In Larry David’s new Broadway play, Fish in the Dark, the Jewiest thing on stage (excepting Larry himself, arguably) is the enormous buffet that appears center stage during a shiva scene.
Groaning with lox, bialys, pastry, wedges of cheese, sliced vegetables, and bagels that could double as the wheels on a golf cart, the table is its own special effect, like the chandelier in Phantom. If there is a museum devoted to kosher-style catering (and if there isn’t one, there should be, perhaps in Delray Beach, Fla.), this could be the main attraction.
The table is like the play itself: broadly and unmistakably Jewish, like its star, but not “aggressively Jewish,” if you know what I mean. One “goyim” joke, a few broadly Jewish characters, and a plot out of one of Neil Simon’s lesser vehicles, and that’s about as Jewish as Fish in the Dark gets.
And yet. And yet.
I know people who are still amazed that a huge mainstream audience embraced Seinfeld, the show David created with the eponymous comedian, despite what they saw as its unmistakably Jewish aesthetic. Although George was inexplicably given the last name “Costanza” and characters rarely referenced their own religions, the show often seemed like a Jewish inside joke. Of course, the success of Seinfeld could suggest that audiences found the neuroses and travails of its cast of “New Yorkers” intriguingly exotic. Perhaps audiences react well to an entertainment that is grounded in some sort of reality — in the case of Seinfeld, the reality, slightly distorted, of life among Upper West Side singles, circa 1992.
Or maybe funny is funny, and Seinfeld was consistently, howlingly hysterical.
But I also feel Seinfeld taught a wider audience how to be Jewish — not in a religious sense, of course, and not in any way that ever showed up on a Hebrew school curriculum. Seinfeld took an almost Talmudic approach to comedy, finding humor in minutiae the way a Torah scholar finds significance in the smallest turns of phrase. Seinfeld was famously the show about “nothing,” but it was really about something: the small distinctions that actually do matter to people, whether in picking a shirt, a movie, or even a mate.
Seinfeld both celebrated and parodied the compulsions that kept its cast mostly miserable (of the four main characters in Seinfeld, only the eccentric Kramer had what seemed like real friends outside their closed circle — the other three only had each other, and even then didn’t seem to like each other very much). Think of the myriad traits and mannerisms that would sink a woman’s chances with Jerry: “man hands,” close talking, wearing the same outfit on separate dates, even daring to like a commercial for Dockers pants. As a stand-up, Jerry Seinfeld was considered the epitome of the “didja ever notice” school of comedy. Seinfeld the series deepens this trope, and made us a nation of noticers, sometimes to a debilitating degree.
In Curb Your Enthusiasm, the series he created after Seinfeld, David took this idea to the next level. The conceit of Curb is that David, playing a character name Larry David, is constantly undermining his relationships with friends, lovers, and colleagues by saying out loud what we all feel but know should be kept to ourselves. Some viewers are tempted to dismiss the Larry David character as a jerk, but that misses the point. He is a jerk, but the key to his character is that he is almost always right. Packages of mixed nuts should include fewer peanuts and more almonds. Trick-or-treaters who don’t wear costumes don’t deserve candy. And dinner guests should really be considerate about how much caviar they slather on a cracker.
Furthermore, the Larry David character is a lonely prophet, speaking truths others don’t want to hear, pointing out bad behavior others don’t want to see or acknowledge. And he suffers the fate of so many prophets: scorn, ridicule, isolation. Larry wants justice; instead he gets blackballed by Primo’s.
None of the stuff he rails about “matters,” but it really does — in a sort of “Bizarro world” inversion of the mitzvot, in which every action and every thought has consequences. If you ever want to enjoy a conversation about “nothing,” watch two yeshiva boys argue about which blessing to say over cranberries.
I’d argue that this attentiveness — even more so than the “Palestinian Chicken” or “Survivor” episodes — is what makes Curb a “Jewish” show.
Unfortunately, most of that attentiveness is missing from the Broadway play, which plays like a B-minus episode of Curb. The plot, such as it is, involves a Larry David character, played by Larry David, and his attempts to manipulate his widowed mother into giving a portion of his father’s estate to the housekeeper, the mother of his father’s illegitimate son. The supporting cast plays dinner theater versions of various Jewish stereotypes: the loudmouth uncle, the busybody aunt. It feels like one of those tepid comedies my mother used to drag us to when the synagogue awarded Broadway tickets to its volunteers.
But the audience goes wild at the sight and sound of Larry, which they should. He was a creative force behind two classic, encyclopedic comedy series; he added dozens of words and catch phrases to our vocabulary; and he helped turn “Seinfeldian” into a descriptor of a certain kind of Jewish persona: persnickety, suspicious, and obsessively, if self-destructively, discerning.
I’d say that’s pretty, pret-ty good.