When it comes to humor, writer-producer Larry David paints it black

In their shared office on the MTM Studios lot in Studio City, Calif., where Seinfeld is filmed, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David have matching desks, heavy wooden schoolteacher-type pieces of furniture. They’re pushed together to form a single unbroken surface, so cluttered with scripts and notes and scribbled ideas that at first glance it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

”We spend far too much time together in here,” says the 44-year-old David, bald, bespectacled, and perpetually morose. ”There’s going to be a fistfight at some point.”

Not likely. David, a longtime stand-up comedy pal of Seinfeld’s, is cocreator, executive producer, and head writer of Seinfeld, the man largely responsible for the quirky-detail dialogue and angst-driven comedy that have turned the show into a surprise Wednesday hit for NBC. Seinfeld and David have formed such a close creative partnership that if one were to get hit in the nose, the other would probably bleed.

During a 10-minute conversation in a New York coffee shop three years ago, they came up with the show’s premise — a sitcom based on the strange minutiae of everyday life from which a stand-up comic draws his material. Although there are other writers on the show, Seinfeld and David retain complete control over every story, every line of dialogue. ”We were adamant about not doing a show where 10 writers would sit around a table and a script would be written by committee,” David says.

Seinfeld, 37, and David admit that in spite of its name, the show is often more a reflection of David’s life and observations than Seinfeld’s. ”Our senses of humor dovetail in such a way that the words sound right coming out of my mouth,” Seinfeld says, ”but most of the time they’re his words. I’d say 90 percent of the show comes from Larry.”

Which is why, more and more, the story lines play off the neuroses of Seinfeld’s on-screen best friend, the balding, bespectacled, and perpetually morose George Costanza (played by Jason Alexander), a character that David admits is based primarily on himself. The show has also gotten darker, leaning more toward David’s brand of doomsday humor. One episode last October was devoted entirely to the horrors of being lost for hours in a New Jersey parking garage.

David was a cast member of Fridays, ABC’s 1980-82 attempt to emulate the success of Saturday Night Live, and was an SNL staff writer during the 1984-85 season. He was back to doing stand-up in New York — with strange routines like how certain people have body temperatures so high that butter melts on their head, which is why they’re often mistaken for pancakes — when he met his future partner. ”It was very hip to like Larry’s stuff,” remembers Seinfeld, admitting that David was probably more popular with other comedians than with paying customers.

Seinfeld, who was being courted by network executives who believed he was ready to transfer his stand-up success to television, approached David about helping put together his show. Now they stare at each other seven days a week, argue about everything from lunch choices to dental hygiene — and say they can’t imagine working with anybody else.

”When one of us quits, the other will have to go too, because this show is us,” Seinfeld says. ”Besides, I don’t know what I would do with these desks.”

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