Turns out nothing is still funny

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Men's corduroy pants that bunch up at the groin area when you sit down, people sitting at the movies who won't move their legs when you're trying to get past, friends who put you on the speaker phone when you think you're having a private conversation.

These are the things that trouble the waters in the life of Larry David, creator and star of the new HBO sitcom, "Curb Your Enthusiasm." They might sound like nothing more than life's little irritations, but David is the guy who co-created the great sitcom about nothing, "Seinfeld." Nothingness, you might say, is his thing.

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" is a limited-run series that will follow "Sex and the City" in the lineup for the next 10 weeks. It grows out of a comedy special, "Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm" that David did last year for HBO.

If you saw the special, you know what to expect in the series: a cinema verite format that follows the minutiae of life as a successful Hollywood comedy writer who regularly finds himself in embarrassing situations. For those who have not seen the special, it's important to know that the half-hour episodes are done only with story outlines. That means the dialogue is totally improvised, and improvisation is not always inspired.

While David plays himself, actors play his wife (Cheryl Hines) and manager (Jeff Garlin). Like "The Jack Benny Show" of yesteryear or the new Bette Midler sitcom, "Bette," the star's persona is merged with a fictional cast of players. The backstage/onstage structure of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is further enhanced by guest stars. The pilot features comedian Richard Lewis and actress Kathy Griffin. Next week's episode has David and his wife double-dating with Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen.

The sensibility is decidedly "Seinfeld" from the pilot's opening moments, with David sitting on the couch in his living room pulling on the bunched-up corduroy of his pants. He calls his wife over to look at the tent of fabric in his lap. They both wonder whether it might be mistaken by someone for an erection. This is the world in which David and his wife live.

I was never crazy about that sensibility in "Seinfeld," and I like it even less here. But that's not to say I don't like the series. It has genuinely funny moments, and I found myself moving through the four episodes that HBO sent with a growing eagerness to see what awful situation David would find himself in next. Funny moments and awkward situations: I guess that's the definition of situation comedy, isn't it?

The character of George Costanza (Jason Alexander) in "Seinfeld" is said to have been based on David, but there's not much of the sweaty, perpetually-agitated Costanza here. The slump-shouldered David is far more laid back. In that sense, he's more like Jerry Seinfeld.

The biggest problem with "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is the unevenness of the improvisation. Scenes in tonight's pilot involving David in confrontations with Richard Lewis and Lewis' lady friend are not only very funny, but have a sense of life-as-it-is-lived. That's rare for any sitcom. On the other hand, there are scenes in subsequent episodes that are not only about nothing, but in which nothing happens between the actors.

All right, already, I like the series. I guess I'm just having a hard time working up a lot of enthusiasm for a universe in which too much corduroy material in your pants is a big problem.

'Curb Your Enthusiasm'

When: Tomorrow night at 9:30.

Where: HBO.

In brief: "Seinfeld" co-creator takes nothing and turns it funny.

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