The Davidian Complex
This week's issue of The New Yorker contains a piece about Larry David.
David had a reputation as a comic's comic—"which means I sucked," he likes to say. His material was uncompromisingly to his own taste, filled with wild tirades about apparent trivialities. In one routine, he went on at length about the use of the familiar "you" in foreign languages ("Caesar used the tu form with Brutus even after Brutus stabbed him, which I think is going too far"). He imagined himself as a professional masturbator so talented that people stopped him on the street to ask for advice ("You must practice!"). He wondered how answering machines might have changed the Old West. (For one thing, you could get out of joining a dangerous posse by screening your calls.)
David's onstage manner was almost willfully uningratiating. He was intense and bespectacled, and often wore an old Army jacket. He had started going bald at thirty, and by his early forties "the hair was a combination of Bozo and Einstein," the comedian Richard Lewis says. David and Lewis, who were born three days apart, originally met at Camp All America, in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, when they were thirteen. They disliked each other immediately. A dozen years later, they met again, at the bar of the Improv, a comedy club in Manhattan, and became close friends. "Talk about walking to the beat of your own drum," Lewis says of David. "I mean, this guy was born in a snare drum."
Larry David met Jerry Seinfeld around 1976. David had been doing standup for two years; Seinfeld was just starting out. "Our brains had a comedic connection," Seinfeld says. "Larry was a guy open to discussing virtually any human dilemma, as long as it was something that not a lot of other people were interested in. I was exactly the same way. We weren’t interested in what was on the front page of the newspaper." They became comedy friends, working on standup material together while walking through Central Park or sitting in a coffee shop, one helping the other if he was stuck with a bit.
In the fall of 1988, Seinfeld received the ultimate acknowledgment for a comic: NBC called, wanting to develop a show with him. "It didn’t seem like any fun to do it by myself," he says. "So I told Larry about it."
One night in late November, Seinfeld and David were going to share a cab back to the West Side from Catch a Rising Star but decided to stop and pick up some groceries first. "It was a Korean deli, and we were waiting to pay, and we started making fun of the products they kept by the register," Seinfeld says. "You know, those fig bars in cellophane, without a label, that look like somebody made them in their basement?"
David turned to Seinfeld and said, "This is what the show should be—this is the kind of dialogue that we should do on the show."
"The stuff that we would talk about was never on TV," Seinfeld says. "The essence of the show, originally, was my desire to transplant the tone and subjects of my conversations with Larry to television. At first, the idea was to have two comedians walking around in New York, making fun of things, and in between you’d have standup bits."
"Well, my favorite show of all time was Bilko," [David] said, referring to the classic sitcom "The Phil Silvers Show," which starred Silvers as the scheming Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko, in charge of the motor pool at the fictional Fort Baxter, Kansas. "I just thought that was head and shoulders above any other show I had seen. You know, in analyzing it now, you could see that Bilko was a manipulative character"—he smiled, giving me a pointed look—"who did a lot of kind of unlikable, despicable things. But, because he was so funny doing it, it all just worked."
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