Read an Excerpt
Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good
Larry David and the making of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm
By Josh Levine
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2010 Josh Levine,
All rights reserved.
The End of the Beginning, or Farewell to Seinfeld
Each member of the audience, even family members, had to go through a metal detector to ensure that there were no secret recording devices hidden under shirts or in pockets. Each had to sign a confidentiality agreement; nothing of what was seen or heard would be told to anyone before the broadcast. They sat on bleachers before the stage.
This was the taping of the final episode of Seinfeld, the last before it went off the air forever (except, of course, in endless reruns). By this time the entire nation was addicted to the show, and its ending, at the height of its popularity, had been major news ever since the announcement. Coming out to warm up the audience, Jerry Seinfeld — the star, co-creator, and sometime writer of the show, who was most associated with its success — joked that the audience members, who had actually managed to acquire tickets, thought they were "hot shit." He compared it to having seats on the Grassy Knoll for the Kennedy assassination. It was a cocky, even arrogant thing to say, but Seinfeld could easily get away with it. The show had made him the most popular comic on the planet.
He asked whether he ought to say something to make everyone cry. Actually, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was already crying.
Seinfeld reiterated to the audience the need not to tell people about the show before it aired. Jon Lovitz, one of the celebrities in the audience, yelled out, "Do you have any hush money?"
The taping was long and arduous; it didn't end until 2 a.m. The ostensible director was Andy Ackerman, a veteran of the show. But there was another man moving about the set, helping actors with their line readings, deciding whether a take was good enough or had to be done over. Tall and lanky, balding and bespectacled, he gestured broadly with his hands stretched out, hummed under his breath, broke up laughing, or consulted the script in his hands. It was his script after all. He, Larry David, had been tapped to write the very last episode of the country's most popular sitcom. And he had been given twice the airtime, an hour.
The television audience was not familiar with Larry David. Most did not know his name. Few knew what he looked like. They did not realize that he was as responsible — perhaps even more responsible — for the success of Seinfeld as Jerry was. He had written its most famous episode, "The Contest," and many other great episodes, and he had presided over the first seven seasons of the show. He had come up with the idea that it would be about "nothing." That it would break the conventional sitcom rules. That there would be "no learning, no hugging." The character of George was based on him. Kramer was based on a man who had lived next door to him. Jerry's parents were modelled on Larry David's parents. Many of the story lines came from Larry's own life. The show had made him very, very rich, but not famous the way that Jerry and the other actors on the show were.
If Larry David was frustrated by the lack of recognition, he kept it to himself. But the press had written extensively about his writing the script as part of the lead-up to the airdate. The pressure had been on him to end the show on an appropriately high note.
Jerry had been running the show without his co-creator since Larry had quit in 1996 after seven seasons. But before the ninth began to film, he met with Larry to tell him he thought this would be the show's last. The characters, he thought, were getting too old to keep acting so immaturely. As Larry later put it, "All the dating would have been unseemly." Jerry asked Larry to come back and write the last episode. Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric, which owned NBC, personally offered Jerry $100 million to keep the show on the air for another season. But Jerry, already rich beyond his wildest dreams, said no.
Even though Larry had wanted the show to end when he himself quit, the thought of it actually finishing made him feel quite depressed. He had been thinking about the last episode ever since he himself contemplated leaving. His first idea was a show without any story lines at all but just conversation about the usual little things that obsessed the characters. But after a few pages of writing, he found it boring and gave up. He also considered bringing Jerry and Elaine together romantically, but Jerry, on one of his off-season tours, had asked audiences about the possibility and the responses had been mostly negative. Julia had long harbored the idea that they drive off a cliff. Larry David's mother, who didn't like the episode in which Susan dies, begged her son not to kill off the characters.
Strangers offered Larry suggestions in the street. So did friends and people on TV talk shows. Larry himself told one of the reporters who began to call regularly, "I haven't really thought about it too much. It's a difficult show to write a final episode for. The nature of final episodes is 'big ideas.' People get married, they go to Europe. It's a big thing. So I don't know what I'm going to do yet." He also said, "I would say that, knowing George, you know more about me than you do if you speak to me. Because I feel like I'm the phony. I'm the fake. People who are talking to me, they're not getting sincerity, for the mos part.... I think George is much more real than I am." It was the sort of ruminating that would eventually lead to Larry playing Larry on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
More articles appeared, raising the stakes. The New York Times Magazine asked, "Can the last episode ever do justice to the dozens that preceded it?" Larry took his time writing it. Or even starting. But one morning he woke at 3 a.m., heart pounding. He realized he had to get on with it. He gave it a code name title, "A Hard Nut to Crack," and began.
The script that Larry finally sat down and wrote was possibly the least sentimental of any Seinfeld show. It begins with a new head of NBC giving a green light to the television show that George and Jerry had come up with years before. NBC loans its private jet to them, and they take Elaine and Kramer to Paris. Except that the plane has engine trouble and needs to land almost immediately. While walking in town, the foursome witnesses a very fat man being mugged. Instead of helping, they comment and laugh, and Kramer even videotapes the crime. The four are charged by a cop for breaking the new "good Samaritan law" and are put in jail.
There are several moments in the last show that anticipate Curb Your Enthusiasm. The meeting with the NBC executives is a precursor to several network pitch meetings from the second season of Curb. The expression "walk and talk" will be rewritten as the more memorable "stop and chat." The intention of Jerry and George to move to California to do the show anticipates the L.A. setting of Curb. There are several jokes about Ted Danson, a friend of Larry's who will become a recurring character on the latter show. Even the plane getting into trouble is an earlier version of the plane ride that Cheryl takes in season six of Curb, which results in her decision to leave Larry.
But all that was in the future and totally unknown and undreamed of. A trial follows in which Larry brings many old characters to the witness stand — the Low-Talker, the Soup Nazi, Babu Bhatt — reminding the audience of past episodes. Despite the histrionics of the attorney, the characters are convicted and sentenced to a year in jail. Jerry gives a poorly received stand-up show to the other inmates. Our last view of them is sitting in a cell talking, as always, about nothing.
When Larry finished the last page of the script, page 152, he actually choked up.
When the show aired, on May 14, 1998, 76 million people tuned in. Advertisers paid NBC up to $20 million for a twenty-second spot. And in the opinion of most viewers, and the newspaper reviews that came out the next day, the show was ... a stinker. The last episode was a flat, dull disappointment. Or as the Houston Chronicle put it, "... one of the least loved conclusions in the history of television."
It was not Larry David's finest hour.
In 1995, during the seventh season of Seinfeld, Larry decided that he wanted out. Each year he had felt more pressure to produce great scripts and now, with the show at number one, the pressure was even worse. He had been grumbling about the show from its earliest days, claiming he wanted it to be cancelled, but this time he really meant it. In 1993 he had married a television producer named Laurie Lennard; they were expecting their second child. He wanted to spend more time with the kids. Television, of course, works on a brutal schedule of days, nights, and weekends. So he wrote one last episode, a particularly edgy one in which George's girlfriend Susan dies from licking bad envelopes, and then he quit.
Jerry too had been thinking that the show ought to end. And the stars — Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, and Michael Richards — knew that its creators wanted to finish on a high note and not wait until the show was losing steam. In fact, Larry assumed that if he quit Jerry would too, ending the show. After all, it was their mutual creation; it couldn't possibly go on without him.
But like an angry employee who made a pact with his fellow workers to hand in their resignations only to discover that only he is without a job, Larry found himself alone. Jerry, it turned out, wanted to keep going. And the actors, who were making a small fortune per episode, didn't want to leave either. And so Jerry decided to run the show without Larry. Larry wasn't at all happy about it, but there wasn't anything he could do. "I can't stop them from doing the show," he said. "I probably won't watch it."
It was perhaps an odd comment from the co-creator of a hit show. But then, Larry David wasn't like other people. Seinfeld had brought him from obscurity and near poverty to the pinnacle of show business success. But it hadn't changed him, not in any substantial way. And it hadn't made him any happier. He was still the same Larry.CHAPTER 2
An Unfunny Kid
"I never thought I would be involved in anything successful," Larry David once said. "My plan was to try and get by. Maybe at some point I'd get involved in a bank robbery or something."
Born on July 2, 1947, he was the second son of Morty David, a Brooklyn clothier who would later retire and become president of his condo association, like Jerry's dad on Seinfeld. Larry's mother went to work for the Bureau of Child Guidance. Later she wanted Larry to take the civil service test, figuring that he better get himself a secure job — postal worker, teacher — with good benefits. (On Seinfeld, when George moves back into his parents' house, his mother has the same idea.) His parents were both Democrats, sharing their values and eventually turning Larry into one too.
Larry shared a room with his older brother, Ken, who would later move to Oregon and give advice on computers and investments. Larry went to P.S. 52 and then Sheepshead Bay High School where his report card was filled with average marks because he didn't much care. (Later an obnoxious comic in a Seinfeld episode would come from Sheepshead Bay. "We were right on the water. The whole atmosphere stank of fish.") There was always a lot of yelling — between his aunts and uncles, the families of his friends, and in the apartments next to their own. In just the same way, yelling would be a major form of communication on Curb. Larry liked sports and was considered a good athlete by other kids. His parents also forced him to go to Hebrew school, which he detested. He didn't much hide his feelings and got kicked out for laughing at the rabbi who was telling him off for some infraction. (Even now, when someone is yelling at Larry on Curb he can barely keep himself from laughing.) But his parents, horrified that he wouldn't be able to have a bar mitzvah, talked him back in.
"We're both from kind of middle-earth Brooklyn," said Larry Charles, who would become a producer, writer, and director on both Seinfeld and Curb. "You know, Brighton Beach, Coney Island, lower middle class, under the train tracks. We both understand that sort of Lord of the Flies sensibility that requires you to be very aware as you grow up. It's a very savage environment, in a lot of ways a very cruel and sadistic environment."
He was never known as funny, not by his family and not by his friends. But he liked to laugh, and he was a fan of Abbott and Costello, Bob and Ray, and especially the Jewish comic actor Phil Silvers. The Phil Silvers Show ran from 1955 through 1959. Later called Sergeant Bilko in reruns, it was also known as You'll Never Get Rich. It featured Silvers — the bald, glasses-wearing actor from Brooklyn — as Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko, head of the motor pool at a U.S. military base in Kansas. In episode after episode, Bilko worked to attain more creature comforts for himself and make life in the army easier. Often as not he would end up making things harder, not unlike the future star of Curb. The dialogue was sharp, and the multiple plots, though wild and fanciful, were always plausible and carefully worked out to resolve in the end, in a manner similar to Seinfeld and Curb. There was also a good dose of physical comedy. It had a quiet, strong presence behind it in the creator, producer, writer, and director Nat Hiken. It would make a lasting impression on Larry. "I just thought that it was head and shoulders above any other show I had seen," Larry said later. "You know, in analyzing it now, you could see that Bilko was a manipulative character who did a lot of unlikeable, despicable things. But because he was so funny doing it, it all just worked."
With no sense of direction, Larry enrolled at the University of Maryland for a degree in history. "You never know when you might run into a discussion of the Franco-Prussian War," he joked, indicating what he thought of its usefulness. The late sixties were in full swing but Larry hated the hippie era and felt alienated by it. He eyed the long hair, beads, and Grateful Dead T-shirts skeptically, believing them to make up another kind of conformity. He looked clean-cut and decent, a model young man in a suit and tie for his college portrait. Drug-taking scared him. He didn't even manage to get any of that supposed free love available for the asking. (Later he would wear his hair long, in what is now called a Jewfro.)
But it was at university that Larry made a discovery: he could be funny. He began entertaining his friends with humor, recounting his disastrous dates in humiliating detail to heighten the comic effect. Very early on he learned to sacrifice his dignity for a laugh.
After graduation, Larry headed back to Brooklyn. He got a two-bedroom apartment, which he shared with a couple of others, and hit the pavement looking for work. Employment agencies found him several jobs, none of which lasted long. He worked for a bra wholesaler called E.D. Grandmont, selling "defective bras" as he put it. He claimed that he never sold one. (In the 1993–1994 season George sells bras on Seinfeld.) Then he worked in a law office. After that he was a cab driver and finally a private chauffeur. For the latter job he had to wear a uniform and he would be highly embarrassed to be seen by someone he knew, waiting by the car for some rich woman to come out of a store on Fifth Avenue. But he claimed to like this job, especially when he worked for an elderly woman with poor vision who couldn't tell when he didn't wear the uniform. Later, he used it as the basis for a screenplay that went unproduced. Between jobs he collected unemployment insurance. He even joined the army reserves, a fact the fictional Larry would tell to his rather surprised manager in Curb.
It was back in New York that Larry got the idea to take an acting class in the city. He participated in class but never found himself particularly comfortable acting. Then one session the instructor gave the students the assignment of acting a monologue, but doing it in their own words — really a kind of improvisation based on specified material. Larry found this a lot more enjoyable than reciting lines and, even better, he managed to make the rest of the class laugh. "And I thought, hey, that's for me. That's what I want. I want a laugh," Larry has said.
Excerpted from Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good by Josh Levine. Copyright © 2010 Josh Levine,. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.