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Mourning Marty Funkhouser, the Legendary Scene-stealer of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’

He was best known as Super Dave, but Bob Einstein was a comedian’s comedian, an entertainment pioneer, and maybe Larry David’s favorite foil. The show must go on, but ‘Curb’ won’t be the same without LD’s “best friend.”

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More than any other character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Marty Funkhouser’s arc—and relationship with Larry David—revolved around death.

We’re first introduced to him in somewhat morbid fashion in Season 4’s “The Weatherman”: Marty’s father, Leo, was gravely ill (despite Larry’s insistence that he had the “good Hodgkins”), and Larry made a scene at an event celebrating the man’s life. The next episode, Leo died, and Larry attempted to steal a 5-wood from the casket to disastrous effect. But it was the following week, in the classic “The Car Pool Lane,” when we got our first good look at a grieving Funk Man—and how Larry viewed this person who was ostensibly one of his closest friends.

Wounded by his father’s death, Marty refused to bring anyone to a big Dodgers game that was taking place shortly after the funeral, and kept a field-level seat open next to him as a tribute to his dad. “We used to go to games together—it makes me feel close to him,” Marty said to Larry, who was forced to sit in the cheap seats with a prostitute (trust me, it made sense in the context of the episode).

None of this registered with Larry, a person who feels closeness only to himself, and when our unaffectionate king had the chance later to seize petty revenge after Marty’s car broke down, he couldn’t help himself. “Why don’t you ask your father to jump-start the car?” Larry shouted. “Hey, Leo, why don’t you give him a push?

This, of course, would not be the last time Larry made a mockery of a Funkhouser family death. Most Curb watchers remember “The Ida Funkhouser Roadside Memorial,” the episode when Marty’s mother died after being struck by a car and Larry stole flowers from the memorial to try to get laid. There was also a funeral for Ida, which Larry ruined by trying to cover up the fact he also stole her perfume in another attempt to get laid. But before we got to either of those thefts, we were treated to a brief, brilliant interaction between Larry, who was eating ice cream, and Funkhouser, who was out for a jog. They argued about several things over the course of a two-minute stop-and-chat, including whether the sexagenarian Funkhouser was now an orphan and whether a golfing bet could be paid off with a sweaty $50 bill, while Larry mostly fixated on his melting cone. But the first part of that curbside encounter always stuck out to me:

LARRY: Hey, Funkhouser. My God, I can’t believe it. You’re out. What are you doing?
FUNKHOUSER: This helps my emotions. Jogging’s the best thing for me.
LARRY: So mourners exercise. I didn’t know that.
FUNKHOUSER: I don’t know if mourners exercise. It’s just good for me.
LARRY (without a hint of empathy): Interesting—I’m going to remember that next time I lose a close member of my family.

In the world of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry’s inner circle is not short on people who carry themselves drastically differently than he carries himself. Some are boisterous and seem to like him, like his live-in Kato Kaelin, Leon Black. Some are in constant disbelief and seem to despise him, like his now-ex-show-wife, Cheryl. His best friend, Jeff, is cowardly compared to Larry, and Jeff’s wife, Susie, can reduce both men to the sniveling man-children they truly are.

But no one on the show was like Funkhouser, the comedic straight man played by Bob Einstein, who died last year at age 76. With a gravelly voice that sounded like it was swallowing every syllable, Einstein created a character that stood out in the depraved world of Curb. He was family-oriented, genuinely treasured his friendship with Larry against all logic, and couldn’t lie, even about the taste of his girlfriend’s tap water. He considered his nephew the light of his life (before he fell in with a different prostitute), and he just wanted to play a game of A Thousand Pick-up Sticks. At 6-foot-4, he was the show’s gentle giant—the kind of meditative spirit who wants to go for a jog to be with their emotions. In other words, the total opposite of Larry David, who doesn’t have many emotions beyond annoyed and certainly wouldn’t want to be alone with them if he did. Marty wasn’t perfect, but he wasn’t a swan killer either. Most of all, he was a constant, comforting presence in Larry’s frenzied world. And when the show returns for Season 10 on Sunday, we’ll enter a Curb Your Enthusiasm world without Funkhouser for the first time since 2004.

Curb lore says that the script simply read, “Marty tells a joke.” What he filled in that gap with couldn’t have been more out of character for Funkhouser, but it was pure Bob Einstein. “A woman is very afraid of the size of her opening,” he began. “What is she afraid of?” asked a shocked Jerry Seinfeld. I won’t type out the rest of the joke, but if you’re unfamiliar, well, here it is:

That moment, in which he made the richest comedian who’s ever lived keel over laughing with the type of bit usually reserved for a crude uncle, was how most of the comedy world remembers Einstein. The son of pioneering radio comedian Harry Einstein and older brother of director and actor Albert Brooks, Einstein got his break in show business in the late 1960s writing and playing Officer Judy on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a sketch TV proving ground that also employed Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, and Don Novello. In 1972, he debuted his most famous creation, Super Dave Osborne, on The John Byner Comedy Hour. For the next two decades-plus, he brought the bumbling Evel Knievel parody to The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour, Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, In Living Color, Monday Night Raw, and, most famously, Late Night With David Letterman. Einstein landed a weekly half-hour show for the character on Showtime before premium TV had fully caught on, and in 1992, Super Dave got his own Saturday morning cartoon on Fox.

Einstein, who also had a short-lived but memorable role as George Sr.’s surrogate on Arrested Development, was a longtime real-life golf buddy of Larry David. (With Curb, it’s always about golf.) The pair would crack each other up, and David eventually said he had a role for Einstein. That turned into the instantly iconic Marty Funkhouser, a man with no discernible job, who was one of Larry’s closest friends—and probably his closest nemesis not named Susie. In some ways, it’s similar to Jerry’s relationship on Seinfeld with Newman, only if Jerry constantly socialized with him and Newman was inherently more likable than Jerry.

As a comedian who sparred with some of the funniest minds of the 20th century, Einstein fit right in to Curb’s organized chaos. The show’s dialogue is infamously ad-libbed—though each episode is heavily plotted by David—which played to Bob’s sketch comedy strengths. He started out in a small role, appearing in just five episodes in his first two seasons, but his usage rate eventually skyrocketed. He had 22 Curb appearances in total. Virtually all of them resulted in iconic moments. Like when he rededicated himself to Judaism right as Larry was dedicating himself to a new Palestinian chicken joint (and the restaurant’s manager). Or when Larry skipped out on the Funkhouser anniversary party right as he was supposed to make a toast. Or when he declared himself too lazy to get a divorce, only to change his mind. (When Leon suggested that Marty “ran that ass into the ground,” he demurred, “I didn’t run any—we had a nice marriage for 20 years.”) Or when, after Larry stole the flowers from Marty’s mom’s roadside memorial, he uttered what was something of a refrain for the character: “If you weren’t my best friend, I would take my bare hands and pop your head off your neck.” (“He’s not my best friend,” Larry immediately clarified to the room.)

Throughout it all, Einstein remained a comedian’s comedian, always ready to tell a joke at the most inopportune, yet perfect time. (His 2017 Against All Odds appearance is a master class in how to be funny in a casual setting.) When he passed away in January 2019 after a brief battle with cancer, his peers couldn’t hold back their admiration. That extended beyond the world of comedy: Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood said that he checked into hotels under the name “Marty Funkhouser” on several tours as a tribute to Einstein’s “subtle” and “beautifully pitched performance.” But there was probably no piece of praise that can fully capture what Einstein was able to do throughout his 50-year career: In an industry full of people who are funny for a living, he was the most consistently funny. That extended to the set of Curb. Look at how Larry couldn’t hold it together during one of his famous staring contests when he locked eyes with Einstein. Or go back to the joke that Marty told Jerry. “The great thing was on the show, they left in the real laugh from the first time I heard the joke,” Seinfeld said to Einstein in an early episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

How does a young boy get involved with a prostitute? If you’re Marty Funkhouser, the answer is simple: You brought him to meet the pox that is Larry David.

Marty’s last major story line came in Curb’s most recent season. He introduced Larry to the jewel of the Funkhouser family, his nephew Kenny, who was a star high school pitcher and had been offered a full ride to Stanford, provided he could ace his SATs. But then Larry happened.

With a broken elbow in his throwing arm, Kenny couldn’t pitch. He also couldn’t relieve tension because, well, he couldn’t go left. (“No one can,” said a dejected Marty.) Kenny wasn’t interested in anything, and Marty said he was scared of him. Larry got the bright idea to hire a prostitute for the high school senior. Kenny promptly fell in love with her and ran off to Pamplona to run with the bulls—probably to impress her, Larry hypothesized. Predictably, Kenny was trampled to death, and we were set up for yet another Funkhouser family funeral. Also predictably, the funeral went awry, and yet again it was because of Larry.

The look on Marty’s face at the end of the sequence was pure gold, and sadly, it’s one we won’t see again this season. Shooting began for Season 10 of Curb in late 2018. By that point, Einstein was extremely sick and reportedly unable to film. While few details about this season have emerged beyond the trailer, it seems as though Einstein won’t appear in any episodes. That means it’s more than likely that Marty’s last words to Larry were “What are you, a fucking lunatic?” in the Season 9 finale. Feels appropriate.

While we’re probably not getting Marty scenes this season, we’ll almost certainly get another Funkhouser family funeral. It’s hard to imagine Real-Life Larry not wanting to pay tribute to his fallen friend in such a full-circle way, and it’s even harder to imagine Show Larry not screwing up the moment up one more time. Will Marty’s “best friend” give the eulogy? Will Funkhouser’s will dictate they have to finally play A Thousand Pick-up Sticks? Will he be buried with a 5-wood? I don’t know how the funeral will look, but it’s more than likely coming, and it will almost certainly go to hell before the casket drops. It will be hilarious, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be subtly gutting at the same time.

I may even need to go for a jog after. I heard it’s the best thing for you.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.