In an episode of “The New Yorker Radio Hour,” talking to the magazine’s editor David Remnick, Larry David compares himself to “Larry David” on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “I’m normal,” David says. “If I said the things he does, I’d be beaten up. He’s a sociopath!” In other words, “Larry” and Larry have a perfect codependency. The character “Larry” says all the insulting, obsessive, and petty things that the real Larry thinks but is wise enough to keep to himself.
The trick — a ventriloquist superego with a dummy id — has worked spectacularly well on “Curb” (whose HBO fate remains undetermined, by the way). The show reveals just how winning the concept — a comic playing a fictionalized version of himself and glancing off his public image — can be when done right. By creating a self-based character, a comic can make fun of himself and humanize himself to audiences in the process. Neil Patrick Harris altered his goody-goody Doogie Howser image as a drugged-out version of himself in the “Harold & Kumar” movies, just as Daniel Radcliffe threw a wrinkle in his Harry Potter image by playing a sexed-up Daniel on “Extras.”
But “Curb” and its remarkable success have also helped to spawn a few lazy imitations, including the flat “Donny!” recently on USA, NBC’s “The Paul Reiser Show” in 2011, and Showtime’s new six-episode series “Dice,” which premieres Sunday night at 9:30. “Dice” tries to be Andrew Dice Clay’s humanizing moment, his attempt to make fun of himself and, perhaps, soften his reputation as a foul-mouthed, hate-filled comic whom some found sexist. Instead, it’s a self-indulgent comedy that just gives us the stage version of Dice with a few token penitent Andrew moments. His recent acting — on “Vinyl,” in “Blue Jasmine” — has gone much further in making him more interesting.
The most likable post-“Curb” pseudo-autobiography has to be “Louie,” in which Louis C.K. plays a version of himself, a passive comic who’s feeling his way through single parenthood, romantic disappointment, and the standup scene. It’s not exactly a comedy in the way “Curb” is a comedy; the dominant tone is pathos. But it’s as fresh as “Dice” isn’t. Other shows that have successfully played fact off of fiction: “The Chris Isaak Show,” “Fat Actress” with Kirstie Alley, “Maron” with Marc Maron, “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23” with James Van Der Beek, and “Difficult People” with Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner. “Episodes” is a particular treat, with Matt LeBlanc as a stupid and arrogant version of himself.
One of the joys of Garry Shandling’s “The Larry Sanders Show” was the constant flow of celebrities appearing as tweaked versions of themselves, including Carol Burnett, Sharon Stone, Jim Carrey, and Alec Baldwin. The best one, though, was David Duchovny, who played himself with a crush on Larry. Shandling, by the way, came early to the idea of playing himself. His “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” was a fascinating experiment that not only had Shandling playing himself, but also had him breaking down the fourth wall to talk to the audience. Shandling brought in stars such as Carl Reiner, Tom Petty, and Gilda Radner to play themselves.
Indeed, “Curb” is a model of the genre but didn’t invent it. Jack Benny was doing it — playing a miserly, vain Jack Benny — on “The Jack Benny Program” on TV way back in the 1950s, and before that on the radio and onstage. Playing yourself on TV isn’t too far a cry from creating a comedic persona to play onstage during a standup performance or on a reality show. The person telling jokes in front of the audience or heading up a vanity reality project is the ideal version, or the angry version, or the naïve version, or the stupid version, or the transgressive version of the real person.
In a way, these days, we all do it. We all construct personas. There’s something particularly resonant about celebrities fabricating almost-selves on TV, since that’s what many of us are doing in our lives on a daily basis — on Facebook, on Twitter, and elsewhere online. Our social media pages are versions of ourselves that we’ve constructed, in the same way Larry David has constructed a Larry David for “Curb.” Alas, most of those pages aren’t nearly as funny.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.