By their solo careers shall ye know them

Are Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld
Comedy's Lennon and McCartney?

What The Marriage Ref can teach us about creative partnerships

By Lucy Berrington and Jeff Onore

Jerry Seinfeld with Larry David - comedy's Lennon and McCartney?
Jerry Seinfeld with Larry David — comedy's Lennon and McCartney?

When an explosively successful creative partnership comes to an end, you have to wait until the artists unveil their individual work before you can figure out retroactively what each contributed. So it is with Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. Since the end of Seinfeld, Seinfeld and David's paths through the comedy world could hardly have been more different. We've had seven seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's compelling yet mortifying exploration of conflict and alienation, in which everything is skewered and inverted: a dessert becomes a disaster, cancer's a joke. And we have too — at last — Jerry Seinfeld's return to TV, with The Marriage Ref, a concoction of prime-time froth in which conflict and alienation are represented by some of the most inane, inconsequential dilemmas that have ever troubled human relationships.

But Seinfeld's new series is more than a mild amusement. For students of popular culture, it's the smoking gun regarding the success of Seinfeld, the show. It confirms at last who contributed the light and the dark, the yin and the yang — just as the solo careers of the four ex-Beatles illuminated their previous collaborations. Larry David was to Jerry Seinfeld what John Lennon was to Paul McCartney.

Seinfeld ran to nine seasons, from 1989 to 1998, and has remained in syndication ever since. It's often ranked among the greatest television shows of all time. It infiltrated the culture and influenced the language ("festivus," "regifting," "double-dipping," "master of your own domain" — yada yada yada). Its comedy was both winning and unnerving. Seinfeld was noted for the bloodlessness and superficiality of its characters, their moral nihilism reflecting the producers' famous anti-sitcom credo: "no hugging, no learning." And now that Seinfeld and David have gone their own ways, we see clearly that Seinfeld was the happy, buzzing life-force in the partnership, while David squirmed in the shadows.

Similarly, after the Beatles broke up, Beatleologists used Lennon and McCartney's subsequent careers to analyze the older songs and figure out who wrote what. Lennon's later work included the bitter "How Do You Sleep?", his public critique of McCartney ("The only thing you done was yesterday"), and "Mother," in which he wrestled with abandonment by his parents ("Mother, you had me, but I never had you"). Even "Imagine," his most inspirational song, is about an escapist response to the world's irresolvable problems.

McCartney, meanwhile, revealed himself as a seemingly indefatigable source of playfulness and hope, with songs like the love ballad "Maybe I'm Amazed," and the redemptive "Band on the Run." In a Rolling Stone review of the album of the same name, Jon Landau wrote of McCartney, "His innocent questions, 'What's the use of worrying?/What's the use of hurrying?/What's the use of anything?' might be construed as a comment on Harrison and Lennon's continued high-mindedness and overbearing seriousness."

In light of their solo work, Beatles lyrics credited "Lennon/McCartney" are easier to parse. There's the largely Lennonesque "A Day in the Life," based on news stories — a car accident, war, potholes in Blackburn — interrupted by McCartney's jauntier, wistful reverie: "Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head." The two voices and worldviews come across just as clearly in "We Can Work It Out." Lennon, speaking to Playboy in 1980, confirmed it: "You've got Paul writing 'We can work it out' — real optimistic, y'know, and me, impatient, 'Life is very short, and there's no time'…"

Similarly, in the technology world, after Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, the duo who brought the world the Apple computer, stopped working together in 1987, we saw how dramatically their paths diverged. Wozniak, the tech genius, pursued various low-key projects, dated Kathy Griffin, joined the Segway polo league, appeared on Dancing with the Stars. Jobs, meanwhile, channeled his marketing dynamism and ambition into a series of revolutionary products: the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad.

Seinfeld's The Marriage Ref is itself about partnerships. But these are of a very different kind. The couples airing their disputes for our entertainment will never reverberate through the culture. (It's hard to imagine the show itself will endure either.) The spousal arguments it broadcasts are not about running up debt, neglecting the kids, facing redundancy or divorce. They're about whether it's okay to keep a stuffed pet around the house, or whether a cop should get a pedicure — plenty of hugging opportunities, as it turns out, though still no possibility of learning. Tellingly, the most cynical moment so far came courtesy of Larry David, a guest panelist. In marriage, he said, "you're with someone who's basically your enemy" — as opposed to dating, when "it's too soon for them to be your enemy, but eventually you'll get there."

30 March 2010 — Return to cover.