In his profile
of Larry David in this week’s New Yorker, James Kaplan finishes with an
anecdote. David is sitting in his editing suite, working on a scene where he
gets egged by a carful of teenagers. He can’t work out whether to cut to the
teenagers driving away, or to leave the camera lingering on his egged face.
"I don’t know," David says. "I mean, it’s kind of
fun to see them drive away. On the other hand, it’s fun to see that egg.”
That anecdote, as I just wrote it, takes 68 words to tell. In the magazine,
as Kaplan writes it, it takes 439 words. We learn who’s operating the Avid machine,
and what he’s wearing. We learn the colour and brand of the director’s shoes.
We learn that Avid systems involve both a keyboard and a mouse. We inwardly
scream "get on with it, already!" about half a dozen times.
The New Yorker prides itself on its in-depth features, and the fact that it
is able to devote a lot of space to subjects which in any other magazine would
be drastically truncated. Increasingly, however, I’ve found the magazine devoting
equal amounts of space to subjects which desperately need truncating. We learn
virtually nothing about Larry David in this 6,559-word article, which probably
earned Kaplan a good $20,000.
Weirdly, the piece actually feels brutally truncated in places. We follow David
and Jerry Seinfeld into an NBC meeting where they pitch a sitcom, for instance.
We’re told that "At first, the idea was to have two comedians walking around
in New York, making fun of things, and in between you’d have standup bits."
The NBC people didn’t like it – and next thing we know, the show’s been
going for three seasons.
Kaplan also doesn’t seem to have a clue how much technical knowledge he expects
us to have. One minute we’re expected to know the difference between a one-camera
sitcom and a three-camera sitcom; the next we’re being told how many frames
of video there are per second.
David’s show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, is incredibly self-aware, doing a magnificent
job at skewering the hubris of television types in Hollywood. Yet when its director
launches into hyperbole – something which I’m sure was accompanied by
no small measure of sarcasm in real life – Kaplan simply reprints his
comments verbatim, making him look like just another LA asshole with no sense
The show’s pivotal moment came in the third season, in 1991. Charles
remembers walking with David from the “Seinfeld” offices in Studio
City up to Fryman Canyon to try to break a story: the library-cop episode,
in which Jerry is investigated for keeping a book out for twenty years. “We
had a couple of strands, and I don’t know if it was the oxygen from
the walking, but we were very exhilarated,” Charles said. “We
went, ‘What if the book that was overdue was in the homeless guy’s
car? And the homeless guy was the gym teacher that had done the wedgie? And
what if, when they return the book, Kramer has a relationship with the librarian?’
“Suddenly it’s like—why not? It’s like, boom boom
boom, an epiphany—quantum theory of sitcom! It was, like, nobody’s
doing this! Usually, there’s the A story, the B story—no, let’s
have five stories! And all the characters’ stories intersect in some
sort of weirdly organic way, and you just see what happens. It was like—oh
my God. It was like finding the cure for cancer.”
It seems clear, from reading the piece, that Kaplan never really got what the
New Yorker editors had hoped for when they sent him off to spend a bunch of
time with Larry David and talk to the people around him. Yet after investing
all that time and effort, the magazine evidently felt that it had to publish
Critically, that’s where the general rules of the New Yorker feature well became
a large liability. This is a profile, it’s appearing in the New Yorker, and
New Yorker profiles run between 5,000 and 10,000 words. More, if they’re Joe
Klein on Bill Clinton. Even if the amount of substance in the piece would best
be conveyed in a 1,500-word "Larry David’s show is back on TV, here’s a
little story about him" piece, the New Yorker evidently feels incapable
of doing that.
So we end up with vast amounts of ill-constructed padding. "“Seinfeld”
was scherzo, its fun stemming from the constantly shifting play among its troupe
of four," we’re told. "David’s new form was" – and
here, of course, one expects another musical metaphor, to close the circle.
It never comes: "David’s new form was simpler and starker".
I’ve worried, recently,
about the front of the book; now I’m worried about the features. The New Yorker
under David Remnick is certainly very good at timeliness, and covers foreign
affairs magnificently. Newsier subjects in general are excellently done. But
the kind of thing the New Yorker is famous for – long articles about people
and subjects you didn’t know you might ever be interested in – have been
very weak for a long while. No one cares about John McPhee’s fish, and, as TMFTML
so eloquently put
it, "enough with the fucking bags already" when it comes to picaresque
tales of picking up litter.
We’re told that the New Yorker has recently moved into the black, after costing
Si Newhouse some exorbitant amount of money – much of which went on catering
to Tina Brown’s every whim. It would be a great shame, however, if financial
success came at the expense of the great long-form reporting in which the magazine
specialises. Weak long-form reporting is no replacement.