By Myles McDonough
Human beings are gluttons for emotional punishment. And Larry David knows how to dish it out.
Between Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, our culture has spent more than thirty years laughing at the beloved comedian’s characters and the uncomfortable situations in which they find themselves. Whether it’s George faking a disability to get a private bathroom, Elaine calling a baby ugly in front of its parents, or Larry returning to a dinner party that he ruined in order to retrieve his watch, we just can’t get enough televised masochism.
What’s going on here? Why are we so captivated and repulsed by groups of frustrated people arguing over petty nonsense? To understand Larry David’s unique brand of painful humor, and particularly how it functions on Curb, we need to explore how social interaction is supposed to work in the first place.
In his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman argues that each and every social interaction is a kind of performance that we put on for one another. We are all highly adaptable performers, able to pick up and drop pre-established roles in seconds and quickly develop new ones as necessary.
In a given interaction, the person with less at stake will tend to offer the other a bit of leeway in setting the “scene,” with the expectation that the same kindness will be extended back their way in the future. In this way, Goffman explains, “Together the participants contribute to a single overall definition of the situation […] a ‘working consensus.’”
In other words, a big part of being human is working with other humans to select and act out social scripts appropriate to a given moment, based on both current needs and past experience. We tend, for instance, to value the medical advice of doctors and follow the traffic signals given by police officers. Goffman might say that, as a society, we’ve come to a working consensus that grants differently-uniformed people various kinds of authority.
In a smooth social interaction, the participants’ assorted definitions of the situation will quickly line up, and a “working consensus” will be achieved. And because we have been heavily socialized not to call each other out on our bullshit, society will be able to function. Everything from a small dinner party to the national economy depends on all of us cutting each other a certain amount of slack in social settings.
“Ill At Ease”
Enter Larry, whose entire schtick revolves around his inability — or his outright refusal — to reach a working consensus with anyone.
Larry is completely inflexible, refusing to accept any definition of a situation other than his own. As such, he’s willing to derail social gatherings by obsessing over minor annoyances that most adults would ignore for the sake of a quiet meal with friends. When he is in the room, it is almost impossible to come to a single definition of the situation that will allow the group to continue interacting in a productive way.
Larry’s ability to sabotage any working consensus is key to the show’s famous cringe-worthiness. As Goffman points out, “When these disruptive events occur […] the participants find themselves lodged in an interaction for which the situation has been wrongly defined and is now no longer defined. [A]ll the participants may come to feel ill at ease[.]”
In this way, Larry subjects his wife, his manager, and us to that awful, prickly discomfort we feel when a social encounter is spiraling out of control.
Larry causes chaos for his friends and family by calling out any behavior that doesn’t fit into his narrow conception of the way things ought to be — his definition of the situation — and refusing to let it go. Frequently, this will cause a given situation to escalate into a screaming meltdown.
We see this play out in “Trick or Treat,” the season 2 episode that pits Larry against two teenagers pretending to be little kids on Halloween. Whereas most adults would roll their eyes and toss the girls a few Hershey bars to make them go away, Larry takes a stand, telling the girls they aren’t “entitled to go around to people’s homes and bilk them out of candy.”
When he calls the cops to report the resulting TP-ing of his house, the officer on duty claims, “There’s kind of a social contract that you enter when you open that door. They say ‘trick or treat,’ I would advise you, give the treat.”
Larry’s wife Cheryl points out that there is a big gap between Larry’s definition of the situation and the working consensus that got the rest of the neighborhood through Halloween with their houses untarnished by toilet paper. As she puts it, “Not everybody knows your rules, Larry.”
Larry David loves to play with what Goffman referred to as “front,” or “the items that we most intimately identify with the performer [like] insignia of office or rank; clothing; […] speech patterns; facial expressions; bodily gestures; and the like.”
His characters routinely fixate on one or more items in another character’s personal front. Pieces of clothing — and what they supposedly reveal about the people wearing them — are key story elements in multiple Seinfeld episodes. Consider Jerry’s horror at the thought of having his front tarnished by the pirate shirt, Jerry and Elaine fixating on how to interpret the meaning of a cape, or Jerry’s dismay over the cowboy boots he’s forced to wear.
These characters spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about other people’s fronts and trying to preserve their own.
This carries over into Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show’s obsession with front comes through most clearly in one of the subplots to “Trick or Treat,” in which Larry starts wearing golf clothes on days when he isn’t actually playing golf. This confuses his friends, who don’t see the point of adopting a front that communicates “golf,” if one has no intention of golfing.
Larry simply likes the way he looks in a tucked-in polo shirt and slacks. According to his definition of the situation, wearing golf clothes does not necessarily imply that one is going to or coming from a golf course. Therefore, he thinks he can add these items to his front without making a statement about what he’s doing with his afternoon. But for the other characters, Larry’s front is so tied up with the practice of golfing that they refuse to believe him when he explains that he doesn’t have a round scheduled that day.
Larry’s acquaintances consider Larry’s golf-ish front to be more than enough proof that he is lying about his golf plans. They operate from a working consensus which dictates that such attire is only appropriate for the golf course, and refuse to accept Larry’s alternative definition of the situation.
“A Pizza Is Coming”
But Larry isn’t always on the outside looking in when it comes to deciding what’s appropriate and what isn’t. On some rare occasions, he is temporarily able to win others over to his side in ways that line up with Goffman’s description of group or “team” performances.
According to Goffman, a group of people defining a situation together operates a little differently from an individual trying to do the same. Whereas individuals can create complex definitions of situations for themselves, a team working together to define a situation will often have to boil things down to a “thin party line,” or the lowest common denominator that everyone involved can agree on.
Groups, in other words, tend to define situations in broad strokes. Rather than interpreting events with nuance, they will typically judge things as simply “good” or “bad,” “acceptable” or “unacceptable,” etc. The members of the team may subsequently feel compelled to defend the party line, even if it is a simplistic one.
We see this play out in the season 5 episode, “Kamikaze Bingo.” When poker night is interrupted by the host’s brother-in-law’s attempted suicide, his guests aren’t sure what to do next. There is no ready definition for their situation; and so, Larry makes one up. As he puts it:
“Well, you know. We’re here.”
Not wanting to miss out on a night of poker, Larry and his pals collaborate to develop a reason for staying. Together, they define the situation in a way that allows them to smoke cigars and scarf down pretzels guilt-free, even as their friend lies half-dead in the emergency room.
What they settle on is the transparently stupid party line of “a pizza is coming.” Their overly simplistic definition of the situation is grounded in the idea that it would be “rude” not to wait for the delivery man. They’ll stick with this working consensus, even when the host eventually returns from the hospital and yells at them for being inconsiderate jerks. As the host hustles the gang out the front door, they continue to insist that they acted appropriately.
By directly attacking the system of consensus-building and social shortcuts that allows us to interact reasonably well with friends, family, and even relative strangers on a day-to-day basis, Larry toys with some of our deepest fears around social failure, shame, and flat-out awkwardness. Depending on your tastes, this is either hilarious or terrible. But because it is grounded in our most basic social programming, it will always be riveting.