‘Like a bathroom baby’: ‘Curb’ director Jeff Schaffer says new season will bring surprises
The 11th season of Larry David’s fictional comedy series, ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ premieres tonight on HBO
Larry David’s popular fictional comedy series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” returns to HBO on Sunday for its 11th season. But viewers hoping for spoilers will be hard-pressed to find them before the show airs tonight, according to Jeff Schaffer, a longtime “Curb” collaborator who directed all but one of the 10 new episodes.
“You know how there are those teenagers who go to prom and their stomach hurts and they go to the bathroom and they’re totally surprised that they had a baby?” Schaffer, 51, deadpanned to Jewish Insider last week. “That’s how Larry wants the season to come out. He wants it to just come out like a bathroom baby. A prom bathroom baby that no one knew was coming.”
Schaffer, who helped David write most of the new season over daily FaceTime sessions early on in the pandemic, remained faithful to that wish in a phone interview from his office in Los Angeles.
“From minute one this season, you’re going to see that Larry’s gotten himself into some strange predicaments,” he allowed, only broadly characterizing the narrative arc. “I will say that at the beginning of the season, it seems like there’s a lot of disparate threads, but they do all tie together very nicely by the end, I think in a way you’d never expect.”
Still, he was willing to reveal a few noteworthy — and distinctly Jewish — tidbits that viewers should look out for. “There are quite a few places where Judaism comes front and center,” said Schaffer, who describes himself and David, now 74, as “the Impossible Burger of Jews.”
“We look like one, we sound like one, but on the religious side there’s a fundamental difference between us and, I think, your more observant Jew,” he said.
There is, for instance, an episode in which David addresses “the issues of antisemitism and hate groups as, of course, only ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ can,” Schaffer disclosed. “There’s a discussion about how the Jews fled Egypt that features prominently in an episode,” he added. “It’s sort of part of who Larry is, so these kinds of things are always getting woven into the fabric of our shows.”
Elsewhere, David is tasked with instructing Jon Hamm — his “goy Friday,” Schaffer quipped — on the intricacies of Yiddish slang. “Poor Jon Hamm,” Schaffer said. “He didn’t go to Sunday school. What does he know?”
Hamm is just one of a number of guest stars who are slated to appear in the new season, including Bill Hader, Seth Rogen, Vince Vaughn, Tracey Ullman, Woody Harrelson, Lucy Liu and Albert Brooks (whose brother Bob Einstein, who played Marty Funkhouser on the show, died in 2019).
Schaffer, who has worked with David since the “Seinfeld” days in the 1990s — and whose most recent independent project is “Dave,” the FXX comedy series — said he was in the process of putting the final touches on the “Curb” season finale.
“We’re basically almost done,” he told JI.
“And then, we’ll see,” Schaffer said. “Every season is the last season, and if this happens to be the last season, I think it ends on a very strong note.”
But there may be more in store, Schaffer suggested. “I have a feeling Larry might get into more scrapes in the future that he wants to write about.”
Jewish Insider: What can you reveal about the new season?
Jeff Schaffer: Larry really doesn’t want any spoilers, but what I can tell you is we sort of pick up from where we were last year. We saw that Larry had burned down Latte Larry’s and Mocha Joe’s. Mocha Joe had settled into a spite house next door, and at this point maybe Mocha Joe’s has moved on, but the lawsuits cost Larry a pretty penny. So he’s dealing with that, and he’s also maybe thinking about getting into writing again. We’ve had a lot of seasons with the co-creator of “Seinfeld” not doing a lot of writing, but he may actually pick up the pen.
JI: Were you surprised that the stocked-up hand sanitizer that fuels the fire that burns down Latte Larry’s in last season’s final episode came to be seen as a sort of prescient detail in light of the pandemic?
Schaffer: It was so strange because, when the pandemic hit, it was like, “Oh, this is a moment tailor-made for Larry.” I mean, he’s been trying to practice social distancing for as long as I can remember him. Last season, we were going to have a Latte Larry’s pop-up. HBO was actually going to build a Latte Larry’s at the start of our season. It was February before everything shut down. It was going to happen — the tables, the hand sanitizer, all the stuff. The thing was, they couldn’t find any hand sanitizer. All the Purell had been taken. They were like, “We’ll just fake some bottles.” I’m like, “Oh my god, people are going to steal this stuff thinking it’s real Purell, and it’s not going to do anything.” Then there was a lockdown, and it all went away. But Larry was definitely prescient about the hand sanitizer. His prediction of no defecating in public restrooms? We’ll see if that holds true.
JI: You wrote most of the show remotely. What was it like working with Larry over video chat?
Schaffer: The weird thing was, we started writing before the pandemic in the office, and we were sort of throwing ideas and season arcs around. We’d made a teeny bit of headway, and then the pandemic hit and we’re in our houses and we just sort of changed. We were like, “OK, well, this is going to be different now.” Every day with Larry, we had a very similar ritual. We would just meet up on FaceTime, and Larry would go, “Ugh, I’ve got to find a plug for my iPad.” He would grouse about how outlets should be at shoulder height so he doesn’t have to root around like a raccoon looking behind the couch to try and plug something in. Then he’d go, “Ugh, forget it.” We’d write during the day, and every day around 2:30 or 3 o’clock, he would just vanish. I realized, “Oh, he’s out of charge. He just didn’t charge his iPad. I think we’re done for today.” I will say this, and I mean this as a true compliment about Larry. That man does not worry about the percentage of battery on any of his devices. He is the same guy at 3% as he has at 87%, and I find that commendable.
JI: I often carry a backup charger with me…
Schaffer: Because you have charge anxiety. He does not. He just blithely goes through life, and then when it’s out, it’s out. But we wrote remotely all through the spring and into the summer, and then the real question was, are we going to be able to shoot this? We spent a lot of time coming up with very rigorous protocols to make sure that we could do it safely.
JI: How did it go?
Schaffer: It cost a lot of money to test everybody in a big bubble every day. Then our crew was great about sort of having an unwritten social contract that no one was going to get Larry sick, which means when you’re out of work, be super responsible —and everyone was. We started shooting in November. We took January off because it just seemed, like, why knife the boat through the COVID storm post-vacation? But from November to May, we shot. The weird thing was, there were a lot of scenes from different episodes— scenes that had a lot of people — that we just pushed to the end of our shooting schedule hoping that things would be better and that there would be a vaccine, which was all smart and good. The consequence of that was, usually you do five two-episode blocks. We were shooting parts of shows one through 10 every block. A total scramble, which is very odd for an improv show.
JI: As I understand it, the improvisational manner in which the show is filmed hasn’t changed since the beginning. Is that right?
Schaffer: Yeah, I mean, we have an outline that’s the structure of the show, and then there’s a lot of improv. Ideally, if you had your wish of all wishes you’d go in order, because something that’s said in the second scene might really affect something that’s in the fifth scene. But this season, sometimes we were shooting scene number five in November, and then we shot scene number two in May. It was a tricky season that way, but I think we pulled it off.
JI: Do the episodes ever stray, during the filming, from what you had in mind when you wrote the outline?
Schaffer: Yes, in that a lot of times the overall structure may be the same, but things that are said in certain scenes that are improvised, it’s like, “Oh my god, that’s so funny, we have to pay that off.” So we’re rewriting all the time based on improv. Last season, Bryan Cranston was Larry’s therapist, and Bryan Cranston looks at his watch, and Larry’s like, “I saw that, why don’t you just have a clock behind my head? That way, you don’t have to be so obvious.” I’m sitting there directing, and we’re about to shoot the next scene that happens a few days later, because it’s all at the therapist’s office. So, in 20 minutes, we’re going to shoot this scene, and I’m telling the prop people, “Go run out and get a clock.” That’s part of the story now. It’s always things like that.
JI: How was the virtual co-writing process different from a more procedural perspective?
Schaffer: When we’re in person, we’re writing on these big dry-erase boards. We’re always up on the board, and it’s a much more tactile way of writing. This year was very different because we couldn’t just get up on the board and circle this and cross that out. We’ve been using these boards since “Seinfeld.” I mean, “Seinfeld” and “Curb” are written the exact same way. You make these outlines, and you keep interweaving these stories together to come up with this end that feels satisfying, and the only difference for “Seinfeld” is you take a few days and write the script. For “Curb,” there’s a few lines. You know why the scene works; the angles are already there. The one thing that we do with “Curb” is that we’ve got really funny people taking these attitudes and bumping up against each other and you get these amazing, magical digressions that you never knew were going to happen when you walked in that day.
JI: It goes without saying that “Curb” is a distinctly Jewish show, but is there anything in particular this season that’s explicitly Jewish?
Schaffer: Larry sort of, I’ll call it cultural Judaism, is a big part of where he grew up and shaped who he is, and this season he’s going to actually explore where he came from a little bit. There are quite a few places where Judaism comes front and center, whether he’s teaching Jon Hamm, his “goy Friday,” the difference between bashert and tsuris.
JI: Those are pretty different.
Schaffer: I know. Poor Jon Hamm. He didn’t go to Sunday school. What does he know? Actually, there’s an episode where we even address the issues of antisemitism and hate groups as, of course, only “Curb Your Enthusiasm” can. And there’s another episode where Judaism is a major plot point, but I can’t spoil it for you. There’s a discussion about how the Jews fled Egypt that features prominently in an episode. It’s sort of part of who Larry is, so these kinds of things are always getting woven into the fabric of our shows.
JI: Have you talked with Larry outside the context of the show about his Jewish roots?
Schaffer: Honestly, for both of us, I think we’re like the Impossible Burger of Jews. We look like one, we sound like one, but on the religious side there’s a fundamental difference between us and, I think, your more observant Jew.
JI: What’s next on your docket outside of “Curb”?
Schaffer: I also have this other show called “Dave.” We finished our second season on FX and Hulu this summer.
JI: Not the Kevin Kline movie…
Schaffer: No, not the Kevin Kline movie. It’s funny, the show is about this white rapper named Lil Dicky — his real name is Dave Burd — and he wanted to call the show “Dave.” He was in his late 20s when we started. I go, “But it’s like the movie.” And he goes, “What movie?” And I go, “Oh, boy.”
JI: I guess it’s a generational thing.
Schaffer: By the way, another funny story, though. So, Bryan Cranston, I was talking to him the other day. He called, and he said, “Hey, so, you know, it’s the middle of a pandemic” — and “Dave” had come out in the first spring of the pandemic — and he goes, “You know, it was just such a bummer looking at the news and everything, and I told my wife, ‘I just want to watch something fun and lighthearted,’ so I wanted to watch the movie “Dave.” I started flipping around and I turned on what I thought it was “Dave,” and this other show showed up. I was like, ‘What is this? This isn’t “Dave,”’ and I really like it, so anyway, congratulations.” So that marketing trick got one person and his name is Bryan Cranston.
JI: Seems like a solid audience member to have on your side.
Schaffer: Yeah, if you’re going to have one, why not have the genius Bryan Cranston? We finished our second season. I actually shot that at the same time as “Curb,” and shooting two all-location shows during a pandemic was a lot. But for that show, the writer’s room for season three will start up in the new year, and then, as for “Curb,” literally this week, like today, I’m going to finish the mix and the color for our season finale. We’re basically almost done. And then, we’ll see. You know, every season is the last season, and if this happens to be the last season, I think it ends on a very strong note. But, I don’t know, I have a feeling Larry might get into more scrapes in the future that he wants to write about.
JI: Does Larry carry a notebook like he does on the show?
Schaffer: He carried a notebook all through “Seinfeld,” and all through a lot of “Curb” he kept a notebook. Now he writes things down when they happen in real-time on his phone, but then they get transcribed into these bigger notebooks, and that’s how the show gets written. He’ll come into the office, and he’ll say, “I was at this dinner party last night, and the host served tap water. Who serves tap water at a dinner party? I wanted to say something, but I didn’t.” And I’ll say, “Well, real Larry didn’t say something, but TV Larry’s going to say something.” And that’s the start of an episode.
JI: One of the interesting things that I think is unique about the show is that you guys sort of toe the line a bit when it comes to being offensive. But somehow, Larry gets away with it in a way that other people can’t, perhaps because he comes off as a kind of equal opportunity offender.
Schaffer: We literally call ourselves equal-opportunity offenders. I always say I know where the line is because I can look back and see it. And that’s the point. To me, nothing’s off-limits; it’s all how you execute. It’s all how you do it, and if you’re clever enough about it, you should be able to handle anything. I mean, Larry has a point. You may not agree with it, and he may take the other side of an argument, but there’s always an argument. I think that’s one of the things that people really like about the show. Look, people aren’t great in general, and they’re also walking double standards, so when the audience sees Larry do something selfish, they know in their cold hearts they would have done that, and when they see him rail against any tiny injustice, they think, “I always wanted to tell someone off like that, too.”