Interview: 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Executive Producer Jeff Schaffer Explains Larry David's Process
Curb Your Enthusiasm returned last week with the excellent season nine premiere, in which Larry got excited about his years-in-the-making FATWA! project... which ultimately resulted in him getting an actual fatwa declared on him. On Sunday night's second episode, Larry dealt with the fallout from his fatwa, critiqued a hotel's cookie display, opened some pickle jars, got little Funkhauser laid, and re-connected with his "Palestinian Chicken" ladyfriend Shara.
After speaking to Susie Essman and JB Smoove last week, we also spoke to executive producer Jeff Schaffer (who co-wrote the entire season with David, and directed a few episodes, including the premiere). He guided us through the long process of writing a season of Curb, and got into how the fatwa will follow Larry around this year, whether there is a chance of more Curb seasons in the future, and the inspiration that starts the Curb process.
At the premiere, HBO CEO Richard Plepler said that it takes 18 months to complete a season of Curb. As the co-writer of the entire new season (as well as director and executive producer), I was really curious what the process is like creating the show. Were you talking to Larry during the years since season eight? Does he bounce ideas off of you, or do you have to prod him to work on it? Every season of Curb is the last season of Curb ever [according to David]. There will never be another season of Curb, it's pointless to even think about it. We talk about other different projects. I know the teaser was, "I left, I did nothing, I returned," but together, with Alec [Berg] and Dave [Mandel], we did the Clear History movie. Then, obviously he went on Broadway with Fish in the Dark. But always, I was talking with him. I was doing The League, he did the season finale of that. We would always be talking. And I guess he's never stopped writing down notes in the notebook. It was just, "Where are these observations and indignities going to end up?"
The League had ended and we were talking. Someone wanted him to be in a movie and he was like, "Do you want to direct the movie?" As we were talking about that he kept talking about, "Well, you know...that would be funny for Curb," or, "Maybe that will be for Curb." It's like, "Well, if you want to do Curb, just do Curb!" He's like, "Would you want to do it?" I go, "Yeah, I'd do it. I'm free now." He said, "Do you think the cast would want to do it?" I'm like, "Yeah." He's like, "Do you think anyone would want to see it? It's been so long ago." "Yeah."
So he goes, "Okay." By the way, that doesn't mean we're doing it. That just means we're now talking about doing it, which is the process. This is spring of 2016 at this point.
Now, we're talking about it and how would we do it? It was important to address that there's been all this time. What's Larry been up to? Once we sort of landed on the idea that Larry's going to write a musical called "FATWA!" and then get a fatwa because of it, I was like, "That suggests a really funny season." At that point, I now knew we were doing a season. Larry is still not sure. In fact, for Larry, the way this works, and it's happened for the last few seasons, we'll write six or seven episodes before you go to Larry, "Hey, are going to talk HBO into doing a season so we can crew up and shoot these things?"
He never wants to feel like he has to do it. He wants to do it when he's happy with them. That's why the footprint of a season takes so long, because we usually write, then shoot, and then edit. Each one takes about five to six months, and that's just the script.
That's the process. That's the way it happened for season eight even, too. We wrote a lot of [scripts] and then finally he sort of admits that he's going to do the season. We were always talking about things, then we started to really specifically talk about this. Once we figured out the season, then it was just about where's it going to go from here and...Knowing what you now know about how the premiere started and what surprises show one had in store, I can still tell you very confidently you will never expect where we end up.
Wow, okay. We're just editing those final shows now and the season finale is very cool. You will not expect show ten.
Are all the episodes a little longer than usual this season? Yeah. I think the one thing people always ask like, "Well, what was it like? Was anyone rusty?" For the actors, there was absolutely no rust. As for the writing, Larry and I were talking and that was all fine. The only thing I think we were a little rusty at, honestly, was gauging how many stories we should pack into an episode. There was this backlog. Larry was sitting on all these awkward situations like Smaug the dragon and now he's ready to share them. We just jampacked every episode, so the shows were longer, I think, from outline one, and then you get there on the day and our great performers are adding all this stuff and the scenes swell up. The shows are supersized this year.
We were sitting in the edit room last week for show nine and I just said to Larry, "How did we ever think this was a half an hour show?" We literally pulled the outline out and looked at this, and now we're looking going, "We were insane to think this was a half an hour."
The big trend now is there are half-hour dramas, so why not an hour long comedy? That's true. It's all about the momentum. You don't want to ever feel like...no matter how long the shows gets, you should never feel like you're treading water.
When you're writing the outlines for the episodes, are you writing it with Larry in person eye-to-eye, like Lennon and McCartney style? [Laughs.] It's like Lennon or McCartney and another guy.
And Pete Best... And Ringo's there saying, "Hey, good job guys." At the beginning, it was like showing your awkward situation scars, like, "Uh, this happened to me, this happened to me." I think, in a real way, he almost had to come back. There'd been six years of petty indignities. He could stay silent no longer.
What usually happens is we are sort of backloaded. I have this big list on my computer, he's got this spiral notebook that he transcribes from the little notebook to the big notebook, and we started just going through, picking out different things. We'd be like, "That one, we should definitely do." But sometimes, just because you love the story, a lot of times the story may just be one scene and you don't know how it's going to become a show. In fact, there's a story we did this year. Larry has been trying to do a specific story, it's in episode three, for like three seasons. It became a running joke when we were stuck, he would bring up the name of the story and just, "What about this one." It was always just, "No." This year, we finally cracked it.
Was it that it was too weird previously? I knew what the first two scenes were. But what were the others...It needed a friend to intertwine with. That's something people don't realize, how much time we actually spend structuring these shows. These shows are written really in the exact same way we wrote Seinfeld. You come up with a lot of funny ideas, then you do all this comedy geometry on a dry erase board to try and figure out how they all interweave. That takes a while, and sometimes stories just fall out or this one's not getting us anywhere. It dead ends, it's not helping, it goes. We can't have this and this. They're parallel tracks, they don't meet up. That's happening a lot.
Anyway, this year, it finally fit. It finally found a home. What usually happens is there's all these stories and then he's out there living his life and he'll come in and be like, "Oh, I was just at this party the other night and this woman said this and it just really bothered me and here's what I should have said." Real Larry didn't say it but show Larry is going to say that, and that starts an episode.
That's the id, the raging id. He's able to brilliantly play both sides of the awkward situation coin, which is, on the one hand, sometimes he's the hero where it's like, "Oh my gosh, I wish I had told that person off like Larry told that person. I hate people that do that." On the other hand, sometimes he's the one who's like, "Oh, my god, I can't believe Larry just did that. I know someone who did that to me. That's the worst." That's the genius of Larry.
Do you have times in your real life where you're like, "I just had a Curb moment right now?" Oh, yeah. Off the top of my head, this was a while back at a restaurant, it was a big group of people, like eight people, and it was an Italian restaurant and someone in the party spoke Italian and the chef came out and everyone was having a great time. The meal was done and there were steaks and everyone's full and a few people couldn't finish their stuff so the waiter is like, "Oh, I'll wrap that up for you," and they're like, "Oh, great, it was so delicious," and, as the waiter's going to reach, the woman says, "It was so delicious. My dog's going to love it." You just saw the waiter's hand go like...he just hesitates. I literally ran into the office the next day going, "Here's one. This is one."
With the new season, how is the fatwa going to follow Larry around? It's going to sort of permeate the entire season in different ways. Larry, who has never been the bravest or the boldest, now has this thing that's going to affect his social life, it's going to affect his daily life, it might actually even affect his life life. We get to see him deal with that. It affects him in a lot of ways that you won't expect, either. It was a funny way to put him behind the eight ball. For someone who's always sort bristling at authority, it's like, "Well, what if authority bristles back?"
It was so much fun to see him in that disguise, which I think was one of the funniest moments of the entire episode. We wanted to make sure he looked so unlike himself. His outfit, that green army jacket, and jeans and just...he looks like the last AM deejay ever or like someone's substitute woodshop teacher. And those glasses. They're just so different from his iconic glasses. He was not very comfortable in it, but it's really funny. It's really funny when he's in it.
Did you have a favorite episode this season? Yes. I think my favorite episode of the season is actually the season finale. There's a lot of shows I really, really like this season, but I think the season finale is really unique and really funny.
Certain seasons don't, but seasons that have arcs, there are always shows that sort of touch base with the arc. There's shows that touch base, there's some that really deal with big developments of it, and then there's always a few sort of free shows that we're not really dealing with it.
The shows that actually have to touch on the arc are usually more difficult because you have to do things that aren't just episodic comedy. They don't just wrap up neatly. They have to wrap up neatly and funny, and also move the big story along, so those are always trickier. This year, more than most besides the Seinfeld year [season 7], we got more comedy mileage out of this season arc.
The million dollar question, does the future hold more Curb? Do you think that this process is going to repeat itself again? Well, I will say this. The season finale was built to be possibly the final Curb ever...or not. [Laughs.]
Well, I think a lot of seasons were built like that. In season five, the last episode is literally titled "The End." I know! He went to heaven! So, it could be the last one or not. We'll see. I know Larry had a lot of fun this year, so we'll see what he wants to do.