Inside the ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Premiere: Fatwas, Larry David, and Donald Trump
Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, and producer Jeff Schaffer talk taking on the ayatollah, shooting the day after the election, and why we need Larry now more than ever. Spoiler alert!
With a finicky shampoo bottle, a foisting, and even a fatwa, Curb Your Enthusiasm returned Sunday night after a seemingly interminable six-year absence. It was pretty, pretty, pretty good! As if we ever doubted it would be.
Getting to the genesis of the genius behind HBO’s longest-running series ever—nine seasons over 17 years—is a reliably hilarious pursuit. Ask where ideas came from, what went into producing the episode, or even why they brought the show back now, and the answers from Larry David, his co-stars, and executive producer Jeff Schaffer are hysterically matter-of-fact.
The last season aired in 2011. During a press conference over the summer, Larry David was asked the obvious question: Why now? “Why not?” he said, a cheeky shrug-of-the-shoulder response, but a shrug nonetheless.
When we last saw him, Larry had fled to Paris in the final of the extraordinary lengths he went through to avoid having to volunteer at a children’s hospital with Michael J. Fox, and was verbally accosting a “pig parking” Frenchman on the city’s cobblestone streets.
Six years later and with all the options in the world, how do you move from there to this season’s arc of Larry David writing a musical about Salman Rushdie receiving a fatwa, then receiving one himself?
Schaffer, ever the kindred spirit to David, perfectly channels his boss. “The idea of him writing a musical about Salman Rushdie getting a fatwa seemed like a funny thing,” Schaffer says simply when we speak in New York the morning after Curb’s Season 9 premiere. “And Larry getting a fatwa himself for writing a musical called Fatwa seemed funny, too.” Insightful.
And what about the way in which culture has changed? Curb Your Enthusiasm has spent nearly two decades making mischief of political correctness. But just in the six years since season eight, the think piece industry and its staff of problematic police has taken over—and takes no prisoners. Even Saturday Night Live’s sociopolitical satire is no longer immune.
Was that a consideration heading into the new season, which in the premiere alone tackles gender expression and normativity—“You’re not a bride!”—genital mutilation, the handicapped, and the ayatollah?
“The joke I will say is that Larry and I know where the line is because we can look back and see it. It’s back there in the distance somewhere,” Schaffer says. “The reality is, and I very confidently speak for Larry in this, is that we have never once taken the audience’s needs or wants into consideration. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t care at all.”
OK, that’s actually a great answer.
“If you told me he was making these to put on his shelf at home I think he’d make them the same way,” he continues. “He’s only focused on what he wants to do.”
The truth is, talking to anyone involved with Curb Your Enthusiasm is a blast. Would you believe they’re all extremely funny? Who’d have thought. And while we’re lightly mocking their nonchalance about the show’s process, there is a palpable—heh—enthusiasm. They’re truly excited that the show has returned. More, they think it’s really freaking great.
These people haven’t just known each other for the show’s 17-year run. As Susie Essman, who plays walking F-bomb Susie Greene, explains, she first met David in 1986, and has known the rest of the cast for nearly as long. To sweeten the deal of returning to work, the kind of show they’re doing will always be funny, no matter how long a break between seasons.
“We haven’t out-aged our jobs,” she says. “It’s not like we’re on Baywatch and all of a sudden six years later I’m like, ‘I can’t get into a bikini!’ We were old Jews then, and we’re old Jews now.”
While that dynamic may be the same, there’s no denying the most glaring thing—orange and omnipresent—that has changed during the show’s hiatus. Essman scoffs at him as “the man who must not be mentioned.” At the risk of being on the receiving end of one of Susie’s vicious dressing downs, we’ll name him—Donald Trump. And the truth is, HBO is leaning heavily into how the audience’s feelings about him create a new lens through which they watch the show.
Some reporters are eager to draw parallels between the stubborn narcissist who pisses off everyone by doing what he wants with no regard… and the character of Larry David. But the network has been keener to liken Larry to someone who can save us from the crushing anxiety of all things Trump, marketing the new episodes with David as the “hero we need.”
“There’s a lot of serious issues happening in the world that are ridiculous, but we can’t laugh at them because it’s tragic, because it’s really happening,” Cheryl Hines, who returns as Larry’s ex in the premiere, tells us. “Here’s a show about Larry, who is petty and has no sympathy towards other people, and we’re allowed to laugh. It’s what we need.”
“He’s not hurting anybody except himself and the people around him,” she continues, escalating into her signature cackling laugh. “He’s not hurting an entire nation or an entire world. He’s just bothering Brentwood. So we can laugh at that.”
The new season of Curb actually began shooting the day after the election, if you can believe that.
Schaffer was convinced the production would just cancel the schedule and take an insurance day. But everyone soldiered on. The scene that shot that day was the first appearance by J.B. Smoove’s Leon in the new season, and everyone was instantly relieved that they had a distraction—a hilarious one at that.
Everyone involved in the show knew there would be a bit of an obsession with how the show deals with the Trump administration, not to mention the role it would play in taking all our minds off it.
“In 2011 when the show was last on, Trump was in the White House being humiliated at the press dinner,” Schaffer laughs. “Now he’s done one better. He’s in the White House and doesn’t need anyone else to humiliate him because he’s doing it himself. Is that progress? I don’t know.”
But he does have a theory for why a show like Curb specifically, which is celebrated for seeking out those horrible bunkers in life where the most awkward and excruciating everyday moments live, and then tossing a grenade into and exploding them, is so comforting, even while being so cringe-inducing.
Larry is a creature of the Westside of Los Angeles, so there will be a few Trump-related jokes in the context of what he encounters every day. “But Larry is unique in that he is able to lose himself in the petty trees and not see the big forest,” Schaffer says. “Everybody is writing about the big things that need fixing. Someone’s got to focus on the minutiae that needs fixing. He’s our hero for that. Who’s going to focus on the little shit?”
Larry is, thank god.
But, as always, it’s more than the minutiae. It’s the broad, watercooler conversations that the rest of us tiptoe around that Larry tends to somehow belly flop into. The episodes that we’ve seen thus far, and are forbidden to spoil, faithfully marry comedy about everyday aggravations and of-the-moment cultural provocations.
“Larry is the least likely person you’d think would have a finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist,” Essman laughs. “And yet he does.”
That, she posits, combined with the unique cultural moment we’re in, really does vault him to the savior status HBO has so cheekily given him.
“The anxiety that 70 percent of the population is feeling is that there’s not an adult in charge,” she says. “Everyone wants to feel like there’s an adult in the room. Right now when we have a child in charge of the world, it’s Larry who becomes the adult in the room. Imagine that.”