Black Characters Made ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Legendary
Vivica A. Fox in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Photo: HBO

Black Characters Made ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Legendary

The show always embraced awkwardness, but it became something special when its Black characters got lives of their own

HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm opened its 10th season with star and series creator Larry David reestablishing his race-riffing repartee with on-screen crony Leon Black (J.B. Smoove). “You like your color?” asks Larry, self-conscious about his own saltine skin tone. “I fucking love my color; I’m fuckin’ mahogany,” Leon replies without missing a beat. “You’re like a… a porridge. A Cream of Wheat, a Farina — that kinda shit.”

It’s a simple setup: Get an improvisationally agile Black person talking about skin color and unlock all kinds of funny. Yet, the scene is a tag-team act, a routine that hinges on both performers recognizing the subtle inversions that racism creates — in this case, the fact that Black folks upended being judged for the color of their skin, flipping that shit to salvage their own beautiful truth.

That same phenomenon has occurred again and again since the HBO series’ 2000 premiere. Sure, Curb is steeped in the crusty-crass observational humor that David has been trafficking since he co-created Seinfeld. But it’s his newfound unabashed approach to dealing with race and racial fuckery that invited Black audiences into his cynical fold. When Larry (the character) collides with Black characters, they constantly deliver a perspective rooted in reality — the kind that forever seems to escape the rest of the show’s (wealthy, White) cast. And he’s been banking on it ever since.

There isn’t a specific moment when HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm suddenly became skinfolk’s Angsty White Comedy Jam, but most would point to season six as the lighthouse beckoning us to the shores of its preposterous realism. Airing in 2007, that season marked the debut of Loretta Black (Vivica A. Fox) and her brother Leon, who became housemates to the Davids after Hurricane Edna destroyed their home. The family brought a down-home Black experience (pun very much intended) that carried enough depth to avoid caricature, sticking around for the entire season and widening the lens through which the show’s creator could play with cultural collision.

Yet, from its maiden season, Curb signaled to viewers how the show would navigate its relationship to Blackness. And all it took was one simple sentence, uttered after Larry offends a Black dermatologist with an ill-advised joke about affirmative action: “I tend to say stupid things to Black people.” With a precise awareness of Larry’s position as a goofy, well-to-do White dude, the show declared that it’d never shy away from how goofy, well-to-do White people engage with Black people. Larry’s lack of a brain-mouth barrier guaranteed he’d end up doin’ the fool in mixed company, and over the years the show found no shortage of Black partners — from Wanda Sykes to Mekhi Phifer — willing to clown him into an education.

At times it feels like Curb at its tropiest: Larry comments on the size of Sykes’ butt and suffers a half-hour of drags; he pads a Black man’s tip just after firing him at a diner, only to have Sykes peep game and reprimand his prejudice afterward. She’d magically show up once again in season four’s “The Surrogate,” when Larry assumes a Black man in a vest works valet. These early experiments are hilarious, but their realism hadn’t yet extended to Black characters who were more squarely in Larry’s gravitational field.

The height of the show’s proto-relationship with Blackness came in the season three Emmy-winning episode “Krazee-Eyez Killa.” In one of the cringier, yet more-celebrated moments of the series’ run, Sykes’ titular rapper-boyfriend (Chris Williams) repeatedly asks if Larry is his nigga. “I’m your nigga,” Larry slyly murmurs. The payoff, when Larry tries to re-friend him by saying, “Am I your Caucasian!?” is, admittedly, a hit. But it doesn’t distract from the central joke: Larry’s fear of the rapper’s criminality.

It wasn’t until season four that the show finally widened its capacity for Black experience. In “The Carpool Lane,” Larry picks up a sex worker (Monena, played by Kym Whitley) so he can cruise to a Dodgers game in the HOV lane, offering her a quick dub for some easy work. “Oh, you just want me to sit in the car for five hours?” she smiles, before running through an itemized breakdown of her services: “Okay, a thousand dollars!” She eventually convinces him not only to pay her $750, but also bring her into the baseball game. Her exuberance — and the thrill she gets from not only securing the bag, but convincing Larry and his elderly father to get blunted — is utterly, deliciously Black.

More importantly, “The Carpool Lane” marked the first time a Black person seemed to live a life that couldn’t be shaken by Larry’s antics. She’d actually used his foolishness to negotiate for her benefit. She wasn’t there to educate Larry on how he should move in Black circles. She was the circle and he would be forced to enter her orbit or move the hell on. Sure, she provided a service, but he needed her more than she needed him — and thus she dictated the terms of their engagement.

That proved to be a foundational shift for a show that has always been obsessed with power dynamics. Post-Monena, Black characters in Curb started to counter Larry in ways that White characters couldn’t. What Larry found in season six — and more importantly, what he found in Leon — was a Black counterpart who could both exist in his own space but also take part in the bizarre and silly aspects of the show with equal aplomb.

The historically marginalized folks aren’t there to educate him; they’ve got their own lives to worry about. But that doesn’t mean they’re not gonna rub their disdain in his pale face.

To wit: “The N-Word,” in which Larry gets a hard-on while hugging Leon and Loretta’s elderly Auntie Rae (played by Ellia English of The Jamie Foxx Show fame). “What the fuck?” Leon says in disgust upon learning of the incident. “You hug my auntie, you stab her in the stomach?” He’s disappointed in Larry’s inability to control himself when, given the stereotypes undergirding their dynamic, it’s Black men’s sexual proclivity that’s often put under the microscope.

“The N-Word” episode also features the zany cultural collisions that make Larry David’s work so gratifying. He finds himself at odds with both the lesbian community and Black folks in L.A. after somehow managing to offend both in the span of 60 seconds. While Larry seems more concerned about how the lesbians see him, largely because they attend his social clubs and are of closer proximity, it’s the way word travels around both these communities that sparks meaningful moments. Talking to a buddy in a hospital cafeteria, Larry shares his revulsion after hearing an angry White man saying “nigga” in the bathroom. Of course, there’s an unsuspecting Black man in the vicinity. Of course, he overhears the quoted slur and pegs Larry as a racist.

For the rest of the episode, Larry tries to explain himself — while inevitably digging a deeper hole. As he calls up each of his Black and lesbian friends (including Mekhi Phifer and Rosie O’Donnell, respectively), he’s surprised to find that they’ve already been updated on his latest faux pas, responding with a simple, “we talk,” while wearing a shit-eating grin. Once again, the historically marginalized folks in Larry’s purview aren’t there to educate him; they’ve got their own lives to worry about. But that doesn’t mean they’re not gonna rub their disdain in his pale face.

Ultimately, Leon was upgraded to a main character, further cementing the presence of a (not the) Black experience in Curb’s bones. While that pivotal sixth season might not have ushered in a wave of Black viewers — Curb’s ratings didn’t change much from the season before — it still marked the point that the show changed for good.

By now, the show has become a testament to how White creators can wield their power in service rather than in mockery. Curb’s willingness to bet on Black and lean into racial awkwardness has paid major dividends and served up endless laughs. And there’s no signs of this ceasing any time soon: After the shenanigans of season 10, it’s clear that J.B. Smoove and the crew are still here to serve that real. Like fuckin’ mahogany.