Thursday, March 29, 2007


No hugs, no learning

A couple of years ago, I read a funny and interesting profile of Larry David in The New Yorker. Larry Charles, David's collaborator and an executive producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm, was quoted as saying that the credo in writing Curb, a beautifully edgy sit-com, is "no hugs, no learning."

This is a strong assertion of sitcom artistic integrity, on the level of Aaron Sorkin successfully fighting the networks to remove the laugh-track from his ensemble "dramedy" series Sports Night. "Hugs and learning" -- an upbeat resolution forced onto the end of every half-hour, the result of pandering to the advertizers' idea of middle-American tastes -- makes ordinary sitcoms unwatchably cloying.

And yet "no hugs, no learning" is itself a formula. They make it in work in Curb -- a show that slowly grew on me to the point where it's one of my all-time favorites. Larry David as he plays himself on the show is a walking battleground between the forces of mensch and the forces of asshole, the latter winning out more often than not. Yet you can't help but like Larry, for putting that struggle right out there. There's a meta-observation thing going on: you think, he's such a jerk, but he's making fun of himself on his own TV show for being a jerk, so he must be fundamentally a good guy.

Larry, as he plays himself in Curb, is totally (understandably) ego-melded to the Seinfeld show, his life's great achievement. He goes around introducing himself as the creator of Seinfeld, eats up stroking from Seinfeld fans, and gets wounded by people who dis Seinfeld. I like Larry so much that I'd like to say that I loved Seinfeld just to get on his good side. But I didn't.

It wasn't the "show about nothing" quality of Seinfeld that irritated the bejeezus out of me. It was the "no learning" thing. No matter what happened within a given half hour, the Seinfeld characters would learn nothing from their experiences. They never changed a bit. Every new show seemed to start from the beginning: Jerry would have a new girlfriend to break up with due to some stupid thing like a lisp or buck teeth. George would still be an idiot. Jerry and Elaine would still have a past but no future. While occasional story arcs spanned more than one half hour, most did not. The perpetually starting from scratch made me feel claustrophobic, like I was caught in the sort of scrolling, animated loop that you can see in the background of Flintstone's cartoons. Seinfeld was like Groundhog Day with no memory of what happened the day before; or like 50 First Dates without the Adam Sandler character. While "no learning" might work with complex characters like Larry in Curb, it's a different animal with the cartoonish characters of Seinfeld. That show just took a good joke -- no learning -- too far, several years too far.

My new favorite comedic show is the snappy, hip Entourage. Interestingly, Larry "No Hugs, No Learning" Charles is an executive producer on this show too. I'm working my way through past seasons and very impressed the scriptwriting, particularly by the way that the show is filled with hugs and learning without the sticky sentimentality. The episode where both the assistant and the client stick with super-agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) as he crashes and burns in a dubious Jerry Macguire move is a great example.

It turns out that you can have hugs and learning and keep your edginess. Piven captures this quality every time he whips out his signature line: "let's hug it out."

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