Larry David, Philosopher King

“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the HBO comedy series created by and starring Larry David, debuted way back in 1999 and comedy, television and the world have all changed significantly since. Yet somehow “Curb,”which comes to an end tonight after 12 seasons, remains as relevant as ever. How can that be?

I’d propose that one reason is because Larry David stands as an underappreciated philosopher of our everyday lives. He has taught us important truths about both how we live our lives and how we should live our lives. Most important, he’s been our foremost critic of the social rules that govern the way we interact, offering an enticing vision of social freedom that we’d be foolish to ignore.

“Curb” is full of observations about societal strictures that might otherwise go unspoken. Rules such as: You tiptoe at night; you always accept your friend’s invitation to tour her new house; you never steal from roadside memorials or caskets; you don’t go over your caviar allotment at a dinner party; you ask to split the check when you eat out with friends.

Mr. David, in the guise of his semi-fictional alter ego, has introduced us to countless examples of what I like to call the “unknown knowns” — these rules and rituals that we understand and abide by without quite knowing how we learned them. For example, most of us have been victims of what he calls “the chat and cut,” a ploy that some people use to cut in line when they don’t want to wait. But it wasn’t until Mr. David pointed this act out and named it that we thought about it explicitly. Now that it has been named, it’s a lot easier to spot in our own lives.

One simple way of considering the character of Larry is as a vessel of our wish fulfillment. As Cheryl Hines, David’s co-star, has said, “I think we all live vicariously through Larry,” because “if somebody asks you to dinner, you’d like to just say, ‘No, I don’t really like you that much.’ But people don’t in real life, you know? Larry does.” Sigmund Freud argued in his 1905 book “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious” that laughter gives us a sense of relief because it releases the energy we normally spend on repressing our drives. Freud would say that when Larry acts out on “Curb,” we laugh because Larry lets us indirectly satisfy repressed desires to do the same.

But there’s much more that we can learn and benefit from in Mr. David’s approach to the world. One lesson he teaches us is that we all have a lot of special social knowledge that we’ve never thought about before. In “Being and Time,” the German philosopher Martin Heidegger called this knowledge part of our preconceptual “understanding of Being.” Larry describes it as our “unwritten rules,” such as: Everyone knows that you should never blow your nose in a cloth napkin at a restaurant. As Larry’s frequent collaborator Jerry Seinfeld put it in an episode of “Curb”: “It’s just not done in polite society. It’s not done in impolite society. Even the impolite don’t do it.”

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