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Wincing Time: The Cringe-Comedy Legacy of Larry David and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’

Heading into its 12th and final season, ‘Curb’ has long been a beacon for the humor that makes you recoil first and laugh second. And its impact is only being expanded by other cringe artists.

HBO/Ringer Illustration

In the opening episode of the 12th and allegedly-for-realsies-this-time final season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which returns Sunday night on HBO, a lady at a party gives Larry David a taste of his own medicine. Which, when I put it that way, sounds like an evergreen Curb episode synopsis. But in this case, the woman isn’t vindictive—she’s just being friendly. Attempting to make small talk with the man, the myth, the misanthrope, she mentions to Larry that she has an annoyance in her life, one having to do with those green and clear plastic bags in the supermarket produce section. Yada yada yada, as they say.

It’s really no different from the kinds of observations Larry the character has been making since Curb’s 2000 debut, his hang-ups ranging from too-squeaky shoes to too-soft scones. It’s also the sort of niche nitpick that I could easily envision Larry the creator—the put-upon icon who for decades has built a comic empire out of his quotidian grievances—weaving into a story. (Can’t you just feel it in your bones that Leon and/or Susie would shout, “The green bag, Larry!!!” as he high-knee sprints through the aisles of Erewhon?) But in this case, Larry doesn’t want to hear about grocery stores. He doesn’t want to be at this party at all. And, as ever, he doesn’t care who knows it.

“I have bad energy,” Larry laments, after he’s offended several people and made multiple scenes. “I’ve been expecting more from myself my whole life, and it’s just not there.”

Larry the character has always been a ticking time bomb in any crowd of two or more. He’s “a social assassin,” as his manager Jeff once termed him (in an episode called “Palestinian Chicken” that David, 76, told a red carpet reporter was probably his favorite). Over the years, Larry has beefed with a weatherman, various doctors and dentists, Michael J. Fox, Rosie O’Donnell, and some angels at the gates of heaven. He has refused to thank a veteran for his service; he has told a blind acquaintance that his girlfriend, who claims to be a model, looks busted. He has clashed with the cast of Seinfeld (respect the wood!); he has stashed a doll’s head down his pants.

And with all of that, he has helped to define and inspire what has become this century’s dominant form of humor: the kind that makes people recoil first and laugh second. Last fall, the producer-director-writer-comedian Larry Charles, David’s former colleague, called him “probably the most impactful television thinker of the 20th century, really.” I would argue you can add the 21st, too. Broad City creator Abbi Jacobson credited David’s work as her show’s biggest influence. The lineage of his style can be glimpsed in everything from Arrested Development to I Think You Should Leave to, depending on the episode, Succession.

Combining timeless slapstick, tightly wound scenarios, meta mishaps, and a spirit of radical freedom to explore and definitely offend, David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (and Seinfeld before that) has helped spur the expansion of a flourishing comedic genre that some people can’t get enough of—and that others can’t tolerate for even a second.

David is no stranger to making people shift in their seats. His longtime collaborator Bob Weide once said that during David’s stand-up days in the 1970s and ’80s, “I’d go to the clubs with him and watch him work. On many, many nights the audience would just stare at him like carp looking up from a pond. Sometimes they’d be outright hostile. I would be in the back of the room, hysterical, thinking, ‘If the country ever caught up to this guy’s sense of humor, there’ll be chaos in the streets.’”

These remarks were part of a series of interviews about Curb Your Enthusiasm that Weide posted on his website in 2001 as a sort of preemptive FAQ he could send to all the people—so, so many people—who approached him at parties to ask questions and make conversation about the show. Weide hadn’t been involved in Seinfeld, David’s needs-no-introduction ’90s must-see TV show. Instead, it was his work as a documentary filmmaker that caught David’s fancy.

In the late ’90s, David was developing an HBO special called Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm, a strange reality-mockumentary hybrid that sought to follow a quasi-fictional version of the comedian as he hit the stand-up circuit. He thought it would benefit from someone with legit documentary experience. (One of Weide’s films was about the comedian Lenny Bruce.) And it did: According to Weide, before the hour-long special even premiered in October 1999, HBO liked it so much that it ordered a 10-episode series. The eventual episodic form of Curb Your Enthusiasm would differ in some ways from its antecedent: no visible boom mics or first-person interviews with the likes of Jason Alexander, the key addition of regulars like Susie Essman. Sometimes less than a year passed between seasons; sometimes it was six. The world would take whatever it could get.

In the land of Curb, Larry does things like comment approvingly on the size of a young boy’s junk to the kid’s dad—and then gets surprised when the pronouncement isn’t gratefully received. (Don’t even ask what Larry says about a young girl’s genitalia; there’s an episode for that, too.) He steals the flower arrangements from his buddy’s dead mother’s roadside memorial and gives the bouquets to various women to butter them up. He accuses the manager at a Japanese restaurant of not bowing low enough. He tells Jeff’s singing daughter to STFU while he’s a guest in their house. He refuses to thank both halves of a couple for treating him to dinner because only one of them is the breadwinner. Even when this fuckin’ guy is right about something—like free-sample abuse or the importance of the words “no matter what”—everything he says and does is all wrong.

“People told me after the show started airing [in 2000] that they had to leave the room for some scenes because they were cringing and they couldn’t bear to watch,” David said on the Origins podcast in 2017. “It was like a horror movie. I had no idea it was having that effect on people. That was a complete surprise to me, and I liked it.” I like it, too, even if at the beginning, I was absolutely among the cringing—bewildered but increasingly intrigued by this strange, shaky, painful new turn o’ the millennium series.

When Season 1 aired in the fall of 2000, The Wall Street Journal called the show’s main character “squishily dour” in a review that also said: “It will inevitably remind a lot of viewers of what was best in Seinfeld, which it does not resemble in the most important ways, the main one being that Seinfeld was of course hilarious.” The New York Times was more positive, describing Curb as “styled as cinema verite, with waggish musical interludes playing counterpoint to the deadpan humor.” (Shout-out to “Frolic”!) Salon noted a major aspect of the show that made it both satisfying and difficult to watch: “David punishes his characters—well, here, he punishes himself—with retributions on an Old Testament scale.”

All of these takes had the energy of someone watching the series while making this face and peeking through their fingers, a common reaction that persists 12 seasons and 25 years in. Yet these reviews, along with a slew of others during the show’s first few seasons, did not mention any form of the word “cringe,” a feat that seems truly unimaginable today. In the year 2024, the notion of cringe is in the ether; it is everywhere around us, like it or not. It is an adjective, a noun, a verb, and a vibe. And for that, it’s fair to say that David is among the people most worthy of both praise and blame.

In 2022, to mark the premiere of the high-concept and toe-curling Nathan Fielder project The Rehearsal, we here at The Ringer held a “Cringe Comedy Day” on the site. (Fielder followed that series up with a somehow even more uncomfortable show, the recently concluded The Curse, which definitely felt like horror to me.) As Alison Herman pointed out at the time, the rise of cringe-core largely dovetailed with the burst of reality TV programming at the start of the aughts, as folks started toying around with ways to blur the lines between caricatures and creators, between art and artifice.

None of this was strictly new: Mockumentaries like This Is Spinal Tap and “pseudo-documentaries” like Albert Brooks’s Real Life had long existed, as had meta celebrity-strewn shows-within-shows like The Jack Benny Program and The Larry Sanders Show. Ricky Gervais, another pioneer in the space (whose first iteration of The Office debuted in July 2001), got some of his inspiration from the mid-’90s Steve Coogan character Alan Partridge. Sacha Baron Cohen built not one but many personalities, all of them designed to elicit vexatious conversations from unwitting civilians and to make viewers laugh—as well as shrivel from secondhand embarrassment.

But Curb Your Enthusiasm differentiated itself by centering the miser, dialing up the cringe to an 11, and declining to apologize. The culture hasn’t been the same since.

Nor has David’s legacy. While his life has always been inextricably connected to his work, that has only increased over time. There’s a famous story about Seinfeld in which Jason Alexander once approached David with the concern that many of George Costanza’s story lines—like when he quits the Yankees in a huff, then returns like nothing’s happened and hopes for the best—were too farcical to seem real. David assured him that they were based on his own life. (He did the quit-and-come-back thing at Saturday Night Live.) But while he built major esteem in the Seinfeld years—making bald jokes at the Emmys, voicing George Steinbrenner—it was his on-screen Curb ubiquity, both on HBO and in internet memes, that has made him a household name and face.

Which can have its drawbacks sometimes: David constantly has to explain to people that he doesn’t behave like Larry all the time. Well, except when he kinda does. Like in March 2022, when David decided—on the eve of the premiere of a planned two-part documentary about himself—that he wanted to can the project. That’s about as Curb-y as a real-life plot can get. Cue either Jeff or, like, Jimmy Kimmel interrogating Larry, again in the aisles of an Erewhon: “Larry, you’re shelving it? You’re shelving it, Larry?!”

In the Season 12 premiere, a lot of awkward scenes stretch on deliberately too long, almost like something out of Family Guy. At one point, Larry sits alone in his car getting angry at Siri for a while. At the party, as he mocks the grocery bag gal right to her face, he assumes the general posture and personality of a child who is ready to leave, now. The scene is held long enough, and it made me twitch enough, that it almost felt like something sprung from the soul of Tim Robinson or Nathan Fielder. Which makes sense because so much of the wild work that those guys have been doing lately feels steeped in the rude lore of David and a quarter century of Curb—while it also explores well past the borders of his realm.

Innovative NFL coaches come up with new ideas for offenses that are then iterated on by the next-gen minds in their coaching trees. Olympic athletes set world records that seem unbeatable until the next higher-faster-stronger hopeful comes along. Celebrity chefs spawn copycats who grow into lions of industry themselves. Comedians, too, tend to understand that the best legacy you can have is when someone draws on your work to make their own weirdo shit. Lately, a key performance indicator for funny people is who can poke and prod and push the envelope the most. Plenty of humor has long been measured in laughs per minute, but in the 21st century, a good deal of comedians seem to be going for something closer to gnaws-on-fists per laugh, a sort of sabermetrics of squirm in which Larry David is the Bill James.

Multiple people who have sought to understand why so many of us enjoy watching guys like Larry antagonize friends, neighbors, and countrymen over and over have likened the experience to building up a tolerance for a certain kind of torment. In a conversation with Vox, Melissa Dahl, the author of the book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, compared watching cringey content to having a nightmare: “It’s our brains giving us a dose of exposure therapy,” she said. Critic David Edelstein wrote in 2006—a year after the premiere of two first-ballot All-Awkward programs, The Comeback and the American version of The Office—that “audiences have developed an appetite for the sting of reality: real time, real pain.”

“Cringe comedy is like social chile powder: a way to feel the burn without getting burned,” wrote Sam Anderson in a 2023 New York Times story titled “Tim Robinson and the Golden Age of Cringe Comedy” that was about the twisted mind behind I Think You Should Leave. If that’s the case, the existence and popularity of Robinson’s show might be a sign that we’ve gotten increasingly desensitized to the burn over the years. As is the escalating success and creative ambitions of Fielder’s body of work—which exists within a Venn diagram of David, Tom Green, and Andy Kaufman. If David was once surprised to hear feedback that people were cringing and leaving the room when they watched Curb, that kind of response is Fielder’s lifeblood.

The level of experimentation and know-how now present in the cringe-com realm makes me certain that it won’t be long until I can strap on some of those VR goggles and insert myself into some terrible scene of humiliation and embarrassment, just to feel something. (Currently torn between eating breakfast in Meet the Parents or singing “Stronger” in Girls.) And it also, in a strange way, makes good old Curb Your Enthusiasm, with its longevity and its familiar four-eyed-fuck face and its tightly plotted slapstick fiascos, feel downright old-timey and almost soothing in comparison.

Once upon a time, no one knew quite how to process the volatile, harsh realm that was the new world of Curb; these days, Larry’s outbursts and misfortunes and comeuppances can sometimes be as predictable as they are amusing. After we’ve spent the better part of 25 years being exposed to Curb and its descendants, the show’s horror starts to feel like home. There’s always someone giving Larry a taste of his own medicine. And I’m always the one who instantly feels better.