Lunch with the FT: Larry David

Larry David hates giving interviews so much that he concocted an elaborate scheme to get out of Lunch with the FT, playing out in his head the role he and I would take when he arrived at the restaurant.

It is a sunny day in Santa Monica and we have taken our seats at Stefan’s at LA Farm, a lunch spot popular with Hollywood executives – and a short walk from David’s office – when he drops this minor bombshell. “I was thinking about coming here and saying, ‘Oh, this is an interview? I didn’t know it was an interview! I thought you just wanted to have lunch.’ Then you’d go, ‘No, no, it’s an interview.’ And I’d say, ‘Oh my God. I’m sorry.’ ” He shrugs and shakes his head in mock surrender. “I would say, ‘I just can’t do it. There’s been a miscommunication.’ ”

The restaurant is, according to its website, “an oasis of casual sophistication”, owned by Stefan Richter, a Finnish-American who was a finalist on the popular US cooking programme Top Chef. It is bright and airy, despite an abundance of dark wood in the high-ceilinged dining room, and packed with chattering diners when I enter. Though David’s frowning face can often be found across Los Angeles on billboards advertising Curb Your Enthusiasm, the HBO show he has written and starred in for the past 12 years, none of the other patrons bats an eyelid when he walks in. He is a regular and, after hesitating over where he should sit, he takes the seat opposite me where he will have his back to the wall.

Despite his initial plan to escape, he agrees to stay, though judging by his body language – arms tightly folded while he leans away from me in his seat – he would rather be somewhere else. So why didn’t he go through with the plan to feign ignorance about the interview? “I would have felt bad,” he says. “I would have said, ‘Ummm, I just made that up.’ Most practical jokes, I’ll feel too bad for the other person so I’ll stop just before the punchline.”

Punchlines don’t normally seem a problem for the 64-year-old, who has spent the past 30 years making people laugh, first as a struggling stand-up comedian in New York, then as a struggling writer trying to get a break on Saturday Night Live (only one of his sketches was ever performed on the show) before hitting the big time with Seinfeld, the genre-bending sitcom “about nothing” that topped US television ratings for most of the 1990s, earning hundreds of millions of dollars for David and Jerry Seinfeld, the show’s co-writer and star. After that came Curb, a simultaneously hilarious and uncomfortable show about the travails in Los Angeles of a middle-aged bald man called Larry David who co-created a popular TV show called Seinfeld.

David always orders the same thing at LA Farm – a customised salad known as the “Larry David” – so I ask him to recommend something for me. “You’re young, you can eat whatever you want,” he says. What about his salad? “It’s too healthy for you. Get some real food.” We look at the menu. “German sausage, sauerkraut ... If I didn’t watch what I ate, I would get that,” he says. One half of the menu is full of salads while the other has burgers and other meat dishes. “This is your wheelhouse right here,” he says, pointing to the less healthy section. “How about an egg sandwich?”

A waiter arrives at our table, pen and pad in hand. I tell him I’ll have the turkey burger on a pretzel bun with sweet potato fries. “The rotisserie chicken,” he says, carefully writing it down. No, I say, the turkey burger. He frowns and turns to David, asking him if he’d like his usual salad. “Absolutely,” David says, emphatically.

It is probably naive to expect David to be the same as his on-screen Curb persona but I can’t help it. They look the same, have the same name, and wear the same glasses and clothes: today, as in every episode of Curb, he is wearing a dark jacket, dark khaki trousers and sneakers. We are even eating in a restaurant that has featured in several Curb episodes. And yet there are differences between TV Larry and the man sitting across the table.

TV Larry says or does whatever he thinks, using the death of his mother to get out of boring social obligations, for example, or getting into a shouting match in a public bathroom with a man in a wheelchair after inadvertently using the disabled toilet. TV Larry is blunt and brutally honest, thriving on confrontational situations, whereas the real Larry avoids them like the plague. He has said before he wishes he was like the character on screen. So, I ask, what stops him? “Somebody would beat me up every day. You can’t be that honest and function in society. These confrontations frighten me so I avoid them and save it up for the show. It’s a little bit of a fantasy.”

I want to know what goes into his mysterious salad. “Avocado, pine nuts, which are always a great addition to a salad ... Put them on anything! They always work.” He nods, solemnly. “It’s a good flavour. A good taste.” Crunchy, too, I say. “The addition of nuts in salad ... I always find to be beneficial. You know what else you can put in a salad? Some fruit doesn’t hurt either.”

We have a discussion about which fruits work in a salad. “You’ve hit on one of my areas of expertise,” he says, recommending pear, apple, perhaps some pomegranate seeds. What about cheese? His face darkens. “I’m anti-cheese in a salad. I don’t think the tastes are ... ” he pauses, searching for the word, “ ... complementary.”

The waiter returns with the food: my turkey burger takes up most of the plate while David has what appears to be a bowl of green leaves. As I struggle manfully with the burger, I ask about the most recent series of Curb, screened last year, which was a homecoming of sorts because part of it was filmed in New York. He was raised in the city, and spent his formative years in an apartment in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. “Everyone was always yelling at each other. A lot of screaming, a lot of noise. No sense of independence. Everybody knew your business.”

His mother did clerical work; his father was a clothing salesman. “He would come home with sport jackets and try them on me.” Did he always want to become a comedian? He shakes his head. “I had no sense at all that I could be funny.” He went to college in Maryland, when “all of a sudden my sense of humour blossomed. I think it had to do with the fact that I started going out on dates and had humorous things to say. People seemed to enjoy my tales of woe.” Were they always tales of woe? “Oh yes.”

The characters and friends he made in New York inspired much of his later work on Seinfeld, while his experience doing stand-up led to his being hired on Saturday Night Live in the mid-1980s. It was not a particularly happy period and he quit the show in fiery fashion, hurling abuse at the show’s executive producer on his way out. “I said, ‘This f**king show stinks!’ I yelled, ‘I’ve had it!’ ” After some quiet reflection he returned the next day in the hope that his outburst would be forgotten. His boss “noticed but no one ever said anything. It was a good plan, don’t you think?” The experience eventually formed the basis of a particularly revered episode of Seinfeld.

I have been making headway with my turkey burger but the juice from the meat is making the doughy pretzel bun fall apart in my hands. I pick up my cutlery in defeat, ready to use it to attack the burger, aware that I’m straying into socially awkward Curb territory. The eagle-eyed David does not disappoint. “So you went with the knife and fork with the burger,” he says. “But you gave it a good go, right?”

I ask him about stand-up, which he fell into after jobs as a taxi driver and bra salesman. Performing “was terrifying”, he says. Was it ever enjoyable? “Yes, when I did well. When you do well, it’s a bit addictive. It makes you like yourself. No matter how much you might hate yourself, when you’re getting those laughs ... it’s like, ‘I’m OK.’ It takes away the self-loathing.”

How does he get that feeling now? “Ha ha! You don’t.” So the self-loathing has gone? He squirms in his seat. “I don’t have that feeling any more. If I do, it’s so engrained that I don’t even think about it. My life has changed. I’m not walking around any more wishing I wasn’t me, which was the case at one time.”

He reached his lowest ebb – “my nadir” – when doing stand-up in New York in the 1980s. He was beloved by other comedians but didn’t have a great rapport with the audience: one night he took a look at the crowd at the start of his performance and said, “Forget it,” before storming off. It was a tough time. “I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have a girlfriend. I had no future, so I actually looked at places on the street where I might bed down.” He found, he says, a spot on 45th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. “It had a heating duct coming down. There was like an indent on the sidewalk. You could put a couch in there if you wanted. There was blast from the heating vent that came down. I made a note of it and I thought, ‘This could be my spot.’”

Despite his success, he says he retains a pessimistic outlook. “Whenever something good happens to me, it’s usually followed by something terrible,” he told the Writers Guild of America recently, when accepting its Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for “outstanding contributions to the profession of the television writer”. “This [award] has got disaster and doom written all over it. I mean, it’s a great honour but it’s not worth getting hit by a bus.”

We talk about how he writes. Curb episodes are largely improvised yet the plotlines are intricately constructed by David and his fellow writers, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer. Each episode contains several tightly woven storylines. “I don’t think I could write a story any other way,” he says. “It started like that on Seinfeld because I wanted to make sure the actors all had a lot to do so they wouldn’t get upset. One day I put two of the stories together, then the other two together and it just started to happen.”

He reveals that he, Berg, Mandel and Schaffer have also collaborated on a new film screenplay, a comedy, that is almost finished. Will there be another series of Curb? He shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says. We have finished eating; I order an espresso, David a herbal tea. I ask about his relationship – or rather lack of it – with Judaism, which has formed the basis of many Curb episodes, particularly one in the most recent series entitled “Palestinian Chicken”.

In the show Larry discovers a Palestinian restaurant that serves the best fried chicken he has ever tasted, yet finds himself conflicted when his Jewish friends urge him to boycott it – one plans a protest after hearing the restaurant wants to expand next to the “sacred ground” of a local Jewish deli. “You’re always attracted to someone who doesn’t want you, right?” David says in the episode, after spotting an attractive Palestinian woman. “Well, here you have someone who not only doesn’t want you, she doesn’t even acknowledge your right to exist.”

I tell him that when I first saw “Palestinian Chicken” I laughed so hard I almost choked. “More people told me that’s their favourite episode than any other we’ve done,” he says and tells me his friend the civil rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz sent a copy of it to the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said afterwards that he had suggested Netanyahu “invite [Mahmoud] Abbas over to watch it together. And, maybe, if they both get a good laugh, they can begin a negotiating process.”

Was the episode written out of frustration with a deadlocked Arab-Israeli peace process? “No! No episodes come out of real emotion. They’re all about the funniest ideas.” He guffaws loudly when I ask how he celebrates the Jewish holidays. “Religion doesn’t play any part in my life in terms of how I live my life. But I don’t think I’ve ever gone through a day in my life without hearing someone say the word ‘Jew’ or saying it myself.” Does he wrestle with it? “No, not at all. When I first got married I made a pact with my wife that I would go to the temple on the high holy days. After we got divorced, that was the end of that.”

Then, suddenly, he starts ranting about God and I could be in the middle of a Curb episode. “I don’t understand what they’re saying or singing about in temple,” he says. “I don’t think God wants everyone in there. Taking time off from whatever it is they’re going to do to sing his praises. What does he care? If there is a God, he wouldn’t want that. He would say, ‘People go home! What are you doing! Who do you think I am?’ He’d be offended by it!” The restaurant has emptied and he’s shouting now. “It’s an offensive display! For everyone to be in there, talking about him. He’d want you to be out having fun.” Doing good works, I say. “Yes, doing good works! Enjoying your life.”

The waiter has brought the bill. “I’m not going to fight you for that,” he says, when I pick it up. Then he says: “Don’t feel you need to write this up on my account. You don’t have to do this.” I say why wouldn’t I want to write it up? After all, most people already have an impression of him from Curb. “That’s fine,” he says. “The real me is the problem.”

Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s Los Angeles correspondent

Stefan’s at LA Farm

3000 West Olympic Blvd, Santa Monica, California 90404

Turkey burger on pretzel bun with sweet potato fries $17.00

Larry David salad $11.00

Herbal tea $4.00

Espresso $4.00

Total (including tax and service) $56.00

David Gelles on television’s golden geese

The comedian Ray Romano is currently doing a stand-up tour of theatres in California. His most recent TV show, Men of a Certain Age, was cancelled last year after just two seasons on the cable network TNT. Yet Romano remains, according to Forbes, one of the highest paid television actors in Hollywood. Thanks to the continued syndication of his hit show from the 1990s, Everybody Loves Raymond, he earned around $20m last year.

‘Seinfeld’ first aired in 1989

When Seinfeld ended in 1999, Larry David and fellow creator Jerry Seinfeld agreed a $1.7bn syndication deal that gave each party about $250m upfront. Seinfeld has to date earned about $3bn in syndication.

The enduring appeal of these shows highlights a little-publicised secret about the television industry’s enduring success – the deals that keep hit shows on the air, decades after they first appeared.

Broadly defined, syndication includes deals that allow shows from US broadcast networks such as NBC, CBS and Fox to run on cable networks such as USA, TBS and TNT. It also includes international deals that allow certain shows to run on specific channels around the globe. When, last year, the future of The Simpsons seemed in jeopardy, RBC Capital analyst David Bank said that should Fox cancel the show and move it into wider syndication it could realise an additional $750m a year.

Recently, syndication has expanded further to include deals with new digital distributors like Netflix. “There’s a super-cycle in syndication going on,” says Nomura analyst Michael Nathanson. “We’re in a special time where you’re getting money for traditional syndication, international demand is definitely growing, and there’s an opening for Netflix and Amazon to pay nice incremental high margin dollars.”

The emergence of Netflix and other digital distributors such as Amazon and Hulu was initially viewed as a threat to traditional television companies. Instead, new digital entrants have been reliable buyers of syndicated shows and in particular serialised shows, which in syndication terms have traditionally not performed as well as stand-alone sitcoms and dramas. “The industry’s figured out how to use online without killing the golden goose,” Nathanson says.

All these revenue streams add up for the big content creators. CBS, the network behind Hawaii Five-O and CSI, reports domestic and international syndication and digital deals under the heading “content licensing and distribution”. Last year this amounted to $2.5bn for CBS.

David Gelles is the FT’s US media and marketing correspondent

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