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Winging It

October 15, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As executive producer and co-creator of "Seinfeld," Larry David was responsible for some of the landmark comedy series' funniest moments.

But in developing his new HBO series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the former stand-up comic isn't writing any dialogue. It's not because David's comedic chops have abandoned him; it's because the series is improvised. David writes a plot outline for each episode, but the dialogue and action is all done on the cuff.

Because he hasn't had to write scripts, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" hasn't been as stressful to David as "Seinfeld," for which he wrote at least 60 episodes and rewrote numerous others.

"The fact that I am improvising, I don't have to worry about memorizing lines," David says. "It takes a lot of the burden off, but, of course, there's another burden. I have to make it up as we go along. So there is pressure, but it hasn't caused me undue stress or anxiety."

In the 10-episode series that begins Sunday on the pay cable network, David plays a neurotic Hollywood writer-director named Larry David. Jeff Garlin, an executive producer of the series along with David, is his unscrupulous manager, Jeff Greene. And Cheryl Hines co-stars as David's wife, Cheryl.

Comic Richard Lewis, "Seinfeld" alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen are among the guest stars.

If "Seinfeld" was about nothing, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," says Garlin, is about a "person trying to get through the day."

Episodes find David insulting Lewis' new girlfriend, fighting with a snobby salesman at Barney's over a pair of athletic shoes and going through hoops to buy an expensive bracelet for his wife after ignoring her while watching a football game.

Garlin, a former comic, says ensuring that "Curb Your Enthusiasm" feels perfectly seamless and not improvised is hard work. But it's an acting style at which he's particularly adept.

"I used to be in Second City [the Chicago-based improv company], so my background is improv," he says. "I would improvise from an outline, so for me I fell into this real easy."

In fact, he and David usually ace their scenes in just one or two takes. Still, Garlin adds, "We make adjustments depending on how good or how bad the actor [in a particular scene] turns out to be. We'll pull back the scene or we'll add more."

Garlin sees Jeff Greene as the villain of the piece. "He has no values. My character has the values of Hollywood. He'll do anything to get ahead. He has no morals whatsoever. He's an amalgamation of every agent or manager I have ever met."

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" is done in a raw, documentary style, generally shot on location and using hand-held cameras. In fact, Robert Weide, the supervising producer and director, is a documentary filmmaker.

David asked Weide, a longtime friend, to direct David's HBO special last year, which became a prototype for the series, and then to continue when HBO picked up the show. "I know the rules of documentary filmmaking as far as the spontaneity that we are trying to catch," Weide says. "I know how to make it like fly-on-the-wall-- cinema verite ."

Weide uses two cameras to film the series with one camera always on David. Because Weide doesn't know what the action or dialogue will be from scene to scene, he instructs the other camera operator to "follow the action where it leads. Sometimes it's take six before we have any idea of what we are doing. Then we sort of do it a few more times and polish it from there."

Weide and David discuss the scenes after every take. "We talk about what we felt worked and didn't work. Sometimes we will hone in on the thing we think works."

He'll also take actors aside and give them advice on how to play a scene. "I'll say things like, 'Don't look so pathetic because then it makes Larry look like a bully. Give him back a little of his own medicine.' " And whenever possible, Weide will throw surprise at David. "I will take actors aside and have them do something that Larry isn't expecting."

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" airs Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on HBO. The network has rated it TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17 with a special advisory for coarse language).

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