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Random notes on television comedy

Reviews

August 11, 2011

On July 29, an article titled “Curb Your Racism” appeared on the widely read Mondoweiss, a blog devoted to “the war of ideas in the Middle East”. Written by Eleanor Kilroy, it expressed dismay at the most recent “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode on HBO:

Larry David’s right to exist in his homeland, America, seems ‘pretty, pretty’ secure. Slandering all Palestinians as anti-Semitic on an irreverent and popular TV show like this is a new low, and is an example of cultural and ethnic arrogance; it is no joke to imply that the Palestinian people’s ongoing struggle for justice poses an existential threat to privileged, Jewish men. Antony Loewenstein’s comment on the clip: “Is it possible for even liberal Jews on mainstream American TV to not frame Arabs and Palestinians as all anti-Semites? Apparently not”. Meanwhile, Haaretz is grinning like a fool at Larry’s joke that this is best place for Jews to cheat on their wives–since they would never be seen. If you side with the oppressor, you won’t be seen dead in the company of the oppressed.

This led to a heated discussion on the article with many comments claiming that Kilroy did not “get” the show:

You guys are misinterpreting this completely. It’s ironically pointing out how absurd those fears are in the context of Larry’s life.

When the guy looks at the posters and says they’re anti-semitic, that’s clearly the writers saying that claim is overblown. When Larry worries about women not recognising his right to exist, that’s clearly Larry getting over-wrought within a Jewish victim-complex.

It’s actually a smart comment on the Jewish mentality. Irony, people!

On August 1, there was a follow-up article titled “The Larry David Peace Plan“ that concurred with the comment above. Written by Jesse Benjamin, it recommended a more subtle reading of the show that required a deeper sense of irony:

My argument is that beyond the serious cultural limitations we sadly have come to expect on US television, there is also something else in this episode, something subversive, which is not common at all, and which casts light on the significant cultural moment we are living through. In this sense, I think too many critical thinkers with good politics have moved too quickly to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one. Amidst the gross but predictable equalizing of two profoundly asymmetrical “sides” in this very real conflict, David and crew actually showcase Jewish racism in both its extreme and its liberal forms, and this is something truly rare on television. They also give us brief flashes of otherwise censored concepts like “occupation,” “settlements,” or even just the real-life restaurant posters which show an Israeli tank facing down children, or declare: “Right-vs-Might,” and “Visit Palestine”–things we never see on tv.

HBO has a synopsis of the episode here. As should be obvious, the inspiration for the show was the NYC mosque controversy in which rightwing protesters challenged the right of Muslims to build a Islamic cultural center a few blocks from the World Trade Center.

What commentators on the show seem to miss is that–leaving aside the politics–it was not very good satire. While nobody would ever expect good satire to be “obvious”, the show was so unmoored from current events and from social reality, that it failed to register as social commentary–other than making religious Jews look foolish, a rather commonplace occurrence on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. Rabbis have gotten sent up on the show more times than I can count and much more effectively than the vastly overrated Coen brother’s movie “A Serious Man”.

The biggest problem is the utter failure to make the Palestinians seem even slightly plausible. To start with, the notion that there is such a thing as a Palestinian chicken restaurant festooned with political posters in Los Angeles is absurd. First of all, when Arabs–whatever their nationality–open a restaurant in a major American city, the last thing they are interested in is making a political statement. The posters on the wall of the restaurant opposing the occupation, etc. were a gimmick dreamed up by the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” writers in order to create a context for the conflict between the feckless Jews who came to protest the restaurant and the equally feckless Palestinians, symbolized by the young and attractive Palestinian woman who decides to become Larry David’s lover (I am afraid that he is succumbing to the Woody Allen syndrome) after he plucks the yarmulke from his friend’s head.

After the people in the restaurant watch the confrontation between Larry David and his newly observant friend in the parking lot as seen in the Youtube clip above, they decide to hail him as some kind of anti-Zionist exemplar. Who in their right mind could possibly connect this to a real-life situation? While I don’t think that the show could ever be interpreted as Zionist propaganda, it is unsettling to think that Arabs could ever act so foolishly. Why in the world would Muslims care about an observant Jew eating in a Palestinian-owned restaurant? The net effect of this scene is to portray them as anti-Semitic, and as equally intolerant as Larry’s friend who sought to “provoke” them. This is classic Hollywood liberalism but turned on its head. Instead of Paul Haggis “let’s all try to get along” pieties, Larry David aims at an “Arabs and Jews are equally stupid” message.

I first wrote about “Curb Your Enthusiasm” back in 2004:

When Seinfeld’s Executive Producer Larry David launched a new TV show on HBO playing himself, it might have been anticipated that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” would retain some of the characteristics of the Seinfeld show. This it does. Not only is the character Larry David just as self-centered and obnoxious as the Seinfeld regulars, he has the same whining Queens inflection as Jerry Seinfeld himself.

Unlike most Americans, I could not stand the “Seinfeld” show. I thought the show relied too heavily on shtick, a Yiddish word meaning gimmick–especially in the comic sense. For example, Jack Benny’s cheapness was shtick, as was Chevy Chase’s pratfalls on SNL. It also had the mandatory laugh-track, which has the same effect on me as the sound of a garden rake being scraped across a blackboard.

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” does incorporate the same kinds of convoluted plots as “Seinfeld”, usually putting one of the main characters into an excruciatingly embarrassing situation. Since they are not constrained by network requirements to keep Bible belt figures like Donald Wildmon happy, these plots tend to be a lot rawer and a lot funnier. For example, in one show, Larry David performs oral sex on his wife only to get a pubic hair stuck in his throat. For most of the episode, he is seen gagging and choking in polite company trying to dislodge the troublesome hair.

Now in its eighth season, the show has exhibited a kind of exhaustion that you tend to expect from those that are long in the tooth–the “Saturday Night Live” problem, so to speak. You get the sense that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episodes are cooked up in writer’s sessions that put a premium on being “outrageous” rather than witty. Watching a thirty-minute episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” nowadays is a frequently exhausting experience as you try to find dialog and situations that are even distantly related to the experience of real-life human beings. (Please don’t ask me about my own experiences with oral sex.)

In utter contrast to what “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has become, I strongly recommend “Louie”, the show produced, directed, written by and starring Louis C.K. (The comedian’s last name is an approximation of his Hungarian surname Szekely.)

Louis C.K. is a standup comedian who has also written for David Letterman and other big name entertainers. His style is an admixture of Bill Cosby and Sam Kinison. From the former, he derives home-spun subject matter, like interacting with his kids. From the latter, he derives a savage misanthropic view of the world, reserving the greatest loathing for himself. So in a typical bit, he might make some cute reference to his daughter and in the next breath saying something like he wishes she had never been born.

And above all, Louis C.K.–like Kinison–is deeply misogynistic. Much of his material dwells on what is like being divorced and how hard it is to find love. Mostly he blames himself for being overweight, a creep, a liar, etc. But more than enough blame is assigned to women who seem to get their greatest joy in humiliating him.

Some of the episodes of the thirty-minute FX show “Louie” can be seen at http://www.hulu.com/louie. I particularly recommend “Bummer/Blueberries” that follows the same format as “Seinfeld”, another about a comedian that blends on-stage performances at the beginning of each episode, followed by a “situation”.

Unlike Seinfeld, these situations are much darker and much more realistic, cutting close to the bone. In the aforementioned episode, the blueberries are a reference to a shopping expedition that Louie is sent on by a woman who has invited him to have sex–and virtually nothing else. She runs into him at his daughter’s school and after a precursory conversation about school affairs suggests that he might come over to her place sometime for some casual intercourse.

After he drops by, she asks him what kind of condoms he brought with him. When they turn out to be lubricated, she frowns and tells him that they will not do. They irritate her vagina. She instructs him to go to a pharmacy down the block and pick up unlubricated condoms, some lotion for her vagina just in case, and some blueberries. The blueberries, it turns out, have nothing to do with sex games but just something she wants to eat later. Throughout the entire experience–first meeting her, finding out about the shopping trip, and a truly alienating sexual encounter–Louie is held back by a hair’s width from aborting the mission. He wants the sex, but everything else leaves him depressed.

While all of this is completely amusing, at least to me, it is also very painful and very truthful. If this sounds like it is worth your while, I suggest tuning in to “Louie” on FX Thursdays at 10:30pm.

You also might want to check out “Wilfred”, the show that comes on just before “Louie” at 10pm, even though once might be more than enough.

Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins in the Ring movies) plays Ryan, a depressed lawyer who after trying to commit suicide relies on the companionship of a dog named Wilfred to raise his spirits. After seeing Wilfred in action, you wonder why Ryan doesn’t rush out and buy a gun to blow his brains out. I guess this is the comic conceit that is supposed to sustain your interest.

Wilfred is a dog in name only. Dressed in a Halloween-type costume, Australian actor Jason Gann, who created the original “Wilfred” on Australian TV, is an obnoxious pot-smoking creep who is constantly getting his master in trouble by doing all sorts of anti-social things like pissing on one of Ryan’s friend’s living room floors, etc. His “uplifting” message, repeated to the point of tedium to Ryan, is to “let it all hang out”.

I can’t vouch for the original Australian show, but I am afraid that it is probably much more inspired by “The Family Guy”, an American show that was created by David Zuckerman, the producer of “Wilfred”. Like “Wilfred”, “The Family Guy” features a talking dog and situations carefully calculated to make you squirm.

Like “Louie”, you can watch some episodes of “Wilfred” on Hulu. I more or less decided to put the kibosh on the show after watching the episode “Respect” the other week.

Set in a hospice, where Ryan has begun volunteering in order to impress a woman who has a thing about men with a social conscience, Wilfred–who has tagged along–demonstrates a talent for detecting when someone is about to die, a supposedly “spiritual” gift.

The show derives most of its guffaws from showing people near death looking and acting like human refuse. All I can say that having spent a couple of years visiting my mother in exactly such a place, I found it callow and tasteless. Just the sort of thing that television comedy is mostly about nowadays, I’m afraid.

Originally published on Louis Proyect’s blog, The Unrepentant Marxist.

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