This weekend I caught a few episodes of a series I had heard a lot about but had never seen: Curb Your Enthusiasm. The first episode was a little strange, but once you’ve got the hang of it, it is very funny in a rather cringing way. Unsurprisingly, it is a lot like Seinfeld, seeing as it stars Larry David, one of the creators of Seinfeld, as himself.
It is, as I was saying, very funny to watch poor Larry get himself into situation after situation and flounder about like an upturned turtle. Until you realise that you do exactly the same things sometimes, only barely avoiding the excruciating embarrassment that provides the comedy in Curb. Actually, not always avoiding it.
There is a lot of unreasonableness and confrontational behaviour in the situations Larry encounters, on his part and other people’s. In my world, this is usually the missing part: I don’t do confrontation. I will succumb to my Acute Britishness Syndrome if a conflictual situation arises, and bottle it up, apologise profusely for having damaged the gentleman’s golf umbrella with my eye, and back away as quickly as possible.
There is a scene in one of the first episodes when Larry manages to weasel his way out of going to the funeral of a friend’s step-father. Of course he later bumps into said friend and a comical situation occurs. Again, the situation is amplified a litlle for general hilarity, but death and illness are probably two of the most tricky subjects you can come across. I mean forget the no politics or religion dinner party rule, if you really want to cause maximum awkwardness, mention an illness or death in the family and you have a winner.
Obviously, this is never done on purpose by the person affected by the sad event, they are genuinely just conveying something important to them in a simple way. But the problem is that you never know how to react, unless you are really close and know the sick/dead person. No, what I’m referring to here is someone you know on a casual basis, and whose family member you have never met. You always end up stammering something that seems infinitely inane and pointless, no matter how sincere you are; the good old “I’m sorry for your loss” or some such bland politeness.
I guess for the pure sake of conversationality, a death is better than an illness. Because an illness, unless specified from the beginning of the conversation, is so vague. If someone is dead, then they’re dead, and that’s sad. If Mister X says “my father has just been taken to hospital”, you have no idea if he has just broken his leg while sky-diving, or if he’s got terminal pancreatic cancer. So what the hell do you say to that?
Asking what’s wrong with him may seem like prying, and could also lead to the kind of dreaded outpour of information that ultimately turns a casual 5 minute chat into a gruelling, hour-long, detailed report on all the symptoms and side effects that you really didn’t want to know about. If you don’t ask, then what the hell can you say? “Oh dear, I hope he’ll get better soon” is probably the worst thing for Mister X to hear if X Senior is terminally ill, although the good old “Oh dear, I hope it’s nothing too serious.” is pretty bad too. Saying nothing and changing the subject will of course make you look like a heartless bastard, say too much and you’ll sound insincere or inappropriately gushing…
The big problem with this situation is that is doesn’t matter how honestly concerned or sad you are about the news that X Senior is having health problems, and that you really care that X Junior is affected by it, the incredible awkwardness of the situation will make whatever you say sound wrong, one way or another.
This sucks. That is all.