Larry David On His 'Curb' Persona: 'The Character Has Emboldened Me'

Sep 29, 2017
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

Larry David began as a standup comic and was a cast member, along with Michael Richards, of "Fridays," the ABC late-night sketch series patterned after NBC's "Saturday Night Live." David also worked for "Saturday Night Live" briefly long ago, then returned in 2015 for what became a wildly successful series of guest spots featuring his imitation of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Earlier that same year, Larry David spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

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DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: When I told my wife I was going to be interviewing you, she says, I want to know how that guy got the way he is. And of course she's assuming that guy is the guy she's seeing on "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

LARRY DAVID: That doesn't sound so good to me.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Well, I...

DAVID: Like, how am I? I'd like to ask your wife - and yes, and how am I? What is this that you're seeing?

DAVIES: Well, it's the guy on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," I suppose, you know? And we'll talk about whether that's - how close that is to the real Larry David.

DAVID: OK.

DAVIES: But I do want you to tell us about, like, where you grew up. You grew up in Brooklyn. Tell us about the neighborhood.

DAVID: I grew up in Brooklyn in a - it was in Sheepshead Bay. I lived right under the Belt Parkway. And there were four buildings, which was my little universe. My friends - my five, six, seven, eight friends - we all lived in this building. And it was a very happy childhood as far as I remember. We played sports all the time, walked to school, came home from school, played ball in the winter. We'd play basketball in freezing temperatures and every possible - we would invent games. And not too many girls in my life, I must say, though.

DAVIES: (Laughter) And did you have extended family in the neighborhood or in the building?

DAVID: I did. I had aunts. And my aunt and uncle and my cousins were right next door. My grandmother, my uncle and my cousin were on the third floor. So there was no privacy. People were running in and out of the house all the time. Everybody knew your business.

DAVIES: Did you see humor in it at the time? Did you make friends laugh?

DAVID: No. I wasn't funny at all. I didn't even suspect that I had a sense of humor until I went to college. And then something kind of changed. I don't know what happened. Perhaps it was meeting new friends and being in a different environment that unleashed something in me. I don't know.

DAVIES: Did you have any sense of your future back then? Do you remember?

DAVID: Just whatever it was in my head, it was bleak. I don't remember having any ambitions, any goals, any dreams. It was always, how am I going to get by? What am I going to do? But I didn't really - to be honest, I didn't really give it much thought. Even in college, I didn't give it much thought. I was having fun in college. And basically when people asked me what I was going to do, I just said, oh, something will turn up. What that was, I had no idea. But...

DAVIES: And did your parents have any particular expectations?

DAVID: (Laughter) Zero, zero expectations - my mother - I've said this before. She wanted me to work in the post office. She wanted me to be a mailman because she thought, you know, I'd get a pension, and I'd be taken care of. I would have security. And that was her dream. That was the best-case scenario, that I would be a mailman.

DAVIES: You were going to be Newman (laughter).

DAVID: I was going to be Newman, exactly. Newman was very happy.

DAVIES: Steady work. You get a health plan, right (laughter)?

DAVID: Yeah. Newman's one of the happiest guys on television. Come on.

DAVIES: Right.

DAVID: Yeah. And the hours were good.

DAVIES: Right.

DAVID: You know, they just drop some mail off. It seemed like a decent job.

DAVIES: How did your parents react to your success?

DAVID: They were quite stunned by it (laughter). When "Seinfeld" was the No. 1 show in the country, my mother would call me up and go, Larry, do they like you? Do they think you're doing a good job? Are they going to keep you? What do they say to you? Did they tell you you're good? She was very insecure.

BIANCULLI: Comedian Larry David speaking to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in 2015 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David's 2015 interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. David's HBO comedy series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" returns Sunday after a six-year hiatus.

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DAVIES: How did you get into comedy? You said you were in college having fun, no thought of a particular future.

DAVID: Yeah. Then I got out of college. And I - you know, I was funny with my friends. And my friend's wife said to me, you should be a comedian. And I thought, really? I just hadn't - that hadn't occurred to me. And then I went to the Improv, the Improvisation, to watch a show. And as I'm watching the show, I'm starting to think that, hey, maybe Jane's right. Maybe I could do this. In fact, not only am I starting to think I could do it. I think I could be really funny up there. Not only that, I'm going to go up there right now.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

DAVID: I go up to the owner of the club, Budd Friedman, and I say, I'd like to go on. Now, I'm just sitting in the audience on a Saturday night. I leave my seat, and I go talk to the owner. And I say to the owner of the club that I want to go on. And this is the most - probably the most insane thing I've ever done in my life. And he said to me, who are you? I said, I'm just sitting in the audience. He said, no, you can't. You can't go on. Are you a comedian? I said, no. He said, no, no. You have to audition. And then if you pass the audition, then you could start going on.

So thank God he said no because had he said yes and I had gone up, it would have been a disaster, and I may have never walked up on the stage again for the rest of my life. But I started to put an act together, and then I went down to the village to a place called Gerde's Folk City, and I did - I got on stage for the first time.

A week later, I went to Gil Hodges Bowling Alley in Brooklyn and got on stage for the second time. And then for the third time, I went to Catch A Rising Star, and I passed the audition, and then I started working out of Catch A Rising Star.

DAVIES: Well, you know, we have a little piece of tape. And this is from Susie Essman, your friend who of course appeared on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And she was at an appearance, and she was recalling her early days with you in stand-up Let's listen.

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SUSIE ESSMAN: Larry was a comic. Larry started as a stand-up comic. And I knew him from "Catch A Rising Star." We probably met in 1985, 1986. And he was a legendary - he's what we call a comedian's comedian, meaning that he would get on stage, and the comedians would stand in the back of the room. Hey, Larry's on. We'd all come running into the room to watch him because you knew something brilliant and original was going to happen. But the audience half the time stared at him like they had no idea what the hell he was talking about.

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ESSMAN: And he was very, very touchy. You know, sometimes if, like, the whole audience is laughing and you had a stomachache and had a bad look on your face, that would be it. He'd storm off the stage, you know? The - or one time I remember I introduced him, and - you know, ladies and gentleman, Larry David - and he came on the stage. And he just looked at the audience, and he just went, never mind. And he just walked off...

(LAUGHTER)

ESSMAN: ...Just walked off. But his material was brilliant. He just never figured out that other thing of how to connect to an audience. That wasn't his thing.

DAVIES: And that's Susie Essman talking about our guest Larry David in his early days in stand-up.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: So she - does she have it right?

DAVID: She's - yeah. That was pretty accurate, yeah.

DAVIES: Do you remember the time you came in, looked at the audience and walked off?

DAVID: Yes, I do. I didn't say never mind. I think I said, I don't think so.

DAVIES: (Laughter) And why? I mean what was it about the audience?

DAVID: I didn't like the looks of them.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

DAVID: I didn't like how they responded to the comic who was on before me, and I just didn't see that it was going to be a successful outing. (Laughter) So I decided to do a pre-emptive attack.

DAVIES: (Laughter) You're not going to let them reject you. You're going to reject.

DAVID: Exactly, exactly.

DAVIES: You know, when I heard this story and when I read about I mean how you struggled with stand-up and how all the comedians loved you but audiences didn't always connect - and you know, when you talk to people in show business, so many of them say, well, you know, I really want to follow my artistic voice and do interesting work, not just do what - any schlock that's commercially successful.

And when I look at your career, I mean it's - strikes me that you actually did do that. I mean you really did stick to what you believed in, and you found these vehicles. And it's an incredible success now because I mean it's a particular Larry David way of looking at the world and finding humor in it. And you did stick to your own vision, and it really worked. Is that how you see it?

DAVID: Well, it didn't seem like I had much of a choice. I don't think that - you know, I don't think that my hand would have cooperated with my brain if my brain was telling my hand to write something it didn't really want to write. But I remember when there was some interference from NBC with "Seinfeld" when we first started doing it. And fortunately I didn't have a family at the time. So it's - it was very easy for me to say to them, no, I'm quitting; I'm not going to do that. I don't want to do that, and I can't do it.

And for me, it wasn't a big deal to just pack up and go home. Like I said, I hadn't - I didn't have a family. It's much harder. That's the first piece of advice I'll give anybody who wants to get into this. Don't have a family for a while until you're successful because it'll just make it very hard to ever get out of things, and you'll always have to compromise. But I didn't have to compromise because I didn't have a family.

DAVIES: And what was it NBC wanted you to do?

DAVID: You know, they just didn't like the direction of the show - for example, the Chinese restaurant episode.

DAVIES: Right, the whole thing - right.

DAVID: They hated - they hate - they hated that show. They didn't even want to air it. And you know, there was a big meeting about the kind of shows they liked and the kind of shows they didn't like. And you know, I just said, well, I'm not going be able to do that. So I just thought that I would quit. But then I learned another lesson - that when you say no, you invariably get your way. And it's a wonderful feeling to...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

DAVID: I can't believe I never did it before.

DAVIES: (Laughter) No, just not going to do it (laughter).

DAVID: Yeah. You just say no. And then they go, OK, OK, well, you don't have to.

BIANCULLI: Larry David, co-creator of "Seinfeld" and star and creator of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" speaking to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in 2015. "Curb Your Enthusiasm" launches its new season on HBO this weekend. After a break, we'll hear more of their conversation, and we'll also listen back to Terry Gross's 1999 interview with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who died Wednesday at age 91. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies and his 2015 interview with comedian and TV writer-producer Larry David, who co-created "Seinfeld." His HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" returns with new episode Sunday after a six-year hiatus.

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DAVIES: You became friends with Jerry Seinfeld doing stand-up together. And the two of you conceived of the - you know, this incredible hit TV show "Seinfeld." And of course everybody knows the four characters and that George Costanza is I guess somewhat based on you. Did you ever consider playing that role yourself?

DAVID: No, no. It was never mentioned. I never thought of it. Jerry never thought of it - furthest thing from my mind. And by the way, I couldn't have done it anyway. There's no way that I could have. First of all, they wouldn't have let me do it (laughter). But even had they let me do it, there's no way that I could have done that and also been the executive producer of the show. It would have been way too hard. I mean I had a 24/7 job just on the writing end of it and the producing end. So there's no way I could have been in it.

DAVIES: I wonder if you could share a bit of how you talked to Jason Alexander about the character and the role and how you felt about how - what he did with it.

DAVID: First of all, I never even spoke to him about it. We auditioned a number of people to play George - hadn't really found anyone. And then this tape was sent in from New York. And Jerry and I watched the tape, and it was Jason auditioning in New York with a casting director - reading with a casting director, just sitting on a stool.

I heard ten seconds, and I went, oh, boy, there he is. This guy - this is the guy. And I never had to say one word to him about the character or anything like that. He just had it right from the beginning. He was great. What a fantastic actor - gave me so many laughs watching him do that.

DAVIES: We're going to play a clip from Seinfeld. And there's a million we could choose, but I thought we would do one of Big Stein - George Steinbrenner.

DAVID: (Laughter) OK.

DAVIES: And of course people who know the show will know that there were many episodes where George Costanza worked for the New York Yankees. And he would be occasionally summoned to the office of the famous owner George Steinbrenner. And you would do the voice. It would be shot from behind another actor, so you didn't actually see him. And this is an episode I think in which Steinbrenner has summoned George because he's heard rumors about George's political views.

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JASON ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) You wanted to see me, Mr. Steinbrenner.

DAVID: (As George Steinbrenner) Yes, George, I did. Come in. Come in. George, the word around the office is that you're a communist.

(LAUGHTER)

ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) A communist - I am a Yankee, Sir, first and foremost.

DAVID: (As George Steinbrenner) You know, George, it struck me today that a communist pipeline into the vast reservoir of Cuban baseball talent could be the greatest thing ever to happen to this organization.

(LAUGHTER)

ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Sir?

DAVID: (As George Steinbrenner) You could be invaluable to this franchise. George, there's a southpaw down there nobody's been able to get a look at - something Rodriguez. I don't really know his name. You get yourself down to Havana right away.

ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Yes, Sir. Yes, Sir. I'll do my best.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID: (As George Steinbrenner) Good. Merry Christmas, George. And bring me back some of those cigars in the cedar boxes - you know, the ones with the fancy rings.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID: (As George Steinbrenner) I love those fancy rings. They kind of distract you while you're smoking. The red and yellow are nice. It looks good against the brown of the cigar.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID: (As George Steinbrenner) The Maduro - oh, I like the Maduro wrapper. The darker, the better - that's what I say. Of course the Claro's good, too. That's more of a pale brown, almost like a milky coffee.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID: (As George Steinbrenner) I find the ring size very confusing. They have it in centimeters, which I don't...

DAVIES: And George Costanza has wandered out of the room. That's our guest Larry David as the voice of George Steinbrenner. It's funny. As we listen to that, it's not quite your speaking voice. You did some stuff there with that.

DAVID: Well, hey, you know, Dave, I was doing an impression.

DAVIES: You're an actor.

DAVID: Oh, sure. No, we brought in some people to read for Mr. Steinbrenner, and nobody really got it. And Jerry said, well, what are you looking for? How does it go? And all of a sudden, I started talking like this. You know, he's a big, blustery guy. He kind of talks like that. And Jerry said, yeah, you should do it. That's funny. So that's how that happened.

DAVIES: Did you ever hear how Steinbrenner himself reacted to the bit?

DAVID: I think he liked it. Steinbrenner was unfamiliar with the show. His grandchildren watched it, and his grandchildren talked him into letting us use his name. The last episode I think of the '96 season, we came up with the idea to actually fly him in and put him on the show because up to that point, we'd only been seeing the back of his head, and I was doing his voice. And then we thought it would be fun if he was - if he actually made a real appearance.

So we called him up, and he said, yeah, he would do it. So we flew out to do it. He did the show. We started editing the show. And as I watched it, I'm going, oh, my god, this is not good. And we thought it's so much better to just see the back of his head with me doing the voice then to actually see the real Steinbrenner because his acting was wanting, to say the least.

So I had to call him up and tell him the news that he was being cut from the show. So I called Yankee Stadium, and I asked to talk to him. And then he got on the phone. I said, Mr. Steinbrenner, this is Larry David calling from the "Seinfeld" show. And he said, yes, yes, Larry, what's going on? I said, well, Mr. Steinbrenner, you know, I watched the show. And he said, yeah, you can tell me. I'm a big boy. I'm a big boy. I said, well, it's not working. We have to cut you from the show. And he was actually OK with it.

DAVIES: Let's talk a bit about "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And I want to begin with a clip. This actually is on the subject of death. Now, in this case, you're walking down the street in Los Angeles and spot your old friend Marty Funkhouser, who's played by Bob Einstein. And his mother has recently died. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM")

DAVID: (As himself) Hey, Funkhouser. My God, I can't believe it. You're out. What are you doing?

BOB EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) This helps my emotions. Jogging's the best thing for me.

DAVID: (As himself) So mourners exercise. I didn't know that.

EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) I don't know if mourners exercise. It's just good for me.

DAVID: (As himself) Interesting - I'm going to remember that next time I lose a close member of my family.

EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) Yeah, jogging...

DAVID: (As himself) Yeah.

EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) ...Helps everything.

DAVID: (As himself) By the way, I called your house. I left a condolence message. I never got a return call.

EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) Well, I had a few things on my mind.

DAVID: (As himself) Still, it's a little discourteous.

EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) Let me explain something to you.

DAVID: (As himself) Sure.

EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) I lost my dad a year ago. My mother just died. I'm an orphan, OK?

DAVID: (As himself) You're a what?

EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) I'm an orphan.

DAVID: (As himself) Orphan?

EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) Yeah, an orphan.

DAVID: (As himself) You're a little too old to be an orphan.

EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) No, if you don't have parents, you're an orphan.

DAVID: (As himself) Oh, you could be 70 and be an orphan?

EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) You could be a hundred and be an orphan.

DAVID: (As himself) You can't be a hundred and be an orphan.

EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) Yeah, you can.

DAVID: (As himself) OK - little orphan Funkhouser.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Our guest, Larry David, and Bob Einstein on "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

DAVID: Yes, I'm upset because he didn't respond to my call. He never returned my call.

DAVIES: A little discourteous (laughter).

DAVID: I thought it was discourteous.

DAVIES: When I read about you, your friends say that you are actually a nice and generous person. Does it bother you that you've kind of created this image of yourself as this insensitive jerk?

DAVID: Oh, God, no, not at all. Why - no because that's - doesn't bother me in the least. I'm quite happy about it. I'm way closer to being the guy on "Curb" than the guy who's talking to you right now.

DAVIES: Really?

DAVID: I know I'm often described as a nice guy, but - by the way, I think the guy on "Curb" is a nice guy. He's just very honest.

DAVIES: OK, OK. Well, the guy on "Curb" would probably think that the guy on "Curb" was a nice guy, but I don't know if that that many other people would think that (laughter).

DAVID: But why? why isn't he nice? He's not mean. I don't think he's mean. I think he does nice things.

DAVIES: He just kind of can't let some things go that he might...

DAVID: Yeah, well, that doesn't mean he's not nice.

DAVIES: OK, well, you know...

DAVID: I think he's expressing a lot of the things that many people think about.

DAVIES: Right, but just are too inhibited to say.

DAVID: Exactly.

BIANCULLI: Comedian and TV writer-producer Larry David speaking to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in 2015. The new season of David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" begins Sunday on HBO after a six-year absence. Coming up, we remember Playboy founder Hugh Hefner who died Wednesday at age 91. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL WELTLINGER'S "GHOSTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.