‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Closes Season 9 With Risky Moves and Big Laughs

Curb Your Enthusiasm” ends its long-awaited ninth season with an interesting mixture of big laughs and risky jokes. There is no doubting the comedic talent of Larry David remains mostly intact, yet this season has been a strange test for the HBO series. The world and society “Curb Your Enthusiasm” first became a splash in has changed a lot since going off the air in 2011. These are slightly more sensitive times, and this year in particular has been especially touchy post-Harvey Weinstein. The season finale features everything that has been hit or miss in the show’s return: Straight, laugh out loud gags and jokes, performances of slapstick wit, but also sex jokes that fall flat, and a weird undercurrent of Muslim-bashing. Still, the good outweighs the bad, and we can’t help but wish it returns with a keener sense of how to be funny in this moment.

As the season winds down, Larry is putting the final touches on his stage musical “Fatwa!” It’s a dramatization of the 1989 Iranian death sentence against Indian author Salman Rushdie (who did a cameo earlier in the season) for his novel “The Satanic Verses” (younger viewers will have to Google this information to know what David is poking at). Lin-Manuel Miranda plays the stage version of Rushdie and F. Murray Abraham plays “The Ayatollah” who condemns Rushdie to death. Earlier in the season Larry escaped his own fatwa sentence and is now confident he can finish the production. But as always lives turn into a mess as Miranda asks Larry if some relatives of his can stay in his own, big house. Larry reluctantly accepts, only to find out they’re swingers who invite their fellow swappers over. Stage Manager Cody (Nick Offerman) asks for the day off to do a commercial, Larry offers to pay his fee so he can go paintball shooting with the stage crew. But when Larry discovers Cody wasn’t going to make as much as he thought, he asks Cody to pay the difference.  When Abraham makes a point of Larry wearing the same clothes everyday his ego takes a nosedive. It will all culminate in a paint ball duel, Hamilton-style.

In his loyalty to the show’s big fan base, it’s obvious David has worked hard to keep the show’s tone intact. While it has no doubt delivered for the true devotee (and the season premiere’s ratings were stellar), it is curious to see how some of David’s brand humor seems riskier now. Early in the finale during a rehearsal David beams that this is the second most excited he’s ever been in his life, the most exciting still being “unhooking my first bra.” He walks over to a girl at a bar and says “I don’t pick up, I put down.” When a busty signer is hired to translate the play for the deaf, David complains “everybody’s looking at her t—s,” then goes into a whole speech on why breasts are distracting for men in an audience (the motif is then brought to life later during a wedding scene).

I’m a bit surprised at how few critics have picked up on the uneasy racial undertones of the whole play storyline involving the Rushdie affair. It doesn’t feel like satire or even political commentary, but like a clear swipe at a specific group. Even the play’s posters feature giant curved blades with calligraphy. In the episode’s final scene Larry bumps into an angry-looking Middle Eastern man who starts calling him a blasphemer, chasing him down the street screaming in Arabic. All is game in comedy, but If you’re going to employ racial stereotypes, especially in these times and about an event most of the audience might not even know about, it should be with a clearer purpose or better wit, not as a mere tool to offend for the sake of offending. Of course part of the point of Larry’s character is that he’s a bit of a jerk, including with the saucier jokes, but the approach here loses tact.

That said, the show still features many great laughs. David’s humor is best when he finds comedy out of quirky interactions. When he confronts Miranda about his swinger relatives the composer reminds him, “I told you they were an interesting couple.” The great moment of comedy is a paintball duel where Miranda finds himself with a paintball lodged in his mouth as he screams “Aaron Burr” at Larry.  David comes up with some great one liners through-out like “outfit tracker,” “gift-rescinding motherf—ker” and “stand-in.” The last one is a hilarious reference to actress Casey Wilson, who Larry hires to “stand in” for him during a wedding. During an ambulance ride Miranda interrogates Larry about falling asleep during Miranda’s opus “Hamilton,” and it’s a great bit of celebrity self-humor.

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” has now left us again, and it’s still up in the air whether it will return for a tenth offering. But it ends its ninth season delivering what we’ve always liked about it, but with a sense that comedy is struggling to find its footing in this new terrain. David is still all jerkish charm, and when it works it really works. We can only hope he won’t wait too long to offer another serving.

Curb Your Enthusiasm” Season 9 finale aired Dec. 3 on HBO.