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Larry David: The Failed Standup

Updated: Nov 15, 2022

Larry David is renowned as perhaps one of the greatest comics of his generation - or if not, certainly one of the most lucrative. Seinfeld, which David co-wrote and co-produced, ran from 1989 - 1998, and was recently acquired in a 5-year deal by Netflix for north of $500 million. Subsequently, in 2000, David created his next sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm with HBO, showing off again not only his authorial talents, but this time his acting chops. The show has just been renewed for its 12th Season.

So while it is indisputable that David possesses an obvious funny-bone, unlike his frequent partner Jerry Seinfeld, his name is not one usually synonymous with standup. Despite a brief standup career in the 80s prior to his TV fame, David never hit it big with the mic. So, how could this be? He seems to have a natural, innate comedic quality stemming from his frequent exasperation. Much like many other New-York Jewish comics such as Seinfeld, Allen or Brooks, their classic comedic tropes are 'complaining' - trivialities that do no more than inconvenience, but which are chalked up as much more and therefore become funny. David is no exception - such complaints are abundant in both Seinfeld and Curb. Yet the question remains, in spite of such pithy wit, why did David never make it as a standup?

A large part of the standup form is the relationship between the comic and their audience. There exists between the two a symbiosis; the audience is given laughter by the comic, and the comic is rewarded with laughter from the audience. For Larry, however, it appears that he found difficulty forming this chemistry. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Susie Essman, known for playing 'Susie Greene' in Curb, said of Larry's standup: 'he was dangerous; he was volatile. And he had, the most brilliant material, but if like one woman looked at her watch, he'd storm off. One night I remember he got onstage and he looked at the audience and he just went: "I don't think so," and he just walked off!'

It's clear that the problem is not Larry's material; not only is it backed up in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, but Susie Essman gives it her badge of approval. It appears that Larry's awkwardness that has always been portrayed by George Costanza and conveyed in Curb are not unlike the real L.D. - he is a man that finds it difficult to connect to an audience, and to serve that symbiosis.

When watching David's standup, one can often note frequent pauses, frightened looks at the audience, a general discomfort - even his extensive layers of fleeces and jackets display a disquieted frigidity that contradicts a comic's necessity to be at ease with their audience. Jerry Seinfeld, widely seen as one of the greatest living standups, said '[Larry] has tremendous conviction of what he thinks is funny, and at the same time he'll just crush like an egg.' It is not the material that is the problem - it is the delivery.

One could suppose that the intense scrutiny is what causes him to be 'crushed' - effectively, stage-fright. This might be hard to believe given his countless public appearances where he has the audience in stitches - his AFI tribute to Mel Brooks is an outstanding lesson in comic delivery. Perhaps the difference lies in the context - at the AFI, his persona is contextualised. He knows the people love him, he knows that they know he is a wealthy and pernickety man - he doesn't have to pretend to be otherwise. The standup form, however, demands an everyman. In the seedy clubs, it is necessary to appeal to the lonely drunkard in the back. The comic must peel back the layers of pretence and grandiose and be an honest person, not a famous caricature. 'Comedy is truth' goes the adage, though perhaps more specifically: comedy is everyone's truth.

Larry, however, comes across as someone less personable - honest, but awkward, and while many comics have made use of their awkwardness for their onstage persona (Steven Wright, for one), Larry has almost done the opposite. His awkwardness has made him into the absence of a persona, the absence of a caricature. He has no personality. He is throwing jokes at the wall and hoping one of them sticks. There is no honesty and there is no truth. While his words convey contemplation and frustration, his disposition reads: 'do they find this funny?' The pregnant pause in every 'uh' leaves space for doubt in the spectator's mind which compounds as they grow more and more frequent.

Now this is not to say that David is not a comic genius - he absolutely is. It just happens to be that standup is not his form - and there is nothing wrong with that. Standup is a very specific medium for comedy, and comedy is not exclusive to standup. David's writing and performing generate as many laughs (not to mention income) as any comic could wish for. Yet standup requires something which David does not possess: an everyman persona, someone who is comfortable with being rejected as himself without the veneer of performance protecting him - even the Larry David in Curb is a fictional version of himself. He is one of the greatest comedians of all time, and also spectacular failure in standup comedy - though ironically still probably one of the only few to be worth over $400m.

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