Are Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld Comedy's Lennon and McCartney?

What The Marriage Ref can teach us about creative partnerships.

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By Lucy Berrington and Jeff Onore

When an explosively successful creative partnership comes to an end, you have to wait until the artists unveil their individual work before you can figure out retroactively what each contributed. So it is with Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. Since the end of Seinfeld, Seinfeld and David's paths through the comedy world could hardly have been more different. We've had seven seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's compelling yet mortifying exploration of conflict and alienation, in which everything is skewered and inverted: a dessert becomes a disaster, cancer's a joke. And we have too — at last — Jerry Seinfeld's return to TV, with The Marriage Ref, a concoction of prime-time froth in which conflict and alienation are represented by some of the most inane, inconsequential dilemmas that have ever troubled human relationships.

But Seinfeld's new series is more than a mild amusement. For students of popular culture, it's the smoking gun regarding the success of Seinfeld, the show. It confirms at last who contributed the light and the dark, the yin and the yang — just as the solo careers of the four ex-Beatles illuminated their previous collaborations. Larry David was to Jerry Seinfeld what John Lennon was to Paul McCartney.

Seinfeld ran to nine seasons, from 1989 to 1998, and has remained in syndication ever since. It's often ranked among the greatest television shows of all time. It infiltrated the culture and influenced the language ("festivus," "regifting," "double-dipping," "master of your own domain" — yada yada yada). Its comedy was both winning and unnerving. Seinfeld was noted for the bloodlessness and superficiality of its characters, their moral nihilism reflecting the producers' famous anti-sitcom credo: "no hugging, no learning." And now that Seinfeld and David have gone their own ways, we see clearly that Seinfeld was the happy, buzzing life-force in the partnership, while David squirmed in the shadows.

Similarly, after the Beatles broke up, Beatleologists used Lennon and McCartney's subsequent careers to analyze the older songs and figure out who wrote what. Lennon's later work included the bitter "How Do You Sleep?", his public critique of McCartney ("The only thing you done was yesterday"), and "Mother," in which he wrestled with abandonment by his parents ("Mother, you had me, but I never had you"). Even "Imagine," his most inspirational song, is about an escapist response to the world's irresolvable problems.

McCartney, meanwhile, revealed himself as a seemingly indefatigable source of playfulness and hope, with songs like the love ballad "Maybe I'm Amazed," and the redemptive "Band on the Run." In a Rolling Stone review of the album of the same name, Jon Landau wrote of McCartney, "His innocent questions, 'What's the use of worrying?/What's the use of hurrying?/What's the use of anything?' might be construed as a comment on Harrison and Lennon's continued high-mindedness and overbearing seriousness."

In light of their solo work, Beatles lyrics credited "Lennon/McCartney" are easier to parse. There's the largely Lennonesque "A Day in the Life," based on news stories — a car accident, war, potholes in Blackburn — interrupted by McCartney's jauntier, wistful reverie: "Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head." The two voices and worldviews come across just as clearly in "We Can Work It Out." Lennon, speaking to Playboy in 1980, confirmed it: "You've got Paul writing 'We can work it out' — real optimistic, y'know, and me, impatient, 'Life is very short, and there's no time'..."

Similarly, in the technology world, after Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, the duo who brought the world the Apple computer, stopped working together in 1987, we saw how dramatically their paths diverged. Wozniak, the tech genius, pursued various low-key projects, dated Kathy Griffin, joined the Segway polo league, appeared on Dancing with the Stars. Jobs, meanwhile, channeled his marketing dynamism and ambition into a series of revolutionary products: the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad.

Seinfeld's The Marriage Ref is itself about partnerships. But these are of a very different kind. The couples airing their disputes for our entertainment will never reverberate through the culture. (It's hard to imagine the show itself will endure either.) The spousal arguments it broadcasts are not about running up debt, neglecting the kids, facing redundancy or divorce. They're about whether it's okay to keep a stuffed pet around the house, or whether a cop should get a pedicure — plenty of hugging opportunities, as it turns out, though still no possibility of learning. Tellingly, the most cynical moment so far came courtesy of Larry David, a guest panelist. In marriage, he said, "you're with someone who's basically your enemy" — as opposed to dating, when "it's too soon for them to be your enemy, but eventually you'll get there."

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Commentarium (40 Comments)

Mar 30 10 - 10:01am
Nancy

Wonderful!

Mar 30 10 - 10:02am
Dan

Very, very interesting. Yeah. I like this.

Mar 30 10 - 11:49am
D

Lennon and McCartney could sing as well as write...

Mar 30 10 - 12:33pm
beatleologist

Kind of a facile take on McCartney/Lennon. Lennon's quote about "We Can Work It Out" is less an insight about the song (McCartney's lyric is actually pretty sharp) and more an example of his constant post-Beatles devaluing of Paul's talent. The "Paul is a sappy optimist" thing only flies with people who haven't really dug into the Beatles... the guy wrote "Eleanor Rigby", for Chrissakes.

Mar 30 10 - 12:36pm
U

Nice article.

I've seen The Marriage Ref a few times -- it was painfully bad except for the episode that had, you guessed it, Larry David.

Mar 30 10 - 1:08pm
JK

@ beatleologist, It's true that Paul might not be a "sappy optimist," but you have to admit that McCartney generally wrote the more upbeat songs. For every "Eleanor Rigby," there are four "fun" songs like "All Together Now" or "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" It's no coincidence that the first Beatles' song to not be about romance or love was "Nowhere Man," written by Lennon.

Mar 30 10 - 2:13pm
Dan

I have an ex-girlfriend who was absolutely Beatles obsessed. She once explained to me that John would write horizontally – the notes would be the same not in a row and wouldn't go up and down the scale very much; Paul wrote very horizontally, up and down the scale, across octaves, etc. Each seems to represent a cynical or whimsical worldview.

It got me thinking about the structural differences between Seinfeld and David and what they say about their worldviews.

Curb Your Enthusiasm follows Harold structure, with multiple plot lines converging at the end. Often this seems to be the universe conspiring to punish Larry David for his sins. A very pessimistic worldview.

David's work also is more heavily political and satirical. He plays the "crazy man" in his show, but in getting angry at him for things we all find common sense, we come to see politically correct Los Angelinos as the absurd ones. He's much more concerned with people's own sense of self-importance, which is best embodied by his own character.

Jerry's work: Comedian, Bee Movie, even Marriage Ref, seem to focus more on a single protagonist (or two protagonists with non-converging stories, as in Comedian) and his quirks, and the quirks of the world. Perhaps that's why the Marriage Ref is about such trivial issues?

Mar 30 10 - 2:20pm
RWL

And for me, Bee Movie is the equivalent to Wings. David will always make me laugh.

Mar 30 10 - 3:29pm
notanactor

don't you thing it's important to note that Larry David left Seinfeld at the end of the 7th season? So their creative partnership ended before the show ended. Kinda puts a hole into your theory...

Mar 30 10 - 4:52pm
Kevin

Sidebar; I think it's insanely premature to refer to the iPad as 'revolutionary'.

Mar 30 10 - 10:35pm
cheryl

best article I've seen in a while at Nerve. Clearly, Lennon and David are the geniuses - cranky ones at that - but nonetheless the geniuses.

Mar 31 10 - 2:41pm
TwL

I love Jerry and I love Larry, but all you have to do is watch a couple episodes of "Curb" to see that Larry was the chief inspiration for Seinfeld.

Mar 31 10 - 3:15pm
4wrdthnkndad

The interactions between Seinfeld and David on Larry David's show were great. As far as their individual work, David has a significant lead over Seinfeld's marriage ref. Can he plug that show any more than he has? It just doesn't come together well.

Mar 31 10 - 4:27pm
Robert

I love both those guys. I love Jerry's Stand-Up. I found that you can find live comedy shows at www.laughstub.com. I love comedy!

Mar 31 10 - 5:38pm
Randall

In the early 80s the two discovered their ability to work together when LD wrote material for a friend and had JS try it out for everyone. They realized that LD's words coming out of JS's mouth worked. LD was too cantankerous and bitter for most, while JS was an overall more amiable and attractive character who could get away with saying the things LD thought.

The two need one another. On the whole Curb is better than Seinfeld, but no Curb episode can live up to the best Seinfeld episodes. This past season I found pretty atrocious for a number of reasons, but every time JS was on screen with LD I couldn't stop laughing out loud. LD's stuff is better coming out of JS's mouth.

Sucks for them that that's the situation, but whether they like it or not, they're an incredible comedy team.

Mar 31 10 - 6:00pm
Tags

The show was called Seinfeld. Jerry had nothing to prove. Larry always had a chip on his shoulder to motivate him, even after he proved himself with Curb.

Mar 31 10 - 6:02pm
Larry

McCartney and Lennon didn't [i]need[/i] each other to create something genius, but when they worked together and allowed it to be a more collaborative environment they were The Beatles. I think Larry David does the same level of work with or without Seinfeld, but besides his stand up - which is great - he's got Bee Movie and The Marriage Ref - which are horrible. Larry went on to create, write, and star in another classic show.

Do they work together well? Of course. Are they Lennon and McCartney? More like Lennon and some guy who isn't as good as McCartney.

Mar 31 10 - 7:41pm
Shaun

A rather pedestrian analysis of Lennon and McCartney. Easy to say and beleive, but hardly the truth by any means.

Mar 31 10 - 9:10pm
alex

The writer doesn't mention Seinfeld's stand-up career's once - because it unravels his analogy. Independent of "Seinfeld", he is one of the gods of stand-up comedy. To portray him as having been carried by David based on analysis of what they've done since is totally erroneous - The Beatles started together, so you can only look at their afterlife to try to parse their collaboration. But Seinfeld and David both worked independently before "Seinfeld," with that context in mind, Jerry's legacy, as both a stand-up and a television innovator, is beyond question.

Apr 01 10 - 1:01am
David

Though I understand the thinking behind the thrust of the article, I wouldn't sugarcoat Seinfeld. His whole "Didja ever notice..." stuff is all based on irritation. Also, though Seinfeld has his own brand of humor, he is very skilled at recognizing what is funny, which is why their is so much in the show "Seinfeld" that does not just rely on Seinfeld humor only. Take Kramer, for example: not exactly the kind of things that comes from Jerry's act, but Seinfeld knows what's funny and welcomed it to the show.

And though David is the darker of the two, LD can be quite happy-go-lucky and bouncy. Like the whimsical theme music of "Curb," he is often whistling, singing, and being silly with people, and its quite funny and amusing.

I think where Seinfeld and David's humor connects is with women and sex. Their comedy share the viewpoint that sex is hard to understand and is mysterious, and so is getting it.

Apr 01 10 - 10:47am
EZ Tempo

Lennon/McCartney? No, not close. More like Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten.

Apr 01 10 - 11:13am
dwp

john had a successful solo career. paul had a successful solo career. jerry had a successful solo career. larry....?

Apr 01 10 - 2:26pm
Rock Turtleneck

I asked the very same question on my blog Rock Turtleneck almost 3 years ago. You can read it here:
http://rockturtleneck.blogspot.com/2007/06/i-am-he-as-you-are-he-as-you-...

Apr 01 10 - 2:47pm
Bastone

After watching "Curb" one can then easily hear which jokes are Larry David's on Seinfeld...All one has to do the next time they watch a Seinfeld is listen and the David jokes are so obvious and usually very funny. (Just remember David got bored & tired of doing the Seinfeld show after seven seasons and Larry David quit....and the last two years Seinfeld shows, show how much David's input was truly missed. That edge was gone).

Apr 01 10 - 4:21pm
Just a viewer

After watching Curb it is quite clear who is the master of their domain. Larry had long balls. No doubt.

Apr 03 10 - 10:06am
Wrongo

More like Martin and Lewis.

Apr 03 10 - 4:16pm
CharlzR

"Jerry Seinfeld is Paul McCartney and Larry David is John Lennon." I posted this as my Facebook status on March 27. Thanks for the credit.

Sep 09 11 - 10:33am
TR

Yes, because all of the journalists on the Internet are just watching your Facebook page for story ideas...

Apr 04 10 - 1:18pm
Jay B

While I do agree with the Lennon/McCartney and David/Seinfeld analogy, I don't agree with the writer's opinion about Lennon and David being so serious and cynical. John Lennon has very uplifting and positive songs. He said "while there's life there's hope." And Curb is just hillarious, cynical yes, but not at all serious. Lennon and David are definitely the genius' of the two relationships.

Apr 04 10 - 9:28pm
ttsvga

If you think Paul McCartney is a cockeyed optimist, I'm afraid you've read one too many Billy Mumphrey stories.

Apr 04 10 - 9:34pm
MupsCity

Do I have grace?

Apr 05 10 - 12:53pm
PaulMelk

Entertaining article on an entertaining site. Lot of self-important people on the comments though huh?

Apr 24 10 - 6:59pm
Jean

I agree with several earlier posts: Larry David was the true genius behind Seinfeld, which I never knew either till I watched Curb. Larry David was robbed! If Curb doesn't return for an eighth season I'm going to shave my head.

Feb 15 11 - 6:38pm
Serial Paloma

We've all been there: you can find yourself driving by means of a certain a part of town let you ...

Feb 19 11 - 12:08pm
serialpost

Lol and Lol!

Mar 04 11 - 2:09pm
gay teenage boys

Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed.

Nov 20 11 - 7:11am
Kayleigh

Articles like this are an emxalpe of quick, helpful answers.

Nov 20 11 - 12:16pm
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Nov 24 11 - 1:52pm
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Jan 05 12 - 12:44pm
Sam

I don't see why likening Seinfeld to Paul McCartney would suggest he's inferior to Larry David. McCartney was one of the geniuses of 20th century music, as Seinfeld was to comedy. Larry David's more adept at translating his incredibly funny point of view into a story, and maybe the same could be said of Lennon--that he had more to say. But when it comes to making pure comedy or pure music, I think it's debatable, in both duos, who was the greater all around genius. In both cases, it's just amazingly lucky that these partnerships ever existed, and you could say that the post-breakup solo careers never would have happened without the collaborative period. That being said, and I mean that as a reference, whereas I can't say that Lennon or McCartney contributed more to what made The Beatles "The Beatles", if Larry David was the inspiration for George Costanza, you might have to credit him with what made Seinfeld "Seinfeld".