How 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Kept Salman Rushdie's Fatwa Cameo a Secret

Executive producer Jeff Schaffer talks to THR about Sunday's episode, which introduced Larry David to his "fatwa fairy godmother."
HBO; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Larry David, with Ted Danson, on 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'; Inset: Jeff Schaffer

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, "A Disturbance in the Kitchen.]

There was only one man on the planet who could help Larry David with his fatwa situation — and it's a good thing he was available when Curb Your Enthusiasm gave him a call.

Salman Rushdie — who was name-dropped in the ninth season premiere by Larry David — made a surprise cameo on Sunday's episode of the HBO comedy. In 1988, the author's novel The Satanic Verses became so controversial in the Muslim community that a fatwa death sentence was issued against Rushdie by Iran's Ayatollah. The premiere set up a season-long theme when TV Larry David, who had written a Broadway play based on Rushdie's life, had his own fatwa issued against him after an impression of the Ayatollah during a Jimmy Kimmel Live! appearance went very wrong. Now three episodes into living as a man in hiding, Larry paid a visit to Rushdie for help, and the storyline was written into the show before David and executive producer Jeff Schaffer even knew if Rushdie was available, or if he would be up for playing himself.

"We didn't have a plan B," Schaffer tells The Hollywood Reporter of Rushdie's role as TV Larry's "fatwa fairy godmother." He adds, "Salman had a small cameo as himself in the second Bridget Jones movie. That’s all I was able to find, because when we wrote this for him I had similar questions. Can he act? Will he want to do this? We wrote this episode and then said, 'Oh, we have to actually see if Salman is available.' There are not a lot of famous, prize-winning novelists with fatwas. So we were just like, 'I hope he does this!' "

Rushdie had spoken about his true story serving as the inspiration for the season during a recent visit to Late Night with Seth Meyers. Though he said he gave the Curb team permission to use his story, he did not let anything slip about the upcoming appearance.

The visit with Larry proved to be pivotal, as his pep talk on using the "allure" of the fatwa to his advantage, particularly sexually, spurs Larry to kick the disguise he had been wearing to the curb and ask out Elizabeth Banks, providing for several moments of more cameo hilarity. Below, in a chat with THR, Schaffer goes inside the third episode of the season to discuss how Rushdie's influence will open doors for Larry moving forward.

You had previously said there were a few cameos you wrote into the season before even checking if the person was available. Was Salman Rushdie one of those surprise guests?

Yes. We wrote it purely on a level about what we needed. We needed a way to have Larry feel good, or at least a little more relaxed, about the fatwa. By the end of the show, the fatwa is still there and it’s going to continue to permeate his life through the season, but at least now he’s a little more excited about the benefits and cares less about the consequences. Salman tells him to start living his life, and he’s going to now. We needed Larry to get out of the disguise, for one thing, and also live his life a little more, because when he lives his life, that’s when the show happens. The amount of time that Larry was going to spend in that disguise was always limited. (Laughs) When writing it, we had that same thought Larry had on the show: "Well, there’s only one person on the planet that could really help him, and that’s Salman Rushdie." 

Then, you had to approach him. What would you have done if he had passed on the cameo?

We knew he was a fan of the show, so Larry called him up and pitched him this idea and we flew him out. I really don’t know what we would have done if he said no. We are way too naive. We were just writing to write, we weren’t thinking that someone had to actually call and pitch him. Then the next question was, how game was he going to be with all the things we wanted him to do? A lot of times people playing themselves have trouble doing that. But he's a brilliant writer and so silvery tongued, and all that came out. He was totally into everything we were talking about, including how fun a fatwa can be with its benefits. Watching the actual Salman Rushdie talk about fatwa sex was a personal season highlight for me.

When guest stars come onto the show, they are thrown into the Curb way of improv. What was it like for someone with little to no acting background to find his footing with Larry David?

The first scene we were doing was when Larry finds him in his study and gets this pep talk. Salman is basically Larry’s fatwa fairy godmother. We knew we wanted him to talk about fatwa sex. How it “wraps around her like sexy pixie dust” — that’s 100 percent Salman Rushdie. He can now officially do it all. He can write, he can act; he’s the real triple threat. We were like, “He speaks so much better than we do.”

Did he have any hesitations about the possible real-life consequences of resurfacing his own fatwa in the pop culture news cycle?

That was the question for us on the day: How much is he going to be willing to talk about his experience and make fun of it? His scenes, because he was so fearless and comfortable playing himself, came out a million times better than we could have ever expected. That’s why we had him and Larry do so much together. He is like the version of himself that he was playing: He’s not going to live in fear. Sure, there are people still after him, but he’s still going to appear in TV shows, he’s still going to tear Larry’s wig off. The fatwa is always there, it’s like a bad credit rating where it just sort of follows you. But he is, as he said, out there living his life. 

Were you surprised the cameo didn’t get out? Looking back, Rushdie played it well during his TV visit with Seth Meyers.

He was good! We were amazed that none of it got out. Larry was telling Salman when we were shooting, "Look, you can’t say anything about this, we want to keep it a secret so no one knows until the show airs.” I said, “Larry, I think he’s probably pretty good at keeping secrets.” I didn’t even know he was going on Seth Meyers. But we tried very hard because we wanted the audience to enjoy that surprise, when Larry says, “There’s only one man who can help me,” and then there’s the big gate, the butler and the parlor doors slide open and there he is. The audience will enjoy it so much more if you don’t know where it’s going. That’s why we try so hard to keep things a secret. There are still big surprises to come that we’re keeping mum about.

What doors will this open for Larry now that he’s no longer living in fear?

The nice thing is, he’s now going to live his life, and for most people that would be a giant sigh of relief, but we know Larry and we know what Larry living life is, so in the world of Larry, just as one door opens, three more will probably close in his face. He will be emboldened by Salman, his fatwa Svengali; he will go out and live his life to the best of his ability. There are certain women that are attracted to the danger the fatwa provides.

The episode had two other guest stars, Damon Wayans Jr. and Elizabeth Banks, the latter playing a version of herself. How did you go about casting that role?

It was very important to have someone who seemed completely unattainable for Larry and who was falling for him — not because of his obvious charms, but because of his added fatwa allure. We also needed someone who was willing to get down and dirty Curb style with him. Meaning, she was so willing to play along with all of Larry’s antics, and in fact, take them further. She was a companion in crime, an amazing ball of comedic energy. Whatever selfish petty thing Larry was willing to do, she was willing to go right along with it. 

There are two scenes where our cast is setting up and just watching her go. The scene with Elizabeth and Susie [Greene, played by Susie Essman] talking about who should have more pity, someone who lost a cat or someone they sort of know, but who is human. And then Elizabeth's “star turn” of trying to set up an alibi. That story was actually the impetus for the episode. Larry had an idea of being around an amazing actress who couldn’t tell a lie. With her incredibly poor alibi performance, it was so hard to find takes where Larry isn’t laughing. It’s a rarity in Curb where he just stands to the side and watches someone else go. We knew we needed a lie that was specific, since the specificity is the cornerstone of a good lie, so Larry and I were just throwing out things and had her get it wrong. We did a few other iterations, with an Irishman, a colonial Southerner and one where she couldn’t get the name of the Santa Ana winds right. We tried a whole bunch of ways and she would just run with it. 

If there's one thing I know, it's how to sweet talk my way out of a sticky situation. Parker, Palmer, whatever. Curb Your Enthusiasm HBO

Posted by Elizabeth Banks on Monday, October 16, 2017

Do you guys ever work backwards on coming up with ideas for ways Larry would handle certain social issues? For example, the first episode's lesbian barber storyline, and in this episode with Larry's courtroom appeal scene with the cop [Wayans Jr.]?

We never build from a general, "Oh, this is in the air, what would Larry do with it?" It always builds from the ground up, thinking of a funny incident and seeing where we can take it. Larry had the story of “Can you beep a cop?” and if anyone is above the beep. The stories are always concrete and start from a kernel of, "What would I do if this happened?" There was a middle scene where Larry actually shushed the cop, which turned into, “You can’t shush a cop?” We didn’t need three of them so we took that out, but that’s how the stories start. They never start with us addressing a vague thing in the zeitgeist or an issue that’s current. We’re always focused on the minutia. We knew we wanted a black cop and a black judge for Larry’s “pioneer” run, and Damon, to his credit, doesn't have to come in and audition at all, but he came in, and he and Larry were really funny together. There are a lot of people who want to do the show, but Larry really likes to audition with the people going in because he wants to know it will actually work. When Damon came in, both scenes just clicked.

Ted Danson [playing a loose version of himself] and Cheryl David [played by Chery Hines] are still dating and appear very happy together. Will Larry start to be accepting of them as a pair?

Larry is coming to terms with the fact that Ted and Cheryl are a thing. He doesn’t like it, particularly, but he’s going to have to continually deal with it as the season progresses. It’s just another part of his environment that seems to be conspiring against him.

Larry admits it’s an illness when he’s accused of not having a care for another human. Are Cheryl, and maybe Leon Black [J.B. Smoove], exceptions to that?

"Care" is such a naughty, dirty word. Does he care for them? I think in his own way, probably, but it’s not something he would ever say or address. Larry is less focused on whether he cares for Cheryl or not and more focused on the fact that Ted did it the wrong way. He should have done it behind his back. Be a gentleman and go behind my back.

You had previously said there was something in this episode that took you three seasons to figure out. What was it? 

For the last two or three seasons, Larry has had this idea about a disturbance in the kitchen. Whenever something wasn’t working, Larry would say out of the side of his mouth: “What about a disturbance in the kitchen?” It became a running joke. Every time we were stuck, someone would say “disturbance in the kitchen” and we would laugh and say we were never doing it. Then finally, this year, we thought about it a little more and finally figured out what to do with it. The answer was just to do more disturbances! We must have put it in three or four shows over the last few seasons, and it just never worked. The idea can be funny, but if it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the show then it doesn’t work. So Larry is particularly proud of this one, because “disturbance in the kitchen” went from a running room joke to an actual episode. 

This season's Curb episodes have been supersized, but there have still been deleted scenes that you are sharing on Curb's Facebook page. What got cut this week?

Stephen Rannazzisi [star of FX's The League, Schaffer's previous show] blew us away in his audition. We wanted a temperamental chef, and Steve was perfect for it. There’s a much, much longer version of that scene, because those guys went at it for a while. We cut out a wrinkle in the story. There is a whole other scene of Larry going back to kitchen again, and you’ll find it this week on our Facebook page. And by the way, that will probably not be the last League cameo.

Next week, will the threat of the fatwa be in the rearview mirror, and what can be expected from Bryan Cranston's cameo as Larry's therapist?

The fatwa threat is definitely there; it’s like living by power lines. You can forget about it for a while, but you’re still living under billions of bolts of electricity. He’s going to choose to use it to his benefit for a little bit, but it doesn’t go away. The fatwa will percolate through the rest of the season. And poor Bryan Cranston, to have to sit for an hour at least once a week and listen to what’s going on in Larry’s head. He has the toughest job in the world. He’s Larry’s therapist, but he’s not without his quirks and petty concerns. It was a lot of fun watching the two of them go at each other. You would assume that Larry was always seeing a therapist; the question is, how many does he go through? The last one, Steve Coogan, he sent to prison. So it’s a dangerous job being Larry’s therapist, and not without peril. 

What did you think of the third episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm's ninth season? Tell THR in the comments below, and check back with Live Feed for weekly chats with Schaffer as the season airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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