sprung for cable (or bought the DVDs). What was your favorite episode so far?

Anonymous said...

"In British and Anglo-American cultures that traditionally valued maintaining a stiff upper lip, however, it was natural to extract humor out of formal social situations that are collapsing into chaos while the mortified participants try to retain their genteel dignity."

The perfect American example of this is the sitcom "Frasier". It was so uncomfortable that I could hardly watch it, and eventually stopped doing so.

testing99 said...

Laugh it up Kudzu. North Korea plans "fireworks" for the Fourth of July -- shooting an ICBM at Hawaii.

Which brings to mind the whole point of Larry David's work -- it's a closed universe. Nothing in Seinfeld, or Curb, has anything to do with anything outside the narcisstic world of David. It's all about him. Which is funny, but always the same joke.

David's a great observer of the Yuppie social scene, including it's bubble mentality. When the gang goes to India in the backwards episode, it's all about THEM and not India.

Deckin said...

Well done, Steve. But I'm wondering if Cheryl (Larry's wife) and, by extension, you, have it right when you think that David's rules are idiosyncratic. I think, rather, the appeal of David is that his rules, while not exactly ours, for sure, are either just a slight tweaking of ones we have or whose existence we've pondered. For instance, the 'cut off' for calls at night and his hilariously demonstrated rule about pretending to reach for the 'door open' button on the elevator as someone approaches get to us precisely because they are not idiosyncratic but are a natural conclusion of rules we either adhere to or wish we had the guts to.

Victoria said...

I was never sure if I ever "got" the point of the Seinfeld series, but I did find the characters intriguing. Wasn't the idea to mock these utterly spoiled, self-centered, worthless people, so totally into themselves and their superficial values? I thought that final episode was brilliant, in wrapping up the essence of each character and showing what empty vessels they were.

Victoria said...

Blackadder is set in various historical periods, and much of the humor is about making fun of class distinctions and etiquette.

Blackadder was wonderful. Along with "Yes, Minister," it too is my favorite Brit sitcom. With "Fawlty Towers" coming in third. Did gentile Brits create any of the great sitcoms? I wonder.

Victoria said...

I just find his constant name dropping to be utterly insufferable.

But this is the essence of the appeal of Taki. He's like a throwback to another era, when a different set of rules prevailed. There could not be anyone more removed from my lifestyle and background, but I feel that I've known his character through literature. I first encountered his column a decade or so ago in the weekly newspaper, The New York Press, and I loved it. He seemed like a mysterious character, and I wondered who in the world he was. His depictions of the high lifestyle he lived seemed totally authentic, and his politics appeared to be based in common sense.

Anonymous said...

"North Korea plans 'fireworks' for the Fourth of July -- shooting an ICBM at Hawaii."

Let's make a sitcom about you.

Israel Shahak said...

"Not only is humor very rare in Hebrew literature before the 19th century (and is only found during few periods, in countries where the Jewish upper class was relatively free from the rabbinical yoke, such as Italy between the 14th and 17th centuries or Muslim Spain) but humour and jokes are strictly forbidden by the Jewish religion - except, significantly, jokes against other religions. Satire against rabbis and leaders of the community was never internalised by Judaism, not even to a small extent, as it was in Latin Christianity. There were no Jewish comedies, just as there were no comedies in Sparta, and for a similar reason."

ben tillman said...

And as David pounded home in his notoriously uncomfortable script for Seinfeld’s final episode (in which Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are sent to prison for treating a crime victim as a source of observational humor rather than as a fellow human in need), morality meant little to the characters.

Very good. Notwithstanding the episode in which Jerry chides Kramer about getting along with the other humans, it is a show about solipsism.

Chief Seattle said...

"North Korea plans "fireworks" for the Fourth of July -- shooting an ICBM at Hawaii."

When I saw this, I wondered how Testing keeps up with all this - he must be a real foreign policy buff.

Then I saw Drudge Report....

Anonymous said...

I love you kudzu bob!

Anonymous said...

Steve asks

"What are Larry David's Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm actually about?"

Jews.

Jesus, that was too easy.

TH said...

"Of all the great literary canons of Europe, the German one must be the only one with no humorous works in it."

That's a sentence that's both reactionary and uninformed
.

Care to elaborate? Do you mean reactionary in the sense that my definition of a literary canon should be more expansive, or what?

As to my being uninformed, that's a distinct possibility, but could you tell me some names of funny German classics? When one thinks of classic English literature, names such as Chaucer, Swift, and Sterne come to mind. In Russia, there's Gogol, in Spain Cervantes, in France Rabelais, Diderot, Voltaire, Laclos, etc. In Germany, there are Goethe, Schiller, Mann et co., who may have their lighter moments, but who are not a merry bunch overall.

ben tillman said...

Blackadder was wonderful. Along with "Yes, Minister," it too is my favorite Brit sitcom. With "Fawlty Towers" coming in third. Did gentile Brits create any of the great sitcoms? I wonder.

Are Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft gentiles? Roy Clarke? John Sullivan?

Peter A said...

"Till Eulenspiegel" is pretty funny if you like dumb fart and ass jokes. Most of German humor before, say, 1950 is just very crude. There are a bunch of funny jokes about Hitler and the Nazis that used to circulate at the time but Jews probably started most of them.

I find some of Kafka darkly humorous but he's Jewish of course.

Anonymous said...

I find some of Kafka darkly humorous but he's Jewish of course.

He's also Czech.

The perfect American example of this is the sitcom "Frasier". It was so uncomfortable that I could hardly watch it, and eventually stopped doing so.

What struck me about the sitcom "Frasier" and its parent sitcom "Cheers" was their relentless hostility to anything that wasn't slob prole. Anyone who aspired to anything better was derisively portrayed as a snobbish fraud and subjected to non-stop humiliation and even occasional physical bullying.

Anonymous said...

"Do you mean reactionary in the sense that my definition of a literary canon should be more expansive?"

Yes. You can start in the 13th century with the Stricker tales. There's Hebel, von Hippel, Jean Paul, Rabener, all the way up to Thoma and Falada, who I'm reading now.

I'm rushed, so can't give more examples. Wasn't trying to be snarky earlier, but I find that statements about German literature and German humor are usually an Anglo-driven affair, and are accordingly biased. Even Nietzsche cracks wise, far more than any other philosopher I can think of.

Victoria said...

Anyone who aspired to anything better was derisively portrayed as a snobbish fraud and subjected to non-stop humiliation and even occasional physical bullying.===

But the two main characters, Frasier and his brother, were such creeps. They were unlikeable no matter their pretensions of class. The father character was simply more likeable, even if he was a "prole." I thought the business of that woman living with them was stupid and stretching things. Who came up with such a dopey plot? I watched episodes of this show only if I were awake at 3:00 in the morning and it was that or infomercials, so I think I got in on its tenth re-run season, never having heard of it during its first run.

James Kabala said...

Kafka was a Bohemian (not "Czech" until the near the end of his life) Jew, but he wrote in German.

Contrary to what a couple people above seem to assume, I don't believe John Cleese is Jewish.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe John Cleese is Jewish.

He's of Norwegian ancestry. And yes, I know Kafka wrote in German, and I used the word Czech because I figured "Bohemian" would be misinterpreted. Point is, growing up in Prague, even as a German-speaker, would give one a very different perspective than growing up in, say, Munich would.

Richard Hoste said...

I liked Seinfeld and never watched Curb Your Enthusiasm. So I went out and got the DVD of the first season the other day on Steve's recommendation.

Good show. One thing though. I don't know what it is, but I absolutely HATE Richard Lewis. Something about him really rubs me the wrong way.

Anonymous said...

"I don't know what it is, but I absolutely HATE Richard Lewis. Something about him really rubs me the wrong way."

Could it be his weird combination of smugness and stammering nervousness? Or maybe his unfunny, longwinded, disjointed, and utterly pointless monologues?