The Larry David Show

The man behind Seinfeld moves to the big screen

In Seinfeld, the hero is Jewish and the audience assumes that everyone except Elaine is, too; in Sour Grapes, the only ethnic reference comes when Richie's mother complains about the dearth of bagels in Atlantic City. David admits, "I draw on the voices I heard growing up." He has a knack for capturing the spieling rhythms and inflections of Yiddish-influenced melting-pot vernacular. Some pundits criticized Seinfeld, especially in the first half of its run, for taking place in an ultra-white Upper West Side; by the time it became a cultural phenomenon, would-be moralists like Maureen Dowd were excoriating it as a celebration of trivia-minded, self-absorbed baby boomers. In fact, David's confident skewering of his highly particularized characters, and his ruthless drive for the laugh in any situation, liberates him as a satirist.

He tackles just the sort of charged, ambiguous subjects that more superficially "open" and "feeling" talents would never touch, including racial sheepishness and confusion. One of the wittiest scenes in Sour Grapes comes when a pair of detectives interview an elderly suburban couple about a black homeless man breaking and entering a neighbor's house. The wife can barely bring herself to note the culprit's race because the courtly, patient lead detective is an African-American himself. "It's a touchy subject," David concedes, "but it's nothing I thought about until I got to the scene. I realized it would be funnier if the neighbors found themselves unable to say who this guy was because there's a black detective and they're embarrassed." And what about making the homeless person black in the first place? "There are white homeless people in the movie too, even if the guy who gets the biggest part is black; and it's crazy to think there aren't any black homeless people, you know? I didn't want to be held back by any sort of political correctness issues, though I was aware that white people would have a problem with it. I love the way white people feel they always have to speak on black people's behalf, because they're offended by something that black people aren't offended by at all!

"Not that I'm deliberately setting out to offend people," David continues, "but I expect some people to be offended along the way. S.J. Perelman once said it was 'the office of comedy to offend.' " David is anti-sentimental at gut level, and fatalistic in his view of human nature. Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo), primarily a dramatic writer, once said that he quit writing for television because the characters in a TV series could never change. David, exclusively a comic writer, embraces the idea that characters on TV never change. And they don't in his movie, either. "I like that," David says, "because I've known people my whole life, and I've never seen anybody change. I haven't changed, and I can't tell you one person who's changed. It always just seems so contrived to me, the way people change in movies; I don't like to see it, especially in comedies. It's not funny to see somebody who's inherently one way and then all of a sudden has an experience that changes him -- how is that funny? Maybe it works in drama; I don't think it does in comedy. And I like to stick a little closer to life, I think. It's one of those things about the Seinfeld show, too. It was very down to earth. How often do you have a moment with a friend, when you look at each other and give each other a big hug, or something like that? It just doesn't happen."

I say I suspect David would agree that it's more likely you'll have a moment when you look at an old friend and realize he's a schmuck. "Exactly!" he responds. "You look at him and you realize you want to get away from him! To get somebody to give you this big hug -- it's got to be a huge thing, a death, some huge event. Don't you think? But on TV it seems to happen regularly; every week somebody's crying, in a comedy! So we tried to avoid that on Seinfeld. I wrote this episode 'The Kiss Hello' because of my aversion to kissing people hello. Like every social encounter I would say to myself, 'Oh, do I have to kiss so-and-so?' It would ruin my 'Hello!' It would really detract from my entrance, thinking, 'Do I kiss her, and not kiss that one?' And I noticed that the women I didn't kiss hello I had a much better relationship with. Because I could just say, 'Hey, how ya doin'?,' I wasn't afraid to see them. There wasn't an awkward moment. So I wrote this episode thinking, 'Maybe, if people watch this, they'll stop kissing me hello.' But of course it didn't happen."

Building jarring ambiguity into a banal encounter has become one of David's specialties. In Sour Grapes, Richie, suddenly wealthy, calls his boss "fuck face" for denigrating one of his shoe designs; after he's fired, he falls back on a cliche to cover his exit. David explains, "He's got his money, he doesn't need his boss anymore, and when he leaves, he tells the guy, 'You take care of yourself.' So he's very surprised when the guy answers him, 'I intend to.' So Richie says, 'I'm sure you do,' and the guy says, 'Why wouldn't I?' We came up with that conversation on the set, and it's one of my favorite scenes in the movie. There are so many conversations I love to hear that you really don't hear. Things that people shouldn't be talking about but that circumstances force them to talk about."

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