On fall Sundays, Larry David likes to spend hours laser-focused on a sport that mostly yields frustration and disappointment, again and again. And when he’s done with that, he leaves the golf course and attempts to go watch the New York Jets on tape delay, like some glutton for punishment. “I’d go through the day: ‘Don’t tell me the score, no score,’” David explained to ESPN Radio’s Michael Kay on the air this January. “Then I’d go home and watch.” Last fall, he kept up this masochistic routine for about half the season before giving up in disgust. “I stopped watching after they were 2-7,” he told Kay.
If this sounds like a scene from one of David’s TV scripts, it basically was. In 1989, during the very first episode of Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld answers the phone in his apartment with a prophylactic greeting: “If you know what happened in the Mets game,” he says, “don’t say anything, I taped it. Hello.” His efforts are for naught: Kramer bursts through the door at that moment, the first of what will be hundreds of such entrances, and remarks, “Boy, the Mets blew it tonight, huh?”
Thirty years later, in Sunday’s episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, David again incorporated his real sports life into his semifictional script. And as with so many Curb plots, he took an everyday concept—in this case, frustration with one’s sports team—and ratcheted it way up into the realm of absurdly dark comedy. Which is to say: When David’s golf partner leaves a suicide note that says, “I can’t take any more disappointment,” David immediately interprets that to be referring to the New York Jets. “The Jets killed Carl,” he realizes. “And a little bit of the Knicks.”
Raised in Brooklyn, David is a longtime enthusiast of both sad teams, as well as the Yankees and the Rangers, and he is semiregularly spotted yawning at Knicks games and yawning at Yankees games. But don’t let the sleepiness fool you: David might be one of the most active fans in the celebrity realm. He has low-key dedicated several decades of his life to slipping his sports takes into his work, from voicing the babbling George Steinbrenner on Seinfeld to defending the clutch Derek Jeter on Curb.
It’s not just a bit, though. In life, David also earnestly engages real professionals—GMs, quarterbacks, coaches—with his personal opinions, delivering his thoughts with the same zeal he might use to give someone a Big Goodbye or scold them for not respecting the wood. Viewed that way, David’s love/hate of sports makes perfect sense: Sports provide a socially acceptable forum for his nonstop complaints, regrets, shoulda-woulda-couldas, and laundry lists of enemies and perceived slights. What more could the man want, other than for the Jets to have drafted Deshaun Watson in 2017?
Through the years on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David has evaluated Muggsy Bogues’s dongspan at a urinal, tripped Shaq while sitting courtside, and learned that he can drive to a Dodgers game more quickly if he picks up a call girl to qualify him for the carpool lane. He has cried over a Knicks game he lost money on and passed it off as concern about a dog. He has played a lot of golf that has gone hand-in-hand with a lot of death (as golf so often feels like it does): Bye-bye, black swan; godspeed, slowpokes.
He tried to land former Cubs manager Joe Maddon for a cameo—Jeff Garlin, who plays David’s manager, is a huge Chicago fan—but it fell through. He has rehabilitated the late Bill Buckner, featuring him in an episode that ends with Buckner snagging a baby and saving the day. (David was relieved when Buckner agreed to appear in the episode: “I didn’t want to change the character to Bruckner,” he told The New York Times in 2011.)
All of this is a continuation from Seinfeld, when he mined athletics for laughs on the regular, from the Keith Hernandez’s “magic loogie” to David Puddy’s aggressive New Jersey Devils face paint to the entire beautiful, doomed arc of George Costanza, assistant to the traveling secretary. Costanza’s interactions with the character of Steinbrenner, who was always shown from behind his desk and was voiced with staccato abandon by David, became such a hallmark of the show that when the real Steinbrenner agreed to shoot some scenes, David ended up cutting them because it just didn’t feel right. Leaving Steinbrenner on the cutting-room floor in the middle of the ’90s is a World Series–threepeat-level sports flex.
David has made it a personal pastime to make his feelings known, particularly when it comes to the Jets. In 2006, he told Kay in January, he called up Gang Green GM Mike Tannenbaum to beg him to draft Reggie Bush. In 2015, he told Howard Stern that he felt he could be a respectable coordinator—offense, defense, whatever. In a 2016 appearance on The Dan Patrick Show, David railed against quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s big, bushy beard: “That beard really bothers me,” he said then. “I don’t know what this quarterback looks like. Who am I rooting for? Imagine Mickey Mantle with a full beard like that. It would have changed my entire childhood.” (Mantle was, unsurprisingly, a recurring reference in Seinfeld: Kramer punches him accidentally at a baseball fantasy camp, while George longs to name his child “Seven” after Mantle’s jersey number.)
Larry David called the Jets before the draft and told then-GM Mike Maccagnan to take Lamar Jackson and he got laughed at. LAUGHED AT. pic.twitter.com/cCsedCrDcw— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) January 8, 2020
During the 2017 season he rooted for the Jets to lose so they could draft a quarterback like Josh Rosen. “I gotta go with the Jew,” he explained. But a few months later, shortly before the 2018 draft, David called up another former GM, this one Mike Maccagnan, to lobby for Lamar Jackson with the no. 3 pick. (In David’s conversation with Kay, he recalled Maccagnan’s response as “condescending.”) The Jets took quarterback Sam Darnold, while Jackson went 32nd to the Ravens and was last season’s unanimous MVP.
As for the Jets, well: “What a catastrophe,” Larry’s dermatologist says upon learning of Carl’s death during last Sunday’s episode of Curb. “I know,” David replies. “Last year started with such promise, then Darnold gets mono. Season’s over by Game 3.” The dermatologist looks at him with disgust. “I’m talking about his widow,” he says. It’s no surprise that when Larry later gets the chance to experience said widow’s allegedly “magical vagina,” his rants about whether Austin Seferian-Jenkins caught a touchdown pass against the Patriots or fumbled the ball for a touchback, completely extinguish the vibe.
Consistent with his character, David typically sees sports as something to kvetch about; at heart, he’s really just Larry from Brooklyn. Of all the sports-related moments in David’s work, my favorite is one in Season 7 of Seinfeld, when Steinbrenner visits Frank and Estelle Costanza to break the (incorrect) news that their son, George, is dead. Estelle dabs her tears, but Frank is riled up for other reasons. “What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?” he finally thunders at Steinbrenner. “He had 30 home runs, over 100 RBIs last year, he’s got a rocket for an arm … you don’t know what the hell you’re doing!”
David is in many ways a true sports fan unicorn, a rare beast capable of speaking his truth and having professional athletes and general managers actually want to listen, as if they’re basking in a personal roast. (Well, unless they’re Maccagnan.) When David criticized Fitzpatrick’s beard, the former Jets quarterback seemed downright giddy about it—“Well, I’ve heard that he’s a big Jet fan,” Fitzpatrick said in a press conference when asked about it. “But I’m probably a bigger Seinfeld fan, so I don’t take that lightly. I will take it into consideration, Larry. And I respect you very much.” Within a few days, he had shaved the thing and gotten to meet David.
It’s unlikely that David’s recent similar comments to Kay about Adam Gase’s omnipresent low-slung cap will get the same results. “Either he’s hiding baldness or there’s something about his personality—he’s uncomfortable,” David declared about Gase. “You can’t trust a man who wears a hat. He’s got to take the hat off. He’s got to face the public.”
But another New York–area head coach took David’s little antagonisms in stride. Asked about David’s comments that New York Rangers head coach David Quinn wasn’t giving enough minutes to prized rookie Kaapo Kakko, Quinn said: “Yeah, well I’ve watched a few bad Seinfelds and Curb Your Enthusiasms, too. I still love Larry David and his work.” When David was on The Michael Kay Show and said that the 2020 Yankees aren’t “lovable” like the 2017 squad was, Yankees manager Aaron Boone and GM Brian Cashman each separately texted Kay live in the studio to lobby for their lovability; you could practically see their “I Love Larry” grins through the phone as Kay relayed the messages out loud. “How are you lovable with a pitcher making 30-something million?” David yelled back. It reminded me of another Frank Costanza moment, in the Seinfeld finale, in which he can’t help but confront Steinbrenner once more: “How could you give $12 million to Hideki Irabu?!” he yells from his seat in the courtroom.
David’s fan vibe isn’t all gripes. In Season 7 of Curb in 2009, to his credit, he presents a rare, brief positive argument, in the form of an angry defense of Derek Jeter’s clutch nature against a gravestone mason who calls the Yankees shortstop “the worst defensive shortstop in baseball.” (This caught the attention of FanGraphs at the time, resulting in a happy blog about the mention of defensive fielding stats in pop culture.)
But in general, David is a sports fan the same way he is a person, going through life with a combination of blithe disregard for norms and an air of being made to do everything against his will. In Seinfeld’s early years, the Yankees were fun to make fun of; when they again became world champions in real life, it sort of messed with the bit. No worries: Enter George Costanza, the assistant to the traveling secretary, who has briefly achieved intellectual enlightenment via a sexless existence (his girlfriend had Sam Darnold’s mono) and decides to teach the Yankees a thing or two about the physics behind hitting dingers.
“We won the World Series,” Jeter asserts, and George gives him a look of pure, unfiltered you-dumb-bastard scorn. “In six games,” he says, with disdainful swagger, and then knocks one right out of the park.