Who better than the father of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm to guide us through the thicket of being together, alone?
Our lives now depend on staying home and doing nothing.
We are cooped up with no end in sight, getting increasingly irascible.
So I thought I would reach out to the world's leading expert on the art of nothing: the endlessly irascible man whose mantra has always been, "It doesn't pay to leave your house — what's the point?"
I found Larry David barricaded in his home in the Pacific Palisades neighbourhood of Los Angeles. "No one gets in here," America's most famous misanthrope said. "Only in an emergency plumbing catastrophe would I open the door."
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I asked what he fears most, and he replied, "Anarchy and a potential dental emergency — and not necessarily in that order."
Long ago, when he was a miserable stand-up comic in New York, he would sometimes abruptly stop his act, telling the audience, "This is what happens when you run out of nothing." Then he made two of the best shows in TV history, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, about … nothing.
And now, in this plague season, David's odes to trivial pursuits are providing relief to some of us who are nostalgic for the days when we had the bandwidth to focus on trivia, when our lives weren't blighted and freighted.
"It's an escapist pleasure," said Daniel D'Addario, the chief TV critic of Variety, who has been watching one episode of Curb at lunchtime and one before bed. He does not think David will be a target of the class rage hitting Hollywood, pillorying tone-deaf celebrities who blanketed Instagram with their cringe worthy Imagine video and glamour shots of their quarantine compounds and yachts and petal-strewn baths.
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"Larry David is saying you can have as much money as you want, and not only are you still unhappy, but you're still unhappy about the most picayune things — jealousy and envy and all these venial sins," D'Addario said. "That is something that puts a smile on my face, as opposed to celebrities telling you to be happy from inside their gated communities, which engenders rage."
I asked David, a social critic of Hollywood mores who has been called "a savage Edith Wharton" by his friend Larry Charles, why all these celebrities seemed so devoid of self-awareness.
"I don't know; that's the $64,000 question," he said. "I guess their instinct is to help, their motives are good, and they don't consider how it might come off." But, he added, "I think it's a complete lack of judgment to talk about your lifestyle at this time; it's crazy. Of course other people are going to react like that."
David popped his head up only to make a public service announcement for Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, asking people not to be "covidiots," to stay home and not hurt "old people like me." He was a little embarrassed when news leaked that he had set up a GoFundMe page for the golf caddies at his beloved Riviera Country Club adjacent to his home.
We're FaceTiming — something David has grown to like in quarantine — and he picks up his iPad to walk me around and show me the view of the deserted golf course from his bedroom window.
It's my first FaceTime, and I'm nervous, having watched all week as even the glossiest cable news shows have downshifted into low-tech Wayne's World basement productions. To shore up confidence beforehand, I asked my lighting sensei, Tom Ford, for some tips, and he kindly sent these instructions, which you all are welcome to use:
"Put the computer up on a stack of books so the camera is slightly higher than your head — say, about the top of your head. And then point it down into your eyes. Then take a tall lamp and set it next to the computer on the side of your face you feel is best. The lamp should be in line with and slightly behind the computer so the light falls nicely on your face. Then put a piece of white paper or a white tablecloth on the table you are sitting at, but make sure it can't be seen in the frame. It will give you a bit of fill and bounce. And lots of powder, et voilà!"
A germaphobe vindicated
The cranelike David, in a dark blue Zegna pullover, rust-colored pants and sneakers, is sporting a scruffy beard. "Any facial hair is very beneficial for the bald man," he said. "It really enhances the bald man's appearance." He looked snug in a blue wing chair in a corner of his house. I was less comfortable.
"I'm only seeing half your face," he complained. "Do you know that?"
When I ask if he is hoarding anything, he is outraged. "Not a hoarder," he said. "In fact, in a few months, if I walk into someone's house and stumble onto 50 rolls of toilet paper in a closet somewhere, I will end the friendship. It's tantamount to being a horse thief in the Old West.
"I never could have lived in the Old West," he added parenthetically. "I would have been completely paranoid about someone stealing my horse. No locks. You tie them to a post! How could you go into a saloon and enjoy yourself knowing your horse could get taken any moment? I would be so distracted. Constantly checking to see if he was still there."
Jerry Seinfeld has observed that David is the greatest proof that "you are what you are," given the fact that he remained a curmudgeon even once he got rich and popular.
Although, at 72, David does seem more comfortable in his skin. His outlook used to be so dark that Charles, one of the original writers of "Seinfeld," said that if he thought he could get away with it, David would have put out contracts to kill people.
Now, however, he is contentedly holed up with the older of his two daughters, Cazzie David, 25; an Australian shepherd puppy named Bernie (after Sanders, whom David embodies with uncanny likeness on Saturday Night Live); a cat; and his girlfriend, Ashley Underwood, who worked as a producer of Sacha Baron Cohen's Showtime satire, "Who Is America?" Underwood is friends with Isla Fisher, Cohen's wife, who had a hilarious role in this season's Curb as a professional crier who manipulates Larry into handing over his mother's mink stole.
David met Underwood at Cohen's birthday party in 2017. "We were seated next to each other, I think with that in mind," he said of the fix-up. "Much to her surprise I left before dessert. I was doing so well, banterwise, I didn't want to risk staying too long and blowing the good impression."
He and Cazzie David, who writes wry columns for Graydon Carter's digital weekly, Air Mail, are both lifelong germaphobes. "This might be the only thing I've ever agreed with Trump about: We should put an end to the shake," Larry David said. "You know, we might as well end intercourse while we're at it. That's always been a lot of trouble."
He also agrees with the president about the allure of hand sanitizer, which was a pivotal plot point in this season of Curb. "Who can resist Purell?" he said. "Anytime you see it, you're drawn to it."
Now that David can't go out and argue with friends, neighbours, strangers and staffers over stuff like whether he can clean his glasses on a woman's blouse or the regulation shape for a putter, he must do his bickering inside his own home.
"There's not a moment in the day when there isn't friction between at least two of us," he said of the trapped troika. "Then when that gets resolved, two others are at each other's throats, and it's invariably about dishes. 'You didn't do the dishes!' or 'You didn't help with the dishes!' I think that is being screamed all over the world now.
"Another issue is the business of one of us starting a show and not waiting for the other. Huge problem! You at least have to ask. Ashley does not ask. She starts, and then it's impossible to catch up. And I'll catch her. I'll walk into the room, and she'll instantly click off the TV."
Cazzie David said that the real Larry David does not constantly start fights. In fact, it is just the opposite. "I guess this is kind of ironic, considering his character on TV, but he can't stand having any animosity with anyone," she told me.
She said that if she gets into an argument with someone in the house, "he cannot stand it for a second. It just pains him. I remember when my sister and I were growing up, we would whisper-fight because if he heard us fighting, he would just get so upset, like it was the end of the world that two people were angry with each other. And it was just kind of a crime to stress him out because he's really just so gentle and nice, so we always avoid upsetting him at all costs."
Even though Larry David's iconic shows are all about whining, he doesn't tolerate it at home.
"If anyone can make you feel stupid for complaining, it's him," Cazzie David said. "If I complain even a little bit about anything, he'll ask me, 'How old are you?' and I'll be like, '25,' and he does that thing all parents and grandparents do and be like, 'You want to know where I was at 25? In a subway station selling magazines. In the Army Reserves.' He cannot stand hearing complaints of any kind, especially right now when a lot of us are lucky enough to be cozy in our homes.
"He's super against any self-pity. He thinks it's the most disgusting thing in the world. So there's no wallowing allowed, even when we were growing up. In the house, you're not allowed to feel bad about yourself or be depressed. He just has no sympathy for it. So if you're depressed or feeling bad about something, he'll just tell you to take a shower. That's like his cure for mental stress. And if it doesn't work, he'll be like, 'Just take another one.'"
She, too, thinks that her father is "less grumpy."
The power of no
Larry David ventures out for solo walks in the deserted neighbourhood. "I cross the street when I see someone coming like I used to do when I was a kid in Brooklyn and the Italian kids would shake me down for change," he said. "And when someone crosses first, I know I shouldn't take it personally, but I can't help it. How dare they?"
I wonder how he's faring without restaurants, which provide much of the fodder for his shows.
"The one positive thing to come out of this for me is the lunch decision, which in normal times takes me at least 15 minutes," he said. "Now there's nothing to it. It's turkey or tuna. There's nothing else in the house."
There is another positive, which I point out to the anti-social David: Social life has skidded to a halt. "I will say that the lack of invitations, OK, that's been fantastic," he agreed. "Yeah, that I love. You don't have to make up any excuses." In Curb, David's namesake character — a more obnoxious, fortissimo version of himself — is constantly lying to get out of going places. "Saying 'no' is such a skill in and of itself because the nos are rarely direct," he said. "There's a lot of thought that's put into the no, and those emails or texts when you are saying no really do take a lot of time and effort to get the wording exactly right."
Cheryl Hines, who plays his ex-wife on Curb, observed, "I bet Larry's in heaven. He's been trying to social-distance for years."
David said the best way to stay away from self-destructive behavior in quarantine is to think of it "like quitting smoking. You wake up and you say, 'I'm not going to smoke today.' 'I'm not going to freak out today.' That's the only way you can do it."
The crisis has coined a mordant new vocabulary: covidivorce, corona babies, isolationship. And in Hollywood, there's "pandemic nice guys," a term being thrown around by high-strung types who suddenly find themselves engaging in shocking niceties, like waving out their car windows at pedestrians and thanking garbage collectors and police officers.
During what he called his "chaos break," David was making notes on his phone, as he always does, about this dark chapter for sunny California, in case it can inspire him, even just as a flashback in Curb.
The show just finished its 10th season over two decades. David said that this season, a gleeful barbecue of PC culture, may be his favorite. As usual, his character roams around town, getting into big, self-defeating tangles about minor issues.
After buying cold coffee and a scone that tasted more like a muffin at Mocha Joe's coffee shop, Larry opens up a "spite store," a competing coffee shop next door called Latte Larry's. This spurs Sean Penn to open up an exotic bird store next to a bird store that dissed him, and Mila Kunis to open up a jewelry store next to a jewelry store she wants to put out of business.
It was, typically, inspired by a real-life incident. "I went into this store on the Vineyard, and I got a cup of coffee, and it was a little cold, and I said, 'You know, this coffee's a little cold,' and they didn't give me satisfaction. I walked out of the store and across the street was a shack. And, of course, I was pissed off, and I said, 'I'd like to buy that shack and build the exact same store, but with lower prices, and take them out of business.'"
But he didn't?
"Oh, no," he said. "God, no."
David was stunned when President Donald Trump retweeted a scene from the episode where Larry wears a MAGA hat to get out of commitments in liberal Hollywood and ends up using it to assuage a Trumpster on a motorcycle with road rage. Trump tweeted a clip of the fight with the motorcycle guy with the message: "TOUGH GUYS FOR TRUMP!"
"What in God's name was that?" David asked me. "That was crazy, crazy. I don't understand it. I still don't get it."
David's show is beloved by some Trumpsters because it is so anti-PC and because Larry is always raging against the machine. But he told an audience at the 92nd Street Y that he didn't care if he alienated Trump voters with his MAGA hat episode. "Alienate yourselves! Go! Go and alienate! You have my blessing."
When we speak about the president, David marveled, "You know, it's an amazing thing. The man has not one redeeming quality. You could take some of the worst dictators in history, and I'm sure that all of them, you could find one decent quality. Stalin could have had one decent quality — we don't know!"
He said he gets mad at Trump's briefings where the president contradicts his own scientists in real time. "That's the hardest thing about the day, watching what comes out of this guy's mouth," he said. "It turns you into a maniac because you're yelling at the television. All of a sudden, you find yourself screaming, like I used to do on the streets of New York, pre-'Seinfeld,' when I saw happy couples on the street."
Does he ever think Trump can be funny?
"He's like a bad Catskills comic," David replied.
He said he's been watching the Hillary Clinton documentary on Hulu. "I'm not the first person to say this, obviously, but you never got the feeling that you were really seeing her. There was a problem warming up to her. But you see her in this documentary, and you love her."
The Hillary moment he can't stop thinking about is when she didn't wheel on the lurking Trump in the debate and tell him to get the hell out of her frame.
"I have literally gone over that moment in my basement so many times, pretending to be her, trying out different lines to say something to him," David said. "I'll say, 'WHAT in God's name are you doing?' 'What the hell are you doing?' 'Back up, man, what are you doing?'"
He is relieved not to be flying back and forth to New York on weekends to do his Sanders imitation for SNL.
"Imagine, if he had become president, what would have happened to my life?" he said.
After he learned on Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Public Broadcasting Service show, Finding Your Roots, that Sanders was a distant cousin, he ran into the pol at the Today show, and Bernie greeted him with a big "Cousin!"
"When I see him, it does feel like I'm talking to somebody in my family," he said.
I wondered if he took it personally when Clinton said of Sanders' reputation in Congress, "Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him."
"It was a little harsh, yeah," he said.
Does he think it's time for his doppelgänger to drop out?
"I feel he should drop out," David said. "Because he's too far behind. He can't get the nomination. And I think, you know, it's no time to fool around here. Everybody's got to support Biden."
How else is he spending his time in lockdown?
David said he's watching Ozark and Unorthodox on Netflix. He tried to watch America's favorite distraction, Tiger King, but couldn't get past the first episode. "I found it so disturbing," he said. "The lions and the tigers just really scared the hell out of me. They were going to attack somebody. They were going to kill somebody. I didn't want to see them attack, and those people were just so insane, I couldn't watch it."
David, who starred in Woody Allen's 2009 movie, Whatever Works, also said he is reading Allen's memoir, Apropos of Nothing, which was picked up by Arcade Publishing after Hachette Book Group dropped it following pressure from another one of its authors, Allen's son Ronan Farrow, and protests.
"Yeah, it's pretty great; it's a fantastic book — so funny," David said. "You feel like you're in the room with him, and yeah, it's just a great book, and it's hard to walk away after reading that book thinking that this guy did anything wrong."
I told David I disagree with his remarks in the past that people don't like to see neurotic single guys or older guys on-screen after a certain age. I could watch Curb ad infinitum.
"I can only think about when Buster Keaton got old," he said. "I don't know. He was such a great comedian, and then he just — you didn't want to see him. Even old people don't want to watch old people."
It was time for David to hang up. He had to get back to doing nothing.
Written by: Maureen Dowd
Photographs by: Credit...Jake Michaels
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