On HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, which enters its ninth season on Sunday after a six-year hiatus, the show’s creator and star Larry David is often upstaged by his partner in crime, Leon Black (played by comedian J.B. Smoove). Smoove’s character was introduced in the show’s sixth season, when his sister, a single mother (played by Vivica A. Fox), and her her two children move in with Larry after fleeing a hurricane in Louisiana. They are some of the show's only black characters, and they also happen to have the last name “Black.” Leon and Larry appear on screen as each other’s ethnic inverse — both are tall, gangly bald men, and Leon shares more character traits with Larry than anyone else on the show. He’s equal parts insightful and inane, and guided by the same meandering obsessiveness that inspires David’s most cringeworthy moments. He also provides the series with something it didn’t know it was missing: the perspective of a true outsider bearing witness to Larry’s unbelievable pettiness.
Much of Curb’s humor skewers the often-precious egos of the Hollywood celebrities that appear alongside David as hyperbolized versions of themselves. But Leon is a departure from that formula. He functions as a stranger who, like most of Curb’s audience, has found himself transfixed by this bizarre man, if only to watch him get into trouble. To wit: In the eighth-season finale, Larry picked a needless fight with Michael J. Fox because he was convinced that the beloved film star was using his Parkinson’s disease as an excuse to pester him. Leon is the only one of Larry’s friends to come to his defense. “You and him, that’s a fair fight,” Leon assures him.
While there is certainly an obvious joke to Leon’s character — the contrast between his life and Larry's couldn't be more stark — it is never simply about the fact that he is black. Even when the show plays with more blatant racial humor, like when Larry can’t contain himself upon learning that the black family moving in with him had the surname Black (“That’s like if my last name was Jew,” he says), it typically feels more ridiculous than obscene (“Like Larry Jew,” he continues). The show succeeds because it often sends up television tropes about black people instead of reinforcing them. Leon, for all of his sage-like wisdom, speaks in an exaggerated amalgam of “jive” and AAVE, and is sometimes amused in how little Larry understands. But even when it flirts with being ridiculously offensive, Curb doesn’t use its black characters as props. Instead, they’re fully formed elements of the story who are capable, like many of the show’s celebrity cameos, of surprising you.
Leon provides Larry the type of companionship that he direly needed, never shying away from a tendency towards absurdity, instead seeing him eye-to-eye. He muses with Larry about the length of his testicles (“Long-ball Larry,” he calls him), his sexual prowess, and whether black people blush. It’s the type of slow-burning, perceptive humor that made Seinfeld such a standout hit and that keeps Curb, a show that hasn’t been on the air since the iPhone 4 was released, as fresh as ever.