How Curb Your Enthusiasm landed Salman Rushdie for that fatwa story line
Well, if you’re going to build a season of your show around a fatwa, there is only one logical guest to get. But still — that was quite a get.
Earlier this month, Curb Your Enthusiasm returned to HBO after a six-year hiatus by revealing that social provocateur Larry (Larry David) had written a musical about the fatwa placed on Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. Then, Larry offered his impression of the Ayatollah on Jimmy Kimmel Live, earning him his very own fatwa. This news sent Larry into hiding, forced him to skulk about town in disguise, and turned him into a social leper — with his friends canceling their golf games, abandoning him on poker nights, and even removing him from a text chain because they were scared of death by association. Yes, it would take something huge to get Larry to reclaim his life, something transformative to persuade him to ditch the wig-n-stache Buck Dancer act. It would take… Salman Rushdie.
Somehow David’s cranky, subversive comedy — which frequently welcomes big-name guests (Martin Scorsese, Mel Brooks, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) — managed to pull the acclaimed author who’s been under Iranian death threat since 1989 into its crazy, neurotic-comedic fold. And Rushdie was more than game to poke fun at the danger that has shadowed him for years, going so far as to explain to Larry the benefits of the fatwa, which included weaseling out of social obligations (Sorry, can’t attend your poetry reading! You know, fatwa and all…). But most importantly, don’t forget the fatwa sex, which is the best sex of all the sex, as many women find it dangerously attractive to be with a man under fatwa. Which is why Salman ripped the dubious wig off Larry’s head and told him that it was time to go out to lunch as his big, bald self. (And that is where the new old Larry drew the interest of Elizabeth Banks.)
In mapping out the season, David & Co. were looking for a way to keep the fatwa storyline alive without having to maintain the disguise aspect every time Larry ventured out into the world. “We knew we didn’t want to have this disguise and fear for his life take over everything, because it gets hard to do just normal Curb things if you’re always dealing with the fatwa,” executive producer Jeff Schaffer tells EW. “Frankly, every episode would start to get very similar, so we knew we had to reset him a little bit to not be as afraid. It became pretty obvious that there was one person on the planet that he could talk to about a fatwa, and it was the guy he was writing a musical about…. We knew we had to bring Salman in, and the question was: How? And it seemed like having him be Larry’s fatwa Svengali was the right way to do it.”
How much of a pie-in-the-sky reach did the producers consider their guest spot offer to Rushdie? “We didn’t have any fear of whether he was going to do it or not because we were too stupid to ask,” quips Schaffer. “We just wrote it. And then we were like, ‘Well, we’re going to have to talk to Salman, and it’s not like there was a plan B. There’s no Malman Hushdie who also got a fatwa… [We] had no idea where in the world he was at that moment. Larry knew he was a fan of the show, so he got his number and pitched him the idea. By the way, Larry would have pitched him the idea even if he had never heard of the show. We needed him. The number of famous prize-winning novelists that also have a fatwa on them is exactly one…. We pitched him the idea, and he said, ‘Yeah! That sounds like fun!’ I was completely surprised that he was going to do it. I still can’t believe he did it.”
The next question rattling around their heads was just how far would Rushdie go in the name of comedy. The answer: pretty far. “There’s always that worry of: Is he going to want to do all the things that we want him to say?” says Schaffer. “It’s going to be really funny if he says this, but is he really going to want to? We had no idea, but I am just thrilled that he was so game, so gung-ho and happy to poke fun at the idea of a fatwa — which is amazing for someone who actually has a fatwa.”
“It was not a surprise that he was fearless,” continues Schaffer, “it was a surprise at how funny he was. We knew he wanted to talk about the benefits of the fatwa — and there were a few very Curb-ish ones, like not having to pick up the friend at the airport — but we really needed to him to talk about fatwa sex. He was like, ‘Sure! I have no problem with that!’ And his discussion [onscreen with Larry] about it — he says it so much more eloquently than we could have because he’s such a better writer than we are, that he made us look more silvery tongued…. I was like, ‘I cannot believe we have the Salman Rushdie talking about how fatwa sex is the best sex there is.”
It sounds like there was some concern about security measures. “Once Salman was on set he was like every other actor on Curb — meaning Larry told him not to say anything about being on the show until it aired,” says Schaffer. “Larry wanted his appearance to be a big surprise. I told him, ‘Larry, I have a feeling Salman can keep a secret…'”
Rushdie wasn’t the only famous face to pop up in the episode. In addition to Damon Wayans Jr. as the cop who ticketed Larry for beeping at him to go at a green light and Stephen Rannazzisi as the chef who spars with Larry, Banks played a lightly unbalanced, self-concerned version of herself, one who was turned on by deadly danger. The producers were looking to cast someone to be interested in Larry who would normally be unattainable to him, and “a beautiful movie star seemed like the perfect fit,” says Schaffer. “Also, she’s f—ing hilarious. We wanted someone who could come and play with Larry, and she is such a great Larry sidekick. They had so much fun together and they’re so funny together. She was not afraid to be as flawed as Larry…. Between the acting and the directing, there was a very limited window [of availability for her], so we just lucked out in that way. She was like, ‘Oh my god, this would be so fun!’”
As the fatwa fun continues to build on itself, is David at all worried about the possibility of attracting a real fatwa? “We talked about a few times about how funny the idea was that Show Larry would write a musical called Fatwa! and then get a real fatwa, which would make Real Larry get a real fatwa,” says Schaffer. “As I said to Larry, ‘Well, there’s no bad publicity.'”
In any case, David was just excited for the opportunity to ditch the disguise. “The wig was going to wear out its welcome both for the audience, and, as we later learned, especially for Larry, who really did not enjoy that wearing that wig,” says Schaffer. “I don’t know if it was just that he’s gotten so far being bald that I think his body just rejected it, like, ‘I don’t need this. Look how far we’ve come! Why are we doing this now?’ So he was always counting the minutes until he could get that wig off.”
And for fans counting the minutes until next week’s episode, Schaffer drops a few hints. “In episode 4, we learn a little bit more about the apple of Marty Funkhouser’s eye — his young nephew Kenny (Niall Cunningham), and where he’s been since he was last chased out of Larry’s house,” he says. “We also get to meet a man with the hardest job in the world: Larry David’s therapist, played by Bryan Cranston.”
Curb Your Enthusiasm airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.