Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Larry David as archetype: "the inappropriate guy"

This week's New Yorker Talk of the Town features an item by Jacob Ward about a novel approach to teaching schizophrenics how to overcome their own social difficulties.

Don't do what Larry David does.

Larry is the creator and main character of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," a comedy on HBO. In the show his ability to act inappropriately in social settings is nearly matched by his well-practiced skill at apologizing.

David Roberts, the psychologist who developed this approach as a summer intern while in graduate school, noticed that many otherwise-unresponsive schizophrenic patients enjoyed comedic television that focused on awkwardness with others ("Monk," as another example). Writes Ward in the New Yorker:

Roberts considers Larry David to be the perfect proxy for a schizophrenic person. “On his way into his dentist’s office, he holds the door open for a woman, and, as a result, she’s seen first,” he said. “He stews, he fumes, he explodes. He’s breaking the social rules that folks with schizophrenia often break.” He went on, “Or the one where Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen invite Larry and his wife to a concert: the night arrives, they don’t call, Larry assumes they don’t like him, then it turns out he got the date wrong. It’s a classic example of a major social cognitive error—jumping to conclusions—that schizophrenic patients are prone to.” As the patients watched David flub situation after situation, they laughed, and they willingly discussed with Roberts how they might behave in the same circumstances.

So in this case, Larry is an archetype, a figure who acts like the patients sometimes act, but isn't them. The distance created allows them to analyze and learn from Larry's mistakes (and see humor in them) without the pain of confronting their own failings directly.

In this way, self-deprecating comedy is an act of selflessness, of generosity. A description that would, I imagine, appall Larry David himself.

Thanks to the WSJ Informed Reader for the pointer.

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