DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today on FRESH AIR, we'll replay parts of Terry's interview with Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy who died Wednesday at age 91. We'll also salute Larry David, the co-creator of "Seinfeld," whose HBO comedy series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" returns to HBO this weekend after a six-year hiatus. We'll replay portions of an interview with Larry David from 2015 conducted by FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
But first, I'll present my review of the new season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" - well, not a review exactly because Larry David decided not to allow critics to see it in advance. Instead, let's call it a retrospective and an appreciation.
(SOUNDBITE OF LUCIANO MICHELINI SONG, "FROLIC")
LARRY DAVID: (Laughter).
BIANCULLI: I loved watching Larry David last year in his recurring guest role on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," providing a perfect impersonation of outspoken politician Bernie Sanders. But I'm even more excited to watch Larry David beginning this Sunday on the return of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," playing Larry David, an exaggerated version of himself, in a role he last portrayed on TV six years ago.
Since co-creating the NBC sitcom "Seinfeld" in 1989 with Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David has made several impressively important contributions to TV comedy and TV history and become rich and famous in the process. With the "Seinfeld" series, the last massive hit comedy from broadcast television, he and Jerry scored big with what was summarized as a show about nothing, a program where the plots could be as simple as about going shopping or waiting for a table at a restaurant. And yet within those parameters, individual scenes interlocked very intricately.
"Curb Your Enthusiasm" followed as a TV special in 1999, the year after the "Seinfeld" show ended with Larry David on camera as well as behind the scenes. The series began a year later. In both, he played a comically exaggerated version of himself, finding faults and picking fights with almost everyone around him. Again, the individual elements were cleverly interwoven. And this time, between each plot point, David made room for a lot of improvisation. Here he is in the pilot with Cheryl Hines playing his wife. They're at a fancy Hollywood restaurant and have just been told that there's a problem with their reservation.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM")
CHERYL HINES: (As Cheryl David) You know what, Larry? You should just tell her who you are.
DAVID: (As himself) Yeah. Who am I? I'm a guy without a table.
HINES: (As Cheryl David) Just try "Seinfeld" thing.
DAVID: (As himself) That's who I am.
HINES: (As Cheryl David) No, but try the "Seinfeld" thing, and see if she reacts.
DAVID: (As himself) Get out of here. I'm not going to say...
HINES: (As Cheryl David) No, but just say that you were...
DAVID: (As himself) Forget it. I'm not going say that.
HINES: (As Cheryl David) No, it will help. Ma'am...
DAVID: (As himself) No, Cheryl, that's ridiculous.
HINES: (As Cheryl David) ...Can you come for one second? Tell her who you are. He was one of the creators of "Seinfeld."
DAVID: (As himself) So what, right? OK.
HINES: (As Cheryl David) OK?
DAVID: (As himself) Big deal, fine - no table - you happy?
HINES: (As Cheryl David) And what I'm saying is - no, no, she can find a table for you.
LAUREL MOGLEN: (As Hostess) I wish I could help you with that.
DAVID: (As himself) Have you ever seen a...
HINES: (As Cheryl David) No.
DAVID: (As himself) She's never even seen an episode. What are you talking about?
HINES: (As Cheryl David) You've seen it.
MOGLEN: (As Hostess) I saw it once. It was good.
DAVID: (As himself) Did you really?
MOGLEN: (As Hostess) Yeah.
DAVID: (As himself) Which one?
MOGLEN: (As Hostess) I can't remember.
DAVID: (As himself) OK, great. See.
MOGLEN: (As Hostess) But...
DAVID: (As himself) She never even saw the show - good going.
BIANCULLI: Since the TV version of Larry David appeared 18 years ago, the idea of a comic playing an unflattering version of himself has become much more commonplace. Matt LeBlanc is doing it hilariously right now on a Showtime sitcom called "Episodes." And even Andrew Dice Clay is doing it a lot less hilariously on another current Showtime sitcom called "Dice."
But like the concept of a show about nothing, the idea of a comedian starring in a TV comedy based on himself and his life is nothing new. In fact it's older than TV itself. Jack Benny did both things in his radio show and brought them to TV in 1950. In one of his most famous episodes, his show about nothing had him shopping for Christmas presents and constantly pestering one clerk in particular played by the great cartoon vocal artist Mel Blanc.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM")
JACK BENNY: (As himself) Oh, clerk, clerk.
MEL BLANC: (As Wallet Salesman) Yes, Sir. What can I...
BLANC: (As Wallet Salesman) It's you again.
BENNY: (As himself) Yes. Look it. I want to change that card again. I'm sorry.
BLANC: (As Wallet Salesman) Oh, no, no, no, no. First you by the gift. Then you write the card. Then I wrap the gift. Then you change the card. Then I unwrap the gift. Then you rewrite the card. This time I wrap the gift again, and now you want to write another card.
BENNY: (As himself) I can't help you. You'll have to unwrap the gift. I'm sorry.
BLANC: (As Wallet Salesman) I already sent it down to the delivery room.
BENNY: (As himself) Well, then you'll have to go down and get it.
BLANC: (As Wallet Salesman) All right, all right. I'll go get it. I hadn't run into anybody like you in 20 years. Oh, why did the governor have to give me that pardon?
BENNY: (As himself) I don't know about that. Just bring me my package.
BLANC: (As Wallet Salesman) All right, I'll get it. I'll get it. I'll get it.
BIANCULLI: Larry David's actual comedy innovation is his insertion of loose improv into a tightly structured script. That's a truly new form. And when you revisit the first episodes of "Curb," you can see how quickly everyone establishes and perfects the formula. And you also have to give David credit - lots of it - for crafting some season-long storylines that have been conceptual and comic masterpieces.
The entire Season 4 where he agreed to star on stage for Mel Brooks in "The Producers" was superb and delivered a surprise ending that was even more brilliant because it was so cleverly disguised. And then there was Season 7 when he got the entire cast of "Seinfeld" back together to mount a reunion show, which he did not for NBC but for HBO. And when Jason Alexander gets angry and walks off the set, Larry offers to play his part, the part Larry originally wrote on "Seinfeld" as his own alter-ego. But his castmates, especially Jerry, are less than supportive.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM")
JERRY SEINFELD: (As himself) It's just a script, Larry. There's no show without Jason. How do you even have the show? What do you have? You have a three-legged goat here.
MICHAEL RICHARDS: (As himself) So what are we doing?
SEINFELD: (As himself) I don't know. We're not doing anything.
RICHARDS: (As himself) Larry, what do you want to do?
DAVID: (As himself) I'll play George.
JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As herself) What (laughter)?
DAVID: (As himself) I'll play George. I'll play George.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As herself) What (laughter)?
DAVID: (As himself) Yes. I can do it.
SEINFELD: (As himself) You'll play what, George's butler? What do you mean?
DAVID: (As himself) No. I will play George Costanza. I can do it. I know I can. I wrote it. The character's based on me. There were two Darrins...
SEINFELD: (As himself) Yeah.
DAVID: (As himself) ...On "Bewitched."
SEINFELD: (As himself) Nobody liked that second Darrin. I didn't care for the second Darrin.
DAVID: (As himself) But you bought it.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As herself) Oh, my God.
SEINFELD: (As himself) Do understand what this is? This is iconic television here. That set's an icon. He's an icon. She's an icon. He was an icon - icon. No-con - there's no John, Paul, George and Larry. It's not what they want.
BIANCULLI: This new season of "Curb" starting Sunday on HBO is another season-long storyline. But Larry David will neither describe it nor send out advance copies for preview. I guess I could be annoyed by that, but I'm just happy to have TV Larry and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" back. Besides, when you have a track record like Larry David's, you've earned a lot of trust.
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