Multi-talented author Henry Hitchings’ new book Sorry! The English and their Manners has garnered glowing reviews. In an exclusive post for The Dabbler, Henry explains why Curb Your Enthusiasm is the ultimate comedy of manners…
When I began writing a book about manners, I thought about sitcoms I could reference for examples of amusing faux pas or admirable restraint.
Immediately I saw scope for bringing in Fawlty Towers and Peep Show, as well as mentioning Till Death Us Do Part, Phoenix Nights and Keeping Up Appearances. But the best examples that came to mind were from two American shows, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. True, neither was concerned with British or indeed English manners, yet in both there were reflections on etiquette and ethics that seemed too interesting to ignore.
In Seinfeld the most eye-watering incidents involve George Costanza. The embodiment of hopelessness, George is perceptive about toxic social norms: ‘When you look annoyed all the time, people think that you’re busy’, ‘If you can’t say something bad about a relationship, you shouldn’t say anything at all.’ Yet his commentary is reactive rather than an attempt to expound a philosophy. When he identifies a sour tendency in other people’s behaviour, he is expressing a grievance, not trying to promote change.
Curb Your Enthusiasm offers a different slant on manners. Here everything revolves around George’s creator (and supposed real-life model), Larry David. His philosophy is summed up when he’s invited to a party and the host insists ‘Tell me you’re enjoying yourself.’ Larry’s response? ‘No!’ More striking than Larry’s reluctance to let his (sparse) hair down is his reluctance to conform. At parties, you’re meant to have a good time: often you don’t, but saying so is considered odious.
I doubt there are many people who would enjoy Curb Your Enthusiasm who aren’t already familiar with it. Yet I don’t feel its assault on the vacuity of modern living has been sufficiently appreciated – outside the privacy of its fans’ heads, at least.
Curb blurs the distinction between fiction and reality: the real-life Larry David, born Lawrence Gene David in Brooklyn in July 1947, plays a character called Larry David, who shares so much of the real Larry’s personal history that it’s possible to get confused about whether Curb is a sitcom, a heavily ‘meta’ essay in postmodernism, or some sort of partly structured, largely haphazard fly-on-the-wall documentary.
The character Larry David is an aggrieved and unrepentant fusspot who is capable of hilarious bursts of rage. In the very first episode he tells his friend Richard Lewis, a neurotic comedian, that Richard’s new girlfriend, with whom he’s had a run-in at the cinema, ought to try reading ‘Emily fucking Post’. This apparently throwaway reference to the American doyenne of etiquette (who died in 1960 but lives on through the assiduities of the Emily Post Institute) is in fact a clue about what’s to come over the rest of the season – and over seven seasons since.
At the heart of Curb is Larry’s realization – endlessly repeated – that being right is by no means the same thing as being polite. I’d go so far as to suggest that manners are the main subject of Curb. The show sometimes reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels. Larry finds himself in a world where everyone else seems to know what to do – and where what they know to do strikes him as moronic.
Writing in the New Yorker in December 2000 (when Curb was still new and strange), Nancy Franklin observed that the Larry character is ‘a psychic accident intent on happening, a speck of grit looking for an eye to lodge in. No good deed that he performs for another human being goes unpunished.’
Larry is hardly a fountainhead of good deeds. Sometimes he does pretty despicable things, such as stealing flowers from a roadside memorial. Even the good deeds he does manage are mostly little courtesies rather than substantial acts of altruism. But, crucially, he is made to feel that they are errors.
In an entirely typical scene Larry holds a door for a woman on his way into the doctor’s surgery: as a result she gets seen before him, and he’s furious. Perhaps you’ve been there? By which I mean: you did something magnanimous and ended up wishing you had behaved in an altogether more ruthless fashion.
Time and again, Larry seems to be penalized for his lack of guile. One form his guilelessness takes is the conviction that it is a good thing to ventilate the truth. When he and his wife Cheryl discuss renewing their wedding vows, he balks at having to promise to love her ‘through all eternity’: ‘I guess I had a different plan for eternity… I thought I’d be single again.’ And when Richard Lewis accuses him of ogling his girlfriend’s bosom, Larry puts him straight: ‘First of all, Richard, they’re not breasts… They’re just big chemical balls.’
Larry’s problems are rarely outlandish. Rather, they are ordinary issues that he chooses to handle brusquely, pedantically, or in a spirit of unbending bloody-mindedness.
I share Larry’s distaste for being given a detailed tour of other people’s houses. This is the utility room, is it? I’d never have guessed. Wow, check out the faux-Edwardian light switches. I can certainly relate to Larry’s indignation when a mix-up at a restaurant results in his order being given to a fellow gourmand who nabs some of his kung pao shrimp.
Often Larry’s missteps and expostulations tee up a question that’s apparently pedestrian yet not easily answered. What do you do when you lend someone a pen and see him probe his ear with it? Is it okay for your doctor, paying you a house call, to grab a lemonade from the fridge? How well do you have to know someone to feel you should pause in the street for what Larry calls a ‘stop and chat’? When you’re taking paper napkins from a dispenser in a café, how many is too many? Should one indulge teenagers who play ‘Trick or treat’ without entering sincerely into the Halloween spirit? How big should one’s Christmas tree be? What’s the cutoff time for phoning a friend at home?
In each case, Larry has a view about the right way to behave, and so do we. Usually his approach is at odds with how we would conduct ourselves in the same situation. (Or at least with how we’d like to imagine we would conduct ourselves.) We may laugh at the inappropriateness of his actions, but again and again Curb homes in on the arbitrary nature of our ideas of what’s appropriate.
Larry exults in telling truths and exposing the hidden tensions in everyday life. However, his exultation tends to obscure his astuteness. He is bad at dealing with being wrong (he is a master of grudging apologies), but he is also bad at dealing with being right. In the realm of manners, the latter is the graver offence.
Notwithstanding his tolerance (from Series 6 onward) of perpetual houseguest Leon, Larry has a pungent dislike of freeloading. When a customer takes endless free samples in an ice cream shop, he reflects that ‘It’s not right for the woman working back there; she’s got better things to do.’ He also upbraids Christian Slater for ‘going to town’ on the caviar at a party. ‘I think you’re going over your allotment,’ he says.
For British viewers this may prompt an image of the star of Heathers and True Romance tending his radishes. But let’s be clear: Slater (or the version of Christian Slater being played by Christian Slater) is making a pig of himself. Larry doesn’t think piggishness should be allowed to pass without comment. On this occasion his comment concludes with the words ‘Just an observation, not a big deal.’
The trouble is, observations are a big deal. A large part of being an amenable member of society is not making uninvited observations. Slapping down other adults for greed or cheapness is generally considered about as pleasant as spitting in their soup. Worse, that is, than the greed itself. Larry thinks this is bullshit. Or, to revert to his idiom: ‘The whole cashew-raisin balance is askew!’
Larry is confident that he has an expert understanding of what’s proportionate – in a bowl of fruit and nuts, and in all other departments of existence. Confident, that is, until he runs up against other people’s rather different sense of proportion. Then he faces a choice: try to change what they think, or slump into despair. He tends to go for the former. And, true to life, it tends not to work.
Henry Hitchings’ book Sorry! The English and their Manners is available from Amazon and other outlets.