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Has America lost its appetite for Curb Your Enthusiasm? – The Guardian

America’s enthusiasm for Larry David appears to be wearing pretty, pretty thin. The return of his long-running comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm earlier this month met with a mixed reception. Some critics praised the show’s taboo-breaking approach. Others lamented its decline. Writing in the Guardian, Phil Harrison said Curb was beginning to resemble a “fourth-rate Benny Hill”.

At the heart of the debate is whether a show about the travails of a privileged white man who operates without a filter has lost its appeal in America in 2017, a place where, in the words of New Yorker, “it feels as if all of public life is its own grim kind of cringe comedy”.

David took six years to consider whether to revive Curb, a project that started as an inventive stand-up special for HBO in 1999 and blossomed into a second hit for the man who found success as the co-creator of Seinfeld. It was the controversial ending of that show which gave him pause about reanimating Curb for a ninth season.

“I got so much grief from the Seinfeld finale, which a lot of people intensely disliked, that I no longer feel a need to wrap things up,” he said in a 2014 Grantland interview. “I wouldn’t say I’m mad about it, but it taught me a lesson that if I ever did another show, I wasn’t gonna wrap it up.”

But he did decide to come back, and this season’s story arc – in which David receives a death threat from the ayatollah after writing a musical called Fatwa – has been called a “throwback in a bad way”.

Ratings have been good but not startling. Curb managed 1.54 million viewers in the US on its debut, a dip of around 25% on the season eight finale. That’s quite a way off the mainstream appeal of Modern Family (which pulls in around 7 million viewers) but noticeably better than Emmys favourite Veep (580,000).

It has not all been bad for David. Many have praised his decision to keep the show controversial and to include a diverse cast which does not attempt to talk down to its audience but instead assumes it’s in on the joke.

Kenny Herzog, a TV critic who recaps Curb for New York magazine’s Vulture, said the reception of the ninth season revealed more about the contemporary debate around political correctness than David’s comedy itself.

“It is inevitable that the return of the show wasn’t going to have the luxury of standing on its legacy and its merits,” he said. “It was going to have to rise to a new standard that a lot of people have about being delicate towards certain subjects and people, even when you’re being funny.

“If you over-think it you’re going to end up making a show that doesn’t resonate with people because it doesn’t have anything to say and it doesn’t have any balls.”

The problem may be what the show is saying. Larry’s relationship with Leon Black – his layabout housemate, played by JB Smoove – has become a focal point for critics. Some say a lazy black character reiterates racist stereotypes. Others say the character is knowingly cartoonish and has endeared David to black America.

There is an argument that it’s not David who has changed, but his audience. In the time Curb has been off screen there has been a change in public opinion about political correctness. Vocal, student-led movements and social groups such as Black Lives Matter now challenge how power works in all parts of American society, including comedy.

David’s long-time collaborator Jerry Seinfeld has been one of the loudest voices shouting down opponents of offensive jokes and comedy.

In 2015, asked by ESPN why some comics no longer perform on university campuses, he said: “They just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist’; ‘That’s sexist’; ‘That’s prejudice’. They don’t even know what the fuck they’re talking about.

“I have no interest in gender or race or anything like that. But everyone else is kind of, with their calculating – is this the exact right mix? I think that to me it’s anti-comedy. It’s more about PC-nonsense.”

Herzog sees that societal shift – on what is deemed funny and what is wantonly offensive – as the core of the debate around Curb’s lost appeal.

“There might be people first coming to the show just based on its reputation having never seen it, and they may be in their 20s or late teens and have come of age in an era of self-conscious political correctness,” he said. “They can be surprised at how confrontational the show is.”

The other major change has come in the White House, where Donald Trump’s presidency has ushered in an era where, as the New Yorker put it: “Unbridled egotism and rampant hairsplitting rule the airwaves; the unrivalled callousness of a rich, old, out-of-touch white guy is a daily fixture.”

That landscape has made the show’s premise harder to swallow for some, but Herzog points out that it is people like Trump that the show is lampooning.

“You’ve got to pick your allies and pick your adversaries and I don’t think Larry David is really on the wrong side,” he said. “They’re on the right side of progressivism and you’ve got to have a sense of humour. If you find any of the new series offensive that means you need to go back and find the entire show offensive.”

Has America lost its appetite for Curb Your Enthusiasm? – The Guardian

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