Larry David's First Time On Broadway: 'It's Not So Easy!'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, continuing our end of summer series featuring some of our favorite recent interviews from the past few months. Up next, an interview with Larry David. He co-created "Seinfeld" and created the HBO comedy series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in which he starred as a selfish, self-absorbed, misanthropic character named Larry David. How does that character compare with the real Larry David? That's one of the questions that Dave Davies asked when he interviewed Larry David last March, just before the opening of David's play "Fish In The Dark," which he wrote and starred in.
The interview started with a short scene from the play. It's a comedy about the rivalries and dysfunction within a family. The family is gathered together after the father has died. His widow, played by Jayne Houdyshell, is startled by something she's just seen. Her two sons are played by Ben Shenkman and Larry David.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FISH IN THE DARK")
JAYNE HOUDYSHELL: (As Gloria Drexel) Sidney? Sidney - Sidney was here. Sidney was here.
LARRY DAVID: (As Norman Drexel) Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom. Calm down. Calm down. What is it?
HOUDYSHELL: (As Gloria Drexel) The bird out there. You didn't see it? It was right there.
DAVID: (As Norman Drexel) So what?
HOUDYSHELL: (As Gloria Drexel) It was an oriole. Daddy was from Baltimore. He was Oriole fan. That was a sign from Sidney. He said he would give me a sign, and that was it.
DAVID: (As Norman Drexel) Mom, are you crazy?
DAVID: (As Norman Drexel) They'll put you in the nuthouse. It's just a bird.
HOUDYSHELL: (As Gloria Drexel) It wasn't just a bird. It was Sidney.
DAVID: (As Norman Drexel) So I don't understand. What if it was Dad? Is that a good thing? Dad's a bird?
DAVID: (As Norman Drexel) Dad's a bird. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Sidney. What a freak show.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, Larry David, welcome to FRESH AIR. You play the lead in the play. People talk about taking themselves out of their comfort zone for a new challenge.
DAVIES: Was it that kind of thing for you 'cause it sounds like you sure did?
DAVID: Yeah. If you even have a comfort zone.
DAVID: Whatever comfort zone I had was pretty narrow, but this was definitely out of it, for sure. Yeah.
DAVIES: You know, in "Curb Your Enthusiasm," as I understand it, most of the dialogue was pretty much improvised. You would give all the actors an outline, and then you'd improvise it. This must be very different, working from a script. Was that hard?
DAVID: Yeah, it is different. It's completely different. I have total freedom on "Curb" to kind of say and do anything I want. I can follow every impulse that I have. I'm allowed to interject when other people are talking. I'm kind of writing the scene as we're doing it, but this play is a different animal. You have lines. There are cues that are very important. Yeah, you have to abide by the script, and the other actors don't like it if you get off of it, either.
DAVIES: Do you do any vocal exercises before you start the play?
DAVID: No. No, I probably should. I saw a bunch of the other actors on stage the other night, and they were - they were warming up. And it just seemed - just seemed like a silly exercise to me.
DAVID: You know, they do things with their lips. You know, they do that. And they stretch their mouths and do scales. But I don't know - no.
DAVIES: There are a lot of really veteran theater actors in the cast. I mean, some really great performers. And I wonder if there's...
DAVID: Yes, it's a great cast.
DAVIES: It is. And I wonder if there are things about - just theater culture that you've noticed and been surprised or intimidated or what - anything by?
DAVID: Well, there's some superstitions they have. Like, you're not allowed to whistle in the theater. And, of course, I've - (laughter) I've whistled a number of times because I'm an inveterate whistler. And I just always seem to forget, and boy, oh, boy, do I get some bad looks when I do that from some of the vets. They don't like that one bit.
DAVIES: When I told my wife I was going to be interviewing you, she says, I want to know how that guy got the way he is. And, of course, she's assuming that guy's the guy she's seen on "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
DAVID: (Laughter) That doesn't sound so good to me.
DAVIES: We'll talk about whether that's - how close that is to the real Larry David. But I do...
DAVIES: I do want you to tell us about, like, where you grew up. You grew up in Brooklyn. Tell us about the neighborhood.
DAVID: I grew up in Brooklyn in a - it was in Sheepshead Bay. I lived right under the Belt Parkway. And there were four buildings, which was my little universe - my friends - my five, six, seven, eight friends. We all lived in this building, and it was very happy childhood, as far as I remember. We played sports all the time, walked to school, played ball. In the winter, we'd play basketball in freezing temperatures, and every possible - we would invent games. And not too many girls in my life, I must say, though.
DAVIES: (Laughter) And what did your parents do?
DAVID: My father was in the clothing business. He was a salesman. And my mother worked for the Bureau of Child Guidance.
DAVIES: As a social worker?
DAVID: No, I think she did secretarial work.
DAVIES: And did you have extended family in the neighborhood or in the building?
DAVID: I did. I had aunts, and my aunt and uncle and my cousins were right next door. My grandmother, my uncle and my cousin were on the third floor. So there was no privacy. People were running in and out of the house all the time. Everybody knew your business. And then we also had relatives on Long Island where we'd go and see what the - how rich people lived. At the time, I thought they were rich because they didn't live in Brooklyn. I mean, they really weren't rich. They just lived in a house. To me, anybody who lived in a house was rich.
DAVIES: Did you have any sense of your future back then? Do you remember?
DAVID: Just - whatever it was in my head, it was bleak. I don't remember having any ambitions, any goals, any dreams. It was always how am I going to get by? What am I going to do? But I didn't really - to be honest, I didn't really give it much thought. Even in college, I didn't give it much thought. I was having fun in college, and basically when people asked me what I was going to do I just said, oh, something will turn up. What that was, I had no idea.
DAVIES: And did your parents have any particular expectation?
DAVID: (Laughter) Zero.
DAVID: Zero expectations. My mother - I've said this before. She wanted me to work in the post office. She wanted me to be a mailman because she thought, you know, I'd get a pension, and I'd be taken care of. I would have security, and that was her dream. That was the best-case scenario.
DAVIES: You were going to be Newman.
DAVID: (Laughter) I was going to be Newman, exactly. Newman was very happy. Newman's one of the happiest guys on television. Come on.
DAVIES: (Laughter) He knows who he likes and who he doesn't. Yeah.
DAVID: Yeah, and the hours were good, right? You know, they just drop some mail off. It seemed like a decent job.
DAVIES: How did your parents react to your success?
DAVID: They were quite stunned by it (laughter). When "Seinfeld" was the number-one show in the country, my mother would call me up and go, Larry, do they like you? Do they think you're doing a good job? Are they going to keep you? What do they say to you? Do they tell you you're good? She was very insecure.
DAVIES: I read about, you know, your early life. One of the things that occurred to me is that, you know - I mean, I grew up in a family that - my parents didn't go to college. None of the people in my neighborhood went to college. And, you know, I kind of managed to make a career and get on the radio. And I've been lucky enough to, you know, do this show from time to time and talk to people like you, but there's still a part of me that kind of doesn't believe it. And people that I know that grew up in families where they were wealthy or their parents were public figures or university professors, they're just more comfortable out in the world and accepting that they - that they are somebody. And I wonder even after all you've accomplished, do you - do you feel like you belong on the red carpet and, you know, in magazines?
DAVID: Not really, but I completely understand what you're saying. It is - it is - it is a little odd. I'm somewhat detached from it. Like, I'll see my name on the marquee, and it doesn't really kind of register in any way. So I'm not - I'm disassociated from it, but occasionally I do feel like a jerk. What am I doing here walking on the red carpet? These people obviously don't know me.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Larry David. We'll continue our conversation in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Larry David. How did you get into comedy? You said you were in college having fun, no thought of a particular future.
DAVID: Yeah, then I got out of college. And, you know, I was funny with my friends, and my friend's wife said to me, you should - you should be a comedian. And I thought really? I just hadn't - that hadn't occurred to me. And then I went to the Improv to watch a show. And as I'm watching the show, I'm starting to think that, hey, maybe Jane's right. Maybe I could do this. In fact, not only am I starting to think I could do it, I think I could be really funny up there. Not only that, I'm going to go up there right now.
DAVID: I go up to the owner of the club, Budd Friedman, and I say I'd like to go on. Now, I'm just sitting in the audience on a Saturday night. I leave my seat, and I go talk to the owner. And I say to the owner of the club that I want to go on. And this is the most - probably the most insane thing I've ever done in my life. And he said to me, who are you? I said, I'm just sitting in the audience. He said, no, you can't go on. Are you a comedian? I said no. He said, no, no, you have to audition, and then if you pass the audition, then you could start going on.
Thank God he said no because had he said yes, and I had gone up, it would have been a disaster. I may have never walked up on a stage again for the rest of my life. But I started to put an act together, and then I went down to the Village to a place called Gerde's Folk City. And I got on stage for the first time. A week later, I went to Gil Hodges bowling alley in Brooklyn and got on stage for the second time. And then for the third time, I went to Catch a Rising Star, and I passed the audition, and then I started working out at Catch a Rising Star.
DAVIES: Well, you know, we have a little piece of tape, and this is from Susie Essman, your friend, who, of course, appeared on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And she was at an appearance, and she was recalling her early days with you in stand-up. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SUSIE ESSMAN: Larry was a comic. Larry started as a stand-up comic, and I knew him from Catch A Rising Star. We probably met in 1985, 1986. And he was a legendary - he's what we call a comedian's comedian, meaning that he would get on stage, and the comedians would stand in the back of the room. Larry's on. We'd all come running into the room to watch him 'cause you knew something brilliant and original was going to happen. But the audience half the time stared at him like they had no idea what the hell he was talking about. And he was very, very touchy. You know, sometimes if, like, the whole audience is laughing, and you had a stomach ache and had a bad look on your face, that would be it. He'd storm off the stage, you know? Or one time, I remember I introduced him and - you know, ladies and gentlemen, Larry David. And he came on the stage, and he just looked at the audience. And he just went never mind, and he just walked off.
ESSMAN: Just walked off, but his material was brilliant. He just never figured out that other thing of how to connect to an audience. That wasn't his thing.
DAVIES: And that's Susie Essman talking about our guest Larry David in his early days in stand-up.
DAVIES: So she - does she have it right?
DAVID: She's - yeah (laughter), that was pretty accurate, yeah.
DAVIES: Do you remember the time you came in, looked at the audience and walked off?
DAVID: Yes, I do. I didn't say never mind. I think I said, I don't think so.
DAVIES: (Laughter) And why? I mean, what - what was it about the audience?
DAVID: I didn't - I didn't like the looks of them.
DAVID: I didn't like how they responded to the comic who was on before me. And I just - I just didn't see that it was going to be a successful outing, (laughter) so I decided - I decided to do a preemptive attack.
DAVIES: You know, when heard this story and when I read about, I mean, how you struggled with stand-up and how all the comedians loved you, but audiences didn't always connect. And, you know, when you talk to people in show business, so many of them say, well, you know, I really want to follow my artistic voice and do interesting work, not just do what any schlock that's commercially successful. And when I look at your career, I mean, it strikes me that you actually did do that. I mean, you really did stick to what you believed in, and you found these vehicles. And it's an incredible success now because, I mean, it's a particular Larry David way of looking at the world and finding humor in it. And you did stick to your own vision, and it really worked. Is that how you see it?
DAVID: Well, it didn't seem like I had much of a choice. I don't think that - you know, I don't think that my hand would've cooperated with my brain if my brain was telling my hand to write something it didn't really want to write. But I remember when there was some interference from NBC with "Seinfeld" when we first started doing it. And, fortunately, I didn't have a family at the time. So it was very easy for me to say to them no, I'm quitting. I'm not going to do that. I don't want to do that, and I can't do it. And for me, it wasn't a big deal to just pack up and go home. Like I said, I hadn't - I didn't have a family. It's much harder. That's the first piece of advice I'll give anybody, you know, who wants to get into this. Don't have a family for a while until you're successful because it'll just make it very hard to ever get out of things, and you'll always - you'll always have to compromise. But I didn't have to compromise because I didn't have a family.
DAVIES: And what was it NBC wanted you to do?
DAVID: You know, they just didn't like the direction of the show. For example, the Chinese restaurant episode. They hated that show. They didn't even want to air it. You know, there was a big meeting about the kind of shows they liked and the kind of shows they didn't like. You know, I just said, well, I'm not going to be able to do that. So I just thought that I would quit. But then I learned another lesson, that when you say no, you invariably get your way. And it's a - it's a wonderful feeling.
DAVID: I can't believe I never did it before.
DAVIES: (Laughter) No, just not going to do it (laughter).
DAVID: Yeah, you just say no. And then they go, OK, OK, well, you don't have to.
DAVIES: We're going to play a clip from "Seinfeld." And there's a million we could choose. But I thought we would do one of Big Stein - George Steinbrenner.
DAVID: (Laughter) OK.
DAVIES: And, of course, people who know the show will know that there were many episodes where George Costanza worked for the New York Yankees. And he would be occasionally summoned to the office of the famous owner, George Steinbrenner. And you would do the voice. It would be shot from behind another actor. So you didn't actually see him. And this is an episode, I think, in which Steinbrenner has summoned George because he's heard rumors about George's political views.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")
ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) You wanted to see me, Mr. Steinbrenner?
DAVID: (As George Steinbrenner) Yes, George, I did. Come in; come in. George, the word around the office is that you're a Communist.
ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) A Communist? I am a Yankee, Sir, first and foremost.
DAVID: (As George Steinbrenner) You know, George, it struck me today that a Communist pipeline into the vast reservoir of Cuban baseball talent could be the greatest thing ever to happen to this organization.
ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Sir?
DAVID: (As George Steinbrenner) You could be invaluable to this franchise. George, there's a southpaw down there nobody's been able to get a look at - something about Rodriguez. I don't really know his name. You get yourself down to Havana right away.
ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Yes, Sir. Yes, Sir. I'll do my best.
DAVID: (As George Steinbrenner) Good. Merry Christmas, George. And bring me back some of those cigars in the cedar boxes. You know, the ones with the fancy rings? I love those fancy rings. They kind of distract you while you're smoking. The red and yellow are nice. It looks good against the brown of the cigar. The Maduro - I like the Maduro wrapper. The darker the better; that's what I say. Of course, the Claro's good too. That's more of a pale brown, almost like a milky coffee. I find the ring size very confusing. They have it in centimeters...
DAVIES: And George Costanza has wandered out of the room. That's our guest, Larry David, as the voice of George Steinbrenner. It's funny. As we listen - it's not quite your speaking voice. You did some stuff there with it.
DAVID: Well, hey (laughter). You know, Dave, I was - I was doing an impression.
DAVIES: (Laughter). You're an actor.
DAVID: Oh, sure. No, we brought in some people to read for Mr. Steinbrenner. And nobody really got it. And Jerry said, well, what are you - what are you looking for? How does it - how does it go? And all of a sudden, I started talking like this. (Imitating George Steinbrenner) You know, he's a big, blustery guy. He kind of talks like that. And Jerry said, yeah, you should do it; that's funny. So that's how that happened.
DAVIES: Did you ever hear how Steinbrenner himself reacted to the bit?
DAVID: I think he liked it. Steinbrenner was unfamiliar with the show. His grandchildren watched it. And his grandchildren talked him into letting us use his name. The last episode, I think, of the '96 season, we came up with the idea to actually fly him in and put him on the show because up to that point, we had only been seeing the back of his head. And I was doing his voice. And then we thought it would be fun if he was - if he actually made a real appearance. So we called him up. And he said, yeah, he would do it. So he flew out to do it. He did the show. We started editing the show. And as I watched it, I'm going, oh, my God. This is - this is not good - 'cause his acting was wanting, to say the least. So I had to call him up and tell him the news that it was being cut from the show. So I called Yankee Stadium, and I asked to talk to him. And then he got on the phone. I said, Mr. Steinbrenner, this is Larry David calling from the "Seinfeld" show. And he said, (imitating George Steinbrenner) yes- yes, Larry. What's - what's going on?
DAVID: I said, well, Mr. Steinbrenner, you know, I watched the - I watched the show. And he said, (imitating George Steinbrenner) yeah, you can tell me. I'm a big boy. I'm a big boy. I said, well, it's not working. We have to cut you from the show. And he was - he was actually OK with it.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Larry David. We'll continue our conversation in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Larry David. Let's talk a bit about "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and I want to begin with a clip. You're walking down the street in Los Angeles and spot your old friend Marty Funkhouser, who's played by Bob Einstein, and his mother has recently died. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM")
DAVID: (As Larry David) Hey, Funkhouser. My God, I can't believe it. You're out. What are you doing?
BOB EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) Well, this helps my emotions. Jogging is the best thing for me.
DAVID: (As Larry David) So mourners exercise. I didn't know that.
EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) I don't know if mourners exercise. It's just good for me.
DAVID: (As Larry David) Interesting. I'm going to remember that next time I lose a close member of my family.
EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) Yeah, jogging.
DAVID: (As Larry David) Yeah.
EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) Helps everything.
DAVID: (As Larry David) By the way, I called your house. I left a condolence message. I never got a return call.
EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) Well, I had a few things on my mind.
DAVID: (As Larry David) Still, it's a little discourteous.
EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) Let me explain something to you.
DAVID: (As Larry David) Sure.
EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) I lost my dad a year ago. My mother just died. I'm an orphan, OK?
DAVID: (As Larry David) You're a what?
EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) I'm an orphan.
DAVID: (As Larry David) Orphan?
EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) Yeah, an orphan.
DAVID: (As Larry David) You're a little too old to be an orphan.
EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) No, if you don't have parents, you're an orphan.
DAVID: (As Larry David) Oh, you can be 70 and be an orphan?
EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) You can be 100 and be an orphan.
DAVID: (As Larry David) Oh, you can't be 100 and be an orphan.
EINSTEIN: (As Marty Funkhouser) Yeah, you can.
DAVID: (As Larry David) (Laughter) OK, little orphan Funkhouser.
DAVIES: (Laughter). Our guest, Larry David, and Bob Einstein on "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
DAVID: Yes, I'm upset because he didn't - he didn't respond to my call. He never returned my call.
DAVIES: A little discourteous (laughter).
DAVID: I thought it was discourteous.
DAVIES: When I read about you, your friends say that you are actually a nice and generous person. Does it bother you that you've kind of created this image of yourself as this insensitive jerk?
DAVID: Oh, God, no, not at all. Why - no because that's - doesn't bother me in the least. I'm quite happy about it. I'm way closer to being the guy on "Curb" than the guy who's talking to you right now.
DAVIES: Really? (Laughter).
DAVID: I know I'm often described as a nice guy, but - by the way, I think the guy on "Curb" is a nice guy. He's just very honest.
DAVIES: OK, OK. Well, the guy on "Curb" would probably think that the guy on "Curb" is a nice guy, but I don't know if that many other people would think that (laughter).
DAVID: But why? Why isn't he nice? He's not mean. I don't think he's mean. I think he does nice things.
DAVIES: He just kind of can't let some things go that he might (laughter).
DAVID: Yeah, well, that doesn't mean he's not nice.
DAVIES: (Laughter) OK. Well, you know...
DAVID: I think he's expressing a lot of the things that many people think about.
DAVIES: Right, but just are too inhibited to say.
DAVIES: You know...
DAVID: That's why it's so much fun to do it.
DAVIES: Like a lot of your friends, Ted Danson has appeared on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and in 2009, he was on an interview on this show with Terry Gross. And she asked if any scenes in the series came out of your actual friendship with one another, and he told a little story. Let's listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TED DANSON: When you go out to dinner with him, it's way scarier than acting with him because he's always pulling out his notebook. Or you don't know whether or not he's doing a scene in a restaurant and being a little louder than he should be because he's practicing something for next week or whether this is truly Larry. It's a very scary kind of proposition, hanging out with Larry David.
GROSS: I can imagine it would be a little embarrassing when he's talking too loud or doing something inappropriate, and you don't know whether he's testing a performance...
GROSS: Or just being weird.
DANSON: We've sat in a restaurant, a very sweet, quiet inn, you know, New England inn with a lot of people with kind of blue-gray hair. And he came in late, and his back was to the entire restaurant. But we were looking at the entire restaurant over his shoulder, and he was whispering this story in a kind of stage whisper that had the F word in it a lot.
DANSON: And he basically cleared the restaurant. And then, as he's walking out, he went, nice restaurant - little too quiet for a Jew, but it's a nice restaurant...
DANSON: And walked out. And it was like - you kind of have to walk in his wake going, sorry, sorry, sorry. You know, it's Larry, sorry.
DAVIES: And that's Ted Danson talking about our guest, Larry David. OK, Larry David, you don't sound so inhibited to me (laughter).
DAVID: I don't think that story is accurate. First of all, I'm not practicing anything at the table, as was alleged. But yeah, I was particularly taken aback at how quiet that restaurant was that Ted Danson was referring to, and so I made a racket.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Just stirring the pot?
DAVID: Yes, it was disturbingly quiet in there.
DAVIES: So maybe not so inhibited.
DAVID: Well, not in that instance.
DAVIES: All right.
DAVID: By the way, the character has emboldened me to be much less inhibited. If I'm at a dinner party and I want to go home. I can go - before dessert - OK, I've had enough. All right, I'm going to go. And nobody will be shocked to hear me say it, whereas I could never do that before "Curb." And now people are not surprised, and they kind of expect it. Yeah, so that's - so that's great, when I'm able to sort of emulate the character.
DAVIES: Larry David, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
DAVID: Thank you, Dave.
GROSS: Larry David spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies last March. David's also WHYY's senior news reporter. All this week we're featuring some of our favorite interviews over the past few months. If you'd like to hear interviews in the series that you may have missed, like with Toni Morrison or Richard Price or if you'd like to catch up on recent interviews with Lily Tomlin and Larry Wilmore and many others, check out our podcast. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.