The Courage of Larry David
In the new season of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David – and I'm speaking here of the character, not the real-life guy – doesn't waste any time getting into one of his trademark unpleasant run-ins with a total stranger. In the opening scene of the first episode, the stranger is a butch dyke for whom he doesn't hold a door open because, he tells her, she looked to him like the kind of woman who wouldn't want him to do that. Later, he explains to her and her fiancée, a lipstick lesbian, that, their plans to the contrary, the latter should be the “bride” at the wedding, and the former the “groom.”
And that's only the beginning. In later episodes, Curb mines for humor the fact that Larry's friend Marty Funkhauser has a daughter who's “transitioning” into a son. One running joke involves a girlfriend of Larry who attributes her son's brattiness to Asperger's. (These days, complains Larry, “any bad behavior can be written off as being on the spectrum!”)
In short, Season 9 does a neat job of catching up with some of the social phenomena that have come to the fore since Season 8 wrapped up six years ago. Although the tyranny of political correctness has grown more oppressive since then, Larry David (the character) hasn't shaken off his habit of cluelessly breaching social taboos at every turn and Larry David (the real guy) hasn't let himself be cowed by the PC police.
Proof positive of this is the season's truly sensational story arc. As noted, it's been six years since Season 8 of Curb. What has Larry (the character) been doing since then? It turns out he's been writing Fatwa!, a musical comedy about the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa against the author Salman Rushdie. When his manager, Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin), sends the script around to potential backers, everybody wants in. This, of course, is supremely implausible: one overarching cultural reality of the post-9/11 era is that, with extremely few exceptions, book publishers, movie studios, museum curators, and opera and theater producers aren't eager to be involved in any project that touches even remotely on the negative side of Islam.
I devoted a whole chapter to this topic in my 2009 book Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom. In it, I listed several cases of cultural self-censorship driven by fear of Muslim retaliation: the Deutsche Opera cancelled a production of Mozart's Ideomeneo because one prop represented the severed head of Muhammed; a Rotterdam performance center dropped an opera about Muhammed's child wife, Aisha; the Barbican Centre in London bowdlerized Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great to avoid offending Muslims. In the year since my book was published, the examples of cowardice in the face of Islamic intimidation have kept on coming.
The exceptions to this rule stand out for their rarity. For several years, the Showtime series Homeland was admirably blunt about the Islamic threat – until its latest season, when the producers finally capitulated to the media critics who kept calling it Islamophobic. Mandy Patinkin, who stars in the series as CIA honcho Saul Berenson, approved heartily of the series' change of tune, blaming Hollywood for making “Muslim 'terrorists'...the bad guys” and promising that viewers of Homeland's new season would “see who the bad guys really are.” Patinkin, reported Fox News, said that it's the fault of “white male politicians and 'the military establishment'” that Islam has such a bad reputation in the U.S.
Anyway, back to Curb. After clinching a Broadway deal for Fatwa, Larry talks about it on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. The next day, the Ayatollah issues a fatwa against him for having “disparaged the beliefs of Muslims.” Larry is quick to cower: “I'll convert! I'll become a Muslim!” He proposes going back on the Kimmel show to apologize – but he's told that Kimmel “wants nothing to do with you.” All the backers have fled, too. (Now, that's realistic.) Terrified, Larry hides away in a hotel and starts drafting an apology in longhand: “Dear Ayatollah....”
He also seeks out a female Muslim friend, who, it turns out, knows the Iranian consul. He's surprised. “Are you a....plotter?” he asks. “Are you one of the plotters? Do you plot?” She replies: “I've plotted before.” They go to bed. (She's turned on by the sin of sleeping with an infidel.) “Blaspheme to me, Larry!” she insists as they go at it. “Blaspheme like you blaspheme the nation of Islam!” In compliance, he screams out the names of members of the Trump administration. Later, Larry skypes with the Iranian consul, who discusses his favorite Seinfeld episodes. (Larry, of course, was the co-creator and executive producer of that series.) “I must tell you, Mr. David,” the consul says, “the Ayatollah himself is a bit of a close talker.”
It's a laugh riot. I think so, anyway. You may not. But one thing that's unarguable is that it's pretty damn brave. The Larry of the show is a spineless coward – trembling in terror like a Bob Hope or Woody Allen character. But the Larry David who conceived this story arc and put it on HBO is one gutsy son of a bitch.
The season goes on. There are other plot lines. But it all keeps coming back to the fatwa. Because Larry has a target on his back, his friends peel off, canceling poker and golf games. Finally Larry decides there's only one person who can help him: Salman Rushdie himself. And yes, in the next scene, there he is, Rushdie, in the flesh – who turns out to have some of the most hilarious lines in the whole season. Rushdie assures Larry that while a fatwa is no joke, it does have its advantages. For one thing, some women will be attracted to Larry precisely because of the danger. (“Fatwa sex,” he confides, is “the best sex there is!”) For another thing, a fatwa is a great excuse: “You don't have to go to anything you don't want to go to. So like, your cousin is giving a reading of his lousy poetry book. You say, sorry, can't make it, fatwa! Somebody calls you and says, 'Can you pick me up at the airport?' Sorry, can't make it, fatwa.”
Again, I laughed out loud. It was the Ayatollah Khomeini, remember, who pronounced that “there is no humor in Islam.” It's precisely for this reason that jokes are the very best weapon in the war against it. No, I don't know the specifics of the real-life Larry David's politics when it comes to the Religion of Peace. (I don't know what he thinks, for example, about Trump's “Muslim ban.”) I know he's supposed to be a big lefty; his ex-wife Laurie David is an environmental activist, one of those rich celebrities who take private planes halfway around the world to scold people for using the wrong light bulbs. But while Larry has sometimes seemed to support her cause (his Curb ex-wife, Cheryl David, played by Cheryl Hines, shares Laurie's real-life politics, and the National Resources Defense Council, of which Laurie is a trustee, featured prominently in one Curb episode), he's also seemed to mock it (in one Curb episode he tries to skirt Cheryl's ban on “environmentally unfriendly” toilet paper).
Certainly neither Larry nor his former TV partner Jerry Seinfeld was ever afraid to give offense. Various Seinfeld episodes found Kramer stomping out a fire on a Puerto Rican flag; Jerry making American Indian jokes in the presence of a woman who, unbeknownst to him, is an American Indian; Elaine wondering whether her new boyfriend is black or white; and George trying to find a black guy to pretend to be his friend so he can prove to his black boss that he's not racist. Jerry made headlines not long ago when he complained that the ultra-PC atmosphere on campuses made them virtually off-limits for comedians. For all I know, Larry is a fan of Bernie Sanders, but his impression of him on Saturday Night Live (“We're doomed!!!”) perfectly captured the senator's fatuous radicalism and the utter impracticality of his policy ideas.
In the final analysis, however, I don't really care what Larry David's politics are. What matters to me is that he's funny and he's fearless. The Fatwa season of Curb Your Enthusiasm is exactly the sort of thing that's been all but entirely missing from American pop culture since 9/11. Three cheers, then, for Larry David. May his courage be infectious.