It's no secret that Larry David is said to have a prickly personality — he's managed to parlay that reputation into HBO's longest-running series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, which hilariously parlays that persona to its "Heart-of-Darkness" extremes. Some interviewers use their profiles of him to either complain or marvel over his tetchiness.
David was polite, friendly even, when I interviewed him for TV Guide Magazine's current cover story about Curb Your Enthusiasm's premiere on the TV Guide Network, as well as the debut of a new bonus series, Curb: The Discussion, which offers celebrity panelists analyzing Larry's eccentric behavior. We met in his office in Santa Monica — there's a putting green in the hall leading to his office, and another inside it. He asked me if I'd mind if he swung a golf club during the interview, but only did it a couple of times before sitting and getting down to business.
His office has a faux-poster advertising his appearance in The Producers (Curb's Season 4 storyline), some baseball-stadium photos, and a gigantic print featuring a clown alongside the legend, "Jokes that injure others, waste time, hurt records, are never jokes. Let's think twice." (This piece of art has appeared, briefly, on the show.) And though he was resolute in his refusal to discuss plot points in Curb's upcoming eighth season (which will air on HBO in 2011), a few out-of-context plot points on the white board in his office read: "Fridge Cry," "Make-out + talk," "Dad dies" and "I lost a cabinet." Make of that what you will.
Here's an expanded version of the Q&A, in which he discusses the show's takes on racism, its role it rescuing a man from Death Row, Jerry Seinfeld's dissing Curb and how he dealt with a potentially queasy sex joke involving a minor:
TV Guide Magazine: Have you seen anything in the discussions that has surprised you?
David: I'm surprised sometimes at how some of my actions are misinterpreted. There was one case where, it was an early episode with Ted [Danson] and Mary [Steenburgen], and we had just gone bowling with them, and I was enamored with Mary, but not in a sexual way, more in a platonic way. And everybody on the panel thought that I wanted to have an affair with her. But on no time on the show, except for the season when Cheryl said for a 10th anniversary present, I could have sex with someone, at no time was I ever a cheater in that sense. So I was surprised by that.
TV Guide Magazine: The Larry David of the show doesn't have a lot of tact. So the idea of discussing whether or not he's a good guy is funny in and of itself. But the show proves it does lend itself to that kind of debate. Did you imagine that people would spend that much time dissecting this guy's behavior?
David: I don't know that this is going on in anyone's life [laughs]. It's going on on this show because there's 10 minutes to fill up, so we can't say that people are actually talking about it on that level. But no, of course not. There are some things about the show that I never realized were possible, such as people cringing, having to leave the room sometimes — I would hear, 'I can't watch it, I'm too uncomfortable.' Never in a zillion years did I think that that would happen.
What's uncomfortable is that people never tell one another the truth, in a way. The truth is so uncomfortable for people because we're not used to it. You can't have social intercourse by being truthful, it doesn't work, that's why we're all liars. But you can on TV, so that's why some people are uncomfortable.
TV Guide Magazine: Was it weird that your show was part of that Juan Catalan trial, where you got him off, potentially, death row? (Note: An episode of Curb was about Larry hiring a prostitute so he could use the carpool lane to get to an L.A. Dodgers game on time; outtakes shot at Dodger Stadium proved that a man accused of murder who said he was at Dodger Stadium at the time proved he was telling the truth; he was facing death row otherwise.)
David: Oh, yeah, absolutely. The one thing — if I die, I've saved someone's life, which is probably the best thing I've ever done, which of course was inadvertent.
TV Guide Magazine: And with a prostitute.
David: [Laughs] Right, exactly. That was an amazing story. I remember being in the room when his lawyer was watching the footage. The lawyer called us up with this client jailed for murder, and it was months after the fact that he finally mentioned the Dodger game, and he mentioned months after the fact that he mentioned there was a film crew there. So the lawyer called up to ask to look through the footage. What are the odds that you'll find this guy? He went into a room with a producer. It was only a half-hour or hour of footage, and I went in after about 10, 15 minutes and I was there for about two minutes, and all of a sudden, the lawyer jumps out of his chair and says, 'There he is!' That was something. He was only 10 feet from me. As I was walking up the aisle, luckily, the camera sort of shifted a little to the right and you saw him sitting.
TV Guide Magazine: It seems a little amazing that he would've forgotten that, given he was in dire need of an alibi.
David: That's what I thought.
TV Guide Magazine: You had a little controversy this past season over the Jesus painting [in which Larry accidentally urinated on a religious portrait].
David: Mm-hmm. First off, I didn't piss on the painting, OK? I'm not saying this to you — I'm saying to the critics of that episode. It wasn't that crude; I didn't piss on Jesus. Some splattered up, because of a drug I was taking, and it appeared as though he was crying. I didn't do it deliberately.
TV Guide Magazine: Does it surprise you when anyone takes offense at something you do?
David: No. I'm not surprised people are offended at that, I'm frankly glad they were.
TV Guide Magazine: Because they should have been, or because that was their appropriate response to that situation?
David: Anyone who watches the show, I don't think I offended one person who subscribes to HBO and watches Curb on a regular basis. The only people who were offended were people who would never watch the show, and of course just upon hearing about it would get offended. It's just a trigger reaction to get upset.
TV Guide Magazine: When you came up the idea, did you think it would press someone's buttons?
David: [Long pause] I think the idea was sent in by someone. But I loved it, I thought it was really funny, and never considered who might be offended. It's just something I never would concern myself with.
TV Guide Magazine: In the [first-season] episode "The Doll," were you worried about when the girl hugs you with the water bottle [concealed in your pants]?
David: Yeah, the girl's mother was there, and I talked to her and the mother seemed completely, completely fine with it. She said, 'She won't even know what you're talking about. Don't worry about it.' I was somewhat concerned, but the mother put me at ease.
TV Guide Magazine: On Curb: The Discussion, the panelists will say something like, 'I don't buy that,' like they're retroactively calling into question your judgment.
David: Jerry did it. I was actually there, and afterwards, I said, 'No, no, no — that doll's head could not fit in my pocket! It was too big — I couldn't get that head in my pocket, it would've been bulging out; it would've been spotted in a second!' Yeah, I really need to be at those tapings to make some corrections.
TV Guide Magazine: Your character really has lived a lot in 70 episodes.
David: [Laughs] I know. He's gone through quite a bit. It's amazing that all those things would happen to a person. I almost got killed last year — I was hanging off a building, grabbing onto someone's stomach to save my life. I almost drowned in the ocean a couple of seasons earlier. I only have one kidney (having donated the other to Richard Lewis).
TV Guide Magazine: I thought "Vehicular Fellatio" was one of the best episodes in the series. It was structured so well, with the jokes building upon one another. When you see that, it's hard to believe that anything was left to chance, even though the show is improvised.
David: The story is exactly what the story was in the outline, so it wasn't like we got to the set and changed everything. We did exactly what was in the outline.
TV Guide Magazine: A certain line here or there could've thrown everything off.
David: There are certain lines in the outline that we might want to get to because we think it is clever, but 95-99 percent of it is completely improvised. But once you know the story, you don't need a script. All you need is the story, really. And after a take, some of the producers will say, you might try this line there. But I don't like going into any scene with any lines in my head — it's much more fun to improvise.
TV Guide Magazine: You were at the Lakers playoff game [recently], in the same seats that you tripped [Shaquille O'Neal, in a Season 2 episode, transforming him into a villain for all Lakers fans] in on your show.
David: Yes. You know what? Occasionally, I catch myself with my feet sticking out, and I think, 'You idiot.' Because you know, the refs come by that area. So I do have to be aware of it. Hence, the episode in the first place.
TV Guide Magazine: One of the things discussed on Curb: The Discussion is race. When you get into racial identity, do you have a line that you draw?
David: Yes. Everybody has their own line. I do have a line, and I'm very sensitive to that line, and try to stay on it.
TV Guide Magazine: Can you describe the line, or is it like pornography, you know it when you see it?
David: Yeah, exactly. That's exactly what it is.
TV Guide Magazine: While improvising scenes, have you or someone crossed the line?
David: Of course, in filming, things are said, and as I'm in the scene, I'll say, 'We'll cut that line,' and then when the scene's over, we'll do some notes and say, 'That's over the line, we don't want that. Next time, don't say that.' That's just something you're aware of all the time when you're doing comedy.
TV Guide Magazine: My read of the final episode of last season is that you were so close to winning Cheryl back, and you kind of blew it.
David: How do you know that I blew it?
TV Guide Magazine: The expression on her face at the end was, 'Why did I let this person talk me into letting him back into my life? I was so close to a clean break...'
David: [Laughs] You don't think that scene could end with her back in the fold?
TV Guide Magazine: If he could've just shown a little bit of restraint there at the end.
David: She did lie about the ring stain. [Which is why he threw the final temper tantrum that seemed to make her reconsider.]
TV Guide Magazine: Curb is now HBO's longest-running series.
David: I heard that. It's remarkable.
TV Guide Magazine: Especially since we don't know from season-to-season — even you don't know — if you'll want to do another. How long did it take after wrapping season did you know you were up for another?
David: It's a huge mountain to climb, to do a season. You always want to maintain the quality, and the notion that you can't maintain the quality makes me think I don't want to do it. So it takes me a while to sort of rev up the engine again, to think, 'OK, let's try this again. We can do this.'
TV Guide Magazine: There are a number of foreign shows that either bill themselves as or are clearly inspired by your show.
David: I know there's one in Denmark that's an exact sort of copy.
TV Guide Magazine: There are also ones in Australia, England, Germany ...
David: Really? Is that so?
TV Guide Magazine: Hong Kong, South Africa ... You can find out more at the Curb entry in Wikipedia.
David: Really. I'll check it out.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you find that flattering? Or do you want a cut of their earnings?
David: [It's been said that] 'Imitation is highest form of flattery.' But I don't know — I don't really feel flattered. But [long pause] here's the thing. It's done all the time. We do it here — we take successful shows. If they used the same stories, that would bother me. If it's copying style and tone, it's not the same as actually taking ideas, which would bother me.
TV Guide Magazine: One even reportedly uses music similar to yours.
David: All right, maybe I'm a little flattered [laughs].
Watch Curb Your Enthusiasm Wednesdays and Thursdays at 10/9c immediately followed by Curb: The Discussion on TV Guide Network.
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