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Champion of churlishness: Larry David presents his best improv in person

'By the way, this has been a pleasure!" Larry David said at the end of a session with TV critics here. He put an odd, elongating emphasis on "pleasure," making it difficult to determine if he was being goofy or ultra-sarcastic. It didn't matter, we all laughed anyway.

You meet the most peculiar people at the Television Critics Association (TCA) Press Tour. Mike Tyson came along the other day (a version of his stage show is being made into an HBO special, directed by Spike Lee) and managed to come across as menacing, witty, gentle and addled, all at the same time. For peculiar, though, you can't beat Larry David. The man who co-created Seinfeld turned his grumpy persona into the partially improvised Curb Your Enthusiasm, an exercise in skin-crawling insensitivity, and made it a comedy classic.

Now he's put Curb aside and done a one-off movie for HBO, the deeply peculiar Clear History (airing Aug. 10 on HBO Canada). It elevates the peculiarity level because it's actually a feel-good movie of sorts, a story of redemption. In it, David plays Nathan, a guy who works in marketing for an electric-car company. Nathan quits when he doesn't like name given to the car ("The Howard") by the boss (played by Jon Hamm from Mad Men). It's a ridiculous, crackpot decision. The car becomes a hit and Nathan misses out on being a billionaire. In embarrassment he retreats to an island much like Martha's Vineyard, changes his name and cuts off his hair and beard. Then, a decade later, the past comes back to greet him.

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Many critics here had seen and liked Clear History, a little surprised by the lightness of the humour when Curb is often so bluntly scabrous and churlish. David's tactic with us was to be as grumpily charming as possible. As if to prove that he's as irascible as ever. It was a fabulous encounter.

He entered to silence, along with Greg Mottola, who directed Clear History. The critics never applaud the stars. Usually some publicists at the back of the room muster applause. This was near 5 p.m. at the close of a very long day and the room was eerily quiet. "What a welcome! Thank you!" David said sarcastically. "I know your journalistic standards prevent any outpouring of love and affection."

Asked if he'd came close to making the same decision as Nathan and perhaps quit Seinfeld, he acknowledged that he had indeed threatened to quit the show that made him a very, very rich man. When it was put to him that quitting placed him in the same position as Nathan, David took fake-umbrage. "Well, let's just say the show might not have been as good," he chortled.

Asked why he made Clear History instead of another season of Curb, he considered the question with a long pause and said: "That's a very good, legitimate question. Nice going." Then he gave a non-answer. Asked if there would ever be another season of Curb he replied: "Now that's not such a good question." He rolled his eyes and said: "I really don't know. I couldn't say. Hey, ask me in six months."

Someone, a woman, put it to him that while she didn't like Curb Your Enthusiasm, she liked this movie and it was a different kind of humour. This provoked more eye-rolling and an "I give up" hands-in-the-air gesture. "You hate me, obviously," he drawled. "But yet you like this. Go figure." A minute later he turned back to the woman and said: "Thank you for kind, sweet words. Very touching, yeah, really touching!"

When asked if he'd done research for the role of Nathan, he was astonished and went into sarcastic overdrive. "Yes, I wore weights on my ankles like Lee J. Cobb in Death of a Salesman! Look, I did nothing. There was nothing."

Then someone made the mistake of suggesting, "There is a definite Jewish sensibility to the whole thing." And Larry David's pure, untethered grumpiness went up another notch. He looked to the ceiling, his arms out, in a movement that told us he knew he was suffering the company and questions of utter fools.

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"I wonder where that came from?" he asked the room wearily. "Where does it come from? It comes from Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, Apartment 1D, Nostrand Avenue. Where do you think it comes from? You know, obviously, wherever you grow up has impacts on your entire life and I grew up in a building with six floors, about nine apartments on each floor and Jews in every apartment."

Then he paused, looked at the critics and, using the tone of the most beleaguered man on earth, said: "So, yeah, it rubbed off on me a little bit."

We howled with laughter through all of this. It was a fine performance. We learned things too. Clear History is a 90-minute movie and had only a 35-page script. The rest was improvised. Some in the all-star cast – apart from Jon Hamm it also features Kate Hudson, Eva Mendes, Amy Ryan, Michael Keaton and Liev Schrieber – had experience with improv and others didn't. David pointed out that most actors love the challenge of improvising and even those with no experience have an appetite for it.

But the best improv – better than much of Clear History, actually – came from Larry David himself talking to the critics. Churlish, permanently perplexed by dumb questions, he rolled with it and we were rolling in the aisles. Yes, he's very peculiar and funny when he's the champion of churlishness.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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