Inside the Scene That Brought 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Back to Life After Election Day

Executive producer Jeff Schaffer talks to THR about the penis-size conversation that kicked off the HBO comedy's return amid a President Trump hangover.
Getty Images (Schaffer); Courtesy of HBO (Still)
Bryan Cranston and Larry David on 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'; Inset: Jeff Schaffer

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, "Running With the Bulls."]

Curb Your Enthusiasm continued to hang its fatwa over Larry David's head with Sunday's episode, which killed a Funkhouser, introduced the Tiddlywinks method and brought in guest star Bryan Cranston to play a much-needed therapist for the HBO comedy's star.

In the fourth episode of the ninth season, David continued to focus on minor grievances — such as a loud crier at a funeral and an uncomfortable chair at his therapist's office — providing for many welcome interactions with TV Larry and some of his old and new acquaintances, including Cranston as a therapist who doesn't want his wife to go anywhere near his exhausting patient. But the episode also included the first scene the Curb gang filmed when returning to set last year, after a near six-year hiatus and the day after the 2016 presidential election.

When speaking about returning to set ahead of the season premiere, executive producer Jeff Schaffer had said he thought they might actually have to cancel filming, due to the collective reaction to President Donald Trump's stunning election. "Everyone was walking around in a daze," he said, "but the scene was J.B. Smoove, Jeff Garlin and Larry, and it was just — boom. We were back into it. Larry said he was rusty for the first 30 seconds, but then I think J.B. just pounded the rest off him."

Now, after finding out the scene was Leon (Smoove) waxing prophetic about his penis size and the Tiddlywinks method in response to Larry's "short fly" pants problem, it all makes sense. Below, Schaffer goes inside the nuances of the episode with The Hollywood Reporter, including Cranston's reunion with the Seinfeld writer, and even shares an update on the status of another season.

Let's start simple: Why did you decide to kill Funkhouser’s (Bob Einstein) teen nephew?

Well, he’s a Funkhouser, so he has to go. If your last name is Funkhouser and you’re appearing on the show, your days are as numbered as the one guy on a Star Trek mission you didn’t recognize. The combination of Larry and a Funkhouser always ends poorly for a Funkhouser. It really was all worth it for the stone-faced look that Bob gave Larry at the end of the funeral, when everyone is gone and there are just some messed up chairs. That stone stare, that’s when you realize we were right to kill his nephew.

We’ve seen Larry’s behavior at funerals before. How do you find the balance of giving fans what they want with the Larryisms but also doing things that you’ve never done before?

We knew that once Kenny Funkhouser was trampled by the bulls that we needed his portrait at the funeral to be trampled. The great thing about funerals is that everyone else is so serious and the context is so dire, and that it makes it really easy to have Larry be inappropriate. You don’t have to go far for Larry to be doing the wrong thing. The other thing about a funeral from a writing standpoint is that everyone is in the same room, so you get to tie up all the stories at the same time.

Can you talk about Larry’s need to make everything about him, like he does at the funeral by ruining it over the fatwa scare?

Cheryl said it best when she was talking to Larry about sharing the therapist at the funeral: “Maybe you should just make it less about you.” That sentence could probably be said to Larry at almost any time. Also, it’s an impossible task. Especially when he thinks his life is on the line. Usually it’s just a little social itch that he can’t not scratch; here, he still has a death threat. His life is being threatened, so he thinks. It’s going to be impossible to make him think outside of himself.

What will happen when Cheryl finds out that Larry is the one who introduced Kenny to the prostitute, subsequently getting him killed? Will Marty keep the secret for Larry?

We wanted Larry to really not come clean in his role in Kenny Funkhouser’s demise. There’s no good time to tell someone that you hired a prostitute for a senior in high school — and it becomes increasingly in poor taste at his funeral. Right now, Larry is definitely not too excited about sharing the fact that he’s the one who got him hooked up with the prostitute that got him killed by the bulls. Marty is absolutely sure that Larry is his best friend, despite all evidence to the contrary. Marty values Larry’s friendship and Larry does not value Marty’s friendship, and that makes them a great pair.

Marty introduced his transgender son during the funeral. Why did you include that plotline? Is he someone who will end up crossing paths with Larry?

Larry is going to have a lot more dealings with Funkhouser this season, so there are still things that are being set up. But Larry is an equal opportunity offender.

Can you detail what it was like to film Larry David's scenes with Bryan Cranston playing his therapist? How much was improvised by Cranston in the moment?

While we were writing the show last year, Bryan gave an interview where he said he would love to be on Curb. What a coincidence, because we would love to have him on Curb! We realized he would be perfect to play Larry’s therapist. It’s a long line of illustrious people, from Steve Coogan to Fred Melamed and now Bryan. I hadn't worked with Bryan since he was Tim Whatley, the label maker, on Seinfeld in 1994. That, along with co-writer Alec Berg, was my second Seinfeld script. I was so glad we got him back.

He and Larry had too much fun together. It’s so hard to be that dry and that funny at the same time. We sat them down in the chairs and there are a few things we needed them to talk about, but so much came out of just the two of them talking. Like Bryan saying, "It’s time to go" and doing the sneaky watch peek. As we were doing that take, I was literally calling the prop people to tell them to go out and buy a clock. They had 30 minutes before we shot the next scene and had to do a Target run. You just know when things pop up like that, but that wasn’t in the script. 

How much time did you spend filming their therapist scenes?

It was a half-day. Each time we did three long takes and just let them go. We would steer some things, but just watching Bryan as a therapist trying to fix Larry’s demented personality, it really seemed like a therapy session.

Was the "Mrs. Templeton" bit one of the things you wanted to make sure they hit? 

The history of Mrs. Templeton traces back to another doctor that Larry used to have run-ins with, Dr. Morrison played by the amazing Phillip Baker Hall in “The Hot Towel.” Larry wanted to be able to talk to Dr. Morrison, gets his number and calls him accidentally and then ends up bursting into his house in shorts, running for his life, where Dr. Morrison is having a lovely evening with his wife, Mrs. Morrison. This is something that Larry and I have been laughing about ever since we shot it. We say over and over: “Don’t talk to Mrs. Morrison. Keep away from Mrs. Morrison.” So Mrs. Templeton is really an ode to Mrs. Morrison.

There is something so funny about the rhythm of dry authority that Phil Baker Hall and Bryan have. Their rhythm countering Larry’s ridiculous lines of questioning. I think my favorite line in this show is when Larry calls Dr. Templeton Lionel, and he says, “Oh Larry, would it be OK if we stuck to Dr. Templeton?” And also, “Mrs. Templeton has indicated that she doesn’t want to meet you.” That flat wall of authority that Larry runs up against. The real Larry laughed so hard in those scenes. I’m amazing we actually have footage that we could put in the show of Larry talking about Mrs. Templeton with Bryan.

Will Cranston reprise the role, or was it a one-episode gig?

We can all agree that Larry will always need more therapy, and if he does, minus getting extorted for one chair, he has a pretty good thing going with this therapist. This therapist doesn’t end up in jail. I think Larry likes having a therapist who, in his words, is a nice guy but doesn’t do that much.

In this episode, Larry also cracked up over Leon talking about his penis in the toilet bowl water. Can you talk about that scene?

Here is a small bit a Curb trivia: The very first scene of the entire season that we shot was that scene in Larry’s kitchen where Leon is talking about how his penis plops in the water. That was on Election Day. The russet potato got elected and eight hours later, we were shooting a scene about Leon’s junk and Jeff f---ing his Realtor. 

Now it all makes sense. You had referenced the scene, saying it only took a beat before the three of them — David, Garlin and Smoove — found their Curb groove and moved on from election hangover depression.

God bless J.B. Smoove. Once he talked about his penis Michael Phelps-ing it into the toilet bowl, everyone got to take a break from reality.

How did you come up with the Tiddlywinks method that Leon introduces Larry to during the "short fly" bit?

As a show, we want to teach first and foremost. We see ourselves as an educational show. So if we can help just a handful of people extract their penis from a short fly pant? We will consider this episode a success! We actually changed the metaphor a few times in the writing before Larry said, “It’s tiddlywinks!”

And here is more Curb trivia: This show generated a bunch of other scenes that we didn’t script initially, but Leon on that very first scene on that very first day, as soon as he started talking about how his "Johnson goes in the toilet water," there was a whole other section where Larry calls bullshit and bets him $1,000. Leon takes the bet and Larry tells him he doesn’t have $1,000, and he says, “I don’t need it, I’ve got yours.” Once they started to do that, we needed to see where the bet would end up. There is a cut scene that we are posting online (below) where you can see where that bet will pay off. There are a few things that we’re actually saving in our back pocket for later. Funny stories are like condoms; it’s always good to have one in your back pocket.

The ending glance Susie Greene (Susie Essman) gave Jeff Greene (Garlin) shows that she picked up on Jeff's affair with the Realtor. Does she care? Does she love him, or does she love the life he provides?

Jeff and Susie have an amazing relationship. In this episode, we saw Jeff get hoisted on his own open house petard. By the end, when Susie says, “We’ll take it” and she gives that last look, that told the audience she knows exactly what’s going on and that she’s going to use it to her own advantage. The relationship is as strong as it ever was! It’s two people getting exactly what they need. It’s really aspirational. Whatever deal they struck, it seems to be working for both of them. Except that now, Jeff is way in over his head on the house. They will eventually move into this house — he’s not getting out of it.

You are weaving this whole season together with the fatwa, and you’ve dropped a lot of seeds along the way that, assumably, will pay off near the end. Is that what makes this season different?

This season has an arc that’s really going to permeate the entire season. There may be an episode here or there where it doesn’t touch on it as heavily, but it’s going to effect almost every episode. Because we knew that we were going to have such a strong season arc and we knew where we were going to end up, I think maybe this year we did plant more seeds for future episodes than we usually did. There are other big things in the works, too. Sammi Greene is engaged to be married, where is that going to go? Jeff and Susie have now bought a house and are in way over their head, Larry’s life is still in danger. We’re not dropping any of these big threads. We’re still weaving them together to get to what we think is a pretty cool end.

At this point, where are you guys when it comes to talking about next season?

We’re talking about talking about it.

What will next week's episode bring?

In the season premiere, we mention that Sammi is all grown up and is engaged to a war veteran. Next week, we get to meet him. Jeff and Susie really, really like this guy and they’re very happy for Sammi — and then, enter Larry…

During a televised debate last week, Ted Cruz told Bernie Sanders to “curb his enthusiasm,” and Rand Paul recently got the Curb theme song treatment over his awkward moment with President Trump. Why do you think Curb has this political resonance?

The Curb theme song has become its own living, breathing organism. I’m a huge Michigan football fan. When Michigan lost to Michigan State on a botched punt in the last seconds, and they lost a game there is no way they should have lost, all I got was that play sent to me, over and over again, with the Curb theme music. (Laughs) Whenever something horrible or awful happens, people throw the Curb theme music on it and send it around. You embrace the fact that Larry is a modern-day Charlie Brown and that’s the music of disappointment that you can laugh at. I think that’s very cool. In terms of the politics stuff, once Larry started playing Bernie Sanders and then found out he was related to him, it’s such low-hanging fruit. Even for skilled comedians like Ted Cruz, who wouldn’t normally go for the easy joke. I understand why he went for it; unfortunately, his face still looks like a shark’s vagina, and no one is going to ever laugh at anything he says. But God bless him for trying!

Do you know anything David has planned for when he hosts Saturday Night Live on Nov. 4?

Everything Larry has planned, he would certainly like to be a surprise. Larry is so excited to do it, and he’s been in the office working on it. That’s all I’ll say about that.

What did you think of Curb? Tell THR in the comments below and check back in with The Live Feed for weekly chats with Schaffer as Curb airs its ninth season Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.