Whatever Works: Why Larry David Is Not The New Woody Allen
As two neurotic, kvetchy comedy legends with strong ties to absurdism, Larry David and Woody Allen have a lot in common to the untrained eye. But you don’t really believe that do you? You do? Then come closer, friend. Come enter my apartment and see the truth. Look over the space, covered with newspaper clippings, empty ding-dong wrappers, and obsessively scrawled doodles of Larry David’s face. Sit for a moment and let me field-strip a revolver while I tell you just how wrong you truly are.
“We both have some disdain for the human race” — Larry David on comparisons between himself and Woody Allen
The novice looking for evidence of Larry David as a next generation Woody Allen will undoubtedly begin by comparing their worldviews. Without question, that’s where their personalities most converge. In the opening to Annie Hall, Allen lays out his Hobbesian perspective on life: It’s nasty, brutish and short. What joy we can find in it is limited, and what joy that exists is pretty damn terrible.
Similarly, saying Larry David’s comedy revels in the meaninglessness of life is almost tautological. The structure of his stories is essentially a two–dimensional model of nihilism: An inciting incident happens based on the violation of an arbitrary social more. The incident snowballs because of a character’s indifference to the rule. Eventually, the character is punished for his or her actions. Yet, throughout all of this, nothing is learned or gained, or actually even lost. In this way, it’s Theater of the Absurd packed down to twenty-two minutes. Waiting For Godot squashed into Waiting For Chinese Takeout.
Really the only lesson that exists in David’s universe is that the majority of human beliefs are petty and arbitrary. In other words, life can best be understood as “a show about nothing” — the sound-and-fury Seinfeld line that gets closest to the heart of David’s philosophy.
“You have to have a little faith in people” – Manhattan
So they both have a pessimistic perspective on the universe, yes. But it’s how they react to this belief that the two diverge pretty radically, as illustrated by the huge Venn Diagram I carved into my neighbor’s door. See, Woody Allen strives in his comedy to make meaning out of the short, mediocre situation that is life. The best possible way to do that for him is human interaction: conversations, jokes, music, what have you.
In Larry David’s comedy, every human interaction provides another possibility for humor, yes, but that humor is predicated in recognizing just how circular any social act really is. There’s no attempt to make meaning. Instead, David only attempts to reveal how silly it is to do that in the first place. Every social interaction is at its core an amusing waste of time.
Put simply, then, Larry David’s comedy depends on misanthropy; Woody Allen’s, ultimately, does not.
Even in Stardust Memories, the closest Woody Allen came to making a misanthropic movie, the protagonist finds meaning scattered throughout his interactions with the grotesque, pandering, and pompous masses. That could be through memories of a former girlfriend, meeting someone with shared interests, or creating movies that click with audiences (particularly the “early funny ones”).
That message just gets more explicit in Manhattan, where what makes life worth living is laid out in full: Putting faith in humanity, sharing memories, and enjoying the small things.
Films About Something. Shows About Nothing.
These two aesthetics — of pessimism with a hint of hope for Allen, and circular misanthropic nihilism for David — reflect themselves in nearly every aspect of the two’s comedy, a fact that I continually mutter aloud to myself while pacing around my apartment at 3 in the morning.
To make a basic case, consider how a joke functions in Woody Allen’s work (especially his earlier films). Generally it’s a one-liner, a quick absurd twist with a rigid structure beneath. An example: “I believe that sex is a beautiful thing between two people. Between five, it’s fantastic.” The structure here is in the first sentence’s cliché; Allen’s flipping it just extends that structure to a logical extreme. Importantly, though, the joke is creating and utilizing a structure, generating an instant of meaning.
With Larry David, though, the joke is not constructing anything. In fact, what exactly the joke is constituted of is almost intangible. His humor doesn’t predicate itself upon any inherent meaning, then. Instead, it relies on the conscientious objector to an absurd attempt at creating meaning in life. Either the audience finds something ridiculous in a character’s petty belief in the value of something (George seriously arguing with a car salesman about the difference between nougat and cookie), or Larry takes the place of the audience and points out the pettiness of another character’s beliefs (Man: “Are you Jewish?”/Larry: “You want to check my penis?”).
So again, here Woody Allen is attempting to build a structure around human interaction; Larry David is trying to tear one down.
And this extends to more minor aspects of their aesthetics. Take, as an example, the depiction of Manhattan. When Curb’s most recent season brought David back to New York, there were no black and white shots of the city accompanied by “Rhapsody in Blue”, no Midnight In Paris-esque visions of aggrandized metropolitan culture, no real suggestion the city had any meaning to him at all. Instead, the series’ establishing shot of New York was David opening his condo’s shades, looking out at the skyline for a second, sort of shrugging and then walking away. It seemed almost intentionally mundane. Even the show’s storylines that season were essentially identical to previous episodes in LA, emphasizing how little a change in scenery really means. Unlike Allen, who raises a city to romantic heights in an attempt to give it meaning, David depicts it as about as insignificant as the steel, brick, and cement parts that make it up.
“But if only we could see these philosophies played out against each other,” you say. I know what you mean, friend. That’s exactly what I ominously carved into pumpkins and left on the two men’s stoops every Halloween until 2009. Thankfully, this paid off when it caused Woody Allen’s flop Whatever Works to be released, colliding these two takes on comedy and allowing me to relax for once. The film has Woody Allen casting Larry David in an almost stereotypically Larry David role — he’s a limping, complaining misanthrope, a man so profoundly careless about human interactions he jokes heading off to the Holocaust museum could be a fun time.
The clash in philosophies can be read into the title itself. For Allen, the kvetchy sentimentalist, the title means: Do whatever works to get you through the brief, bitter meal of life. Maybe getting a laugh or two out of someone. Maybe listening to your favorite jazz record. Maybe marrying your step-daughter (or at least a girl several generations younger than you). Anything, so long as you can cling to it and give it meaning.
For David, the idea of “whatever” is a philosophy in itself, a way to shrug off the dumb universe. And it works. Throughout his comedy, David is obliquely saying we shouldn’t try to create a spark of meaning unless we want to look ridiculous. We shouldn’t cling to any philosophy or political belief because it’ll only get us into unnecessary trouble. Instead, we should embrace this lack of a concrete worldview and grin at the pack of schmucks who think they have it all figured out.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, David says this lack of a position means he isn’t “nearly as ambitious or as smart” as Woody Allen. All he does, David says, is “make the big things small and the small things big. It’s a comedic device. That works for me.” But David needs to give himself some credit. He’s ambitious in exactly the extreme to which he takes mundanity. That is, his lack of a position is a position in itself. It’s the posture of absurdist slacker comedy, one where the world has become so alien that we need to disengage entirely.
Without argument, this is not the position Woody Allen has taken throughout his life. In casting David in Whatever Works — even considering that the script was first drafted in the 1970s — Woody Allen takes David’s position of nihilism and critiques it. With Allen as director, David has to role-play a caricature of himself who is forced to reengage with society and, essentially, come to terms with Allen’s take on the necessity of creating meaning in life. In this way, the whole movie takes on a very weirdly didactic tone, becoming a bizarre enactment of a mentee-mentor relationship between the two as Allen puppets David through his worldview.
“Larry,” Allen seems to be saying, “Give happiness a chance. Find something meaningful in your comedy. Have some faith in people.”
But considering David’s career trajectory, his answer for the foreseeable future will likely be a sustained, “Eh.”
Did Allen consciously intend to steer David toward his own philosophy in Whatever Works? All answers point to no (as my Larry David’s balding head-shaped Magic 8-Ball tells me). But the film reveals the most explicit moment where the philosophies of two comedy greats clash, revealing why Larry David will never be the modern Woody Allen: his interests and comedic sensibility in dissembling meaning are just in another galaxy entirely from Allen. But that’s exactly what makes him so interesting, and why the present generation of comedians are lucky to have him.
Mike Gillis has been described by experts as “[one of the most electrifyingly funny writers] alive.” He’s a writer and a humorist, and, because this is how we’re doing things now, a Tumblrist and a Twitterer.