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Larry David's Improv 'Curb' Is Funny and Wickedly Weird

Television Review

October 14, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Larry David is an acquired taste. For some of us, it takes about 10 seconds.

David, who co-created "Seinfeld," returns to HBO Sunday with a unique comedy series that's meant to track the daily minutiae of his professional and dysfunctional personal lives in Los Angeles. Funny and wickedly weird, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has David playing himself improvisationally in front of fluid hand-held cameras, as he did in his 1999 comedy special from which these 10 episodes are spun. This cinema-verite style and chatty tone are perfectly suited for the material, for you have no sense here of anyone acting .

Self-mockery is a growing trend in TV comedy, from celebrities who ridiculed or played themselves darkly on HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" to Bette Midler flaunting herself as a prima donna in this season's new "Bette" on CBS.

In his own new series, David again elevates his own gloom and pessimism to high art. Add his terror and other personality tics portrayed comically here--including some he previously wrote into "Seinfeld"--and you have a strong candidate for the rubber room.

*

Surely exaggeration is a factor. If this is anything approaching the real David, though, draw your own conclusions. The one on the screen lopes instead of walks, finds everyday life challenging, if not frightening, and always looks like he's trespassing, even in his own home.

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" also benefits greatly from cast holdovers Cheryl Hines as David's wife and co-executive producer Jeff Garlin as his manager. But it's comedian Richard Lewis--himself famous for an act built on despair-- who memorably sulks his way through a pair of early episodes as one of the few people in the business who can match David hang-up for hang-up, neurosis for neurosis.

The first episode begins with David innocently expressing a desire to see "the latest Dustin Hoffman movie." That somehow, illogically, leads to him having a loud fight with Lewis' new girlfriend, uttering a Hitler joke that insults his manager's parents and rejecting a claim by one of his wife's friends that he was sexually aroused when sitting beside her in a movie theater.

*

This absurdity peaks wonderfully at a trendy restaurant where most of the combatants converge.

Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen appear as themselves in the second episode, which begins with David shopping at a mall with her and ends with her mother snoozing with her head on his shoulder at a Paul Simon concert. Don't ask.

The third episode finds David and his wife getting trapped into attending a dinner party thrown by a former porn star and, in the fourth, David and Lewis reluctantly help a blind man move furniture in his new apartment. It's a classic.

A peril of improv comedy is that the im and prov aren't always in sync. Although that rarely happens here, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" does at times belabor the black cloud that hovers over David's head from start to finish. Mostly, though, this show is a gas.

* "Curb Your Enthusiasm" can be seen Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on HBO. The network has rated it TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17 with a special advisory for coarse language).

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