The Freak Book

Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them leave.  Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned. When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Ger’asenes asked him to depart from them; for they were seized with great fear; so he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but he sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.  (Luke 8:32-36, New Revised Standard Version)

Thus stands the epigraph at the start of Demons (also translated as The Possessed).  I’m not there yet in my reading project, but in a lot of ways, this biblical passage could serve as the epigraph as almost any of Dostoevsky’s works.  Dysfunction (often in the form of amoral intellectualism) enters a system; fear, discomfort and group chaos ensues; salvation is ultimately found.

One of the real psychological insights Dostoevsky seems to have taken to heart, in fact, was probably ahead of his time in realizing, is the interpersonal nature of dysfunction.  For the most part, depictions of mental illness in the media, and in art, dwell on the extreme otherness of the mentally ill, or just the weird, antisocial, etc.  Not to go to the well too too many times, but imagine the typical episode of Law and Order – the criminal is not like you or I, and that’s basically never contested.  Put into the realm of comedy, think of the typical Saturday Night Live character-driven skit.  You are asked to laugh at the weirdo.  The Chris Farley motivational speaker; those two cheerleaders; even the Tina Fey-Sarah Palin.  These things can be funny at times, but the “weirdo” never enters the system of experience of the viewer, or even of the other characters.  We point at them and laugh.

The same can be said, largely anyway, of Seinfeld.  For the most part, it dealt in shadenfraude.  The characters regard people they encounter as weirdoes, from whom distance should be kept.  They even treat each other like this.  A recurring gag involves Jerry answering the phone about 2/3 of the way through an episode.  George has gotten himself into some sort of improbable double-cross, the details of which he’s ranting through the receiver at double speed.  Jerry’s signature response:  “who is this?”  When Susan dies, George, Jerry, Elaine and Kramer can’t really summon up any natural sympathy at all; they go out for coffee.  In the series finale, a catalog of “normal” people draws attention to the fact that these four literally could not be bothered to care about anyone other than themselves.  We laugh (at least I do) because we can sympathize with their amorality and their pathological distance.

Strangely, Curb Your Enthusiasm is really quite different.  There is some of the same observational comedy, but a common way to describe the difference between Larry David’s two most famous creations is that Curb is “darker.”  While I was reading Crime and Punishment, a clearer description of this “darkness” presented itself to me.  Whereas Seinfeld takes pleasure in the misfortunes of distant others, Curb revels in the communal dysfunction that can be generated in social situations.  Indeed, both Dostoevsky and Curb Your Enthusiasm revel in the way dysfunction mediates itself socially.

Consider the sixth-season episode “The Freak Book.”  To summarize briefly (more or less): Larry and Jeff take great pleasure in a book called Mondo Freaks, a copy of which Larry has purchased for Ted Danson’s birthday present.  Larry and Cheryl decide to rent a limo to travel to Ted Danson’s birthday party.  While at the party, Larry becomes double preoccupied: first, with the fact that Ted has asked the caterers to wear black tie, but also, that the limo driver is stuck in the car (this is a reprise of a 2nd season idea, here carried out much more fully).  Larry presents the Freak Book, which Ted is not very interested in.  Larry eventually persuades Ted to invite the driver in, provided he stays in the kitchen.  Later, the driver emerges, drunk off his ass, and gropes Ted’s wife Mary.  Things go from bad to worse; Ted asks Larry to leave, and on the way out, Larry grabs Mondo Freaks.

Larry has to drive the limo driver home, since he’s too drunk to drive the Davids himself.  In a sequence of scenes of truly Dostoevskian proportions, the limo driver’s wife opens the front door, and Larry is subjected to what the wife labels “the shit-storm of [her] life.”  She’s in a wheelchair, her husband is an alcoholic, her father-in-law is dying of cancer; the house is filled with crap.  Larry narrowly escapes, and he and Cheryl return him.  The next day, the limo driver calls Larry and begs him to do a job for him.  Larry lights at the opportunity, dons the limo uniform and hat, and picks up John McEnroe at the airport.  Larry plays the part, and insists on asking McEnroe about life, his hobbies, his belief in God, etc.  For some reason, they end up pulled over at a cemetery, where a group of Latino mourners, who do not speak English, get in what they believe is their limo.  They begin screaming and crying, and neither Larry not McEnroe are able to extricate themselves from the situation.  More events transpire, and as a coda to the episode, Larry and McEnroe get kicked out of a pre-party for a concert at the Staples Center, because they’re laughing uncontrollably over Mondo Freaks.

What strikes me about this episode is the way that the limo driver’s family dysfunction (and his attendant alcoholism) wends its way into the lives of the other characters.  Each scene is dominated by people’s interdependence – Larry can’t deal with the limo driver’s putative boredom; he gets drawn into making the airport run; even John McEnroe can’t get the scream-crying Latino family out of his limo.  And almost standing in metaphorical relationship to the episode as a whole is the Freak Book – somehow the bizarre body structures of these irregular human beings is so alluring to Larry that he can’t look away.

Such things unfold over and over again in Dostoevsky.  Strange, unstable people bend the psyches of their “normal” fellow travellers (and it’s often funny in a quite similar way to Curb, albeit “darker” still).  In Demons, Stravrogin, through his charismatic instability, drives a field of liberal pseudo-intellectuals and wannabe radicals into an improbable scheme that ends in the near-destruction of a provincial village.  In Crime and Punishment, Roskolnikov, for reasons that irk the reader the entire book, is surrounded by seemingly “healthy” people who partake in his obsessions.  They wait on him when he goes to sleep; they refuse to leave him alone; they organize their lives around his apartment and his sickbed.

In several episodes of the novel, as a reader, you feel similarly drawn in – especially the funeral/wake sequence near the middle.  Huge group chaos draws in all the spectators, and the reader too; pages race by with very few paragraph divisions or other sorts of literary barriers.  One is whipped into the very frenzy the characters themselves experience.

And so, in other ways, with Curb Your Enthusiasm. Rather than the observational distance Jerry Seinfeld insists upon, Larry David and his fellow characters get drawn into clusters of social dysfunction.  I’ll close with a couple of examples:

“Kamikazi Bingo” – Larry himself throws the monkey-wrench into the system, by challenging Yoshi’s grandfather’s kamikaze credentials.  Rather than react the way a “normal” person might, though, Yoshi takes Larry’s challenge seriously.  Larry’s ridiculous insinuation that the grandfather is not technically a kamikaze pilot drives him to a suicide attempt.

Or, in perhaps the most sublime episode in the series, Larry befriends a sex offender, and invites him to Passover.  Of course, it turns out the sex offender is the only moral person at the dinner; all of the other guests use his oddity to preserve their normalcy.  As Cheryl puts it, “you do not invite a sex offender over to dinner without asking me first!”

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2 Responses to The Freak Book

  1. Nates says:

    I like the idea of looking at dysfunction socially, and I see how this applies to Curb. In fact, it seems like a really useful way of thinking about the show. The same could probably be said about Big Lebowski: think about how crazy plans, ideas and language spread from one character to another.

    Sometimes Seinfeld seems different, but there are plenty of counterexamples: Jerry covering for the doorman; everyone eating snickers bars with a knife and fork; etc.

  2. Josh says:

    That’s true about Seinfeld to some extent. I think there are things that make Curb more attunted to the social aspect dysfunction – to wit –

    – the unscripted format – somehow having people ad-lib their responses to awkwardness creates a more organic connection between the characters and their issues. It seems to force the actor to consider how the character would react, and they have to do it right then (sometimes they apparently conceal important plot points to heighten the sense of surprise meant to be portrayed)

    – The camcorder style – somehow Seinfeld feels more distant the whole time. Curb brings you into it a bit more (and really more so than in the way that so many imitators of The Office and Curb now do).

    – the profanity – Seinfeld has to be suggestive in ways Curb can be explicit, which means it tends towards humor that doesn’t rely so much on natural reactions people might have.

    Re – Lebowski – I agree – but somehow a sort of purely linguistic playfulness seems more primary – it seems to operate via meme, rather than character or even emotion, if that makes sense.

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