Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of the most formulaic sitcoms on television today. Every episode of the show, beginning its seventh season on HBO Canada on Sept. 20, has a similar plot—creator/star Larry David plays a lovable loser hatching zany schemes that don’t work out, in the tradition of The Honeymooners. The story arc of the new season, a reunion of the cast members from David’s previous show, Seinfeld (as themselves), will bring new viewers to Curb. But it might also highlight the fact that Curb is less revolutionary than Seinfeld was.
Not that David’s production method on Curb is the stuff of traditional sitcoms. The lines on Curb are improvised on the set, a process that Seinfeld and Curb producer Larry Charles says “allows for a very spontaneous experience on-camera that then translates to the audience, I find, and enhances their experience as well.” But the plots are scripted in advance, and like an old-fashioned sitcom, David builds them around certain story ideas repeated over and over, usually involving Larry becoming obsessed with some social convention; in a typical story, he becomes determined to find out if someone is tipping more than him in a restaurant. Seinfeld sometimes repeated plots, but it was also known for minimalist storytelling, like the episode where the characters spent the whole time waiting for a table. Not Curb: the new season’s plots are built around sitcom tropes like wacky misunderstandings, but in R-rated versions (Larry mistakenly thinks a couple is having oral sex in their car). “It looks like it has no form,” says Kevin Wright, senior vice-president of programming for HBO Canada, “but it actually has the bones of a classic sitcom in terms of hitting the marks and paying off jokes and bringing together B and C storylines.”
On the evidence of the new season, Curb has become more sitcom-ish as it’s gone on. Several of the new episodes have plots that have been used on many sitcoms in the past. In one episode, David deliberately tries to act like a jerk (more so than usual) so that a doctor will advise his girlfriend to break up with him; the scene abandons HBO-style realism by having the other characters fooled by his obvious fakery. And Larry’s willingness to do the Seinfeld reunion is part of an elaborate scheme to get back together with his ex-wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines). When Larry tries to convince Jerry Seinfeld that the reunion show is a good idea, Seinfeld’s calm, cynical style is a throwback to their old show and a contrast to Larry’s over-the-top eagerness; Larry seems like Lucille Ball with improv chops.
All of this might just be David, consciously or not, going against the grain again. By the time he did Curb Your Enthusiasm, every sitcom around the world was trying to imitate Seinfeld’s short scenes and lack of sentimentality. For a change of pace, Curb is doing things that Seinfeld wouldn’t have done, with longer scenes and a strangely sweet tone at times. Larry does bad things to get Cheryl back, but he really seems to love her. Larry’s actions, no matter how awful, are based on a moral code: he wants to break up with his obnoxious girlfriend (Vivica A. Fox) but feels it would be wrong to break up with someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. When George on Seinfeld did something moral, it was a change of pace, because the people on that show were amoral monsters, sentenced in the series finale (which Jason Alexander gets to criticize on Curb) to be in prison with each other. Larry may fantasize at one point about letting someone die, but he’s an older sitcom type, the flawed but lovable idiot.
The traditional underpinnings of Curb also help it get away with all the non-traditional things it does. If the cringe-inducing comedy of pain (the first new episode makes fun of a mentally unbalanced woman, played by SCTV’s Catherine O’Hara) weren’t balanced by anything conventional, it would be unbearable to watch. But because Curb has roots in the safe familiarity of sitcoms, there’s a comfort level that allows David to get away with tasteless humour. The third episode has a scene in which Michael Richards is too obsessed with pictures of bare breasts to hear anything Larry is saying, but it’s a normal sitcom-type misunderstanding that won’t drive anyone away, even squeamish viewers. Wright says that Curb has a broad following because “a lot of Larry’s circumstances are those that an older demo can relate to.” If Seinfeld was an innovative show that looked like a sitcom, Curb is a mainstream show that looks like something else.