Last week I had the good fortune of sharing my current research on Jewish humor with faculty, students, and other interested parties at a special lecture sponsored by the Max and Tessie Zelikovitz Centre for Jewish Studies at Carleton University. It’s always fun to share my ideas with others, and this event was no exception. I spoke about the influence of Jewish humor on the comic style of Larry David and his HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Compared to my principal research on cinema sound, humor studies is, well, funnier. Comedians aren’t lying when they say that getting a laugh is highly addictive and satisfying. I came equipped with an arsenal of clips from the show to not only prove my points, but also elicit some laughter. What’s a paper on humor without some jokes?
I was overwhelmed by the positive response my talk received from scholars and fans alike. It surprises me that the show continues to avoid any real discussion among television critics and humor scholars. While Seinfeld was over-saturated with attention, David’s own series remains an unexplored text that remains popular with audiences after six strong seasons on HBO (TMN in Canada). Most people that I’ve spoken with about the show can’t pinpoint what about it makes them laugh. They just seem to know that it’s funny, and that Larry is an inherently funny character.
Only after being invited by the Zelikovitz Centre to discuss my research did I begin to realize the comic question mark that Larry David poses to mainstream audiences. In the days leading up to the talk I was interviewed by the Ottawa Sun and two CBC radio programs. Each wanted to know the same thing: What is funny about Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm? Of course, I try to answer this in my paper, but I never thought the question was relevant outside the confines of my own scholarly interest.
The show seems to avoid critical inquiry because of its own comic complexity. It doesn’t surprise me to read capsule reviews of the show that emphasize its reliance on the “cringe” aesthetic, for this is no doubt the most obvious and elemental quality of the show’s comic identity. For the uninitiated, cringe humor emphasizes the awkward nature of social situations, best exemplified in the two versions of The Office and the work of Sasha Baron Cohen (Borat). In other words, we laugh because we are uncomfortable. Larry often inflames an already sensitive situation by treating the moment in a lighthearted manner, thus adding insult to injury. By dismissing a serious situation with an off-the-cuff remark, Larry invites criticism from his wife and friends, and remains an outsider in his own social circle.
As a timely and some would call “edgy” sitcom that blurs the line between reality television and situational comedy, Curb is absurdist, surreal, cringe worthy, but most of all Jewish. As an outsider, Larry upholds some of key characteristics of Jewish humor. He is, like the classic schlemiel character, a victim of circumstance, blamed for disrupting the flow of social codes and conventions. In a Halloween episode entitled “Trick or Treat,” Larry refuses to distribute candy to a pair of teenage girls who show up on his doorstep sans costume. Later, when Larry finds his front yard strewn with toilet paper, he and Cheryl argue over whether he is justified in his Halloween “rule,” that teenagers and persons without costumes do not deserve free candy. Here’s a clip from the episode.
Jewish humor questions social customs from the periphery, the sidelines — a position to which Jews have historically been relegated. Larry has his own set of social rules that often conflict with those of society. He is disgusted by the “socially accepted” rule that dry cleaners will lose your garments. He is horrified that someone would steal shrimps out of his Chinese take-out box and deny it. In several episodes, Larry exposes the ridiculous and unspoken codes that govern our culture, albeit in a refracted and absurdist manner.
He is a modern schlemiel — victimized by society and besieged by people who don’t understand him. At the same time, Larry is aggressive, forthright, and exudes an attitude of entitlement. These aren’t necessarily incommensurate attitudes. Larry’s television persona blends the put-upon mensch figure made popular by Woody Allen with an acidic edge reminiscent of Lenny Bruce. He combines the “I get no respect” mantra of Rodney Dangerfield with the self-deprecating nature of Jackie Mason. Is he a self-hating Jew? See for yourself here.
There are so many nuances to the comedy of Curb Your Enthusiasm that a single blog entry cannot address them all. It’s decidedly Jewish, but open to all audiences. It’s cringe comedy without an overt reliance on the technique. It’s observational and highly irreverent. As Larry would say, it’s pretty, pretty, pretty good.
My work on the show will be published in 2009 in The Journal of Popular Culture. The article attempts to situate Larry’s sense of humor in the larger sphere of Jewish humor.
While I enjoyed reading this post, I must disagree with you on the reason for our laughter. We, the audience, don’t laugh at cringe comedy because we are uncomfortable, we laugh because they (the characters) are uncomfortable. We laugh at Larry’s awkwardness because more often than not he is responsible for putting himself in those situations and so we feel pity for him. But the moment when we, the viewer, start to feel uncomfortable, or begin to empathize with a character’s distress, is the moment when what we are watching is no longer funny.
Great article. I’m actually writing a term paper on the Jewish folk humor roots of Curb, and I was wondering if you could share some resources you found helpful in your own studies. Thanks.
I’m writing an article on shlemiels for the Forward. Could you email me so that I could ask you a few questions?
Has your article been published? I’m doing work on Larry David and it didn’t come up on the databases.