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Larry David was social distancing and stocking up on hand sanitizer long before the coronavirus pandemic. Which is why the season 10 finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm — though it was written and filmed many months ago — felt very prophetic in ways, notes the HBO comedy’s executive producer Jeff Schaffer.
The final episode of the milestone season saw David’s TV alter ego — the ultimate germaphobe — get “hoisted on his own spite store petard.” After spending the season erecting his own “spite store” — a rival coffee shop called Latte Larry’s intended to put the neighboring Mocha Joe’s out of business — the season ends with Latte Larry’s ironically burning to the ground.
All of the Larry-isms that he installed in his coffee shop ended up being major fire hazards — sparked by one of his self-heating mugs, the excess Purell bottles were accelerants; the nailed-down tables, so they weren’t wobbly, impeded the firefighters; and the no-splash urinals blocked a needed water source. In the end, Larry had to pay out his rival neighbor, Mocha Joe, who in turn buys a “spite house” next door to Larry’s home with his new girlfriend — who happens to be Larry’s former assistant who sued him for sexual harassment.
As promised, the entire season came full circle. But with the finale airing amid a global pandemic, no one could have predicted that the imagery of burning Purell bottles would be so impactful. In fact, Latte Larry’s was intended to follow the trend of Hollywood pop-up shops of late and was set to open last week in West Hollywood, before Los Angeles and California began to roll out coronavirus restrictions for public gatherings and non-essential businesses.
“One of the interesting things was that our production design team was building Latte Larry’s again and they said they couldn’t find any Purell,” Schaffer tells The Hollywood Reporter of the recent work on the pop-up shop. “They were going to make fake Purell with labels. But then we realized people were going to be stealing fake Purell from the store. And then that didn’t even get a chance to happen because everything closed down. Hopefully, maybe in brighter days, we’ll be able to have our Latte Larry’s pop-up.”
Below, Schaffer talks to THR about the full-circle finale and if it begs for more Curb amid an unsettling climate for the TV industry (“We’re flirting with another season — there’s a lot of new world out there to explore,” he says). The executive producer, director and writer also reflects on providing laughter amid a time of crisis, while looking ahead to days when Hollywood will be able to return to bustling sets: “The world has changed so much that it feels like every time you watch somebody shake hands, you think about it. Every show feels like it’s from a different time.”
You returned to a more “classic Curb” this season, after season nine’s fatwa-centered story arc. Now that the finale has aired, how do you feel about that decision and this season as a whole?
The response to this season has totally surprised Larry [David] and I. We thought it was a really good season — otherwise we wouldn’t have put it out! But people really liked it and we’re hearing way more than we’ve heard in seasons past. I don’t know if that’s because everyone is so desperate to have something to laugh at right now, but people have liked the season. [The marketing for] season nine was that the world needed Larry David now more than ever. I don’t think anyone thought that for season 10, that was going to be even more necessary.
You tackled hot-button topics, starting with the MAGA hat in the season premiere and all the way through to the #MeToo and transgender storylines. [The finale sees Larry discussing intimate aspects of transitioning with Joey Funkhouser, played by Chaz Bono.] You talk a lot about nothing being off-limits for Curb. How did you find that balance this season?
When we’re writing episodes, we never really think, “We can’t do too many controversial things here because we’re going to do controversial things there.” We take it on a story-by-story basis. We’re building brick by brick, so we never think about the effect to the building. For the storyline with Joey Funkhouser, we had some really good talks with Nick Adams from GLAAD [the director of transgender media and representation] that were very helpful, because we wanted to get all of our facts right. But, of course, Larry is an equal-opportunity offender. [In the finale], he has fun with mixed-race couples, firemen, doctors and people transitioning. No one is immune — no one.
Did Chaz Bono give you input?
Yes. We asked for Chaz’s input a lot. We wanted to make sure everything was portrayed as accurately as possible. He was a great sport and he and Larry had a lot of fun together. The subject matter was so untouched for most people that it was like fresh powder. It felt like we got to have first tracks.
Bono was one of many guest stars in the finale. The show opened with a Today bit anchored by Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, and included interviews with guest stars Sean Penn and Jonah Hill, who were inspired by Larry to open their own “spite stores.” Later in the episode, Mila Kunis becomes another celebrity guest with such a store. How did those cameos come together?
Larry and I were talking about what we were going to do when the spite store opens. I had said, almost as a joke, that it would be funny to see a Today show piece about how celebrities are now doing this to get back at people for poor service. Then it was just about scheduling all of these people together while we had a reporter, because the reporters for the news have to leave at the drop of the hat. There were tornadoes in Alabama; there’s always something happening. So it was actually hard to find a window where they could all get together before Latte Larry’s lease was up! Latte Larry’s, sadly, is not real. It was three empty storefronts in the Valley, so we couldn’t keep it in business forever.
Jonah [Hill] was an easy call to make. We’ve known him forever and he’s just one of the funniest people on the planet. His casual saltiness was perfect. And Sean [Penn] is luckily a fan of Larry’s. Originally, we thought it was going to be Sean Penn having a dueling frozen yogurt place. Then one of our producers, said, “Do you know there are two bird stores on Wilshire that are right next to each other?” And it brought back a flood of repressed memories, because I’ve driven by 100 times and it’s always driven me crazy. So then we came up with the exotic birds place and decided to get Sean Penn and a whole bunch of birds. (Laughs.) He was incredible. He wanted to learn about the birds so he could know what he was talking about; he was walking around with them on his arm. Once he screamed, “Shut up!” to those birds, I felt like I could die a happy person. And for Mila, we knew the celebrity spite stores had to have a story implication. From the very beginning, we thought about, “How can Larry get hoisted on his own spite store petard?” Mila was someone we had on our list as a really funny person we’d love to have on the show. It’s very hard to explain to someone what the point of their scene is when it’s a later scene in the finale and there are all of these stories. So we called her up and said, “Sit down. This is going to take a second.” But once you explain the concept of a spite store, then everyone is game. No one has been untouched by spite.
The imagery of the Purell bottles going up in flames when Latte Larry’s burns down certainly had a different feeling when watching than you intended when filming.
I was thinking about that exact same thing, because things have changed so much since when we wrote and shot the show that I was thinking people are going to see Latte Larry’s go up in smoke and all anyone is going to think is, “What a waste of all that Purell!”
And you guys locked and loaded this season last year.
By October, we were done with everything. But I guess Larry was prophetic, right? He was putting Purell on the tables at Latte Larry’s and he has been practicing social distancing for years. He just didn’t know what to call it, but he’s definitely been trying to do it.
Larry did try to make his coffee shop as clean as possible. In the end, all of his ideas ended up being fire hazards. He is told, “You did so many stupid things, it looks like arson.” What’s the Curb moral of the story, given how full-circle everything turned out for Larry in the end?
Would Larry ever open up another store? In the end, Larry’s wallet is significantly lighter. His home life and neighborhood is significantly impacted. His store is up in smoke. And I think he’d do it again. (Laughs.) He’d do it all again — for spite. I think if he revisited, he might tinker with the male urinals. But he’d leave the female urinals just how they were. I love the running joke that Larry never bothered to talk to a woman while he was building the female bathroom. However women go to the bathroom is just some mystery in the dark matters of space to Larry. He will never know and he can’t conceive of it, so he’ll just do his best.
You hope that the whole season is sort of an extrapolation of how we do every episode, which is that all things we set up in the beginning come full circle and connect in the end. We knew the spite store was not going to make it; we knew we had to destroy it somehow. But it wasn’t until we knew other celebrities were going to have their spite stores that we figured out how to burn it down. And once we knew that Mocha Joe was going to have a spite house next door, things all fell into place.
This season saw extended episodes, many celebrity guests and surprises, and has been well-received out of the gate. Unfortunately, it aired during a time when the world was barreling toward our current crisis. What has the experience been like for you, as a creator of comedy, during these times?
It’s been very strange. We wrote and shot the show in times that were specific, like with the MAGA hats and the #MeToo movement. You think, hopefully, those things will still make sense to people four months in the future. And then all of a sudden, the world has changed so much that it feels like every time you watch somebody shake hands, you think about it. In a weird way, every show feels like it’s from a different time. People definitely want to laugh. So I feel like we’re doing some small, civic duty that way. But for comedy, context is everything. Everyone has to be on board with the rules of the world that the show is in, and the rules of the world changed between episodes five and 10.
How would TV Larry, the ultimate germophobe, be handling the coronavirus crisis?
Everyone is asking, “What would Larry do? What would a season of Curb be like in the time of coronavirus?” It’s always tricky for us because you don’t want to lock yourself into a time that is hopefully very specific and hopefully distinct, and with an end. If you get too specific with the moment in time, it may not be timeless and the context might be so different from when you come out that it may just seem like a time capsule. You have to be very careful to not always write for a moment when you may not air for another year or more. But, like I said, Larry has been practicing social distancing his whole life, so some of the stuff is just innate to him. He has been trying to teach people how to behave that way for years. Maybe now people would finally listen.
Would you think about putting out a web-series version in the meantime?
How do you shoot right now? That’s the thing: Now, it’s not even a web series — it’s just a guy talking into an iPhone. I don’t know when people are actually going to be allowed to get together and shoot. I wondered about that because when the restrictions started to happen and no one could go to their offices, I was wondering about sets. It’s 200 strangers, maybe 100 extras from places you don’t know. Everyone is together in very close quarters. I don’t know when we’re going to get to shoot again, which is very weird.
The state of the TV industry is on hold. Have you shifted everything so you are now churning remotely?
Larry and I have been working remotely all last week. That was the first week where we left the offices and have just been FaceTiming during the day.
Does that mean you are working on new stories for another season?
We miss each other terribly and like to look at each other. So as we stare into each other’s eyes and, yes, every once in a while a story idea might come up. (Laughs.) We’ve definitely been talking about stuff. There’s a lot of new world out there to explore, so we’re starting to explore. In terms of, is there going to be another year? I guess I would officially say that we’re flirting with another season, but it’s too early to tell if the feelings are requited.
And is that because of the state of the world, or more of a you and David decision?
Not so much the state of the world. That’s because of the state of Larry.
As a creator in these unsettled times, what are you noticing within the TV industry?
Right now, I’m seeing everyone in their houses going, “Oh, my God, that was just one week.” And everyone trying to juggle home life and work life as best as they can, which is a lot. I think everyone is trying to reach some sort of equilibrium in this world where children are at home all the time, but people are still trying to work.
If this finale were to be the end of Curb — and your flirting doesn’t turn into a relationship — would you both feel satisfied?
If this episode were the end of Curb, I would be very proud that it was a really good episode. And I think that’s what a finale should be — a really good episode of the show you really like. Not an episode that gets twisted into something else because it has to fit into a finale dress. If we had to go out on a really good episode, I’m very happy to go out on this one. But, we’re also sitting at home watching the world crumble around us and there are lots of new stories to tell.
You do, presumably, have a lot of time to create and write right now.
When production does start up again, one of the things is that is going to be very interesting is that Curb, and actually all of the shows that I do, are location-based. That means that for weeks you are going into other peoples’ houses. You’re bringing a crew into other peoples’ houses to check on things. And we get some of our best stuff that way. One of my favorite things from the finale was Larry sitting in that daybed and talking to Sam Richardson, who is complaining how he and his wife aren’t talking, and Larry is just trying to get comfortable in that daybed. That’s one of the beautiful things about actually going on a location scout. We were looking for houses and that thing was there. It’s just weird to think about what location-scouting will be in the months to come.
If the restrictions end up being lifted in stages and in measured ways — for example, a set having a finite number of people — could Curb film under those kinds of circumstances?
I actually hadn’t thought about it yet. That’s very interesting. The only thing I can think of is the location stuff, because we get so much comedy out of going to the real place. With Larry and I walking into the real place and having fun with the things that are really there. I would hate to see that kind of stuff fall to the wayside. Curb has sort of always taken its own hiatuses, anyway. So everyone’s forced hiatus may dovetail with ours. We’ll see.
I also wanted to ask you about Bob Einstein, who died in January 2019, and his Marty Funkhouser character this season. You brought back Joey Funkhouser and introduced Freddy Funkhouser (Vince Vaughn), and said on the show that Marty was out of the country. Why did you decide to keep the spirit of Marty alive this season?
Bob’s passing caught us by surprise. We were in the middle of shooting the season and we had heard some really hopeful news that he was going to be ready to go in a month. This was right before Christmas of last year. And then things took a turn. We had pushed a lot of story thinking that we would save this and that for Bob. Then when it was clear he wasn’t coming back, we did a whole bunch of gymnastics to figure out how we were going to tell these stories with other people. But amid all of that, it was way too soon and we loved him too much to say that he had actually passed away on the show. And maybe just because we didn’t want to admit that he was gone, it was easier to say, “Oh, he’s in China. He’ll be back.”
Is that something you would deal with next season?
Too early to tell. Again, we’re not that far along! But I think as we talk about stories, we definitely think, “Oh, this would have been amazing for Bob.” Which is sad two times over — because he would have been amazing and because it would have been nice to have him around.
Were there any other ideas you wanted to do this season that didn’t pan out?
We always leave the potential to do a few reshoots in case we’re watching the show and say, “We should have done something about this or that.” And so we did that this year, actually for the finale. We needed one piece of information and it was that Joey doesn’t wear underwear, so that the end worked really clearly. “How do we get this one piece of information out?” We realized that we hadn’t had our resident Big Johnson authority, Leon Black [J.B. Smoove], weighing in on the subject. We were going to be at the golf club for this other reshoot, and so we got Larry and Leon and Jeff together, and what we got was a wonderful glimpse into the bylaws of the Big Johnson community, which occasionally meets at Larry’s house when he’s gone. We didn’t need much. We were just greedy and wanted more, and I’m so glad we got it.
Next up, you have Dave airing on FX and you have Brews Brothers coming up on Netflix. Why is it important to keep laughing during this time?
I feel like I’ve been locked away almost for two years making these shows, and I’m really happy that they’re coming out right now when people need them. I feel like that’s my really lame version of civic duty. I think people want to be able to sit down and laugh right now, and I’m happy to give them some shows that maybe they will laugh at.
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