Lead Balloon, one of two, at my last count, worthwhile comedies recently produced by the BBC, has just come to an end (the other being The Trip, shown last year). As its latest series finishes its descent, Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO), one of several worthwhile comedies in production in the States, raises its shiny dome for a new season. Comparisons are bound to be, and have been, made, but to what end? The fact that each show has an outwardly loathsome front man, highly adept at shovel work, shouldn’t bar Lead Balloon, Curb’s predecessor, from existing or even being admired. Let’s not forget that Jack Dee has always cultivated an – at best – antagonistic approach to his comedy.
Furthermore, the Larry David of Curb and Dee’s Rick Spleen are two very different men. Spleen is a liar who practically dives into the holes he digs in order to preserve his fragile ego and a very British one-upmanship; Larry, despite being oblivious to the feelings of anyone on the entire West Coast, usually gets into problems through relatively innocent or good natured acts. The audience goes into an episode of Curb knowing that everything that happens in the first five-to-ten minutes of an episode will come back to bite Larry in the ass: thus, when he gives a tampon to a friend’s thirteen-year-old daughter or even suggests that a man’s wife might accompany him on a business trip, the surprise isn’t that umbrage is taken so much as the level of opprobrium with which he suffers – a word used lightly considering that Larry is also a man whom can do no wrong.
If you think back to the era of Great American Sitcoms; Frasier, Friends, Roseanne and Seinfeld, let’s say; which of these are the easiest to pick a random boxed set or watch a repeat of? The easiest answer is Friends because, at least in the UK, it can very nearly be watched at anytime of day (though, in my experience, the same is true of all of the above in the US) but the more plausible answer, in this reviewer’s – perhaps biased – opinion is Seinfeld: because, despite the plaudits that could be laid before the writing, the performers and the production, it has no pathos, no series-long romantic entanglements (with the exception of Georges wedding – more entanglement, less romantic), and very little in the way of conflict which impinges greatly on the lives of the main characters. All of which makes for the perfect comedy and, therefore, it is only natural then that Larry David’s future work should continue in this mould: even when LD gets a divorce he’s still as happy as… well, you get the picture. (Garry Shandling should be awarded similar praise for his Larry Sanders Show, also.)
Lead Balloon, however, balks slightly from this format by making Spleen’s situations so room-leavingly wincing that we are left with some pity at the end of an episode as he threatens to dislodge the credits with a sigh of desperation. Furthermore, the fifth episode of the last season, a two-hander between Dee and Robbie Coltrane’s mad inmate, evoked sympathy for both men, the latter in a surprisingly deep meditation on the nature of prison and the former by scratching the surface of why he feels the need to lie – to always lie. However, there is little emotion between spleen and his wife and the relationship stretches the concept of a love-hate relationship to the point where it becomes one more of hate-mock-hate. Larry had it better on that score, before the divorce, as surely long-suffering trumps grudging every time.
As for out-and-out laughs, Curb probably fares better there as well, usually through utter disbelief at the quality of language directed against LD and the degree of passion with which it is hurled, not to mention volleyed straight back – all without a script (and half the fun is watching Jeff Garlin try to keep a straight face). Finally then, we have two shows that might serve the same audiences but, to go back to my original question, the comparisons go out the window from the vantage point of the person who’s just slid from the couch in a fit of laughter, blurry-eyed with tears.
Originally published July, 2011