Recently, I realized that in my very oldest memories, the ones where I feed slices of Wonder Bread to swans or hunt for Easter eggs with my cousins or eat Cheerios (and only Cheerios) for dinner, I am roughly 4 years old—the same age that my oldest son is now. Making that connection was a truly startling moment, one that felt almost like the real beginning of parenthood. Going forward, everything I do or say or wear (or don’t wear) might be the thing that gets forever stored in my dear boy’s memory banks and imprinted on his psyche. No pressure, though.
Anyway, gone are the days when we could just keep watching our regular TV shows without him caring or noticing. Now he picks up on everything, squirreling away observations to be dug up weeks later during bedtime, asking questions with a disarming directness that I can only hope will somehow make me a better reporter. (I now respect and fear the vast power of a “Why are you doing that?”) Sometimes it really sneaks up on me, though, like earlier this month when he requested a TV show named “Larry.”
Children look to their parents to set boundaries. One book I read said that being a kid without rules and structure is akin to walking on a bridge with no guardrails in the dark. When it comes to screen time, I’m something worse than permissive: I’m inconsistent. Sometimes, for days, the answer is NO, until one day when the answer is an enthusiastic yes, possibly for hours and hours on end. From my son’s perspective, therefore, it never hurts to ask. And this was his lucky day, because I had like seven loads of laundry to do.
“Larry,” I repeated. I asked my husband whether he knew which app had this show. I scrolled through the usual suspects on my TV, a few of which I pay for but many of which I get through various people’s parents’ logins. Nothing on Amazon Prime, or the PBS app, or Netflix. “Try Hulu!” my husband suggested; my son began to whine. Tears were imminent. It must be really hard to be a kid and have such a lopsided ratio between the amount of information and emotion in your brain and the amount of vocabulary available to express it. I asked whether he could tell me anything more about the show.
It has a man, he told me, angrily. The man has glasses. My husband and I looked at each other, amused and ashamed, that classic parental mix. I clicked to the HBO app and opened Curb Your Enthusiasm. As the tuba began to play, my son beamed as though he were hearing an approaching ice cream truck. I picked “The Christ Nail” episode with the squeaky orthotic shoes, and that bit was a big hit with both him and his copycat 2-year-old brother. Through his eyes, I saw all sorts of fun characters anew, ones that would be at home in any of those PBS programs: Susie, dressed up like an I Dream of Jeannie x Pucci collab, her ponytail high and scrunchies shiny. Cheryl, with her idiosyncratic voice. Near the end of the episode Larry’s dad appears, wearing his Six Flags Guy–sized spectacles. My son paid major attention to minor details, making sure I knew that Larry was eating pretzels, but handled other more fraught story lines in stride. As my children attentively watched Larry fondle brassieres on TV, I sat next to them and folded my own.
4yo kept asking if we could “watch Larry” and was getting increasingly frantic as I tried and failed to locate “Larry” on like PBS and Prime Kids. then through tears he started describing a man with glasses and we realized he meant CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM … mother of the year …— katiebakes (@katiebakes) March 1, 2020
Later, when I tweeted about all of this and someone responded with a GIF of Larry David, my son caught a glimpse of it as he walked behind me, a little bowl of Goldfish in hand. “Hey, Mama, look!” he said with the elated recognition that kids are supposed to have about, like, Big Bird. “It’s Larry! And he’s pulling down his pants!”
When I asked my son what his favorite episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm is, he described Season 2, Episode 7 as well as any TV Guide description: “He was combing the girls’ hair when he needed to go to the bathroom.” I told him, proudly, that “The Doll” is my favorite episode, too, and then spent the next few hours worried about the implications of this kind of exposure. The Common Sense Media watchdog page for the program is seemingly completely dedicated to roasting my choices, and it’s absolutely not wrong. “Parents need to know that this cable sitcom is for mature teens and adults only,” it says (beneath a matrix that lists “Positive Role Models and Representations” in the program as “not present.”) “One character has a porn addiction and talks about it regularly, including discussing masturbation. One season’s story arc is based on the idea that the main character can have sex with someone other than his wife as an anniversary present.” I’m proud to say we have not watched those episodes! Yet.
But in hindsight, it makes sense that Curb Your Enthusiasm might appeal to the preschool demographic, even if I could definitely do a better job with some of my prescreening. The music is chipper and vivid. Larry David, with his glasses and his curly-white-haired semi-baldness, strikes a visually compelling figure; his face is as expressive as any dedicated children’s performer. When he’s happy, he is nodding and cackling and pointing; when he’s skeptical, his eyes narrow to comical slits as evocative Wild West music plays. Sometimes he is being chased, with that high-kneed gait of his, and always, reliably, he is being yelled at. The level of repetition of the word “Larry” over and over would make a Sesame Street producer proud. (The same cannot be said about the level of repetition of the word “fuck.”) And through it all, my husband and I are constantly laughing at Larry, in fine spirits and great moods—so why wouldn’t my sons strive to join in? When I think back to my own earliest memories of watching TV, what comes to mind is Sesame Street, Lassie—and Rambo. Every young generation gets the indefensible entertainment it deserves.
I wish I could say this is all a quarantine story, but it happened weeks before the lockdown. Though, as we parents find ourselves home with our children all day, every day, there are only so many virtual museum tours and live Zoom watercolor lessons we can do. (I have done zero.) Recently, The New Yorker’s Jessica Winter tweeted about “stealth kids’ movies,” which she defined as “live-action films that are fun and intellectually engaging for adults to watch, but somehow have no swearing/violence/nudie bits.” This is definitely a genre, and Curb Your Enthusiasm is definitely not in it.
convo the other day:— katiebakes (@katiebakes) March 19, 2020
son: mama guess what?
me, 90s kid: chicken butt!
son, extremely solemnly: mama that’s potty talk. https://t.co/t02PIt0pLF
But it can still provide a few teachable moments, I guess? (I pray.) Watching Susie go on a “you four-eyed fuck” rant against Larry—look, I said I’m ashamed—my son seemed way more into observing that she shouldn’t be saying that word than he was inclined to repeat it. During Sunday night’s finale, which hinged upon a big swinging dick, he remarked upon the frequency with which Larry kept saying the word “penis.”
“That’s potty talk,” he observed, sagely, as Larry loudly checked out Joey Funkhouser’s junk. But he also added that the vocabulary was within reason: After all, they were standing in a bathroom, where, per our own house rules, factual use of the word penis is allowed. I was proud of his unflappable, lawyerly reasoning, and glad, for once, that he so specifically remembered something that his mother once said.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.