Identity Politics and the Comedy of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM

by Ben Fine

Throughout the course of television, comedians have been portraying stereotypes of race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, and so forth. Ranging from the early days of Gosden’s and Correll’s Amos ‘n’ Andy, to today’s hit series, Family Guy, minorities have been portrayed based on society’s judgments. Times have changed since television’s early days, with many more shows poking fun at racism, instead of actually being racist. One of the comedians who lightens up the dark side of racism is writer and producer Larry David, the creator of HBO’s hit series, Curb Your Enthusiasm (or as fans often call it, Curb) which focuses on his life. Viewers witness David getting into trouble by the things he says, or the mishaps he creates. David usually stereotypes a certain culture or ethnicity, which ties into identity politics. Identity politics signifies a wide range of political activity and theorizing found in the shared experiences of injustice of members of a certain social group. Rather then organizing solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestoes, or party affiliation, identity political formations will typically aim to secure the freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within a larger context. After watching Curb for a few seasons, I’ve realized that David usually gets himself into trouble by offending African-Americans, Christians, Jews, and homosexuals. As a viewer, I understand that it’s not right to laugh at hardships many face, but as David portrays stereotypes he is commenting on them through the show’s comedy.After analyzing Curb Your Enthusiasm,  I’ve reached the conclusion that David’s confusion towards Christians, African-Americans, and homosexuals is what makes this such a funny show.  Identity politics is a political action that advances the interests of members of a certain group whose members are oppressed by virtue of a shared and marginalized identity such as, race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and/ or sexual orientation (Kenny 3-4). Although, the history of identity politics has not been addressed as a subject in it’s own right in full-length literature, L.A. Kauffman who traced its origins to the SNCC, also known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, has described it in an article. The term eventually emerged when people outside the Black freedom movements, such as Black feminists began to adopt the practice in the late 1960s (Heyes). Racial categories are perhaps most politically significant in their relation to racism. This attempt reduces members of social groups to their racial features, which draws on a complex history of racial stereotypes. One interesting point is that literature on multiculturalism takes up many questions of race, ethnicity, and cultural diversity in relation to the liberal state (Kenny 10-12). As mentioned before, the practice entails degrees of separatism.For the majority of groups embracing the perspective of oppression, separatism is only a means to an end. Sometimes the “identity” of identity politics appears to be the experience of the subject, especially ones’ experience of oppression and the possibility of a shared and more authentic and self-determined alternative (Heyes). Many times the meanings attribute to a particular experience that diverges from one of its subjects. First, David’s lack of knowledge towards Christians is a huge addition of comedy for Curb. In season two-episode nine, David and his wife Cheryl attend a baptism for David’s future brother-in-law. They arrive late to the ceremony, and as David gets his first glimpse of the river, he witnesses his future brother-in-law being held in the water by a priest. Since David isn’t familiar with baptisms, he grows confused and rushes to stop the ceremony. The brother-in-law second guesses himself and decides that he needs more time to think it over. The Jews and non-Jews congregate into the home and begin to debate whether or not the brother-in-law should convert or not. The Jewish people attending the baptism believe the brother-in-law should stay Jewish and not convert, while the non-Jews make their case and explain reasons as to why he should convert. This creates a huge uproar between both sides with the two religions throwing insults at one another. One of the Jewish guys states, “What he did was a wonderful thing”, then a Christian man follows up by saying, “What, being Christian isn’t a wonderful thing?” David stereotypes Christians as close-minded individuals who aren’t in touch with society. He states to Cheryl, “What’s the deal with Christians and Jesus? Everything’s always about Jesus.  It’s like, I love lobster but I don’t go around telling everyone to try the lobster!” (Dolan 16). Obviously, David doesn’t know much about baptisms, or the way Christians speak. He panics when he witnesses his future brother-in-law being dunked in the water and completely ruins the ceremony. Then he makes the comment on how Christians are always trying to convert people to Christianity. The fact that David had no idea of what’s going on and compares Jesus to lobsters makes this episode very funny. Although his bewilderment towards Christians is humorous, it can contribute of the dangers of identity politics, in that is may cast an authentic identity to ones’ self or an identity that in fact is defined by its opposition to an “other”. 

Another example is from season three-episode nine, titled “Mary, Joseph, and Larry.” In this episode, David accidentally eats Cheryl’s home-baked Nativity scene. In this instance, Cheryl’s sister yells to him, “You ate the baby Jesus and his mother Mary!” (Dolan 32). David doesn’t sympathize with Cheryl or her sister and makes his way outside to hand out Christmas tips to the gardeners. Later on in this episode, the gardeners hear him make a degrogatory comment about their Spanish heritage. When they confront David, he denies the comments and blames everything on his wife. When Cheryl finds out, she grows very upset and avoids him for the rest of the day. Feeling very guilty he realizes that he must make up for what he’s done. On his way home, David spots a group of actors from a church portraying a live Nativity scene. After negotiating, the group agrees to perform for Cheryl the next morning. David wakes Cheryl up early and the two walk outside to see the church group performing the Nativity scene. After Cheryl happily goes inside to make herself a cup of coffee, the group takes a break and David approaches the guy who’s playing Joseph. A little way into their conversation, David makes a comment about mother Mary’s breasts, which completely offends the guy playing Joseph. Joseph tells the group to pack up and moments later they’re gone. Once again, David’s confusion towards Christianity makes this episode very funny. He eats the Nativity cookies and treats the church group with absolutely no respect. An identity is established in relation to a series of differences that have become socially recognizable. These differences between David, the Jewish man, and the church group are essential to its being. If they did not coexist as differences, it would not exist in its distinctness and solidity (Coate).

Next, David’s confusion towards African-American stereotypes is an additional comedy boost for Curb. In season six-episode three, David is at a restaurant having lunch with his friend who is African-American. His friend realizes that he has to leave early so he pays his bill and leaves his tip. Moments later, David finishes his meal, stands up and as he begins to pay for his own tip he notices that his friend didn’t leave a tip that amounted to his standard. David then adds a few more dollars to his friend’s tip, but what he doesn’t know is that Cheryl’s African-American friend, Wanda, is witnessing the whole thing. She says to Larry, “Larry David, fixing a Black man’s tip, you must think we’re all cheap.” Larry hesitates and tries to make light of the situation by explaining to Wanda that he wasn’t being racist, and that his friend simply didn’t leave a normal tip (Dolan 23).  A few hours later, Larry parks his car and while he walks towards an office building he passes an African-American man. Seconds later, he looks back at his car and locks it. The African-American man looks at Larry and says, “What? You think I’m going to steal your car because I’m Black?” Larry tries to explain himself, but the man leaves in anger. Once Larry turns around, Wanda is standing there with her arms crossed, giving Larry a dirty look. Wanda says to Larry, “Larry David, first the Black man doesn’t tip, now he wants to steal your car.” When it comes to race, similar philosophies of race highlight the contingent and historic nature of “race” as a category of identity. Despite a complex history of biological essentialism in the presentation of racial typologies, the notion of a genetic basis to racial difference has been largely discredited (Coate).

Then in season one-episode nine, Larry makes a racial comment to an African-American dermatologist. Larry and Richard Lewis are standing by the beach talking when all a sudden, Richard’s dermatologist comes jogging by. The two say hello and when the dermatologist introduces himself, Larry says, “I can see Affirmative Action really helped you”. The dermatologist is obviously stunned and quickly jogs away. Larry realizes that his joke backfires and tries to apologize, but it’s too late. He proclaims to Richard Lewis, “I say stupid things to Black people.” Later on in the episode, Larry and Cheryl arrive at the dermatologist’s in order to cure Cheryl’s emergency skin rash. After apologizing numerous times, the dermatologist agrees to treat Cheryl. While the dermatologist gets the medicine, Larry is waiting in the living room with Cheryl and the doctor’s family. To David’s surprise, a young lady who tried to get a job on David’s movie enters the room. The drunk woman yells at him and lets everyone in the room know that the reason she didn’t get the job on David’s movie is because he is a racist. Right as she says “racist”, the dermatologist walks in the room and the camera cuts to David and Cheryl driving away, without the medication (Dolan 25). As an avid Curb viewer I understand that David is no racist. He just happens to find himself in awkward situations, which become very difficult due to his actions and the things he says. Racial categories are perhaps most politically significant in their contested relation to racism. Racism attempts to reduce members of social groups to their racial features, drawing on a complex history of racial stereotypes to do so. What got David into trouble with the dermatologist was his comment on Affirmative Action. For example, this requires statistics about the numbers of members of oppressed racial groups employed in certain contexts, which in turn requires racial identification and categorization (Heyes).

Furthermore, David’s confusion among homosexuals is both shocking and humorous. In season two-episode four, David and Cheryl attend a poker game with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a few HBO executives. As the group plays poker, David begins to notice that one of the executives is showing traits of homosexuality. Throughout most of the game David keeps quiet, but on one hand he feIt the executive made a weak move and quickly blurted out the c-word.  Moments later, he looks up to see everyone at the table completely shocked. The effeminate male’s wife blasts David and orders him to leave (Dolan 19). When the camera turns to the executive, it’s clearly obvious that he’s upset about the comment. When driving back home with Cheryl, David kept making his case as to why he thought the HBO executive was gay. As an avid viewer of Curb, I was completely shocked by his judgment here. In previous episodes David has always treated homosexuals with an enormous amount of respect. Clearly, he wasn’t thinking and made a huge mistake by using that word. The use of the word was by no means funny, because it’s very offensive to women, homosexuals, and basically everyone in general.  What I found funny was David’s stupidity in saying the word. In all my years I’ve never heard anyone just blurt that word out, and without any thought, David screams it out in front of a friendly game of poker. As this ties into identity politics, nowhere have conceptual struggles over identity been more pronounced that in the lesbian and gay liberation movement. The notion that sexual object choice can define who a person is has been profoundly challenged by the advent of queer politics. An exemplary conflict within the identity politics of sexuality focuses on the expansion of gays and lesbians organizing with those with other queer affiliations, especially bisexual and transgender activists. Skepticism about inclusion of these groups in organizational mandates, community centers, parades, and festivals has origins in more traditional understandings of identity politics that see reclaiming lesbian and gay identity from its corruption in a homophobic society as a task compromised by those whose identities are read as diluted, treacherous, ambiguous, or peripheral (Mohanty 14-16).

Later on, in season five-episode two, David once again insults homosexuals. As he and Cheryl prepare to attend a party for his buddy, Marty, Cheryl informs David that Marty’s sister is no longer a lesbian. When they enter the party, David approaches Marty’s sister, Jodi, and starts rambling on about how great it is that she’s no longer a lesbian, and a few of her gay friends overhear becoming insulted. What viewers were not previously informed about was that David was generally considered very well liked by homosexuals. He tells his manager, Jeff, “Lesbians love me” (Dolan 55). After the party, David finds himself on very thin ice due to his attitude towards Jodi. Throughout the episode, he faces belligerent phone calls, numerous insults, and a wide range of guilt. By no means was he trying to insult homosexuals; David displayed his emotions the wrong way by overreacting – for which he paid the price. While early lesbian feminists had very different politics, oriented around liberation from patriarchy and the creation of separate spaces for woman identified women, many still appealed to a more authentic, distinctively feminist self.  Heterosexual feminine identities were products of oppression, yet the literature imagines a utopian alternative where woman-identification will liberate the lesbian within every woman (Kenny 34-35).

In final consideration, Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm is not racist.  As a comedian, David makes light of many situations, and although the wrong things may come out of his mouth (such as the time he called the HBO executive the c-word) he is not bigoted in any way.  As an avid viewer, I understand Larry never bas the intention to make anyone feel separated from the bunch due to their race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. As Curb Your Enthusiasm continues to move into the 21st century, the continuing intellectual crisis surrounding identity politics paradoxically marks its importance to contemporary political philosophy and practice. As I continue to watch Curb, I eagerly await to witness the new ventures David will get himself into. From making racist comments to African-Americans, to offending Cheryl’s Christian family, I know Larry David will undoubtedly say the wrong words to somebody and find himself getting into trouble. I believe his confusion towards those who are unlike him will always create laughs in the show. Identity politics is an important theory to understand, because we’re all living in one society, yet the majority of us are all different. Television and identity politics will continue to progress together through time, and although times change, the laughter will always stay the same.

Works Cited

Coate, Roger and Thiel, Markus. Identity Politics and Political Identities in the Industrialized and the Developing World. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ISA’s 49th Annual Convention, Bridging Multiple Divides – Hilton San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA, Mar 26, 2008.  http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p253965index.html.

Dolan, Deirdre. Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Book. New York: Gotham, 2006.

Heyes, Cressida. “Identity Politics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 16 Nov. 2002. 3 Dec. 2008
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-politics/.

Kenny, Michael. The Politics of Identity: Liberal Political Theory and the Dilemmas of Difference. New York, NY: Polity, 2004. 3-56.

Mohanty, Satya P. Identity Politics Reconsidered. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 5-31.

3 thoughts on “Identity Politics and the Comedy of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM

  1. While I agree that Curb’s humor often comes from Larry David’s character’s somewhat stereotypical attitude towards others I find it to be less mean spirited than it seems to be discussed here as. More often the humor stems from others perceiving Larry as a racist (or sexist or what have you) and him having to defend himself. In the episode where he “fixes” the black man’s tip its because he genuinely thinks he hasn’t left enough. Its sort of the theme of that episode that Larry can’t win because black people keep playing the race card. He wants to fire the same guy because he’s a lousy TV repairman, but is held up because people point and call him racist for firing a black man. This is the joke. Larry has every reason/right to fire the guy, yet society’s rules (specifically those regarding race relations) prevent him from doing so; irony.
    He also does not call the gentleman in the poker game episode a c*nt because he’s a homosexual, but because he did something “not manly” as his character puts it. Over sensitivity and presumptions about Larry lead people (such as the author of this article I suspect) to deem this action bigoted. This reading was a great look at the humor of one of my favorite shows, though my opinions on the genesis of these jokes seems to differ from the author. They seem to believe in some instances that Larry trying to defend a bigoted position is the joke, whereas I believe it is the misunderstanding that leads people to believe his position is bigoted.

  2. What makes Curb funny: It is relatable, Larry David is not afraid to make himself the bad guy or buffoon, Curb goes to more daring places than other shows. Also with any comedy, what makes them different than drama, is the way the main character goes about solving the conflict. Larry’s unorthodox and insane ways of dealing with matters make us laugh because although his methods and internal thoughts may be relatable, his actions are things that we would never do. Also, Larry never gets away or succeeds because the world and characters around him are always pitted against him. What makes Seinfeld and Curb different from other sitcoms, is that it usually ends badly for the main characters. The honesty of the show and its refusal to neatly and wrap up at the end help make it different from other shows and funnier.

  3. I enjoyed this article, I’m a big fan of Curb too, along with Seinfeld. I just want to respond to the c- word in your article though. I don’t like hearing “cunt” and I would never refer to a woman with it, but It bothers me when people like yourself are afraid to even type it out. I watched this Australian comedian once, he was hilarious and said cunt a lot in his act, but not in derogatory or offensive ways. This comedian just grew up with that word and doesn’t find it offensive in the same ways you and I do. I just think that we as people shouldn’t be afraid to use words as long as they’re in good context. Spell it out next time, we all know what you’re saying anyways.

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