HBO: In episode 26, "The Special Section", Larry complains to Martin Scorsese about the number of takes he does, claiming that they never did more than two takes on Seinfeld. I can't imagine this is the case on Curb. You go into great detail elsewhere about the process of filming improvised scenes based on a short outline. Has this process changed at all since the first season?
Robert B. Weide: The process is basically the same as what we've utilized since Season One, which had its genesis in the original one-hour special I directed in '99. Sometimes I actually hear people say they don't believe the dialogue is really improvised, which I guess is the highest compliment of all. I think they wonder how the story can follow such a specific through-line if it's all made up on the spot. What those people probably don't understand is that the storyline is worked out in great detail in advance. We go in with an outline that runs about seven pages. (An average half-hour sitcom is 40 pages.) All the story points are worked out, we know basically what's going to happen in each scene, but there's no written dialogue. Occasionally we need a specific line to drive the scene, in which case I'll plant it in the actor's ear. But the key is just to shoot the scene enough times, in enough different ways, that we can make sense out of it in the editing room. On average, I may shoot each scene about eight times. Plus there are usually pickups (or partial scenes) that have to be covered.
I guess the only thing that's changed or "evolved" since Season One is that we kind of have our act together a bit more as we've been at it for four years now, if you count the special. So the process is a bit more streamlined. I now have a better idea going into a scene as to what kinds of shots I'll need in editing and what is likely to be a waste of time.
Jeff Garlin jokingly calls me "Baron Von Coverage" because I'm often shooting things that I know we'll need in the editing room, when an actor may not always understand the overall editorial game-plan. But our scheduling is so tight, there's never time to be too excessive or self-indulgent.
HBO: Were you intimidated at all by directing director Martin Scorsese in episode 28, "Krazee-Eyez Killa"?
Weide: He was too nice to be intimidating. He couldn't have been more cooperative and playful and willing to take direction. He was great at playing improv. And at the end of each take he would just laugh at how funny the whole thing was. He was already a big fan of the show and he was clearly having a good time.
But it was a mutual admiration society. I mean, is there a more important, influential, contemporary American director? More fun than filming him was the time we had between takes. I'm a big film history buff and here I was talking with Scorsese about Howard Hawks and John Ford and Fran�ois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock--not to mention Scorsese's own films. That was a day that I did not want to end. Plus it was the only time we've had occasion to film on location in New York since the original special.
HBO: You use a lot of library music on the show. Was the decision to use library music purely budgetary or is there another reason?
Weide: With all the relative success of the show, we still operate ostensibly on a shoestring budget. The choice to go with licensed music is part budgetary and part time constraints. For the special and the first season, we had some original scoring by a guy who was very capable, but our editing schedule is so jammed, we just don't have time to sit with a composer and explain what we need, and then maybe go through three or four different versions.
Steve Rasch, who is one of our two editors (the other is John Corn), is also our music supervisor. He finds library music to slug into the show at appropriate places, and Larry and I will either approve it or ask for options.
A lot of people ask about the opening theme, which has become very popular. The title is "Frolic." People ask where they can buy it, but I don't think it's available on a marketed CD. Larry heard it used years ago on a banking commercial and thought he'd like to use it somewhere, so he had his assistant track it down. We almost opted for it on the special, but ultimately couldn't find a place for it. When we started the series, we thought it would make a great opening theme, and it sort of set the tone for the other incidental music. It's somewhat Fellini-esque, or more accurately Nino Rota-esque. It's appropriate because Larry's on-camera life resembles a Fellini film at times. We call it our Italian Circus music. It actually was written by an Italian composer who just found out it's being used as a theme to an American television show and he was very excited by that.
Sometimes I'll crack Larry up in the editing room by improvising lyrics to the music that relates to what's happening in the show. But no, I won't give you any examples.
HBO: Where did you find Chris Williams (who plays Krazee-Eyez Killa)?
Weide: Just another actor who came in and auditioned. Garlin's wife is a casting director and I think she knew him and recommended him. What a find!
We actually auditioned a lot of genuine rappers for this role. Some are pretty big stars in that world. But Chris came in and cracked us up. In fact he came into the room in character. Not as Krazee-Eyez exactly, but as a similar character he called "Wolf" and we assumed he was really that guy. He fooled us. He's actually a very sweet-natured, unassuming guy. When he left the room, we were told his name was Chris Williams and that he was Vanessa Williams' brother. This knocked me out because Vanessa and I were pals years ago but we lost touch after she moved back to New York. After working with Chris, I got to reunite with Vanessa when we went to New York for the Scorsese shoot. We chatted backstage at "Into the Woods." Got to meet Rick Fox, too.
You'd think that Vanessa would have used up all of the talent genes in that family, but apparently there were plenty left over for Chris. I hope this episode launches a big career for him.
HBO: You oughta know: whose idea was it to cast Alanis Morissette in episode 25, "The Terrorist Attack"? Was she a fan of the show before she got the call?
Weide: Larry had this idea for a show about keeping secrets and spoiling this benefit performance of a singer by mentioning this rumored terrorist threat. Then he'd also open his mouth about a famous secret that the singer had. The idea was to have a contemporary version of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." So several of us on staff said, "Well, how about Alanis Morissette and 'You Oughta Know.' People are still arguing over who that was about."
Understandably, Larry isn't a big aficionado of the contemporary pop/rock scene, so we had to educate him about Alanis and this song. We played the CD and gave him the lyrics. It was fun watching his face as he followed the lyrics. He kept saying, "Are you sure people know about this song and that this was a big secret?" We kept assuring him it was and told him that the CD sold about 25 billion copies.
But yes, she was a fan of the show, god bless her, and agreed to do it with very little coaxing. She was sweet as pie and had a great sense of humor. Working with her and Scorsese were the two biggest thrills of Season Three for me. I mean, try working with Alanis Morissette without having a huge crush on her by the end of the day. Good luck!
HBO: Did she ever reveal who the song was actually written about?
Weide: We pumped up the audio when she whispered the name in Larry's ear. It sounded like it might have been Charles Nelson Reilly.
HBO: Does everyone in the cast pitch story ideas, or are they all Larry's?
Weide: The stories are almost all from Larry's imagination or his life experiences. Although many of us have been participants in the actual events leading to the story ideas. In fact, the argument between Larry and Ted over the ripped shirt ("Chet's Shirt") was inspired by a shirt that Larry gave me for my birthday that had a small stain on it. The debate erupted over who was responsible for exchanging the shirt--the giver or the receiver.
Occasionally, one of us will get a story into the show. The Christmas cookie incident (in the "Mary, Joseph and Larry" episode) actually happened to a cousin of Cheryl's. The business in Season One of Larry having to retrieve Jeff's porn while Jeff was in the hospital (in "Porno Gil") was a contribution of mine. A few of my friends and I agreed that if any of us died, someone should make a porno sweep through our homes before the secret stashes were discovered by family; and I pitched that concept to Larry.
During our hiatus, Larry always goes over storylines with me. I think I'm a good sounding board for him and I contribute here and there. But he's definitely the one sweating out these ten insane storylines every year.
What's funny is when strangers outside of the show want to pitch stories. Let me make a blanket statement right now that we appreciate the interest, but Larry's fertile imagination manages to fill up the season just fine.
HBO: You've had comedy veterans like Louis Nye and Mina Kolb in past seasons. This season Shelley Berman appears as Larry's dad. It must be a big treat to work with someone you admire (and included in your documentary, "The Great Standups.")
Weide: Shelley was great. And such perfect casting as Larry's dad. He was even willing to work bald. (I refuse to say whether he shaved his head for the show or if he normally wears a hairpiece.) We're all such comedy buffs on the show that working with great veterans like Louie Nye or Mina Kolb or Paul Sand (in the season's final episode) or Shelley Berman is one of the great perks of doing this show.
Younger viewers may not fully understand Shelley's history. In the 1960s, there was no bigger name in standup comedy. His albums broke sales records. There were few American families that didn't have a copy of "Inside Shelly Berman" on their turntable. He was a regular on the Ed Sullivan show. School kids and adults memorized his routines. He was phenomenal. He's always worked since, but these days, unless you're on TV every week, a lot of people think you don't exist. We're so pleased by the positive response we've received from Shelley's appearance. I hope it leads to a professional renaissance for him.
HBO: Which episodes were the hardest to do? The easiest?
Weide: I've always said that the scenes I think will be difficult wind up being a breeze, and the one's I think will be easy wind up being a huge pain. I remember fearing all of the nighttime driving scenes in "Porno Gil" but other than the very cold weather, it went pretty smoothly. The graveyard stuff in "The Special Section" (directed by Bryan Gordon) wasn't completed until about 5am. And poor Shelley Berman; that was his first day working with us.
The final episode this year ("The Grand Opening") had two scenes that I feared, and rightfully so. The first was a parent/child dodgeball scene which involved somewhat complicated choreography that couldn't be much planned in advance. But the final scene of the restaurant's opening was the toughest thing I've had to shoot in the history of the series and we went past sun up. It was the first time I was worried that we were "gaining" the light.
Without giving anything away, may I say that the effort that went into that final scene was well worth it. It's a fitting finale to the season's story arc about the restaurant. I'll go out on a limb and predict it will be a Curb "classic."
HBO: Which episodes do people always want to talk to you about?
Weide: Everyone seems to have their favorite, but the one that seemed to get the most attention was "The Doll" from Season Two. I have to admit that was my own personal favorite. It also got me my Emmy nomination for directing. Working with Rita Wilson was a treat. And little Bailey Thompson who played the daughter was so good I cast her in a play I directed that Fall.
People still talk about "Porno Gil" a lot. "Beloved Aunt" was another popular one. Our audience seems to love seeing Susie Essman in anything. And Wanda Sykes. I still hear people do impressions of Wanda from the "Thor" episode: "What, were you scrounging under some bleachers, looking for ass?" Talk about improvisation! Do you think Larry ever could have written that line? Wanda tells me that some people still shout out to her, "Hey, Big Ass Wanda!" Great legacy for her, huh?
HBO: What are you working on after the current season ends?
Weide: I always joke that I used to be in the "Bob Weide business" but for the past four years I've found myself in the "Larry David business." So between seasons, I like to get back to my own projects. I'm about to polish my feature script based on Kurt Vonnegut's novel, "The Sirens of Titan," plus I'll choose between two other original screenplays I've been wanting to write. The big goal now is to direct a feature before "Curb" starts up again. A couple of possibilities are getting very close, but of course, talking about it is the best way to jinx it.
HBO: Let's talk about the final scene of the third season finale. It's riotously funny but it also provides a very satisfying sense of closure. Characters from the last season dine together (a Fellini-esque curtain call?) and for a moment all of the ill will Larry has been blamed for in the past thirty episodes seems absolved as he incites a kind of verbal obscenity-purging, primal scream exercise. It's actually sort of uplifting (not a feeling usually associated with Larry David!).
Robert B. Weide: Well, most episodes don't end happily for Larry, although there are certainly exceptions. Cheryl paying off the lost bet in "Aamco" would definitely constitute a happy ending. There's Larry's orchestral revenge on the Wagner-hating neighbor. That worked out for him pretty well. But yes, I'd say the finale of the "Grand Opening" episode would have to be chalked up as a happy ending. I mean, have you ever seen a group of people enjoying themselves so much? Larry truly saved the day. And he got to display some altruistic solidarity with the chef in the same way that the high school kids showed their support of the cancer patient. I'd say the look on Larry's face in the final frame says it all: job well done. Mission accomplished.
I wouldn't make too much of the psychological aspect of the group purge. I've read a lot of interesting theories about what Larry is trying to do or say in some of these episodes. I can guarantee you that all that's on his mind is how to get a laugh. Any deeper agenda is in the eye of the beholder.
HBO: In the Bobo's opening night scene I spotted (in addition to the restaurant cast) Jeff's parents (Louis Nye and Mina Kolb) Larry's receptionist (Antoinette Spolar), Cheryl's mom and dad (Julie Payne and Paul Dooley) and sister (Kaitlin Olson), the widow Barbara (Caroline Aaron), Richard Lewis, Larry's dad (Shelley Berman), and Larry's housekeeper Dora (Dyana Ortelli). Did I miss anyone?
Weide: Yeah, Shelley Desai who plays Chuck, the custodian in Larry's office building. It was a great curtain call for some of this season's characters. Towards the end of each season, Larry always questions whether he'll want to come back for another one. We had discussed the possibility that if this was the final season, we'd reprise some faces from previous years. But Larry figured he was game for another season, so we went primarily with our current season's characters. Some people like Paul Reiser, Alanis Morisette and Martin Short--we didn't want to ask them to do a cameo that we knew would literally take all night to shoot. It would have been fun to hear Wanda swearing, but I think she was unavailable that night.
HBO: You and Larry have both had the great fortune to do comedy series (two in Larry's case) in which something you know and love--standup comedy--is foregrounded. Are you and he completely simpatico in regards to the history of comedy? Are there comics from the past that he introduced you to and vice versa?
Weide: I think the dynamic that Larry and I enjoy is based on a nice mix of shared tastes and divergent backgrounds. Larry comes from the world of performing, primarily as a standup. Although I used to hang out with comics a lot, my connection to comedy is more scholarly, you might say. Larry loves Jackie Mason. I like Jackie Mason but I'll take Mort Sahl. Larry grew up loving Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges. My loves were the Marx Brothers and later, W.C. Fields.
What's amazing to me is how much Larry's "character" on "Curb" really hearkens back to a sort of classic comic persona, even though he's been minimally exposed to classic screen comedy from the 1920's and 30's. I mean, even when we're staging scenes on "Curb" I might be thinking, "Okay, this scene with Larry and Jeff is really Laurel and Hardy" or "When Larry does battle with this kid, it's a touch of W.C. Fields" or I'll be thinking of Bob Hope's "coward" character when he's running away from Wanda, say. But Larry has seen very little of those films. I don't think he's seen an entire film of the Marx Brothers or Fields or Chaplin or Keaton. He never knew Laurel & Hardy made silent films until I told him recently.
We were both at a screening of Harold Lloyd's "The Freshman" this year and he came out of that theater in shock, saying, "My God! I had no idea silent films were so funny!" Well, that stuff's been my bread and butter since high school. But it's indicative of how purely instinctual Larry is. He tunes in to his own voice without ever considering the precedents and the archetypes. But his instincts are so on target. So I guess that's why I direct and he performs.
HBO: Everything is fair game for Curb: surreptitiously drugging Christian Scientists, children who get drunk, children with large penises, a pubic hair stuck in Larry's throat, terrorist attacks, exhuming corpses ("The Special Section"), "tea-bagging" ("Porno Gil"); jokes about affirmative action, incest, handicapped people, baldness. Has there ever been an episode where you or Larry worried that you might have gone too far, something warranting the kind of scolding he received from Louis Nye in "The Pants Tent"?
Weide: Larry has never created a comic premise with the intention of trying to shock anyone. By the same token, if people are offended by some of the things we do on the show, we invite them to change the channel. In fact, we encourage them to. The beauty of HBO, of course, is that it gives Larry free rein to explore whatever territory he wishes without having to water it down. Believe it or not, we've cut things in editing that we thought were in bad taste or went "too far." But when we do, we're applying our own standards, not someone else's. Suffice it to say, if you're a fundamentalist of any religious group, if you can't stand hearing real language people use outside of church, if any sexual references make you uneasy and you think everyone on TV should be nice to each other, then you probably shouldn't watch our show.
What I find very funny is when people just generally question the odd things Larry does. "Why did Larry insist on folding that sweater in the store? That's just crazy!" Well, folks, it's a comedy and if Larry didn't fold the sweater and instead behaved like a normal person, there'd be no show.
Maybe this is a frightening statement about myself, but I find very little of Larry's behavior outrageous. Yes, it's all amplified for comic effect, but there's little that he does on the show that I can't relate to and few opinions he expresses that I don't agree with. There--I've said it!
HBO: Another reason perhaps why you two work so well together?
Weide: For better or worse, I suppose. I have a friend that I've known since junior high school, but we hadn't talked while I was directing the first season, so he didn't know I was working on the show. He happened to tune into the very first episode where Larry is obsessing over his pants tent. His first thought was, "This reminds me so much of Bob Weide. This is exactly the kind of thing I remember him obsessing over." He was going to call me after the show to tell me there was this new HBO series I should watch because it was right up my alley. But as soon as the show was over, he saw my director credit and he thought, "Well, okay. That figures."
The "pants tent" concept was totally Larry's idea. I had nothing to do with it. But I guess warped minds think alike.
HBO: The finale of last season's episode involved Larry being punished for stealing a fork from a restaurant; many episodes revolve around eating out and a major plot thread this season involved his new restaurant venture. Why are restaurants such fertile comic territory for Larry?
Weide: Any artist creates from life experiences. Larry eats a lot in restaurants. If he were a surfer, presumably more episodes would take place on the beach.
HBO: As a side note, Chef Bernier will not work with Salmon or capers. Are these actually off-limits for either Paul Sand or Larry David? Does Larry really love applesauce?
Weide: I know he likes salmon. We've never discussed his feelings about capers. I just think Larry felt those were two funny things about which a chef would draw a line in the sand.
Actually, we were filming the scene at John O'Groats restaurant for "The Benadryl Brownie" in which Larry fires Mike, the TV guy. When we were there, Larry actually ate some applesauce and found it very refreshing. So when he ad-libbed the scene in "The Nanny From Hell" about enjoying some applesauce, he really was referring to something that had recently happened.
HBO: In "The Shrimp Incident" (from Season Two), Julia Louis-Dreyfus says she wants to pitch her and Larry's show proposal to HBO because she wants to be able to say "fuck". And there are doubtless other perks: in an outrageous scene in the original special, as Larry checks out of a hotel, Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin) screams at an HBO publicist (played by Sex and the City producer Michael Patrick King), demanding "HBO pays for the porn!" What are the other advantages to doing a series for cable rather than a network?
Weide: Well, the obvious advantage is that there is simply no creative interference on behalf of the network. HBO sees the story outlines before we shoot and then they see the finished show. Even showing them the story outlines in advance is more of a courtesy than anything else. That's a combination of the non-intrusive nature of HBO and the luxury of working with an 800 pound gorilla who created the most successful comedy series in the history of television. The money isn't great when you work for HBO, but the trade-off is you don't have executives trying to tell you how to do your job. You also don't have to worry about ratings or whether you're going to offend your sponsors. At the networks, if you don't get solid ratings right out of the gate, you can be canceled after a couple of episodes. We were practically off the radar during our first season. Our audience has slowly discovered us over the past couple of years. You would never have that luxury at the networks.
Larry and Jerry handled the network restrictions brilliantly on "Seinfeld." Those restrictions forced them to be really creative just to get around them. Look at what they got away with by using phrases like "Master of your domain" or "Not that there's anything wrong with that." But "Curb" is pure, undiluted Larry David. We just don't think about the language one way or another. It's a non-issue. We also don't think it's bold or groundbreaking to curse on TV. I don't think there's more swearing on our show than there is in real life for the kinds of characters we're presenting. That's all Lenny Bruce ever did, was use realistic vernacular for the situations he was portraying. He got busted for it, but we enjoy that particular freedom of expression.
For the record, if HBO puts you up in a hotel, they do not pay for the porn. Or so I've heard. But I understand that Garlin is bringing up this point in his next contract negotiation.
HBO: Speaking of Lenny Bruce, any chance your Oscar�-nominated documentary, "Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell The Truth" will be released on DVD soon? Or any of your other documentaries about comics?
Weide: It became too expensive to license home video rights to some of the material in my Lenny film, so it's unlikely that it will ever make it to home video or DVD. If I may plug another network, the Sundance Channel will be running a slightly revised version of my Lenny Bruce film starting on March, 2003.
My Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields documentaries have recently been reissued on home video and will soon be on DVD. They can be ordered through links on my website at www.duckprods.com. For those "Curbies" who live in Los Angeles or New York, most of my films can be screened at the Museum of TV & Radio in either city.
HBO: In the first part of this interview you talked about the process of shooting improvised scenes. I can imagine how this works in, say, a master shot setup or a two-shot with cuts to closeups, but what about a scene like the one in "Krazee-Eyez Killa" where Krazee-Eyez abruptly shows up at Larry's home and argues with him. Larry is at the top of the stairs, Krazee-Eyez is downstairs. There's eye-line matching, cutaways to Larry's silent gestures (miming that Cheryl has been drinking as the rapper and Cheryl argue). Are you using multiple cameras here? And how do you handle continuity when you don't have a script or script supervisor on set?
Weide: We always shoot with two cameras which minimizes our chances of missing anything. The trick is keeping both cameras out of each other's frame. Doing this sometimes means you're not getting the ideal composition, but it's a tradeoff. In the scene you're talking about, I had one camera on the top of the stairs with Larry, looking down, and another camera on the floor with Krazee-Eyez and Cheryl, looking up. Each camera was just outside the other one's frame.
We actually do have a script supervisor on the show, which is funny considering there's no script, per se. Most traditional continuity issues we don't really bother with, because the emphasis is on giving the performers leeway to try different things. You mentioned eye-line which we often have to keep track of. Basically, if you cover a scene well, you can get out of most jams in the editing room.
HBO: Is the food critic played by Paul Wilson (who gets his thumbs smashed in a game of dodge ball) in the final episode meant to lampoon a certain thumbs-up film critic or just "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" criticism in general?
Weide: Are you referring to Roger Ebert? I don't know... does he do a thumbs-up, thumbs-down bit? This is the first I've ever heard of it. We'll have to do some research and see how he felt about Larry's film "Sour Grapes." Maybe that will reveal something.
HBO: What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about Larry David?
Weide: That you can reach him through e-mail or by leaving a message for him on the HBO web site. Larry doesn't have e-mail, doesn't own a computer and probably doesn't know what a web site is. He still writes in longhand.
HBO: What is the best kept secret about Larry?
Weide: He does his own stunts.