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As 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' enters its final season, a critic looks back on its origins

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On Sunday, Larry David unveiled the Season 12 premiere of his long-running HBO comedy series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which is also streaming on Max. It's not only the latest season for "Curb." Larry David says it will be the last. The co-creator of the hit NBC sitcom "Seinfeld" has been playing an exaggerated, abrasive version of himself since he launched a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" special on HBO in 1999. The series began the following year and has been running on and off ever since. Our TV critic David Bianculli has been watching and enjoying "Curb" the whole time and has these thoughts on the newest installment and the entire run so far.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The original "Curb Your Enthusiasm" special premiered on HBO 25 years ago, the same year HBO also premiered "The Sopranos." A few years earlier, HBO had presented another groundbreaking program, "The Larry Sanders Show," in which Garry Shandling deconstructed the TV talk show. He did it not only by mounting a fictional version of a "Tonight Show"-like program, but also by showing all the behind-the-scenes and personal stuff that went with it. Larry David's idea for the "Curb" special, after his super-successful run with the "Seinfeld" sitcom, was to do a similar thing except building to a stand-up act, not a talk show. Here's the way in which Jeff Garlin, playing Larry's agent Jeff Greene, pitched the premise to HBO executives - well, actors playing HBO executives - in that 1999 special. Larry provided support but not too much.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "LARRY DAVID: CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM")

JEFF GARLIN: (As Jeff Greene) But, well, let me explain. Larry hasn't done stand-up in 9 1/2 years, if you can believe that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) OK.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Wow.

GARLIN: (As Jeff Greene) And what we want to do is have Larry perform again and have it lead up to an HBO special...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) OK.

GARLIN: (As Jeff Greene) ...It being two parts. The first part would be a documentary of everything that Larry has to do to prepare for the special - the sets at the clubs, time alone with his family, walking down the street. Whatever it is, we're going to see how he prepares for it leading up to the special and then the actual special, which would be just him doing straight-ahead stand-up.

LARRY DAVID: (As himself) Stinks, right?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) No.

DAVID: (As himself) So far, it stinks, right?

BIANCULLI: The original "Seinfeld" series, co-created with Jerry Seinfeld, had a similar interest, showing Jerry's personal life as he developed material for his stand-up act. But the actual stand-up bits on Seinfeld appeared only briefly. And in that "Curb" special, Larry David subverted expectations by ending the special without showing the big stand-up routine it was building towards. Instead, he was building something else. Like the special, the subsequent series would follow a carefully crafted plot outline yet allow plenty of room for actors to improvise, which they've been doing hilariously ever since.

This new season of "Curb" picks up where the last one left off, with Larry - the TV character Larry - stuck with two women he can't eject from his life at the moment. One is Maria Sofia, the young, untalented star of his new TV sitcom "Young Larry." The other is Irma, a local politician who, because of her political influence, is Larry's latest significant other even though he's appalled by her. Maria Sofia, played by Keyla Monterosso Mejia, has become an improbable media sensation. We see her briefly as a guest on Jimmy Kimmel's talk show, and that cuts to Irma, played by Tracey Ullman, starting a private morning with Larry by entering his kitchen singing a song, a TV jingle. None of it sits well with Larry.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM")

JIMMY KIMMEL: (As himself) So is there a lot of improv on the show?

KEYLA MONTERROSO MEJIA: (As Maria Sofia Estrada) Yes, there's a script, but I make up most of my own lines, put my own spin on the words, make it better.

(APPLAUSE)

TRACEY ULLMAN: (As Irma Kostroski, singing) I have a structured settlement, but I need cash now. Call J.G. Wentworth - 8-double-7-CASH-NOW. I have some big annuities, but I need cash now. Call J.G. Wentworth - 877-CASH-NOW.

DAVID: (As himself) Could you stop with that? Stop with that commercial. I don't want to hear that.

ULLMAN: (As Irma Kostroski, singing) 877-CASH-NOW.

DAVID: (As himself) Don't sing that in the house.

ULLMAN: (As Irma Kostroski) I want to stop. I can't stop.

DAVID: (As himself) Well, stop.

BIANCULLI: But what makes "Curb" really work for me season in and season out is the delicate combination of intricate structure and freewheeling improvisation. Sunday's final season premiere took Larry to Atlanta and ended with a classic visual that's a brilliant surprise. But before that, there were scenes that just sang, and I'm not talking jingles. In this scene, Larry and his live-in buddy, Leon, played by J.B. Smoove, are in Atlanta, visiting Leon's Auntie Rae with Maria Sofia along for the ride. Maria Sofia grabs Larry's glasses off his head and gives them to Auntie Rae to try on. When Auntie Rae, played by Ellia English, returns them and Larry puts them on and bows his head, they slip right off.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM")

DAVID: (As himself) You took my glasses.

ELLIA ENGLISH: (As Auntie Rae) Oh, I love it. Thank you. Thank you.

DAVID: (As himself) What'd you do? Why did you take my glasses?

MONTERROSO MEJIA: (As Maria Sofia Estrada) She wanted to try a new style. I wanted to see what your glasses looked like on her.

DAVID: (As himself) You know, you could have asked me.

MONTERROSO MEJIA: (As Maria Sofia Estrada) You would have said no.

DAVID: (As himself) Are you serious?

ENGLISH: (As Auntie Rae) You know, I can see well through them. I think we might have the same prescription.

DAVID: (As himself) Can I have my glasses back, please?

ENGLISH: (As Auntie Rae) All right, fine. Here.

DAVID: (As himself) What the hell?

ENGLISH: (As Auntie Rae) What? What's wrong?

DAVID: (As himself) What's wrong?

ENGLISH: (As Auntie Rae) Yes.

DAVID: (As himself) They don't fit.

ENGLISH: (As Auntie Rae) Oh, my goodness.

DAVID: (As himself) You stretched them out.

ENGLISH: (As Auntie Rae) No, I didn't.

DAVID: (As himself) What'd you do?

ENGLISH: (As Auntie Rae) I didn't do anything to them.

DAVID: (As himself) Yes, you did.

ENGLISH: (As Auntie Rae) They must have been like that when she gave them to me.

DAVID: (As himself) No, they weren't like that. Look at the size of her head. Are you kidding? You can't just take a pair of glasses and try them on. You have a big head, dare I say freakish.

ENGLISH: (As Auntie Rae) No, I don't have a big head.

DAVID: (As himself) It's excessive. It's like a jack-o'-lantern.

ENGLISH: (As Auntie Rae) You know what? You got a peanut head like Mr. Peanut.

DAVID: (As himself) Look at this.

BIANCULLI: That's what I love most about "Curb." Each season, Larry David always knows precisely where he wants to end up, but he takes time to make the journey more than half the fun.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which started its 12th and final season Sunday. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, MSNBC host Joy Reid talks about Medgar Evers and his wife, Myrlie Evers. Medgar was a civil rights leader in Mississippi who was assassinated in 1963 because of his work fighting for voting rights, desegregation and freedom. His murder was followed by the assassinations of President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Myrlie became a civil rights activist after becoming a civil rights widow. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCIANO MICHELINI'S "FROLIC")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCIANO MICHELINI'S "FROLIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.