‘Hey, I may loathe myself, but it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m Jewish.’ (Larry David)
The late Lenny Bruce famously defined ‘Jewish’ as anything edgy, ethnic, urban and subversive, despite its origins. Dylan Thomas: Jewish. Ray Charles: Jewish. ‘Goyish’ was, by contrast, anything conservative, safe and associated with the sterility of the suburbs. This devotion to the subversive goes back to some of the most sacred roots of Judaism since Abraham broke his father’s idols and has long been a source of pride but also division between Jews and their neighbours. It is a division more felt than seen, but one which lies at the heart of Jewish comedy in North America. Through his ground-breaking work in first Seinfeld and then Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David appears to have achieved the impossible and made the Jewish ‘Jewish’.
Folklore scholars distinguish ‘esoteric’ knowledge (that which a group knows among themselves) from the ‘exoteric’. Jews, a nation of wanderers who have often needed to ‘depend on the kindness of strangers’, are masters at balancing the esoteric and exoteric. When the authorities banned the teaching of Hebrew, the ancient Jews used the dreidl as a covert way to teach it to their children in the form of a harmless game. Thousands of years on, Jews continue this practice, creating harmless entertainments that come loaded with esoteric cultural transmissions, beyond the sights of those kind, yet unsettling, strangers.
Jewish audiences have been ‘reading’ Jewish since the first wave of Jewish comics entered the mainstream entertainment industry at the end of the twentieth-century. Ethnic Jewish comedy prior to this drew on the Jewish experience, creating situations in which the vulnerable, oppressed immigrant became the victor — or the patsy. Eager to catch this wave of Jewish talent and make it accessible to everyone from Baltimore to Iowa producers tried to whitewash the ethnic elements from these acts. Jewish stage comedians, such as the Marx Brothers and Jack Benny, contrived ways to be funny which did not use their heritage in an overt way. However, no matter how these comics (and their business agents) tried to play down the Jewish difference in their work, Jews in the audience still read the hidden Jewishness of these acts. During the Golden Age of television, this double consciousness of viewers continued — Jewish audiences read Jewish comedians with a layer of cultural understanding unnecessary for the average non-Jewish viewer in Kansas.
It was not until recently that the hidden Jewishness of today’s comedians came out into the open, and this openness is due, in part, to the work of Larry David, which continues to express many deeper truths about the Jewish male in America today. For nearly the past twenty years — two decades of Larry David worming his way into the public consciousness — we have witnessed the flip side of the ‘Americanization of the Jews’: David seems intent on ‘Judaizing America’. His philosophy is apparently, ‘Be yourself, and let the others catch up.’ And he has done this with remarkable success, blurring the lines between the ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, and making room for a more fluid, open Jewishness in American culture.
Larry David’s shuffle into the public eye began with Seinfeld (1990-98), the hit sitcom he created with fellow comedian and friend, Jerry Seinfeld. Featuring Jerry Seinfeld, supposedly as he really was, this show followed the antics of Jerry and his three best friends, George, Elaine and Kramer. It was, truly, a show about nothing — about trying to make money by selling old vintage clothes purloined from a parent’s attic; about losing your car in a parking garage; about waiting for a table; about the hassles that come from trying to do a good deed. It was a show exploring the universal minutiae of modern life, and it became an enduring classic. However, for those familiar with Jewish culture, Seinfeld was nothing short of Talmudic. The show was a rabbinic kibbitz on the meaning of proper social interaction — what a mensch would do in various modern circumstances. Yet, for gentile audiences the humour appeared to be universal.
This universal appeal shows us that perhaps Jewish humour is universal, especially in light of other Jewish actors, such as Woody Allen, who have made the modern Jewish male the Every Man of contemporary life. Certainly, many aspects of Jewish alienation and obsessive analysis resonate with the wider post-millenial angst of Western cultures. But Seinfeld is also a masterpiece of sustained, coded Jewishness which is ‘activated’ through the decoding of Jewish audiences. While very few episodes actually dwell on Jerry’s Jewish background, many of the jokes have a further depth if looked at with an understanding of the Jewishness at work in the sitcom. When Jerry spends a showing of Schindler’s List, for instance, making out with his girlfriend, it is left to audiences to fathom his parents’ horror.
Seinfeld also took Jewishness on TV to new levels of visibility. Starting out, in the pilot episode ‘The Seinfeld Chronicles’ (1989), David and Seinfeld stepped forth with a bland, un-ethnic plot in keeping with NBC’s whitewashed policy. Naturally, the tenor and the dialogue of the sitcom were Jewish from the beginning, but only insofar as it was based in New York, the classic location of Jewish culture in America. (The one possible exception to this was the transgressive Woody Allen impersonation put forth by Jason Alexander, as George.) However, as the show became more successful, the writers’ chutzpah grew, and Seinfeld’s Jewish world snuck further and further out of its network closet.
While Jerry himself was clearly not a practising Jew, his Jewishness became key to understanding his social milieu. No more the token Jew within a hegemonic WASP cohort, Seinfeld showed a society in which Jewishness was the norm and the gentile the outsider. New York, it asserts, is a shtetl, where everyone is Jewish. So absolute is the Jewish milieu that great comedy is wrung from the discovery of two token gentiles hidden in the mix. Elaine, played by the Jewish Julia Louis-Dreyfus, glories in her ‘shicksappeal’ and the wild Kramer (who rings as a Jewish character) is inexplicably non-Jewish.This is certainly the first time anyone has been surprised to find a gentile in American television.
While much attention has been given to the Jewishness of Jerry Seinfeld himself, there is one character that deserves more attention — George Costanza. George exemplifies the fact that Jewishness is a matter of performance and reading in American pop-culture, rather than one of professed religion, self-identification or even surname. The name Costanza was adopted from an old college friend of the real-life Seinfeld and is assumedly Italian. Jason Alexander, the Jewish actor who played George so brilliantly for nine years, admits that his early performance was essentially a Woody Allen impersonation, enough to make Jewish audiences, and most American audiences, read George as Jewish. However, the most compelling reason one might read George as a Jewish character is the fact that he was based on Larry David himself. Once this fact was discovered by Alexander, the character of George became, instead of Woody Allen, a Larry David impersonation. The transition was absolute. Everything is present — from Larry David’s baldness and defensive personality to a couple of remarkable real-life events (such as quitting a job on Friday, thinking the better of it over the weekend, and then returning to work on Monday and trying to pretend it was a joke). His shady ethics and weasel-like survival skills are a modern reworking of the old Vaudevillian re-appropriation of anti-Semitic slights. His physical presence — his voice, short stature and effeminate hands — resonates with the perception of the Diaspora Jewish male as weak and unhealthy. His argumentative obsession with ethics and etiquette separates him from mainstream WASP America. George is chutzpah personified.
Seinfeld carried a brand of secular, New York based and non-political Jewishness into American homes every week. In this way the Jewish male, albeit in a sanitized and standardized form, was brought ‘out of the closet’ in the American media, paving the way for a new, overt performance of Jewishness which brought the same Larry David global success with Curb Your Enthusiasm. The format of CYE is the same as Seinfeld: a show about the fictitious ‘real life’ of the protagonist, this time the successful producer of Seinfeld, Larry David, played by himself. However, CYE breaks out of the network sound stage and takes comedy to the streets — the camera work and settings make it look more like a documentary or reality show than a conventional sitcom, and its partially scripted, improvised dialogue lends an air of reality to it that might be misleading. The multiple layers of representation play with reality, along with the show’s self-conscious construction of Jewishness.
In this knowing and solipsistic way, Larry David raises core questions of what it means to be Jewish in contemporary America. Despite living the American dream and achieving success in American showbusiness, Larry David still represents himself as an outsider: the classic schnook, a man thwarted at every stage. Vain, insensitive and obnoxious, he is certainly no hero by mainstream American standards; in fact, he is George Costanza amplified to an even less likeable degree, but neither does he really deserve the unreasonable punishments and torments he receives at every turn. He is cheated by neighbours and victimized by freak tribulations that build upon one another to ruin his plans. To live as a Jew, he appears to say, is to suffer. To suffer, at least as a Jew on TV, is to kvetch in a comedic way.
The overt Jewishness of the Larry David anti-hero is made more explicit by setting the sitcom in LA. If New York is a byword for Jewish ethnicity, it would appear that you can take the Jew out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the Jew. Operating in a California estate, Larry’s character is one forged in a Brooklyn apartment building, growing up in a corridor inhabited by several units of the same family, all in each other’s business and faces. His interactions are loud, familiar and confrontational. He is the reminder of European grime in a world of American Formica. Tired of the WASPs among whose coded niceties he feels so alien, he begs his non-Jewish wife to invite ‘some Goldbergs, a few Schwartzes, anything in that family’ to their next supper party. It was a stroke of genius to give Larry a non-Jewish wife. His childless relationship with Cheryl and their constant miscommunication is a microcosm of Larry’s relationship to gentile society, perhaps emblematic of the relationship of the Jew to America. Initially Larry has no qualms about intermarriage, but all manner of social angst arises from this union. Cheryl insists at one stage upon joining the country club, oblivious to its history of anti-Semitism and her husband’s horror.
In Season Five, in particular, Curb Your Enthusiasm tackles Jewish rituals and tradition head on. In ‘The Christ Nail’, Cheryl’s parents fetishize, much to Larry’s amusement, a prop nail from the film The Passion.The reference to the crucifixion as well as Mel Gibson’s off-screen antics is a double dose of anti-Semitism and, amusingly, also plays on the dual religions of Christianity and Hollywood. Meanwhile, Larry’s elderly, observant father is coming to visit and Larry realises their house has no mezuzah. Trying to hang one in a panic, he finds the Christ Nail and without compunction uses the prop of the Hollywood crucifix to pin one of the most ancient and sacred of Jewish objects to his modern home. Jewishness is a matter of obligation, tradition and family.
In both ‘The Ski Lift’ and ‘The Baptism’, however, David doesn’t just explore his discomfort with gentile society, but his own discomfort with Jewish society. In ‘The Ski Lift’, David attempts to befriend the Orthodox head of a group that assigns donated kidneys on behalf of his friend Richard Lewis. In order to do this, he plays Orthodox with no real knowledge of Orthodoxy, stumbling over the finer points of kashrut and halacha, caricaturing Jewish cadences and speech rhythms and inventing guttural, Yiddish-sounding words. In ‘The Baptism,’ he inadvertently disrupts the baptism of Cheryl’s sister’s Jewish fiancé, about to convert to Christianity. At this moment of interruption, the would-be convert has an epiphany and realises he had been about to give away a priceless legacy. He thanks Larry for saving him.The two families, Jewish and Christian, immediately polarize and the ancient hatred between the groups erupts. Larry, horrified at the furore he has inspired, attempts to smoothe ruffled feathers on the Christian side of the room, claiming that the fiancé’s Jewishness means nothing to him. However, on the Jewish side of the room, he soaks up their thanks, encouraging them to see his accidental disruption as a heroic act of Jewish defiance. Ironically, Season Five ends with the revelation that David’s character was born to gentile parents, and only adopted by Jews (whom his birth parents describe in the crudest stereotypes: ‘the guy was nervous’ and ‘the woman was loud,’). Before David’s Jewish identity is questioned, the soundtrack is colourful and almost klezmatic — after he discovers his gentile roots, it becomes ‘all-American’ and folkish. The tank-top clad, gentile Larry David becomes calm, socially smooth and bland, at peace with the world. His serenity is short-lived as the adoption story turns out to be a case of mistaken identity.The trauma of realising he is Jewish after all provokes an extended flashback of the insults and confrontations of the past five seasons. It culminates in a blow-up that shatters his vision of the perfect, non-denominational Heaven.
But what makes such a wide audience watch this essentially Jewish discourse? To what can the phenomenal popularity of Curb Your Enthusiasm be ascribed? It is at the forefront of the American HBO’s new genre of independent ‘cringe’ comedy shows — with situations that are not only excruciatingly funny, but are often plain excruciating. This discomfort and friction resonate, perhaps, as a universal experience. However, I would argue that part of CYE’s popularity is due to the ground laid by Larry David’s work for NBC. He has processed and delivered Jewishness to the new generations of television viewers, no matter their origins, who seek a new, cosmopolitan understanding of modern life. Though operating under the constraints of NBC’s ‘notes’, he managed to train American audiences not only to tolerate but to embrace Jewishness as a form of comic, urban chic — making Jewishness, in the words of Lenny Bruce, ‘Jewish’.
As for the Jewish audience, there is still joy in watching Larry David work. Certainly there is great comedy in the outed Jewish male struggling to negotiate WASP culture. But there is also a strong Jewish desire to read oneself into the Larry David character which cannot be understood in terms of Jewish self-hatred. Rather it reveals a need to express Jewish ‘difference’. Through ‘reading Jewish’ — understanding the subtle musical cues and material culture accompanying the more overt Jewish plot points and dialogue — a Jewish audience can rehearse its own Jewishness and participate in an imagined Jewish community.
In recent years, a nouveau anti-Semitism has cropped up in cultural studies, aligning Jews with the white, wealthy, capitalist oppressor, as opposed to the oppressed minority. This alignment has placed Jews beyond the interest of post-colonial investigations into race relations and out of the discussion of multiculturalism. In the face of this nouveau anti-Semitism, Larry David’s work reminds us that rumours of the Jewish cultural assimilation in America may be greatly exaggerated. While some scholars are quick to align Jews with the white power base, David’s comedy reflects a time of Jewish oppression, and reminds us that while the glass ceiling might be shattered for Jews in official life, there are still bumps, socially, in America — where a Jewface like him cannot be ‘gentiley’ enough to get into the country club.
With both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David’s work illustrates a Jewish will to survive, mixed with an enduring pessimism which is the legacy of oppression. While the male protagonists in both sitcoms have achieved success in terms of the American dream, both are stuck in worlds riddled with mysteries, ‘no exit’ signs and offensive behaviour. The humour underscores the Jewish struggle to understand a world in which he has only his wits and tenacity to survive. At this level of reading, Larry David becomes more than a curmudgeon — he becomes a type of Tevye the dairy man for the American entertainment industry.
Holly A. Pearse was a winner of a 2008 Hadassah-Brandeis Institute fellowship for research in the arts and has published in the area of Jewishness and American pop-culture. She is currently working on her dissertation, ‘Where Will They Build Their Nest? Jewish-Gentile Romances in North American Cinema and the Construction of Jewish Identity’.