Jerry Seinfeld was about to do a standup gig at Shea’s Performing Arts Center. So we were on the phone talking.
I asked the adamant sitcom retiree about his old partner and “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David, who was then starring in everyone’s favorite whine-and-kvetch fest, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Everybody but everybody was talking about Larry David back then.
Do the boys still keep in touch, I asked. Does the star and devoted standup comic ever have ideas to pass on to his old behind-the-scenes colleague, David?
It was close to the end of my allotted chat time with Seinfeld. I could practically feel the temperature on his end of the conversation respond to my David question with a sudden fall of 10 degrees.
Seinfeld’s answer seemed to accumulate frost with every word. “He has no trouble coming up with ideas, believe me.” The vocal sound Seinfeld intended was, no doubt, long-suffering amusement. The one that came out was chilly weariness he just couldn’t hide, as much as he might want to.
When you think of the comic – and decidedly fictional – reactions of everyone to David on his show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the no-man’s land between exasperation and ice is where his friends and colleagues seem to dwell much of the time for comic purposes. It’s David’s hilarious comic gift to know exactly how childish and annoying he is.
Now consider the opening minutes of the plot of Larry David’s “Clear History,” which hits HBO at 9 p.m. today with a mildly mind-boggling cast.
David plays Rolly, the marketing partner and prodigious (and prodigiously self-involved) idea man for a guy (Jon Hamm) named Howard who is about to offer for sale a new electric car. David, as always, plays the sort of guy who always has something to say about the rest of the world’s hygiene and self-presentation standards. His partner/boss’ Nanny, for instance, only washes her hair once a week. Rolly, of course, doesn’t approve, so he says so to her and Howard both.
Howard’s mind is elsewhere. He is ready to unveil his revolutionary vehicle for all his business associates, especially his closest partner.
So Howard shows us his new electric car – which he announces proudly will be called the Howard. (Are you hearing any echoes yet from a legendary bit of TV sitcom history – like that famous TV sitcom about nothing named after its star?)
His marketing partner Rolly is so incensed that he immediately sells his 10 percent share of the company back to Howard for what he paid for it.
You guessed it. Wolf Blitzer is soon reporting on CNN that “The Howard is the Model T of our day” and it’s looking as if Rolly’s original 10 percent would have made him a billionaire.
When he thinks about apologizing for his tantrum and offering to buy his share back, he wonders aloud for us at home if apologies need to be sincere.
Pure Larry David that.
Let us now praise David – redundantly and unnecessarily perhaps but still …
Seinfeld can take care of himself with his nine-figure fortune, but David needs his place in TV history affixed with a bit more security.
He’s a TV original.
But one with lots of precedents.
TV and radio and movies have been presenting us with overgrown adult male babies for almost 80 years – Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Archie Bunker, all sorts of absurdly oversensitive and querulous terrors whose ability to destroy social tranquility at a moment’s notice rivals that of a temper-prone toddler.
The world loves David for being the monster who’ll say aloud – and do – what the rest of us won’t.
Here, along with his old pal Seinfeld on the show they did together, is a guy who’s bold enough to blow the whistle on double dippers at parties armed with their horrifying reused potato chips. These are the guys who alerted prime time to the social menace of “close talkers.”
David, of course, is still out there regaling us with tales of his acute discomfort with most, if not all, things human. Our species is nothing but sloppy about sanitation, which is why David is on constant guard, lest, say, a coffee shop waitress array silverware directly on the table’s Formica surface, rather than on a napkin.
So what, then, is David’s perfectly Davidian solution in this evening’s “Clear History” to the humiliation of the entire world’s knowledge that Rolly is the man, who in a fit of infantile ego and temper, maneuvered himself out of a billion dollars? It just isn’t enough, after all, that while the world is driving Howards, he’s still defiantly driving a gas-guzzling Jeep Wagoneer.
That’s easy. He gets an idea from Howard Roark in the movie of “The Fountainhead.” Why not blow up his old partner’s huge and vulgar new manse on Martha’s Vineyard – where, of course, Rolly now lives elsewhere in a comfortable life of constant whining and kvetching.
If Howard Roark can blow things up at the end of “The Fountainhead,” why can’t a Howard-hater like Rolly?
But then that solution certainly entails problems, too.
You think that’s bad? What’s he going to do about his ex-girlfriend Wendy who, during their relationship, may have had a night of serial oral encounters with every member of the band Chicago?
What is obvious about David’s well-established comic unease now is that it has existed long enough for everyone else in show business to want in – OK, maybe not everyone but enough people to have a hilarious time as the objects of David’s whining and kvetching.
His comedy club, not unlike Woody Allen’s, is one many yearn to join.
Check out Michael Keaton in “Clear History” as an almost unrecognizable Vineyard inhabitant named Stumpo.
And Kate Hudson playing the fetching wife of Rolly’s old nemesis/partner Howard. And Bill Hader. And Philip Baker Hall.
And how about Liev Schrieber – unbilled and ultra-droll – as the guy you have to see to get the right demolition hardware on Martha’s Vineyard.
Say, isn’t that the Farrelly Brothers, unbilled, playing minor roles on David’s version of Martha’s Vineyard? You bet it is.
By all means, watch tonight if you’ve ever had any affection for America’s comically infantile men and their endless bouts with everyday comic resentment.
And just imagine, if you can, Friday night poker at David’s house – with the ghosts of W.C. Fields, Archie Bunker, Chester A. Riley, Bob Hope and Jack Benny sitting and snarling at a table littered with chips of both kinds, the eating kind and the betting kind.
And heaven forgive the first guy at the table who double dips.