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''Jackass'' and ''Curb Your Enthusiasm'' rank with the year's best

These offbeat cable comedies are worth catching in 2001, says Ken Tucker

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Johnny Knoxville
Knoxville: Jeffrey Bender

”Jackass” and ”Curb Your Enthusiasm” rank with the year’s best

If I’d had two more spots open on my year end TV 10 Best list, they’d have been filled by ”Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David’s HBO anger fueled comedy — a new genre one might dub a ”snitcom” — and MTV’s ”Jackass,” in which star Johnny Knoxville goes one step beyond Tom Green in doing life endangering stunts in the service of real life comedy.

”Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which recently concluded its first season, is what ”Seinfeld,” the show Larry David created with Jerry Seinfeld, might have been like if David hadn’t found so personable a protagonist as Seinfeld. Which is to say, it never would have gotten on the air: No way would NBC, or any other broadcast network, have taken a chance on a show that’s almost entirely about one man’s contempt for the absurdity and free floating hostility of the world around him.

In ”Curb,” David, playing himself, a very rich comedy writer in L.A. (this itself something of a breakthrough, since it’s a moronic network truism that audiences aren’t supposed to be capable of identifying with rich people) finds himself plagued by everyday life. The simplest acts — picking up a prescription from a pharmacy, buying his wife a gift in the jewelry store, fetching his car from a restaurant valet — become pitched battles between David and people whom his stubborn, often rude willfulness has offended. David is absolutely fearless about portraying a self absorbed man who thinks — nay, KNOWS — he’s smarter than anyone else in the room.

In ”Jackass,” Knoxville is equally fearless, but in a far less cerebral way. He often gets his pals to do things like ride a bicycle into bramble bushes, but it’s only when Knoxville himself does some intentionally idiotic thing — like pepper spraying his eyes or immersing himself in a ripe Port-O-Potty — that his show achieves can’t take your eyes off it fascination. The Southern drawling Knoxville is the real thing — he’s got star charisma radiating from his head. His buddies are jackasses for sure, but Knoxville is a smartass with the instincts of a great performance artist. I’ll bet Knoxville doesn’t know about Chris Burden, a bona fide artiste who, in the ’60s, rattled the art world by shooting himself in the arm with a rifle.

What Burden did as an art gesture, Knoxville does as pop culture fodder to run between Britney Spears videos and making the video documentaries. Like Larry David, Knoxville’s show is semi- spontaneous: Situations are set up, and exploded. Like ”Curb Your Enthusiasm,” ”Jackass” releases pent up energy in their audiences, something real artists do.