Larry David will be looking pretty, pretty good this Sunday night. That’s when the ninth season of his discomfiting comedy series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” kicks off on HBO. Never mind the constant bickering, self-doubt, social gaffes and downright rudeness that make the show hilarious and mark its star as TV’s most watchable-but-petty schlemiel. On the cable hit and in life, David, 70, who co-created “Seinfeld,” may put himself through hell, but ultimately, the small-screen icon finishes on top. Before his 2007 split with wife Laurie Lennard, with whom he has two daughters, he was said to be worth $900 million; today, his net worth is reportedly closer to $500 million — a figure he has called “ridiculous.”
But he didn’t always have wealth to get worked up about. Long before Brooklyn-raised David was the “LD” we know and love, fighting over a shirt with Ted Danson and taking a hard stance against teenage trick-or-treaters, he was a struggling comedian in New York City with dim prospects. David’s mother forced him to take the civil service exam (he failed — dashing hopes that her son would make it as a mailman — despite his having graduated from the University of Maryland), spent a short period of time chauffeuring a blind woman and feared getting kicked out of Manhattan Plaza (subsidized housing for performing artists in Hell’s Kitchen) because he’d be deemed unfunny.
But back when the first episode of “Seinfeld” aired, in 1989, David was already 42 years old (geriatric in TV years) and looking like an underdog to make it as a writer — much less a producer who gets to call his own shots.
“Larry was the least-likely person you would ask to write for television,” says Kenny Kramer, the inspiration for the “Seinfeld” character with the same last name and an across-the-hall neighbor of David’s during their Manhattan Plaza days. “He was too hip for the room. But Jerry admired him.”
Before “Seinfeld,” David had an early ’80s run on the variety show “Fridays” and an inglorious stint as a writer for “Saturday Night Live.”
“After 10 weeks of writing for ‘SNL,’ Larry didn’t get anything on the air,” says Kramer, who now leads the Kramer’s Reality Tour of “Seinfeld”-centric spots around the city. “After a sketch of his made it to dress rehearsal and got cut, Larry stormed out and quit in front of the cast and crew. I remember sitting in my apartment when he came barreling through the door at 12:30 in the afternoon. He said, ‘You won’t believe what I just did. I just lost $100,000.’”
Considering that hefty sum, a panicked David asked Kramer what he should do. “I told him to go back like nothing happened. Larry did it, nobody said a word, and he finished out the season. Years later it became the center of a ‘Seinfeld’ episode.”
(Despite the fact that he was earning good money, David still kept an index card on Kramer’s fridge, itemizing the food David routinely nipped from inside. For example, if he took an egg, he would note it on the card, plus its cost — based on dividing a carton’s price by 12.)
Though the comic was pushing middle-age, he had the insecurities and behavior patterns of a teenage boy. He nervously fretted over whether or not he should pee before going out on a date for fear that, once on the date, he’d be too jittery to successfully execute a “No. 1.” But, maybe there was good reason for his nervousness. A scenario that could have come straight from a “Seinfeld” script began when David met a woman for a date in Central Park. Ahead of her arrival, he sat on a bench and landed squarely in a pile of dog excrement. He retreated to the men’s room at Tavern on the Green, raced to clean up his trousers before the arrival of his date and just made it.
“Everything went wrong with Larry,” says comedian John DeBellis, author of “Standup Guys” (BookLocker), who met David on the city’s stand-up circuit back in the 1980s. “It was so funny.”
DeBellis remembers David’s behavior during Broadway Show League softball games when he adeptly played shortstop and first-base for the Improv comedy club’s team. Beyond the fact that his paranoia forced him to believe that outfielders were talking about him behind his back, his temper could have game-stopping consequences. “He’d get so pissed off about bad calls, and acted like he was in the World Series, cursing out umpires,” says DeBellis. “Larry once got so angry that he sat on second base and refused to move. The umpire gave him a count of five and we made him get up.”
Regarded as a comedian’s comedian — “I thought he was brilliant; all the guys did,” says DeBellis — David was not exactly the kind of stage performer that audiences could embrace. “Larry would be doing great; then, if one person in the audience would say something he didn’t like, Larry would get mad and walk off the stage,” says DeBellis. “At the Comic Strip, they glued the microphone to the stand because he had a tendency to throw it down on the stage.” His unpredictable nature, says DeBellis, kept bookers of late-night shows from having him on the way they did Jerry Seinfeld.
David himself has laughed at his habit of referring to audience members as “you people,” and DeBellis says that, during the early days of “Seinfeld,” David would be banned from attending network meetings “because he would start yelling at people. That’s Larry.”
On at least one occasion, though, David’s knack for brutal, high-volume honesty worked in his favor. Early on, when “Seinfeld” was just getting out of the pilot stage, an NBC executive suggested that the Jerry and Elaine characters should be married. Producer George Shapiro says, “Larry said that it’s completely wrong, that it reduces the importance of George and Kramer and that [if Jerry and Elaine played a married couple] he would do only four episodes. He said, ‘I have only four shows in me anyway.’ The executives were taken aback, but they went along with Larry.”
Asked if David was concerned that this could be his one big shot at making it and that he was liable to blow things by being uncooperative, Shapiro says, “I don’t think that ever entered his mind. He’s not practical.”
The decision to keep Jerry and Elaine as single exes may have been what made the show work, and paved the path for Larry David’s unexpected success, which will be on full display this Sunday. However, for all of the millions he’s earned and the acclaim he has received, David remains unaffected. “He’s not changed,” says DeBellis. “At one point, Larry began making all this money and wanted to buy a Porsche. He got it — and four days later took it back. He was afraid that people would point at him and say, ‘Look at that bald, rich guy driving a Porsche.’”
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